A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Thomas J. Nettles
Robert Caldwell gives close attention to the century 1740-1840 in discussing theology and conversion in the development of the revivalist phenomenon in America. His purpose in this volume is to acquaint the reader “with the major theological systems that animated the revivals of the First and Second Great Awakenings, such as traditional Calvinism, Wesleyan Arminianism, and Edwardsean Calvinism” (5). He introduces the volume with the recitation of the conversion of Ann Hasseltine (who eventually married Adoniram Judson) to show how theological ideas inhered deeply in the conscious experiences of conversion during this period. Taking a close look at both the preacher and those to whom they preached, Caldwell investigates three aspects of this interaction as perceived by the revivalist preacher/theologians: “their theologies of salvation, the ways they practically preached the gospel, and the conversions experiences they expected from those experiencing salvation” (6). Caldwell gives a trenchant analysis of the nuances and permutations of theology vis-à-vis revival from George Whitefield to Charles Finney. He includes an analysis of critiques of revival from two diverse theological perspectives, confessional Reformed thinkers and the non-Reformed, Sandemanian Campbellites. Every chapter ends with a clear summary of that chapter’s presentation. The final chapter (fittingly entitled “Conclusion”) gives another concise summary of the argument.
Chapter one treats a group Caldwell names moderate evangelicals. This look at the First Great Awakening focuses briefly on George Whitefield and then examines three major issues: how is a sinner prepared for conversion, what is the morphology of conversion, and what is the foundation of assurance.
Chapter two examines the revival theology of Andrew Croswel and Jonathan Edwards. Croswell, an “immediatist” even before Samuel Hopkins, wanted to do away with all preparationist instruction, all instructions to use means, and any implications that trust in Christ involved complications of innumerable soul-deceits. He was a Calvinist who believed that preaching involved a “universal grant” of salvation to all sinners, no matter their state of mind at the time of hearing the gospel and the call to believe. He duplicated the theology of the “Marrow Controversy” in Scotland pressing the idea that a person’s faith involved the persuasion that Christ died for his sins, that Christ is his savior in particular, that Christ loves him in particular, and that assurance is of the essence of faith. Edwards continued the theological emphases of the moderate evangelicals in his clear and extended defense of the doctrines of confessional Calvinism and gave a thorough analysis of the contours of true faith and true religious affections. Caldwell points out also that Edwards emphasized a voluntarist aspect in his doctrine of original sin and in his affirmation of “natural ability” to repent of sin and believe in Christ. He also countered Croswell’s emphasis on particular faith by his discussion of the disinterested character of the initial movements of saving faith, a view that fostered a Christian activism involved in disinterested benevolence.
Chapter three investigates the revival theology of the “New Divinity” movement. Though built on Edwardsean foundations, these disciples of Edwards introduced ideas that set aside imputation of righteousness as central to justification and debt-payment by substitution as intrinsic to Christ’s redeeming death. Their adoption of Edwards’s discussion of natural ability led to an emphasis on the necessity of immediate repentance. These revival theologians had the strange combination then of the need for a disinterested spirituality, that is, a vision of the intrinsic loveliness of God to such a degree that the first impulse of conversion is only godward and void of conscious concern for one’s personal safety—a willingness to be damned for God’s glory. At the same time, on the basis of natural ability the preacher must insist on the necessity of immediate repentance. Caldwell focused on Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins as the most formative architects of this Edwardsean revival theology that was displaced only with great and intentional philosophical efforts later in the nineteenth century. Caldwell provides an excellent summary of the pivotal developments during this period on pages 98-100. In particular, he teases out a few of the more notable implications of disinterested benevolence, voluntarism, and an idea he labels as the principle of personal merit.
The Second Great Awakening (1790-ca. 1840) was the product of a continuing emphasis on revival and embodied two kinds of Edwardsean efforts and one evangelical Arminian insurgency into the frontier of the new country. Caldwell notes, “In short, America’s Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) was an incredibly complex event; no one revivalist, denomination, or theology captures its diversity” (101). Three chapters constitute his discussion of this formative evangelical phenomenon. Chapter four looks at the impact of the developing Edwardsean into New Divinity revivalism. Edward Dorr Griffin, a pastor, emphasized on the sovereignty of God, human blindness in sin, along with the immediate responsibility of man defined in terms of both moral inability and natural ability. This kind of preaching produced a “field of divine wonders” of revival recorded charmingly in the testimonies of the operations of grace in those converted. Attempts to harness and reproduce these phenomena led to the theologies of Nathan W Taylor among the Congregationalists and Albert W. Barnes among the New School Presbyterians. Their theologies challenged the borders of Calvinism on the nature of the human will and further altered the doctrine of Christ’s atoning work.
Chapter five gives an excellent summary of the impact of self-confessed Arminianism in American revivalism, the Methodist revival of the Second Great Awakening. Their emphasis on divine love that necessitated the free human will, personal holiness, justification by faith, the new birth, and Christian perfection meshed with the energy and self-reliance of the frontier and produced America’s largest Protestant denomination by 1860. The evangelistic and organizational energy behind this was provided by the personal work and infectious example of Francis Asbury (1745-1816). Theological consistency during this period was fostered by Nathan Bangs, Asa Shinn, and Freeborn Garrettson. They shared with the New Divinity and the New School Presbyterians a commitment to the “universal offer of the gospel.” They found the doctrine of imputed righteousness not only “mysterious” but antithetical to the idea of pardon on the one hand and holiness on the other. The polar opposites of Christian perfection and final apostasy were theological and experiential tools of the Methodist preachers and exhorters. Both were the end results of the proper use or the misuse of free will. Both experiences had been observed and recorded, the one to the heights of joy and praise and the other to a groan and shriek of horror. Methodist theology and preaching relied just enough on unction and just enough on human choice to keep as a part of the mainstream of the American religious experience for two centuries.
Four types of Baptists constitute the subject matter of chapter six. The Separate Baptists, greatly influenced by the preaching of George Whitefield and led by the zealous evangelism of Shubal Stearns and Daniel Marshall, gave great growth to Baptists in the South. The Free Will Baptists, led by Benjamin Randall, whose conversion was promoted more by the death of Whitefield than his preaching, found his perception of the universality of God’s love, of the atonement, and of the call to salvation to be a sufficient conviction against all the arguments of the Calvinists. Those elements of his credo brought into being the Free Will Baptists of New England and sustained an emotion-laden zeal for conversion as well as his vision of the eventual demise of Calvinism. Edwardsean Baptists were led by Jonathan Maxcy and W. B. Johnson. Their moral government view of the atonement allowed them to present the gospel to all without any sense of restriction; their view of God’s benevolence toward being in general allowed to appeal to divine love as a motive for repentance and faith; their view of divine sovereignty as an expression of divine glory allowed them to let the sinner know that still salvation rested in the hands of divine mercy. Though overshadowed somewhat during the early part of the nineteenth century, traditional Calvinism among Baptists showed that it still was vibrant and still preached for conversion in the work of Jesse Mercer (1769-1841).
Chapter seven consists of an exposition of the “New Measures” revivalism of Charles Finney. Finney’s theology was “a robust and zealously active revival theology” (165) purposefully designed to overcome some of the leading ideas of Jonathan Edwards and highlight the power of the human will in conversion and revival. The New Lebanon Conference, July 1827, while designed to place some reins on Finney’s apparently manipulative methods during revival seasons in towns and villages, actually released Finney to a more comprehensive overhaul of revival theology and technique and opened to him the larger cities of the Northeast. By 1832, Finney had exhausted himself and his family and spent the rest of his ministry as a pastor, a writer, and a theological professor at Oberlin. Two English tours a decade apart, 1849 and 1859, carried his revival influence there and prompted the same kind of controversy among evangelicals. His views on election, atonement, human ability, original sin, depravity, justification, and perfectionism so altered the norms of confessional Reformed Christianity that the Edwardsean shreds remaining resembled a Pelagian rewriting of Religious Affections. Caldwell gives more attention to the theology of Finney (171-196) than to any other single individual. This is fitting, for he, more than any other gathered the fragments of revivalistic alterations of doctrine and put them into a coherent argument. At least evangelicals can be thankful that his theological system did not last as long as his systematization of method.
Chapter eight looks at two significant critiques of the developing revivalism of the early nineteenth century. The first is that of Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary. Though Alexander was more open to expressions of revival than Hodge, both expressed appreciation for those conducted by Edwards, Whitefield, and Tennent. Caldwell looks closely at their analysis of Finney’s ostensible Pelagianism on original sin since the moral character of the human soul is at the base of many of the theological divergences of Finney. He also highlighted Hodge’s commendation of the principle of Christian nurture as a means of converting grace. The second pushback against revivalism came from the Restoration movement led by Alexander Campbell. Campbell criticized the revivalists use of the law in preaching, their emphasis on the experiential and emotional aspects of repentance and faith, and the issue of the ordo salutis. Faith lost any aspect of the necessity of altered affections and became the consent of the mind to a judgment of the truth of evidence concerning the gospel. This consummated in justification and regeneration at the moment the believing person followed in obedience to baptism. Revival technique of Finney or theology of Edwards was counter-productive to New Testament faith in the view of Campbell.
The conclusion isolates four factors of revival theology and identifies four trajectories in the practice of revival preaching. These trajectories movement away the will’s inability to the will’s ability, from particularity to universality, from lengthy conversions to quick conversions, and from detailed theological ideas to a “practical, common-sense approach to revival theology.” Caldwell surmises in light of these trajectories that “Today, revivals are practiced and conducted; yet rarely are they the topic of mature theological consideration” (228). He recommends that someone pick up the mantle of Jonathan Edwards and give similar time, thought, and penetrating writing to this subject.
Thomas J. Nettles is (retired) Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.
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THEOLOGIES OF THE AMERICAN REVIVALISTS: FROM WHITEFIELD TO FINNEY, by Robert W. Caldwell III