Mark Sayers, an Australian pastor and cultural commentator, says historical experiences of church renewal often follow a four-step pattern. The first step is holy discontent in which people become dissatisfied with the poor spiritual condition of themselves, their church and their society. Often this takes place because of a crisis.
Renewal is not a human achievement, but a gift of God, so steps two and three involve asking for His help through preparation – confession and repentance resulting in a change of direction – and then contending – persistent, dedicated seeking of God through prayer, risk and sacrifice. The final step is the emergence of a remnant immersed in holy patterns of life including spiritual disciplines. Renewal can then go viral leading to widespread revival.
One historical event that illustrates these themes is the revival that took place in Hamilton, Ont., in 1857.
In many ways it was a bad time for Hamilton. In the early 1850s the city was swept by a deadly cholera epidemic. In March 1857 a horrifying bridge collapse dropped a train car into the Desjardins Canal killing 59 people. By the middle of the year the city was hit by the Panic of 1857, a stock market crash and global recession.
Meanwhile many evangelical Christians in North America sensed some of the fire had gone out of evangelicalism. Compared to the heady days of John Wesley and George Whitefield, the evangelical movement seemed lukewarm by the mid-1850s. The result of these crises and sense of lukewarmness was a holy discontent among the Wesleyan Methodist churches in the city.
Enter Phoebe Palmer. Palmer (1807–1874) and her husband Walter hailed from New York City. Although they had experienced personal tragedy, including the death of three of their children in infancy, and deep spiritual crises, the Palmers – especially Phoebe – became leaders in a renewal movement in Methodist circles.
This Holiness movement sought to recapture the single-minded devotion to God, holy living and evangelism of the early Methodists. Their commitment to holiness included extensive charitable work in New York, and in 1845 Phoebe published an influential book The Way of Holiness.
The Palmers were instrumental in spreading these ideas in the eastern U.S., Canada and Britain. In October 1857 they had been speaking at a camp meeting in Georgetown, Ont., and were on their way back to New York by train. They had only been planning to stop in Hamilton for the night, but ran into baggage problems and unexpectedly ended up spending several days in the city.
Some of the local Methodists took the opportunity to invite the Palmers to speak to a prayer meeting in a church basement attended by about 60 laypeople. When Phoebe asked them to make a commitment to pray fervently for revival and invite their friends to church, 30 of them pledged to do so. Holy discontent led them to adopt a posture of preparation and contending.
The next day the conversions began as the Holy Spirit brought 21 people to saving faith in Jesus. The movement snowballed with hundreds attending all-day prayer meetings. People ignored boundaries of gender, race and social class, and came before God in repentance and prayer. In the first ten days more than 400 people were converted.
The evidence hints that the revival led to longer-term holy patterns as well. The membership of the Methodist churches in the city increased from 500 to 800 and regular attendance increased by about a thousand people. News of the revival in turn helped stoke a revival in New York City the same year, and may have also contributed to revivals in England, Ireland and South Africa soon after.
What may have seemed like a small, random event – a travel delay – was used by God to draw many people to Himself.
Today we have many reasons for holy discontent. Covid-19 has exposed the fragility of our economy, health care system, government finances, life itself. Events in the U.S. have exposed ongoing problems of racial division and political polarization. Meanwhile the health of the Church in North America has been at a low ebb for decades. Will we seek God for renewal through preparation, contending and holy patterns?
Note: I’m grateful to my former student Lynn Bruulsema whose research and ideas are the basis for this article. For more insights from Mark Sayers check out his podcast at www.ThisCulturalMoment.com.