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Revive Us Again (And Again)

by Vern Zielke

The group of boys in the front rows sat spellbound as the man behind the pulpit held up the spike in his left hand and then carefully placed it in the center of a short plank, which lay across the pulpit in front of him. With his right hand he raised the hammer, and with flawless accuracy hit the big nail squarely on the head. He followed this with several more blows and the nail was securely driven into the board. We were astounded. How could it be that a blind man could drove a nail home with such force and do it without bending the nail, or worse yet, smashing his thumb?

This, and other, similar demonstrations, kept our undivided attention, and kept us coming back to the church every night for two weeks. Even if our parents had wanted to miss an evening, they would have been hard put to keep us away. What was the event that kept us coming every night for two weeks? It was the annual Spring revival, and, while the intention was to bring spiritual awakening to the community, it was also a significant social event. Not only was this a Spring event, but often another "series of meetings" would be held in the Fall of the year.  If the evangelist were not the blind man, there would be another preacher with oratorical skills adequate to keep an audience interested and entertained, and theological credentials, which would assure doctrinal acceptability.

To be present at these services was exciting. There was always singing. The gospel songs were familiar, and people sang for the shear joy of singing. The choristers were enthusiastic young men, who, like cheerleaders at an athletic event, prepared the audience for the events of the evening. The simple four part harmonies echoed and re-echoed, as song followed song. There was a sense of solidarity, and people felt safe and secure as they crowded into the white church out on the prairie.

It was hoped that the preaching would be for the edification of all that attended, but the targeted audience was generally the young people who were expected to be baptized and join the church. Sometimes there were those among this group, who, knowing that the preaching was aimed right at them, resolved to be present at every meeting but not yield to the pressure to "come forward." The obvious result was that as the last nights of the meetings drew near, tremendous pressure began to build, and it became a dramatic battle of wills. The preacher's sermons increased in intensity, and dwelt mostly on the themes of the Second Coming and hell. Stories were told of people on their deathbeds, pleading for mercy, and dying in terrible agony. Stories were told of young people whose lives were suddenly taken in an accident. When the invitation hymns were sung, emotional tension would build. It was like an electrical current surging through the congregation. Often the evangelist would heighten the tension by asking for just one more verse. And as verse followed verse, he made it clear that this could very well be the very last opportunity for those who dared to resist. Often, even though the unrepentant ones hung on to the backs of the pew in front of them, they were at last compelled to come to the altar. This, of course, brought great rejoicing to the community. Sinners had been redeemed, and the community belief system had again been corroborated.

For small boys, these were indeed traumatic experiences. Suddenly our world did not seem so secure after all. The sermons were meant to scare people, and they certainly achieved this. All the signs, we were told, pointed to the eminent demise of our world. While the music and the stories were great fun, we dreaded the awful descriptions of what would happen to those who were not prepared for the Second Coming. Hell was a place to be avoided. The best way to do this was to walk down the aisle and declare to all that you wanted Jesus to come into your heart.

This resulted in warm feelings of relief, and for some the question seemed to be settled. By the time the next revival came along, many of us wondered about the veracity of our experience. Again we heard the dire warnings, and it became clear that if Jesus would return, we might be left behind. Again we would go forward and seek this assurance which we were told we must find.

Who were these prophets who came to us with such authority? What gave them the right to speak so harshly and so ominously?  Were they themselves so secure that they could judge another's status with God? Did they sometimes tremble to think that what they said might be wrong? Why did themes of wrath and judgment hold preeminence over love and acceptance in their theology?

The ways and beliefs of these Mennonite survivors reflected the hardships and struggles that they had endured. They had come to this land, broken out the soil, labored to make it productive, and then watched it blow away in the horrible dust storms of the thirties. Life had been difficult for their ancestors as well, and perhaps a basic fear of what the future might hold was ever present in their minds. It was important to emphasize the absolutes which permeated their beliefs, and to make certain that everyone was brought into the fold. They truly believed that this world was not their home and that be ready for the next was of utmost importance.

In our postmodern world, we tend to see this as a rather quaint and old-fashioned way of expressing faith. It may be well to remember that to effect revival or renewal should be a positive action. I t may be that their ways were a bit direct and possibly even crude, but maybe these itinerant preachers were on to something that we should not entirely forget. Maybe it is true, after all, that we cannot live by bread alone.


(copyright Vern Zielke)

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