Interview with Robert Caldwell: Author of “Theologies of the American Revivalists”

Today, Edwards Studies speaks with Dr. Robert Caldwell III, Associate Professor of Church History at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and author of the new work Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney (IVP, 2017). 

 

ES: Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you fall in love with historical theology?

I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, raised in Buffalo, New York, went to school in the Chicago area (Northwestern University for undergrad, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for my M.Div. and Ph.D.). I came to faith in Christ in high school, met my wife in Cru at Northwestern (currently married 21 wonderful years), and we have two daughters (13 and 11). I enjoy the guitar and running.

I have always loved history and the mind. Being a science buff in high school, I was drawn to the history and philosophy of science in college. When I got to seminary, I discovered Jonathan Edwards who lighted my mind and fired my soul. From there I developed a deep appreciation for how the great thinkers of the Christian faith have pursued loving the Lord with their minds: Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Edwards. Keeping company with these folks through their writings has made me a better Christian, husband, father, and churchman.

ES: Where do you teach, and what do you focus on in your research studies? 

I am an Associate Professor of Church History at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I’ve taught for thirteen years. My research has specialized in Jonathan Edwards, the First and Second Great Awakenings and the history of theology in America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

ES: Give us an overview of your project – what will readers expect to discover here? 5164

Theologies of the American Revivalists explores the ways American revivalists from the First and Second Great Awakenings (1740-1840) thought, preached, and wrote about what I call “revival theology,” that combination of Protestant soteriology, conversion expectations, and preaching practices associated with revival. Unlike today, there was a great deal of theological writing done on this subject during that time. The book identifies and charts the historical theological developments of the various different schools of revival theology of the period, with specific attention given to the major controversies and writers.

ES: Of course our readers here will be most interested in Jonathan Edwards. How does he figure into your work? 

Edwards plays a prominent and unique role throughout the book. In the first chapter I examine Edwards’s views of revival amidst the standard Calvinist revivalists of the First Great Awakening—Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Davies, and Jonathan Dickinson—a group of folks I call the “moderate evangelical” revivalists. Edwards’s views and practices were consistent with those of the moderates.

At the same time, however, Edwards advances two ideas in his own unique way—the “voluntarist accent” in his theology (sinners have a natural ability to trust Christ; we are complicit in Adam’s original transgression) and his “disinterested spirituality” (the idea that we love God for who he is, not for any good we get from God in salvation). These ideas were later taken up and modified by his disciples who formed them into a deeply revivalist school of Calvinism known as the New Divinity. I examine this side of Edwards’s revival theology separately in half of the second chapter, and spend several other chapters exploring the legacy of the Edwardsean New Divinity tradition through the Second Great Awakening.

In short, Edwards is, simultaneously, a First Great Awakening moderate revivalist and the fountainhead of a uniquely American school of Calvinism.

ES: Are there other less-appreciated revivalists of interest that perhaps most readers will not already know about? 

Yes, there were many I came across in writing the book; I’ll briefly mention three, each from different perspectives. Jonathan Dickinson (1688-1747) was known abroad as one of the two “great Jonathans” in the colonies during the First Great Awakening (the other, of course, being Jonathan Edwards). Dickinson was the elder statesmen of New Jersey Presbyterianism who played a significant role the founding of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). He was a great promoter of the Awakening, and wrote numerous works defending moderate evangelical revival theology including A Display of God’s Special Grace and The True Scripture Doctrine Concerning Some Important Points of Christian Faith. His writings are distinguished for their precision, their balance between the head and the heart, and for their spiritual insight.

Andrew Croswell (1709-1785) was a radical revivalist of the James Davenport type who actually published a host of sermons and smaller treatises defending views which were then considered radical, but would today would be considered commonplace by many evangelicals. These views include the positions that assurance is the essence of saving faith, that conversions should be experienced quickly, that grace is absolutely free, that the preaching of the moral law and the experience of preconversion “terrors” are not necessary prior to trusting Christ. For most of his ministry, Croswell was criticized, marginalized and charged with antinomianism and “enthusiasm.” His ideas would become increasingly widespread in a later history of evangelicalism.

Edward Dorr Griffin (1770-1837) was a booming Boston preacher from the Second Great Awakening who represented the Edwardsean or New Divinity theological tradition at its zenith. Griffin had a long and distinguished ministry. After a decade of pastorates he was called to be professor of pulpit eloquence at Andover Seminary. Later he was the first pastor of Boston’s historic Park Street Church, and throughout the 1820s and 30s he served as president of Williams College. His published sermons are noteworthy for their powerful rhetoric, their vivid imagery, and their strong dose of Edwardsean theology.

ES: What are some of your conclusions about the importance of revivalism? What are some of its lasting results that we still feel today? 

While revivals may be thought of as phenomena of the past, they are still an important part of the evangelical church today:

  • They form a fundamental part of evangelical identity and our historical memory. Many of us would love to see revival happen in our churches, even though we may differ theologically or practically as to what that would look like.
  • The most authentic revivals occur in the context of a ministry that is deeply informed by biblical theology and spirituality. While we can’t schedule a revival (i.e. we can’t produce one by our own efforts; God is not on our timeline), pastors who know the Word and who know how to apply it to real lives can increase the chances that a revival may occur by being faithful to their calling of preaching, teaching, and shepherding souls.
  • Revivals can happen again. We don’t need to wait for a certain set of social, cultural or political conditions to be manifested in our society before one happens. All we need are Christians and pastors who are faithful in prayer and sound in the proclamation of the Word.

The phenomenon of revivals over the last several centuries has resulted in a number of features of that are still with us today in the evangelical church:

  • Evangelicals tend to identify with a strong, powerful leaders who preach the gospel with passion and clarity—men like Whitefield, Moody, and/or Graham. This is still with us today; just notice how many evangelical subgroups are built not so much around the ministry of the Word but upon the foundation of a personality, either an evangelist, a pastor, a blogger, or a conference speaker. Depending upon who the person is, this can either be a good thing or a bad thing.
  • How we expect conversions to occur has been deeply shaped by revivals of the past and the theologies behind them. Many evangelicals expect that conversion is preceded by a period of spiritual distress when an individual comes to the awareness of personal sin and God’s wrath. There is a rich theology of this in
    America’s revival traditions, one that has developed and changed throughout the generations. I explore this theological development and the practical effects of it in the book.
  • How we call people to faith has also been influenced by American revivals. For instance, the Billy Graham altar call is still with us. The theological foundations to this practice were developed in the period I treat in the book, but there were other ways evangelicals called people to faith which I explore as well.

ES: What is your own theological/ecclesiastical tradition and how do you think it colors your perspective on the revivals?

I am a Southern Baptist who deeply appreciates Augustine’s trinitarianism, the reformed tradition on soteriology, and Edwards’s spiritual theology. My experience in Cru as an undergraduate and education at TEDS has given me a great appreciation for the broader evangelical tradition. My training as a historian has encouraged me to be sensitive about allowing my theology to color my historical writing. I try to be as objective as possible and thus attempt to treat Edwards, Finney, Bellamy, and Bangs in a way that I would hope they each would find to be judicious and accurate.

Having said that, I am sure that my own views affect my historical judgment for none of us is 100% objective. There are many ways this may have affected the book, though I will only mention one. My affinity for Edwards’s spiritual theology probably surfaces in the amount of space I devote to the Edwardsean theological tradition in the book. As I reflect on this, this probably has to do with fact I appreciate Edwards’s spiritual theology which the Edwardseans faithfully represented long after Edwards’s death (even though the Edwardseans modified other aspects of Edwards’s views which I find to be problematic).

ES: Any book recommendations for our readers? 

How about a few primary sources from several American revivalists? For those interested in the topic of American revival theology here are a few writings to whet your appetite from across the theological spectrum. Most of these texts you can find for free in Google Books.

Archibald Alexander. Thoughts on Religious Experience. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board, 1841.

Albert Barnes. The Way of Salvation. 7th ed. New York: Leavitt, Lord and Co., 1836.

Joseph Bellamy. Theron, Paulinus, and Aspasio; Or, Letters and Dialogues upon the Nature of Love to God, Faith in Christ, Assurance of a Title to Eternal Life. In The Works of Joseph Bellamy, D.D. Vol. 2, 161-267. Boston: Doctrinal Tract and Book Society, 1853.

Jonathan Dickinson. A Display of God’s Special Grace. In Sermons and Tracts, Separately Published at Boston, Philadelphia, etc., 379-446. Edinburgh: M. Gray, 1793.

Jonathan Edwards, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversions of Hundreds of Souls in Northampton. In Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 4, The Great Awakening, edited by C. C. Goen, 144-211. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972.

 

 

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