Review: Theologies of the American Revivalists

theologies of the american revivalists

Theologies of the American Revivalists, Robert W. Caldwell III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A study, not so much of the history, as the theologies underlying the different revival movements in America from 1740 to 1840.

There have been various studies of the histories of particular revival movements in American religious history. What Robert W. Caldwell offers in this work is a comparative study of the theologies of the different revivalists. Undergirding the preaching and methodologies of these revivalists lay considerable thought about the theology of the human will and the sovereignty of God, on how widely the salvation of Christ extended, on the length of the conversion process and a tension between systematic theology and plain reading of scripture.

In seven chapters, Caldwell outlines the theologies of various key figures representing different schools of thought, or religious bodies. These include:

  • Moderate evangelical revival theology. This stream of Puritan Calvinism included George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, and notably, Jonathan Edwards. Preaching focused on the law, bringing people under conviction of sin, pursuing “means of grace” as one sought conversion, and finally the consolation of assurance. This process was often emotionally intense and protracted.
  • Free grace revival theology. Andrew Croswell and other radical evangelicals rejected the use of “means of grace” and lengthy conversion processes. They emphasized responses of faith to the Christ who loves, and whose salvation was for the world, by “right.” Conversions were intense, certain, leaving no room for doubt, and quick.
  • Edwardsean Calvinist revival theology. Successors of Jonathan Edwards focused on Edwards idea that people have a natural ability to embrace the gospel, even if morally disinclined to do so. This had ramifications for the understanding of original sin, atonement, and, justification. Conversions continued to be lengthy events, culminating in a “disinterested” spirituality that accepted and even could worship God for his just judgment of oneself as a sinner, leading to the apprehension of God’s grace.
  • Methodist Arminian theology emphasized the love of God, the offer of salvation to all, and the freedom of the will to believe. Conversions were both emotional events and quick, with teaching that encouraged progress to Christian perfection.
  • Early American Baptists. They did not have a single revival theology but different leaders adopted one of the above approaches.
  • Taylorism, or New Haven theology. Nathaniel William Taylor further emphasized both the sinners ability to repent, and the ways in which the means of grace might eradicate selfishness in the sinner even prior to regeneration.
  • Charles Finney’s revival theology. Finney built on Taylor, emphasizing the sinner’s ability to respond to the command to repent and elaborating the means of grace systematically in what became called the “new measures.” Finney asserted that three processes were at work in the conversion process: the work of the Spirit, the work of the minister, and the work of the convert.

Caldwell also discusses two critical responses to these revivalist theologies. The first was that of the Princeton theologians Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge, who believed these revival theologies deviated from classic Calvinism in the direction of Pelagianism. They emphasized the quieter means of the influence of the Christian family. The second was the restoration movement led by Stone and Campbell that eschewed theological systems for the plain teaching of the Bible and the actions of belief, repentance, and baptism affirmed in scripture as resulting in regeneration.

I thought Caldwell’s exposition quite clear as to each of the theologies coupled the key figures, their ideas, and the theological implications of those ideas. Each chapter provides a summary of salient points that allows for good review of the chapter. I wondered about the focus on the conversion theologies associated with the revivalists. While this was a significant aspect of revivals, equally significant was the awakening of those who had already believed to spiritual vitality. Apart from the focus on Wesleyan perfection, this aspect was not addressed. Richard Lovelace’s classic Dynamics of Spiritual Life gives a much fuller account of the renewal of the church in revival.

I appreciated Caldwell’s closing comments on the importance of revival theology in the church today:

“A robust revival theology, one that intimately unites head and heart, Scripture, proclamation, and life, would certainly help galvanize preaching, capture the religious imagination of the lost, and aid in imparting a theological vision that draws sinners to life and raises up God-glorifying disciples” (p. 229).

Caldwell’s work offers a rich account of how those who have gone before us have conceived of these things, as well as pointing us to primary sources for further study. He helps us see that, beyond the emotion and the changed lives of the successive waves of revivals, there were prayerful and thoughtful human agents whose understanding of the ways of God in salvation shaped and energized their preaching and pastoral ministry.

7 thoughts on “Review: Theologies of the American Revivalists

  1. I think I will read this one. This part of the review stood out to me: “Successors of Jonathan Edwards focused on Edwards idea that people have a natural ability to embrace the gospel, even if morally disinclined to do so.” I thought that Calvinists believed that people naturally could not embrace the Gospel. At the same time, I know that Edwards distinguished between true and false converts.

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: October 2018 | Bob on Books

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