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Lessons to be Learned from the South African Revival

Category Articles
Date February 20, 2015

It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind (Joel 2:28).

In 1848 at the age of twenty Andrew Murray returned home to Cape Town, South Africa from his theological studies in Scotland and Holland. The Dutch Reformed Church required ministers to be at least twenty-two years old before they would ordain them, so young Andrew was sent by the church to the Transvaal, far to the north to the Afrikaaner farmers and their coloured servants1 living between the Vaal and Orange Rivers in what came to be known as the Orange Free State. He set up a four church circuit in the Transvaal, and soon realized the spiritual health of the people was far worse than he had originally imagined. Soon he knew that he must preach simply, plainly, and logically to these rough farmers. After eleven years of ministry Murray returned to the Cape Peninsula to pastor a church there.

The Cape Peninsula too was a spiritual wasteland prior to 1860. For years the Dutch India Company had controlled the appointment of pastors and the planting of churches and required all worship services, sermons, and even personal devotions to be conducted in Dutch, not in Afrikaans, a more simple form of Dutch which the people had been speaking for many years. The people had trouble understanding Dutch and consequently their spiritual lives languished. When the British gained power over the Cape they forbade Afrikaans to be spoken and appointed all their ministers from Scotland. Andrew Murray, Sr. was a mighty preacher who had an intolerable burden for revival and had been praying, without fail, every Friday night for thirty-six years for revival. For years nothing had happened. In fact the church was as apathetic as ever. There was a vast shortage of pastors. Staffing Christian schools with teachers and administrators was next to impossible, and the coloured people were largely given to drunkenness and witchcraft.

The Fulton Street revival in New York City has been flourishing since October, 1857 and spread throughout the United States and across the Atlantic to Wales and Northern Ireland. By 1858 John Girardeau, Pastor of the Zion Presbyterian Church, saw a mighty movement of God in Charleston, South Carolina, preaching every night except Saturday night for eight consecutive weeks, seeing as many as one thousand slaves and white people saved. Then, in 1859 three pastors of the Dutch Reformed Church challenged their fellow pastors to preach a series of sermons on the attributes of God, the role of the Holy Spirit in the church, and the need for private and corporate prayer to ask for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. They wrote,

An awakening can occur through the abundant outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the gift is promised in answer to prayer . . . we earnestly beseech you to faithfully and fervently pray one hour every week, with others or alone that God by His grace may visit our land and give us the blessing of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

While many pastors were moved to action their congregations remained largely disinterested. Most of the prayer meetings were no more than two or three people gathering weekly for one hour.

In May, 1860 a conference was held at Worcester, South Africa with 374 visitors and 20 congregations represented. Andrew Murray, Jr. prayed fervently at the beginning of the meeting and the Spirit of God began to move powerfully in the meeting. In another part of the building, another group of people were gathered in prayer. A fifteen year old girl asked if she could pray. As she prayed, spontaneously the whole room erupted into prayer. Murray, whose experience with revival had only been Scotland where the people were more subdued, had come from the other meeting. As he entered the room he saw what was happening, and tried to silence the people, saying that their meeting was out of accord, that God is a God of order. The people did not hear him and they continued praying. Finally an observer said to Murray, ‘Be careful what you do, for it is the Spirit of God that is at work here. I have just come from America, and this is precisely what I witnessed there.’ Revival fires began to burn brilliantly and powerfully all over South Africa. Pastor Servaas Hofmeyr, who experienced the revival, observed,

Before the days of revival the situation of our congregation was lamentable. Love of the world and sin; no earnestness or heartfelt desire for salvation; sinning and idleness that was the order of the day for most . . . when the Lord started to move among us how intense were the prayers for revival and the cries for mercy. ‘I am lost,’ cries one here. ‘Lord, help me,’ cries another . . . And none of this was expected by anyone, nor prepared by anyone, nor worked up, or preached by anyone. It was all the Spirit of God, and not for a few hours or days, but months long.2

One of the side benefits of the revival was the establishment of Afrikaans as an official language of South Africa. So much of what was said in the revival was in that language and the British authorities had no other recourse but to embrace the language.

Scholars have long debated the time of Joel’s prophecy, but it seems most probable that Joel preached after the return from the Babylonian exile.3 Joel warns of the coming day of the Lord and the vital necessity of repentance. A day of darkness and gloom was prophesied (2:2). Thus the people were to rend their hearts, not their garments and to return to the Lord for he is gracious and compassionate (2:13). If they did so then they could expect a visitation from Yahweh. He would be zealous for his land and have pity on his people (2:18). He promised, consequently, that they, his people, would never be put to shame (2:27). It is within this context of true repentance and promised deliverance that the promise of the coming Holy Spirit was given – ‘I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind’ (2:28). On the day of Pentecost Peter cited this passage. Clearly the Apostle Peter saw Pentecost as the day of fulfilment of this marvellous prophecy. Indeed, the Holy Spirit did come on the day of Pentecost and every believer now has the Spirit indwelling him. The problem, however, is that we are not generally experiencing what the early church, or the church in South Africa in 1860 experienced. We have so little power, so little joy, so little boldness, so little holiness, so few conversions.

What must we do? I will have far more to say in my next devotional, but for now – we need to believe in the Holy Spirit. I know you already say you believe in the Holy Spirit. After all, you are probably a Christian and thus Trinitarian. You ascribe to one God in three persons – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There can be no doubt that by the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, his disciples, with the exception of Judas, were true believers. Yet Jesus told them repeatedly in his Upper Room discourse – ‘I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper . . . He will abide with you and be in you’ (John 14:16, 17); ‘the Holy Spirit . . . will teach you all things’ (John 14:26); ‘When the Helper comes . . . He will testify about Me’ (John 15:26); ‘it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you’ (John 16:7); ‘But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth’ (John 16:13). Our problem, it seems to me, is that we do not comprehend the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit. He is the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9), Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27). The disciples needed something more than simply being Christians. So did Andrew Murray and his fellow believers in South Africa. What am I talking about? Stay tuned.


  1. The term ‘coloured’ is not pejorative in South Africa, as it is in the United States. The term refers to the mixed race people to differentiate them from the white South Africans and the indigenous tribal peoples like the Xhousa, Zulu, and aboriginal Hottentot or Khoi.
  2. See ‘Andrew Murray and the 1860 Revival,’ by Dr. Peter Hammond, Frontline Fellowship, Cape Town, South Africa
  3. The New Geneva Study Bible, page 1382.

Rev. Allen M Baker is an evangelist with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, and Director of the Alabama Church Planting Network. His weekly devotional, ‘Forget None of His Benefits’, can be found here.

If you would like to respond to Pastor Baker, please contact him directly at

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