Four Facts about American Revival Theology

Revivals are sometimes said to be a thing of the past, a holdover from an earlier era of the church that is no longer practical in our postmodern age. Well, the last time I checked, God is still in the business of converting souls, whether it be one at a time or through large-scale awakenings. If He desires, He can again bring about revival, one that outshines anything we have seen before. After all, He “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).

There was a day in America when revivals were commonplace. From 1720 until 1860, a steady stream of revivals dotted the American landscape, a factor that led many pastors and theologians to reflect deeply on the nature of revival and publish works answering numerous questions associated with it:

  • What is the nature of salvation?
  • Is there a standard sequence one experiences in conversion?
  • How are ministers to preach and counsel individuals seeking salvation?

These questions occupied dozens of publications in the period, and together they formed a coherent genre in American theological literature. I have examined these writings in my recent book Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney (IVP Academic, 2017). Here are several fun facts about the history of revival theology in early America you may not be aware of:

1. Did you know that conversions generally were “longer” in the First Great Awakening than in the Second Great Awakening?

When people experienced conversion during the First Great Awakening (1740s), it was not uncommon for their experience to take days or weeks to be completed. This was because folks understood conversion to include a three-part process that included conviction of sin, conversion (repentance and faith), and consolation (assurance of salvation). Many believed they could only truly believe after they had identified the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, such as a love for Christ and a hearty desire to trust Him for salvation. Because it took time to identify these fruits, one’s conversion experience often took a long time.

By the Second Great Awakening (early 1800s), this situation had changed because revivalists came to associate salvation with an act of the will. After all, they reasoned, a person is converted when one has believed, trusted, or placed his faith in Christ—all acts of the will. This shift was the result of Methodist expansion, which popularized Arminianism, and New England Calvinism, which stressed the sinner’s natural ability to believe (i.e. sinners can believe if they so desire) in spite of his moral inability to do so (he will not trust Christ because an unbeliever does not want to). In short, this shift generally reduced the length of a convert’s conversion experiences.

2. Did you know Charles Finney believed that revival was impossible without the Holy Spirit?

Charles Finney, the influential revivalist of the 1820s and ‘30s, is often portrayed by his critics as a mechanizer of ministry who so over-emphasized the human side of revival that he effectively left the Holy Spirit out of the process. While there were definitely problems with his theology, this specific criticism is not one of them, for he repeatedly stressed the necessity of the Holy Spirit in conversion and revival.

The “truth by itself,” he noted, “will never produce the effect [of salvation], without the Spirit of God.” Elsewhere, he remarked that “unless God interpose the influence of his Spirit, not a man on earth will ever obey the commands of God.”

When Finney described the relationship between the various agents of salvation (God, the preacher, and the convert), he often employed an illustration. Imagine a man walking toward Niagara Falls deep in thought, oblivious to the danger in front of him. Just when he is about to take to final step over the edge, a bystander cries out, “Stop!” disturbing the man’s dreamy state, whereupon he turns aghast, stops walking, and is saved. When we ask, “Who saved this man’s life?” Finney said there are multiple answers: the bystander; the message itself (“Stop!”); the man who stopped walking; and God, who oversaw the process.

The parallels with revival are obvious, but Finney did note there is one big difference between this illustration and revival. In salvation, the Holy Spirit must do far more than merely ensure that the mind hears the message correctly. He must pour a torrent of motives into the soul in order to persuade sinners to turn from their sin: “because no human persuasion,” he preached, “… will cause him to turn; therefore the Spirit of God must interpose [His work] to shake [the sinner’s] preference, and turn him back from hell.”

3. Did you know that Calvinism and activism go together?

Calvinist critics often point out that Calvinism inherently undermines evangelistic activity: If God is infallibly going to save His elect, why try to add to His sovereign work? This reasoning may appear sound at first, until we actually look into history and find activistic language in the sermons of Calvinist evangelists.

Notice, for instance, the repeated language of “choosing” in Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “The Excellency of Christ”:

Let what has been said be improved to induce you to love the Lord Jesus Christ, and choose him for your friend and portion…. Would you choose a friend that is a person of great dignity? … Christ is infinitely above you, and above all the princes of the earth … [yet he] offers himself to you, in the nearest and dearest friendship. Would you choose to have a friend not only great but good? In Christ, infinite greatness and infinite good meet together.

Jonathan Dickinson, a contemporary of Edwards, noted that though sinners cannot save themselves, there is something they can do in seeking salvation. “Labor after a lively impression of your incapacity to produce this grace in yourselves…. And labor to exercise faith in Christ. Though you cannot work this grace in yourselves; yet if ever you obtain it you yourselves must use and exercise it.” In short, activism, both on the part of the minister and the seeker, was inherent in the evangelistic methodology of Calvinist revivalists.

4. Did you know that early Restorationists (Churches of Christ) rejected emotional conversion experiences?

The frontier revivals of the Second Great Awakening were known for their deeply emotional preaching and dramatic conversions, where persons experienced strange “charismatic” phenomena like falling over, the “jerks,” and barking. There was widespread criticism of these revivals. Alexander Campbell, an early leader of the Restoration movement, offered a theological response to them. Campbell argued that the Old Testament moral law no longer applies in this age of the Gospel and therefore preachers should not preach it to generate conviction as a path to conversion. It is not necessary, he wrote, for sinners to experience “some terrible process of terror and despair through which a person must pass, as through the pious Bunyan’s slough of Despond, before he can believe the gospel.” All that is required from the would-be convert is belief in Christ.

Campbell maintained that faith is similar to the process of learning. In both, we intellectually become aware of new ideas and, based upon certain criteria, affirm them to be true. Faith is merely the process of affirming the truthfulness of the apostles’ testimonies; there is no emotional component inherent in it. Thus, Campbell downplayed emotional conversion narratives and put forth what critics called a rationalistic view of faith and salvation.

American revivals are a fascinating topic to study. If we desire to see more of them, we might benefit by tapping into the wisdom of our evangelical forefathers in our efforts to construct a biblically mature revival theology.