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.

Review: Demanding Liberty

demanding liberty

Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious FreedomBrandon J. O’Brien. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Looks at the history of the struggle for religious freedom in America through a study of the efforts of Reverend Isaac Backus to secure a religious freedom that negotiated a third way between established religion and secularism.

One of the messages of this book is that in order to understand the present time and how to move forward, we do well to look back. Brandon J. O’Brien believes that our present discussions about religious liberty and how we sustain that freedom do well to be informed by understanding the history of religious freedom before and during the nation’s founding years. To do that, O’Brien focuses in on the life and advocacy of Baptist minister Isaac Backus. Backus gives the lie to the idea that America was established in the quest for religious freedom. He writes:

“If Isaac Backus were alive today, he would feel the need to correct the misperception that there was ever a “long-standing American tradition of accommodating religious practice and expression” in the years before or even after the Constitution was ratified. He might tell us about the time his mother was arrested for refusing to pay religious taxes. He might tell us about the time a congregation of New England Baptists had their property seized and their orchards destroyed for holding unauthorized worship services. He would almost certainly tell us about the time he debated with John and Samuel Adams about how claiming to defend religious liberty was not enough. The laws had to be enforced if they were to matter at all.”

The book begins by describing the religious history of New England prior to the War of Independence. Even with the Great Awakening, only 17 percent regularly attended worship. One of these was Isaac Backus, who was converted through an awareness of his own sin and a sermon of George Whitfield. He joined a Congregational Church but due to their “Half way covenant” that allowed people to commune and have their children baptized without a clear account of their conversion, soon became a “Separate.” During this time, he experienced a call of the Holy Spirit to preach and began itinerating to other “Separate” churches. Eventually, he concluded that infant baptism was inconsistent with his understanding of conversion and joined the Baptists.

All these moves brought legal problems. Congregational churches enjoyed government support through taxes levied on the citizenry. Exemptions for others could be granted but were often ignored resulting in fines and seizures of property. Ministers needed not only a call from God but ministerial training in seminaries and approval of other [Congregational] ministers. To preach without this approval could also result in fines and sanctions. All of this was supported by colonial government. Pilgrims may have come seeking religious freedom but Puritans controlled the narrative, establishing “freedom” that enforced with government support their own religious beliefs to the exclusion of others.

O’Brien chronicles how all this transformed O’Brien into a lifelong advocate for religious freedom. He documented wrongs and even made an eloquent case to the Continental Congress, albeit framing it in religious rather than public square terms. He argued for a system that upheld neither a theocracy nor advocated an utterly secular state, but one where religious freedom for all was protected and valued, and where government privileged no belief. In 1779 he formulated a Bill of Rights that anticipated that eventually incorporated into the Constitution. He lived to see the First Amendment ratified.

Throughout the book, O’Brien moves back and forth between past and present, drawing parallels about divisions over religious freedom, when a majority becomes a minority, different perceptions of what it means to be marginalized, the importance for creating space for principled disagreement and the paradox of influence in the halls of power while losing influence in the wider culture. The book explores both what is at stake in our efforts to uphold religious liberties both for ourselves and others and raises intriguing questions about the parallel quest for civil liberties, which often have lagged far behind.  Should not the two go together? And yet often religious believers resist those pressing for greater civil liberties and rights.

This is a timely work on an important current discussion that has always been at the heart of what it means to be a country committed to “liberty and justice for all.”