Revival Theology: a book review

Revival has always played a significant role in American evangelicalism. The First and Second Great Awakenings (in the period roughly 1740-1840), transformed the religious landscape of our country and provided our communities with inspiring conversion stories (and hope for similar acts of God). But what were the theologies that underpinned these revivals? What was it that the revivalists actually believed?  Robert Caldwell III (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is associate professor of church history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In Theologies of American Revivals, he provides a comprehensive overview of the major theologians that shaped the First and Second Great Awakenings.

5164Caldwell describes these revivalists in chronological order. His first three chapters discuss the first Great Awakening. In chapter 1, Caldwell describes the early revivalists (George Whitefield and others) and explores the theological features of the Moderate Calvinist theology (New Light) that inspired the first Awakening. There were three features of moderate evangelical revivalism: (i) Conviction of sin—the preparation of the heart to receive Christ (brought about by various means and a protracted conversion process) (ii) Conversion—the Spirit’s implanting illumination and regenerating the soul, and (iii) Consoltation—the experience of assurance of salvation through self-examination and sanctification.

In chapter 2, Caldwell describes two ‘Great Awakening alternatives’ to this moderate evangelicalism. First, he describes the free grace revivalism of Andrew Croswell, which emphasized passivity,  and criticized moderate evangelicals for confusing the message of grace by emphasizing ‘spiritual works and religious experiences, and for their lengthy conversion process (46) Creswell posited instead that salvation was available immediately, ‘in right and grant’ to all who believe (48), and that assurance of God’s love was what drew sinners to repentance (54).

The other alternative was found in the theology of Jonathan Edwards, himself a moderate evangelical. While Edwards  was similar to other New Lights, his theological innovation was ‘a voluntarist accent to his theology’ which impacted his understanding of original sin (all men are complicit in Adam’s sin)( 58-62) and free will (humans have a moral inability to choose Christ apart from the Spirit’s work, but a natural, inherent ability to repent and believe) (63-68). He also promoted a ‘disinterested spirituality’ which redescribed conversion as coming to behold the objective, moral beauty of God (68-72).  In chapter 3, Caldwell describes how the New Divinity School, (John Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins, John Edwards, Jr., etc), built on Edward’s theological innovations and brought them to mature expression.

Chapters four through six describe, generally, the theologies of the Second Great Awakening. Chapter four describes the Congregationalists (who promoted an Edwardsean style revival) and the ‘New School Presbyterian Revivalism’ of  Nathaniel William Taylor, which was more optimistic than Edwards on the freedom of the will. Chapter five explores the Arminian revivalism of Methodists in the Second Great Awakening and chapter six explores the diversity of theology among early American Baptists.

Chapter seven provides an analysis of the theology of Charles Finney. Caldwell shows that Finney was deeply influenced by the New Divinity School and had an Edswardsean superstructure under-girding his revival theology.  Finney followed Edwards and the New Divinity school’s emphasis on  ‘disinterested spirituality’ and their atonement theology (174-75); nevertheless, his theological anthropology was indebted to Taylorism (sinner has moral ability  to repent and believe),  and he employed ‘new measures’ (e.g. prayers, protracted meetings, and ‘the anxious bench’) to effect revival.

Chapter 8 describes two skeptical responses to revivalism. The first was the Old Light Calvinism of Princeton (Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge), which critiqued, especially, the New School Revivalism of Taylor and Finney. The second critical response came from Restorationists like Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott, which offered a biblicist response to revivalism.

Caldwell describes common threads running through both Awakenings and distinctives of important figures. I learned quite a bit from this book, especially from his articulation of Edwardsean theology and the theology of Charles Finney.  Having not read deeply of either thinker (I’ve read more Edwards than Finney), I found that Caldwell helpful articulated their theology. I was always taught to cast a critical eye to Finney for the ways he turned revival into a ‘set of techniques’ instead of a work of the Spirit. While it is true that Finney did employ ‘new measures’ and style of preaching to effect revival, Caldwell points out that he saw the Holy Spirit as the necessary agent:

Finney is often characterized as a mechanizer of revival, one who has so thoroughly overthought the human side of the revival process that there seems to be no place for the Holy Spirit in a genuine revival of religion. This caricture is inaccurate, however. When we peer into his writings we find him repeatedly noting the necessity of the Holy Spirit’s efficacy in the conversion process and the vast importance of remaining utterly dependent on him for grace (184).

Caldwell offers a more balanced, evenhanded treatment of Finney, even if he remains critical of aspects of his theology.

Because this book focuses solely on the ‘theology of revivalists,’ and ‘the theology of revival,’ it treats the practices of the Great Awakenings in less detail and doesn’t describe every feature of the revivals. For example, The Great Awakenings both had impacts on African American communities (Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion, OUP, 1978, pp 128-31). Caldwell doesn’t make any mention of race, or the abolitionist movement, though he does mention temperance (123). The emphasis throughout is on sin, redemption, the means and meaning of conversion. He focuses on the theological systems of major tenets of revival.

Caldwell notes in his conclusion, ” After the Second Great Awakening there were no major developments in the History of American revival similar to the changes that took place between 1740 and 1840″ (227).  This seems like a major assertion, especially when you consider the impact of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement in the 20th Century; however, Caldwell again is limiting his discussion of revival to issues surrounding the nature and meaning of conversion. Pentecostalism builds on the Holiness theology of Methodism, which is discussed in this text.

Evangelicals in America are still impacted by the religious thought of these revivalists. Caldwell has produced a substantive volume that explores conversion, conviction of sin, the bondage and freedom of the will, sanctification. This book will be of interest to anyone interested in theology or church history and will be a helpful aid in thinking through these issues. I give this four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review .

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