Book Write-Up: Theologies of the American Revivalists

Robert W. Caldwell III. Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney. IVP Academic, 2017. See here to purchase the book.

Robert W. Caldwell III teaches church history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This book describes the theologies that were present in the First and Second Great Awakenings in America.

What I will do in this review is go through select chapters and highlight what I found to be interesting. Then I will offer my overall assessment of the book.


The book opens with a story about Ann Hasseltine, who experienced spiritual turmoil in 1806. She thought God was unfair and had a distaste for God’s holiness, and she longed for personal annihilation rather than to go to heaven or hell. But she had a religious experience in which she ceased thinking about her own salvation and was happily absorbed in contemplating the character of Christ. Ann’s struggles resonated with me, but her story also set the stage for Caldwell’s subsequent discussion of the ideas behind the First Great Awakening, which included a belief that love of God should be a disinterested love for God’s beauty.

Chapter One: “Moderate Evangelical Revival Theology in the First Great Awakening.”

Essentially, Moderate Evangelical Revival Theology was a prominent strand of Puritanism: God chose who would be saved, and people do not know if they are chosen, but they should make use of means of grace and hope that God regenerates them and gives them saving faith. One may struggle, but that does not necessarily mean one is unsaved, for the struggler may have a tender conscience; plus, salvation is a process. The theologians profiled in the remainder of the book interact with this viewpoint, some affirming and absorbing it and others rejecting it. One theologian, Samuel Hopkins, suggested that an unregenerate person making use of the means of grace (i.e., prayer, Bible reading, church attendance) was only making himself or herself guiltier before God by handling the holy things in a state of uncleanness; sinners, for Hopkins, should be encouraged to repent on the spot, not to partake of means of grace hoping that God will grant them repentance. Frightening thought: that God would look at a person seeking God through means of grace and say, “You are doing these things sinfully!” What can such a person do, especially if he or she does not feel the right way, on the spot?

Chapter Two: “First Great Awakening Alternatives: the Revival Theologies of Andrew Croswell and Jonathan Edwards.”

Andrew Croswell departed from Moderate Evangelical Revival Theology. He thought people should bypass the quest for assurance of salvation through means of grace and simply believe that Christ died for them, period, and gain assurance from that. As Caldwell says, a lot of evangelicals today believe that way, but it was a controversial notion in the eighteenth century. Critics saw it as self-centered rather than God-centered, and Croswell was accused of being an antinomian. Jonathan Edwards largely followed Moderate Evangelical Revival Theology yet tweaked it in certain respects. Issues that he stressed or put on the table would be engaged by subsequent theologians. Edwards sought to explain how humans are responsible for Adam’s sin, and subsequent theologians would wrestle with that as well. There were people who repudiated the idea that Adam’s sin passed down guilt and/or a sinful nature to the human race, and some offered alternatives, such as the notion that the Holy Spirit withdrew from humanity at Adam’s sin, and that has contributed to human sinfulness. Like many Puritans, Edwards stressed disinterestedness: being enamored with God for God’s own sake, not what God can do for a person. Edwards’s successors would take that in the direction of saying that people should be willing to be damned for the glory of God, to display God’s justice. Edwards argued that humans were morally unable to be righteous, but naturally able to be so. What Edwards meant by that was that humans have a natural propensity towards sin, but it is not as if something like a force field, handcuffs, or a prison cell is holding them back from doing good. It is like an alcoholic who thinks he can stop anytime, but he does not want to. Edwards still believed that the Holy Spirit needed to transform a person for that person to desire to do God’s will. But Edwards’s successors took his thought in the direction of saying that humans have a natural ability on their own to embrace God, apart from divine regeneration.

Chapter Three: “Revival Theology in the New Divinity Movement.”

What stood out to me in this chapter was how the New Divinity Movement rethought such doctrines as original sin, the atonement, and justification. Inherent in their reformulations was their notion that merit is personal: neither guilt nor merit can be passed on to another person, as these doctrines presume. Consequently, in New Divinity reformulation, original sin was not Adam’s guilt being passed on but rather the spiritual alienation that Adam’s sin created. Jesus’s death was not Jesus being punished for people’s sins but God putting on a show demonstrating God’s hatred of sin. Justification was not believers being clothed with Christ’s righteousness but divine pardon of sin. Some critics saw penal substitution as contrary to divine forgiveness: if Jesus pays the debt for our sins, that is not God forgiving sin, for the debt is being paid. Forgiveness would be God cancelling the debt.

Chapter Four: “Congregationalist and New School Presbyterian Revival Theology in the Second Great Awakening.”

On page 111, Caldwell mentions the sorts of events that precipitated revivals: “Often some not-so-extraordinary event—-a death in the community, the preaching of a visiting minister, the news of revival in a neighboring town—-triggered a domino effect of conviction.” Nathaniel Taylor argued that participating in the means of grace can weaken selfishness and actually cause regeneration to occur, and people accused him of Pelagianism for that: as if he was saying that human effort could generate conversion, rather than that only God can convert a person.

Chapter Five: “Methodist Revival Theology in the Second Great Awakening.”

Methodists, of course, departed dramatically from Moderate Evangelical Revival Theology. They thought that Christ died for everyone and that God’s prevenient grace gave everyone the ability to have faith. There were some surprises to me. I already knew that Wesley rejected the idea that humans were guilty of Adam’s sin: for Wesley, Christ’s death took care of that. But, from what I gather from this book, Methodists were also like the people profiled in Chapter Three: they rejected penal substitution for a governmental view of the atonement, and they did not believe that Christ’s righteousness clothed believers. The second point is not incredibly shocking: Methodists stress holiness, after all, and such a stress could lead them to reject the idea that people could trust in an alien righteousness rather than doing good works of their own. I am surprised, though, that they rejected penal substitution, and I wonder if that is the full story. Some obviously did, but I doubt that all of them did.

Chapter Seven: “The New Measures Revival Theology of Charles Finney.”

Finney had a fascinating explanation for human sinfulness and conversion. Finney did not believe that humans inherit a natural propensity towards sinfulness, but he thought that humans were selfish before their mental faculties developed, and that selfishness lingered. On conversion, Finney believed in human free will—-that humans by themselves could accept or reject God. But he still held that the Holy Spirit played some role, impressing truths on people’s minds in a way that was uniquely suitable to their own situation. Finney seemed to believe, though, that the Spirit’s role was solely persuasive: the Spirit did not unilaterally transform sinners’ desires to become righteous but rather tried to persuade them to embrace God. The ball ultimately rested in their court.

Chapter Eight: “Two Responses to Modern Revival Theology: Princeton Seminary and the Restoration Movement.”

The discussion of the Princeton response was all right. Nothing too surprising, but Charles Hodge had an interesting discussion about whether original sin and regeneration alter the physical make-up of the soul: he says it does not. The discussion of the Restoration Movement put into context things that I have heard and read from Church of Christ people. From what this book says, the Restoration Movement held that humans are able to believe, apart from divine regeneration. They believe, that leads them to repent, and then they are baptized, and it is at their baptism that they become forgiven and regenerated.

Now for my overall assessment. The book lucidly conveys what people believed, in a manner that gets into the inner logic of the theologies. One may not agree with their conclusions, but one can see how they arrived at them. The book was a little short in terms of the Scriptural support that theologians used. It talked more about that with the Restoration Movement, since it prided itself as a “Back to the Bible” movement. But I was wondering, for example, what Scriptural support Finney offered for his positions; the book offered one example of that, but that was it. The book also was somewhat thin in showing how these theologies related to revivals: how they shaped revival preaching, or defined the purpose for revivals. Some chapters were better than others on this: Finney, obviously, thought that revivals were a means to persuade people unto godliness. But why did Calvinists have revivals, when they believed everything was decided a long time ago? I know the answer many of them would give: God uses means to bring the predestined to faith, so God can use preaching at revivals. But I recall a professor saying that Calvinists believed revivals were a way to join God in God’s work, or something to that effect (I may be mangling that). More of an explanation of this would have enhanced this book. Still, I am giving the book five stars because I enjoyed reading how people wrestled with the doctrines of Christianity.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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