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Great Awakening theology cited as evangelism aid

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) — Christians who experienced America’s First and Second Great Awakenings were united in their belief that sinners must trust Christ for salvation. But over a span of 100 years, they expressed varying ideas of how to lead nonbelievers to Jesus.

Those evolving soul winning methods and the theology behind them are the subject of “Theologies of the American Revivalists,” a book released in April by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Robert Caldwell.

“Digging deep” into revivals between the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s “will aid us evangelistically as we guide others to Christ, and hopefully better prepare us for the revivals of the future,” Caldwell, associate professor of church history, told Baptist Press in written comments.

By studying revivals and awakenings, he said, believers will “see how deep the interplay is between theology, corporate Christian practice and individual conversion.”

In the book, Caldwell noted four “major trajectories” in “revival theology” — which examines “what it [means] to ‘become a Christian'” — between the First Great Awakening of the mid-1700s and the Second Great Awakening, a stream of localized revivals which subsided in the 1840s:

— Revivalists moved from emphasizing humanity’s bondage in sin to emphasizing each individual’s freedom to follow Christ.

While “the traditional Calvinism” of First Great Awakening “moderate evangelicals” emphasized the need for a supernatural transaction to convert a sinner, theological descendants of New England revivalist Jonathan Edwards underscored sinners’ “natural ability” to repent and believe the Gospel despite their innate rebellion against God, Caldwell wrote. Methodists of the Second Great Awakening, like Francis Asbury, and revivalist Charles Finney stressed the free will of every sinner to choose Christ at any time.

— Revivalists moved from emphasizing “particularized” aspects of salvation, like election and the atonement’s unique benefit for believers, to stressing “themes of universality” like the availability of Christ’s saving mercy to all.

— Revivalists shifted from viewing conversion as a “lengthy” process to viewing it as a “quick” process.

During the First Great Awakening, men and women sometimes reported taking weeks or months to experience the process of conviction, regeneration and assurance of salvation, Caldwell wrote. During the Second Great Awakening, Finney, the Disciples of Christ movement and others spoke of the need for sinners to make a “decision” for Christ in an instant.

— Revivalists transitioned from explaining salvation in a manner “deeply informed by systematic theology” to “more of a practical, common-sense approach.”

Those trajectories of revival theology, Caldwell wrote, led to accompanying shifts in evangelistic methods.

First Great Awakening leaders like George Whitefield urged individuals seeking salvation to “apply the means of grace” to their lives, including prayer, Bible study, worship attendance and “personal moral reformation,” Caldwell wrote. Such actions had no saving value in themselves, but were thought to draw “the soul into a humble posture where God might produce the miracle of faith.”

Following the First Great Awakening, theologians who identified themselves as ideological descendants of Edwards — known as the New Divinity movement — began to call sinners to immediate repentance and faith and moved away from counseling the lost merely to pursue means of grace.

During the Second Great Awakening, numerous evangelistic innovations developed, including the altar call, protracted meetings, designated seating areas for lost people under conviction and prescribed routines of prayer and evangelistic visitation preceding evangelistic meetings.

Caldwell noted that elements of some revival theologies seemed to depart from biblical doctrine. Yet study of evolving soul winning methods, he told BP, “aids us evangelistically because it gets us thinking about the theology behind our work as evangelists.”

“Everything we do contains a theology to some degree. I wrote the book because I believe that the schools of revival theology I covered all had a well-thought-out theology of how the Gospel is to be shared, preached and how sinners are to embrace it,” Caldwell said.

“Today we are more often interested in pragmatics (action) rather than theory (theology). As a seminary professor, I like to see those two merge,” he said. “If my book leads Christians to think more theologically about how they share the Gospel, I would be thrilled.”