Friday, June 6, 2008

The Roots of American Evangelicalism, Part Four

Puritans going to churchPart Four continues as a sub-section of Part Three's "The 18th c. Origins of American Evangelicalism."

The Influence of Calvinism in the History of American Evangelicalism

Dayton asserts that Reformed evangelicals today have erected a “veneer of Reformed theology” upon a “revivalist foundation.” The Calvinistic tendencies of neo-evangelicals would have been seen as “foreign and pernicious” to the founders of American evangelicalism, Dayton claims. Again, this claim can only be made if American evangelicalism originated with the revivals of the Second Great Awakening. The previous section on the evangelicalism of the Reformation through the revivals of the 18th c. demonstrated that American evangelicalism has roots that extend far prior to the revivals of the 19th c.

Calvinism, Reformed theology, and the “doctrines of grace” have enjoyed considerable influence throughout the history of American evangelicalism. In a paper entitled “American Calvinism until the Twentieth Century,” John Gerstner provides seven evidences of the profound influence of Calvinism in the American colonies prior to the time of Jonathan Edwards, particularly in New England:

First, we take up Calvinism, especially in New England, before Edwards. New England from the founding of Plymouth in 1620 to the end of the eighteenth century was predominately Calvinistic. It possessed a Calvinistic homogeneity, which though not perfect was greatly different from that obtained elsewhere…Second, virtually all the pastors of the migrants to America were Puritans and Puritans were usually distinctly Calvinistic. One may say that the background of New England theology was Reformed…Third, the characteristic writings of the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century were clearly Calvinistic…Fourth, the general synods frequently affirmed and never denied the doctrines of the Reformed faith…Not only, in the fifth place, did its official synods remain loyal to Calvinism, but the tenor of its theological writers displayed the same loyalty…A sixth indication is seen in the preaching of only New England. B.L. Levy in Preaching in the First Half Century of New England History finds the following doctrines characteristic (every one of them compatible with Calvinism and some distinctively so) [Gerstner goes on to list the various doctrines]…Seventh, popular Calvinistic education is seen in the use of the Westminster Catechisms and the New England Primer.[1]
Gerstner’s brief survey demonstrates a profound Calvinistic element within the American colonies which cannot be overlooked when evaluating the theological influences within the history of American evangelicalism.

The period of the First Great Awakening was also significantly marked by Calvinism. In Revival and Revivalism, Iain Murray writes,

Wesley himself has been in Georgia as early as 1736, and it is therefore surprising that ‘Methodism’ did not reach America until more than thirty years later. The explanation is largely doctrinal. The Great Awakening of the 1740s had been led by men whose reformed and Puritan convictions made them unsympathetic to Wesley’s evangelical Arminianism. The distinctive theology that came to be identified with Wesleyan Methodism scarcely existed in Protestant America for nearly 150 years after the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers. There was point, therefore, to Whitefield’s remark to Boardman and Pilmoor on their arrival in America in October 1769, ‘Ah, if ye were Calvinists, ye would take the country before ye.’ The English evangelist, who was to die in New England the following September, knew that there were no preachers of the Calvinistic persuasion belonging to Wesley’s Conference [emphasis mine].[2]
While Edwards and Whitefield enjoyed friendships with Wesley, Wesley’s Arminianism was a point of contention between them. Wesley opposed the doctrine of particular redemption and the Calvinist understanding of election. Toward the end of a letter written to John Wesley in response to his sermon entitled “Free Grace,” Whitefield wrote,

Dear, dear Sir, O be not offended! For Christ’s sake be not rash! Give yourself to reading. Study the covenant of grace. Down with your carnal reasoning. Be a little child; and then, instead of pawning your salvation, as you have done in a late hymn book, if the doctrine of universal redemption be not true; instead of talking of sinless perfection, as you have done in the preface to that hymn book, and making man’s salvation to depend on his own free will, as you have in this sermon; you will compose a hymn in praise of sovereign distinguishing love. You will caution believers against striving to work a perfection out of their own hearts, and print another sermon the reverse of this, and entitle it free-grace indeed. Free, not because free to all; but free, because God may withhold or give it to whom and when he pleases.[3]
Whitefield’s strongly worded letter highlights the deep theological differences between Wesley and the other leaders of the Great Awakening. While Edwards, Whitefield, and Wesley were united in their fervent desire for heartfelt conversion and their strenuous efforts to bring this about, they were sharply divided on the doctrines related to Calvinism and Arminianism.

Our focus here is not on who was right or wrong or which theological system had the most adherents. The point is to demonstrate that Calvinism was alive and well, widespread, firmly embraced and enthusiastically propagated by a great number of American evangelicals from the earliest days of the American colonies and continuing through today. The only way Dayton can claim that the founders of American evangelicalism would have found Reformed theology to be “foreign” and “pernicious” is to ignore the significant history of American evangelicalism prior to Charles Finney. Reformed doctrine was greatly influential within American evangelicalism before Finney and the Second Great Awakening came along.

[1] John H. Gerstner, “American Calvinism until the Twentieth Century Especially in New England,” in American Calvinism: A Survey, ed. Jacob T. Hoogstra (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1957), 16-18.
[2] Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858 (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 69.
[3] Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the 18th Century Revival, 568-9.

[Originally posted at Conservative Reformed Mafia]

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