Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney

Written by Robert W. Caldwell III Reviewed By Matthew C. Shrader

Evangelical history has benefited from a growth of studies aimed variously at its institutions, people, theology, and movements. The Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, along with other smaller revivals have all received attention. Likewise, the theology of the revivalists such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, or Charles Finney have also received treatments. What are not always clear are the theological connections across the revivals and revivalists. Robert Caldwell, associate professor of Church History at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, has provided a much-needed book that explains these historical and theological connections of the revivalists as well as the major pushbacks against revival theology. As a result, Theologies of the American Revivalists masterfully lays open one of the most important theological motivators of early American Protestant religion: revival theology.

Behind revival writing stood various theological schools as well as theological and practical issues. These schools, and their issues, largely drove revival theologies. Caldwell argues that the major issues were the nature of human redemption, the proper balance of divine and human activity in conversion, the nature of true religious experience, and the various ways that a preacher can or should call individuals to Christ (p. 4). The underlying theologies drew from traditional Calvinism, Wesleyan Arminianism, and Edwardsean Calvinism. The practical issues were what does a preacher do while preaching and what does an individual need to spiritually experience conversion (pp. 5–6)? Taking these assumptions and questions into account, Caldwell argues that there are essentially three components to a revival theology: “their theologies of salvation, the ways they practically preached the gospel, and the conversion experience they expected from those experiencing salvation” (p. 6).

The book traces a chronological line from the first major revivalists (chapter one), then follows the main Edwardsean tradition (chapters two, three, four, and seven), considers some critiques (chapters two and eight), and explores side paths taken by the Methodists (chapter five) and Baptists (chapter six). Theologians as diverse as Jonathan Edwards, Andrew Crosswell, Samuel Hopkins, Nathaniel Taylor, John Wesley, Andrew Fuller, Charles Finney, Charles Hodge, and Alexander Campbell receive accurate, though brief, presentations.

In the end, Caldwell traces four major streams of revival theology: moderate evangelical revival theology (traditional Puritan Calvinism, beginning with Whitefield), free grace revival theology (more radical evangelicals), Edwardsean Calvinist revival theology (Edwards through the New Divinity and New England theologians), and Methodist Arminian revival theology (Wesley through its American expositors, concluding with Finney). Beyond these four streams, there were divergences and variations. Baptists, for one, do not fit the streams and were more eclectic in their appropriations. There were more progressive revival theologies, such as New Haven Theology and Charles Finney. And, there were major resistances against revival theology, such as the Princeton theologians and the Restoration movement leaders. Caldwell gives four factors at play in revival theology: the bondage or freedom of the will, particularism or universalism, understandings of the standard length of conversion, and the tension between traditional theological systems and common-sense readings of Scripture (pp. 223–26). These four factors, the theological answers to these questions, and the theological underpinnings attached to the various systems go a long way to explaining why revival theology (and American theology in general) developed in the various ways it did.

Caldwell has provided a valuable service to the study of American theology. His exposition of Edwards’s theology and the subsequent Edwardsean stream is a vital resource for students looking to grasp the flow and development of American theology up to 1850. To understand the theological debates that centered on the atonement, imputation and original sin, perfection, or even the “New Measures” of Charles Finney, one would do well to gain a grasp of the history laid out in this book. This book is not a full-blown history of American theology during the colonial period and early republic, but such a history is simply incomplete without the content of Caldwell’s work. There is no other work on American religious history that provides such a detailed overview of revival theology and its place in American religious history. Though the subject matter can be dry for readers unfamiliar with the complex theological debates of the time period, Caldwell does well to ameliorate against this both with clear prose and clear signposts of where he is going and where he has been.

Beyond the theological and historical discussions there is also a wonderful pastoral dimension. The author ably shows how revival theology was driven, at its heart, by a need to know how God works in the pastor’s heart and in the heart of his people. Caldwell argues that our secular age and the church’s critique of it could use explicit consideration of the issues of revival theology. His own pastoral suggestion is on point and worth repeating: “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). On the whole, Theologies of the American Revivalists is a skilled presentation of historical theology that admirably serves historical, theological, and pastoral purposes. I highly recommend the work.

Matthew C. Shrader

Matthew C. Shrader
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Deerfield, Illinois, USA

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