The History of the Brunk Tent Revivals Part 2 – A Closer Look

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First, let’s take a look at the national scene at the beginning of the Brunk revivals. They began in 1951, 6 years after the end of WWII. It was also 2 years after the nationally publicized Billy Graham campaign in Los Angeles. Mennonites had begun moving off the farm into more service type work. Interest in higher education was on the rise. Mennonites and society were becoming more wealthy and prosperous than ever before. There was an increased interest in foreign missions. The Mennonite church was struggling with issues like the TV, cape dresses for the sisters, neckties for brethren, etc. It was a time of rapid change.
What was George’s vision? He saw himself as part of a succession of the great revivalists like John & Charles Wesley, Charles Finney, D.L. Moody, and Reuben Torrey. After seeing the success of Billy Graham, George saw the Brunk revivals as part of a national context. He declared that “the American public has a new appetite for the gospel of Jesus Christ.”1 He also believed that the church needed to be revived before it could engage in evangelism. “The church must be more alive spiritually if it is to go forward in evangelism; otherwise it will be primarily occupied with doing chores.”2 The motto of his campaign was “The Whole Gospel for the Whole World.”
George had a bold and fiery manner of preaching. He would frequently ask for “Amens” from the audience. He preached doctrinal as well as practical messages with a special emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit. He did not hesitate to wade into controversial issues. He would often address the other Protestant churches and made a special effort to welcome the non-Mennonite attendees of the meetings. He did not hesitate to discuss what he thought was the failures of the Mennonite Church as well as numerous criticisms of its leaders. At the end of the sermon came the “altar call” or, as it came to be known, “walking the sawdust trail”. Those that responded were encouraged to give their testimony after they met with a campaign worker.
How did the leadership of the Mennonite church respond to these meetings? Overall, church leaders were somewhat divided over what to make of this new phenomenon that was sweeping across the church. Various articles appeared in the Mennonite publications, some approving, others raising some questions, and others opposed. Probably one of the sharpest criticisms came from Gospel Herald editor Paul Erb, who wrote in 1953, “….This honest search for truth may be something very different from a revivalistic intoxication that sends the addict reeling from one evangelistic meeting to another. It is a sober business to search, and to see what things are so – a business entirely too prosaic for one who has only fallen under the spell of the flood-lights and the sawdust aisles and the bright singing and emotion-packed response to the invitation. If those things do not make the attendant a Biblical Christian, their influence is shallow and in the long run harmful…..The Christian way is not a way of ease. It is not pleasant to bear a cross.”3
One of the common dangers of this type of mass evangelism is emotionalism, and the Brunk revivals were no exception. People that get caught up in the excitement of the moment and respond at the evangelist’s invitation have not made a clear-headed choice to become a Christian. After their “crisis conversion” the good feelings are soon lost, and so they feel the need to respond again and again. After several responses they can easily become discouraged because they keep losing those good feelings. A choice to become a disciple of Christ is best made away from any pressure or over-emotion. One writer noted that “A number of nervous breakdowns were attributed to the pressure to testify or confess.”4
A second danger of emotionalism is child evangelism, which sadly enough happened with the Brunk revivals too. Numerous references have been made of children as young as nine responding at those tent meetings. The problem eventually became large enough that the General Conference in 1955 addressed the issue in a statement titled “The Nurture and Evangelism of Children” where they tried to give some direction to this problem.
A second issue that came out of the Brunk revivals was an over-emphasis on the work and power of the Holy Spirit. In August, 1952 at Goshen, IN, there was a total of 2,500 recorded responses. This figure included those who came for help on the question of how to have more Holy Spirit power.5 Why were they asking this question? That was because of the emphasis that George placed upon it. In one sermon he said, “You know what I tell a man who tells me he doesn’t know if he is filled with the Holy Ghost? I say, brother, I don’t think you are. If you have been, you’d know it.”6 To have more Holy Spirit power should not be our goal. Our goal is to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ and to live in obedience to His example and directives. The amount of “Holy Spirit power” that God chooses to give us will be based on our obedience to Him.
This emphasis on the Holy Spirit was a new concept to the Mennonite church of that time. George would constantly accuse the church & its leaders of not being filled with the Holy Spirit. Upon what basis could he know the church was not filled with the Holy Spirit? He assumed it wasn’t because he was influenced by how the Protestant revivalists such as John & Charles Wesley, Moody, Torrey, & Finney viewed the work of the Holy Spirit. They viewed having the Holy Spirit as the ultimate goal. Historically, the Mennonite church on the other hand emphasized obedience to Scripture and living a holy life as the more important goal to strive for.
This over-emphasis on the Holy Spirit carried along with it a subtle de-emphasis on the outer expression of attire and other Mennonite applications. Historian John Ruth wrote that while “the immediate effect [of the Brunk revivals] was to bring significant numbers of wavering young people to more plainness of dress, that effect on the whole would be temporary. Brunk’s emphasis on ‘Holy Spirit power’ was a harbinger of trends becoming evident in the 1960’s and of the later charismatic movement, when some Mennonites would understand the Spirit to be leading them away from their heritage, rather than home toward it.”7 If our main focus is on the Holy Spirit, then we can be more easily led away from the more practical and less enjoyable demands of living the surrendered life. Remember George’s brother Lawrence? George, to his credit, did not go down that road as far as many of the people did who listened to him.
Thirdly, revival meetings, especially mass tent revivals, tend to emphasize the experience and thereby de-emphasize the new believer’s on-going discipleship to Jesus Christ. Phil. 2:12 says to “……work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Salvation is not a one-time experience. It is not an event. It is not a response at revivals. The New Birth is the beginning of salvation. The New Birth is essential but on its own is not enough. Salvation is an on-going choice in the life of the believer. Why then is this sometimes referred to as “getting saved” as if it is a finished process? We need to make sure we are also emphasizing our need to live our lives in total obedience to God.
What was the result of Brunk tent revivals? Let’s look briefly at the congregation where the first tent revival took place. The East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church one year later in 1952 experienced a church split which resulted in the formation of the Neffsville Mennonite Church. What caused this division? For one thing, a number of the younger members were influenced by the Brunk Revivals with its emphasis on inner experience.8 Along with that, the Neffsville group wanted a more democratic church and a less authoritarian conference. In 1962 the ECSMC gave a warm welcome to members of Rohrerstown Mennonite Church who were excommunicated for having televisions. ECSMC received them as members without the conference protocol of letters of transfer; this helped ECSMC to heal a bit from the pain of the Neffsville split in 1952.9 This seems to confirm what Ruth wrote about when he wrote that some Mennonites would understand the Spirit to be leading them away from their heritage.
Sadly, this world-ward drift was not exclusive to the ECSMC congregation. This became an overall pattern across the Mennonite church of that time. However, some individuals and congregations did withstand the pressure to liberalize. This led to the formation of EPMC in 1968. Did the Brunk revivals help to slow this world-ward trend, or was it somewhat responsible for it?
Change once begun is very difficult to stop. Paul Toews wrote that, “It is not clear that Mennonites needed revival then any more than at other times in the twentieth century….. But in a religiously based culture, they could also be a stylized form to legitimize changes which people did not know how to stop. Perhaps for some Mennonites the litanies of purgation were ways to prepare themselves for – and maybe even accelerate – such changes.”2 Change, especially rapid change, can easily become exhilarating, but can also be blinding. May God give us wisdom to change when change becomes necessary. May we have our eyes open and not allow change to carry us to places we don’t want to go!
Thankfully, there were individuals that did made a sincere decision to repent of sin and to follow Jesus Christ. They did not allow the emotion of the moment to carry them away from the faith of their forefathers. To them we owe a debt of gratitude for their faithfulness, and a responsibility to pass the faith on to the next generation.
So, what should a true revival look like? The temptation of emotionalism on the part of the evangelist must be kept in check. The appeal of a tent and the sawdust trail does nothing to propagate the true faith. One possible exception for using a tent could be an evangelistic effort in a place where there is no meetinghouse, but other than that, why is a tent needed for revival?
There must be an emphasis on obedience to Scripture and living out Christ’s commands along with the call for revival or repentance. True revival must result in amendment of life and an obvious obedience to God. It needs to be a means to an end, not an end in itself. There needs to be further instruction for new Christians to help them understand the full scope of being a servant of God.
True revival must begin with prayer. 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
Were the Brunk Revivals a success? We have looked at the positives and negatives of this historic movement. Did the positives outweigh the negatives? If we look at the general direction of the Mennonite church following the revivals, the result, sadly, was negative. If we could look at each individual that was there, perhaps the result would look different. And yet, the individuals make up the church. May God give us wisdom to learn from the past as we serve Him today and in the days to come.

“God’s Supreme Position of Power”, sermon by George R. Brunk, Jr., Sept. 1952
Gospel Herald, “The Primacy of Evangelism”, Mar. 17, 1953
Gospel Herald, “Evangelism for Full Discipleship”, 1953, by Paul Erb
American Mennonites and Protestant Movements, by Beulah Stauffer Hostetler
Revival Fires, by Katie Florence Shank
“God’s Supreme Position of Power”, sermon by George R. Brunk, Jr., Sept. 1952
The Earth is the Lord’s by John L. Ruth
Pathways to Renewal; A Narrative History of Neffsville Mennonite Church, by Roy S. Burkholder
Mennonites in American Society, by Paul Toews.