Is Revivalism Child Abuse?


I was born and raised in a small town in Southern Manitoba, Steinbach, that was famous for its religiosity. We were constantly in the news about social issues, particularly when they involved a religious twist from the conventional wisdom.

Recently I was reminded of this when an old friend, Ralph Friesen, delivered a lecture at our local heritage museum on the history of the revival meetings in Steinbach. He woke me from my slumber.

In the days of my youth our town was regularly visited by itinerant preachers usually at the behest of the local ministerial association when they thought our town needed to be stirred out of the spiritual torpor that inevitably came over it. Actually every revival in turn had to be followed a few years later by another. It was always difficult to keep religion at a fever pitch for long. The revivals were often held in huge tents and were like a special community church service led by a special preacher, often from the United States. There was also stirring music as well to get the crowd fired up.

The point of revival meetings was the emotional response. That was why they were held. They were meant to get people excited and passionate about religion. I learned from Ralph that originally the meetings were targeted only at adults. Frankly, I have no strong objection to that. If adults want to be influenced by emotional appeals, I suppose there is nothing dastardly about that. It would not interest me, but if others want that,  the principle of religious freedom, which I support, surely permits that.

Eventually the revivals started to target young people as well. Many of my friends were strongly encouraged or even required to attend by their well-meaning but misguided (in my opinion) parents . These parents I believe genuinely wanted the best for their children and what could be more important or beneficial than leading them to the lord?

Here I think the supposed moral high ground of the revivals is a little more like the swampy quagmire of the lowlands. Personally I am not keen on any sort of indoctrination or inculcation, but when directed at impressionable youth with well oiled religious machines lubricated with strongly emotional appeals based often on primal fears, I have even less respect for them.

I remember well the religious crusade launched against the youth of Steinbach in the 1960s by Wes Arum. Arum-Scarum we scoffers called him, for good reason.  He was a powerful speaker. Much more effective than Billy Graham I thought. I remember how a group of my friends and I attended these meetings with scoffing scepticism.

Unfortunately I missed the grand finale sermon on the last week of the crusade. After that last meeting I was shocked to learn that one of my very good friends who was one of the most intelligent boys I knew, succumbed to the altar call where he was asked to accept Jesus as his personal savior. This  happened a day after he, like all of us, assured our group that our scepticism was rock solid and no calls would be heeded. But he did. My friends and I were amazed. How could this happen? We were stunned.

Fortunately we learned that the Arum-Scarum crusade would be repeated in another small town about an hour away. One of my friends and I made sure we attended the grand finale there. The sermon was a masterpiece. Arum tugged at the heartstrings, and more importantly, the fears, of the young people.

The sermon centred on a story about a crusade at a college dorm. One of the students there missed the crusade and was wakened from his sleep in the night. The dormitory was completely empty when he woke up. He ran through the halls screaming for his friends. No one heard or answered his calls. He was desperate. Where could they be? He did not realize the crusade was not over. All the students but him were there. He screamed in terror because he concluded he had been left behind. Everyone had been called to heaven in the rapture except him. He was left behind—forever!

It was an extremely emotional and powerful speech. It was easy to see how a young person, susceptible to such ideas after a lifetime of inculcation by his parents and his church, could have ‘the hell scared out of him.’  That I believe is exactly what happened to my friend. Personally I believe fear is a very poor basis for making a wise decision.

Is it right for adults to do this to young children, even in the name of religious salvation? We all want our children to have the best, to be led from darkness to light, but is this the right way?

All of this reminds me of what Christians did to indigenous youth in residential schools in Canada. Operators of those institutions wanted to ‘drive the Indian out of the Indians.’  They thought they were doing that in the name of good cause. They wanted to civilize the savages and lead them to salvation. They wanted to make them like the white at any cost. It was worth it they thought. The arrogance of white people shredded the dignity and respect of the young indigenous students. Now we know that was horrendous abuse. I do not equate the suffering of indigenous people at the hands of the residential school system. The suffering of indigenous youth  was obviously on a scale of horror well beyond that of Mennonite youth. I merely draw attention to the similar motivation of those in power over their vulnerable youth.  Power has to be exercised with extreme caution even when motives are good. I believe most of them meant well? Good intentions were not an excuse for the adults who ran the residential schools. Is  it for our Mennonite parents?

I asked a friend of recently mine if he felt he had been abused spiritually by his parents.  Here is part of his reply.  “They intended no evil, no wrong, and were deeply hurt by my resistance and “rebellion”.  I can’t think of how I could have done that any differently, and yet maintained who I am.  That’s the unavoidable sadness of it.  It’s a long process, and it probably never fully ends.  I can’t speak with either of my parents about this anymore, but I’ve come to terms with the dynamics of those far-off days, my part in the struggle, their part, and their fundamental decency and love.  I have no doubt they loved me, and I continue to love them.  But that’s easier said than understood.”

Were our well-meaning elders guilty of child abuse?  I know this is a provocative question, but I think it’s an important one. How far can parents go? I think they went too far. I want to explore this subject further and invite response from those who disagree with me.

5 thoughts on “Is Revivalism Child Abuse?

  1. That trip down the sawdust trail is one that a lot of Steinbach youth experienced. It was simply a guilt trip. Unfair. Incorrect. Harmful.

  2. Neat article, and kind to the church leaders who were responsible for sponsoring these events. I too grew up in St. Einbach, but well before the Arum-Scarum evangelist appeared. My loudest memory (though not the only), and loud it was, is of Hyman Appelman preaching a pretty scary version of what in the Gospels is called “Good News”. The saddest result of those speakers on my tender conscience is that it took me years till I could see God as a God of love. I expect/assume that others have had a similar experience.
    The broader impact or results of those “revivals” were very significant in my opinion. In listening to Ralph Friesen’s presentation, I realized that the early “revivals” led to “leavings”. Numbers of people left the churches that had nurtured them, and the community of sisters and brothers that loved them, to found new congregations. The attendant “we – they” divisions led to pain and self-righteousness, and even shunning.
    A second result that is still at work, is the importation of American Fundamentalism, as the true version of Christianity. When we see its militarism, and support of other political trends in our neighbour country, it does make one worry.

    1. Well said. it is hard to think of some of the stuff at these revivals as “good news.” I too wonder how many youth were repelled by the religion of the revivals compared to how many were saved. And for how long did they remain “saved?”

  3. There is Received Knowledge and there is Deceived Knowledge. One advantage of growing up Mennonite Imposter in Steinbach was NOT being compelled to attend tent meetings.

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