1940s Youth Revival Movement Filled Spiritual Vacuum of Age
In the aftermath of World War II, America seemed to be searching for spiritual restoration and reclamation. At the same time, the nation was putting its young people in the spotlight, perhaps out of a sense of gratitude to those who had fought and died in the war.
The eagerness of youth for religious fulfillment and pervading spirit of public interest in young people led to what was called "the youth revival movement," recalled Samford University President Thomas E. Corts, who remembers being influenced by the movement.
Now, a half-century later, Samford and its Beeson Divinity School will convene Revival Revisited, a free public symposium on the movement. More than a dozen of the original evangelists who sparked the movement in the South and Southwest will attend the three-day event June 18-20 on the campus.
During the mid- to late 1940s, Christian youth emphases sprang to the fore around the country, particularly among evangelicals. In Chicago, Billy Graham, Torrey Johnson, Mel Larson and others led Youth For Christ, a national program. Corts--growing up in northern Ohio at the time--remembers how important the movement was to him. And, he notes, it was during this period, in 1948, that Billy Graham attracted the attention of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst during a Los Angeles revival meeting.
Youth for Christ developed huge programs of genuine significance in various cities under strong and attractive leaders such as Dave Breese in Chicago and Roy McKewon in Kansas City. In Philadelphia, Percy Crawford led a great youth rally on Saturday nights that touched thousands with contemporary Christian music and gospel messages. In metro Los Angeles, Phil Kerr was leading Christian musical groups in Saturday night productions that were slick, upbeat and appealing to movieland teenagers. In upstate New York, Jack Wyrtzen developed a ministry called "Word of Life," aimed at young people, with strong summer camp ministries, and with a powerful musical witness that utilized radio.
Among Southern Baptists, the dominant denominational force in the South, the youth revival movement started at Baylor University in Waco, Tex. It had no formal structure and was not institutionalized to perpetuate itself, but even so, its outcome has been highly influential for all time, according to Corts.
"The youth revival movement worked in the South and Southwest in much the same way the various youth emphases functioned in the rest of the country, filling the same vacuum," Corts said.
Why was the youth revival movement not formally structured into an organization and made an ongoing force for good?
Corts suggests that in the Bible belt, where the culture is much more intertwined with the church and Christianity, there seemed less need for such an effort. A sense of rivalry may have kept Southern Baptists from cooperating with other evangelically minded Christians the way denominations in the more diverse Midwest and North seemed willing to do.
Perhaps Southern Baptists' traditional fear of para-church organizations, and Southern Baptist leadership's suspicion about extra-church activity not bearing the Southern Baptist imprimatur, were deterrents.
"Did Southern Baptists and the South lose a great opportunity for good by not capitalizing on the youth revival movement, forming a structure, and assuring it as an ongoing youth emphasis?" Corts asked.
Whatever the answer, the youth revival movement did sweep across the South and Southwest for more than a decade. "It was," said Corts, "an instrument for changing lives and destinies. It was almost incredible . . . to this point, incomparable." Out of it grew the summer mission programs that continue to attract young people today. And some trace the evolution of state Baptist convention-supported campus ministry programs to the youth revival movement.
Sessions will convene from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. A banquet (fee and reservation required) will be held on Friday evening. The symposium will conclude with a worship service on Sunday evening at 7 p.m. in Beeson Divinity Chapel.