Theology and the Revival

In August 1737, an Irish-born Presbyterian minister named Gilbert Ten-nent (1703-64) complained to a congregation in New Brunswick, New Jersey, that too many people were so "curious in the Search of other Sciences'' that they neglected "the Search and Study of their own Hearts.'' Like Solomon Stoddard,

Tennent believed that the purpose of theology was to promote an ''experimental'' knowledge — embracing the will and affections — and that every other kind of doctrinal and speculative knowledge merely prepared the way for this practical wisdom. Tennent was returning to the medieval conception that theology was practical not because it outlined the path of virtue in this world but because it provided a knowledge of God for the sake of salvation.42

A little over two years later, the English revivalist George Whitefield stepped ashore in Lewistown, Delaware, and began the first of two preaching tours that would generate religious excitement from Georgia to Maine. This was the start of what Jonathan Dickinson called ''the great Revival of Religion,'' and it colored American theology for more than a decade by drawing theologians back to the study of their own hearts. The revivals to which Dickinson referred were a series of local religious awakenings, affecting mainly Congregational and Presbyterian churches in New England and the middle colonies, which aroused disputes over the nature of conversion, the practices of lay exhorters, the qualifications of ministers, the style of preaching, and the behavior of converts whose ecstasy struck some as extreme. The significance of the revivals for theology was that they further displayed—just as catholick Calvinism had displayed — the way in which minute differences could create serious divisions within Calvinism, and they illustrated the divided mind of Calvinist theologians about the relation between faith and virtue.43

The revivals divided the Congregational clergy into ranks of New Lights, who favored the revivals, Old Lights, who opposed them, and, to use a term suggested by Samuel Mather, Regular Lights, who took no firm position either way. Revivalism also divided Presbyterians into companies of New Side revivalists and Old Side critics of revivalist piety, who from 1741 to 1758 split into two churches. Such divisions also created stresses in the relationships between clergy and laity, sometimes emboldening lay exhorters to criticize the theology of their Old Side or Old Light ministers, sometimes provoking lay pamphleteers to ridicule New Lights and New Side preachers. Some of the lay criticism extended into eighteenth-century America the anticlerical traditions visible earlier in the ideal of the pious plowman and the preaching ''me-chanick.''44

While the populist spirit would not emerge in full force until after the American Revolution, the early eighteenth-century revivals aroused unease among some of the educated about the audacity of uneducated self-proclaimed theologians. Charles Chauncy (1705-87), the pastor of First Church in Boston and a critic of the revival, felt dismay about lay exhorters, even including ''female exhorters,'' who left their ''proper station'' to teach. He led other Boston critics in condemning the rash of ''Private Persons of no Education, and but low Attainments in Knowledge, in the great Doctrines of the Gospel'' who took it upon themselves to promote the revival and its theology. They were ''babes in understanding,'' they were even illiterate, and yet they judged and censured able ministers, and their censorious spirit was spreading ''among the Common people.''45

For their part, the revivalists sometimes replied to such criticism by seeming to encourage a theological democracy. To complaints that ''most of us are unlearned,'' the Presbyterian revivalist Samuel Finley (1715-66) noted that Jesus himself had been followed ''by what we call the Mob, the Rabble, the common and meaner sort.'' Revivalists who defended the lay exhorters had to affirm that the unschooled could understand and teach the scriptures. To Chauncy it seemed that they were turning theology over to the ''raw'' and the ''weak'' and that they were exposing ministers to contempt.46

It might seem tempting to view the revivalist preachers as critics of the expanding efforts to demonstrate the reasonableness of Christianity, but Gilbert Tennent and other revival preachers could outline all the standard proofs for the existence of God and all the evidences for the authenticity of the biblical revelation. In matters of morals, the revivalists felt perfectly justified in appealing to natural law, the light of nature, and a ''reasonable self-love.'' They wanted to ensure, however, that all the talk about rationality and virtue did not lead the New England churches away from the piety of rebirth.47

The rational side of the revivalist agenda was visible in the early thought of Jonathan Dickinson (1688-1747), a Yale graduate who settled at Elizabeth-town, New Jersey, in 1708, became a Presbyterian minister by 1717, and published in 1732 his treatise on The Reasonableness of Christianity. Although he remained a Calvinist, Dickinson cited the Anglican Samuel Clarke, admired John Locke, adapted Christian apologetic to the new astronomy, and treated the credibility of Christian doctrine as a matter of converging ''probabilities.'' He attained a considerable reputation in Britain, where the theologian John Erskine claimed that the British Isles had produced no theological thinkers in the eighteenth century to match America's two Jonathans — Edwards and Dickinson.48

Dickinson thought that he could find ''rational evidence'' for all the central Christian truths, ranging from the existence of God to the fall and redemption of humanity. He shared the evidentialist confidence that the biblical prophecies and miracles provided ''public'' evidence of ''matters of fact'' that confirmed Christian doctrine. He was equally confident in natural theology. He thought it irrational to suppose that a contingent world could have existed eternally and necessarily, or that ''the prodigious magnitude and amazing extent of the Universe,'' let alone the ''art and contrivance'' manifest in every thing from human bodies and souls to ''the least pebble,'' could be explained without reference to a cause sufficient to the effect. He thought, moreover, that the doctrines of sin and reconciliation were fully ''agreeable to the light of reason,'' and that reason could ''demonstrate'' the justice of divine punishment, the credibility of the incarnation, and the plausibility of the atonement. Reason could prove, by amassing probabilities, the truth of Calvinist orthodoxy. To John Locke, Christianity was credible because of its simplicity; to Dickinson, it was credible because a ''throng of probabilities'' converged as evidence for it. No catholick Calvinist, and no critic of the revival, had a higher estimation of the reasonableness of Christianity.49

They might agree about reason, but the opposing sides still accused each other of doctrinal error. Tennent looked around him and saw nothing but the ''spread of Arminianism, Socinianism, Arianism, and Deism.'' Chauncy found just as many ''Errors in Doctrine,'' including the recurrence of antinomian heresy. One striking feature of the dispute, however, at least among the Reformed theologians, was the subtlety of the theological differences between the revivalists and their opponents. The controversy was not, at its heart, a matter of conflicting theologies, but some of the issues did reveal differences in attitude toward the new emphasis on virtue.50

The revivalists saw themselves as the champions of the ''great Reformation doctrine'' of justification by faith alone. Jonathan Edwards made this the centerpiece of his sermons during the revival in Northampton, and the refrain of Whitefield's sermons was the ''absolute necessity'' for utter dependence on the justifying grace of God in Christ. When Tennent preached in 1740 on ''The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry,'' he warned that unconverted clergy were likely to neglect ''the doctrines of original sin, justification by faith alone, and the other Points of Calvinism.'' When the Irish-born Presbyterian minister in Londonderry, New Hampshire, David McGregore (1710-7?) defended the revival in 1741, he also saw the theological issue as the preservation of Calvinist truths about original sin, the new birth, and justification by faith alone.51

The revivalists accompanied this insistence on justification by faith alone with a reassertion of predestinarian doctrine. In 1740 William Cooper published his treatise on The Doctrine of Predestination Unto Life, with a preface by five ministers who said that the doctrine was essential. In 1742 the Irish immigrant Samuel Blair (1712-51) of Londonderry, Pennsylvania, published The Doctrine of Predestination, arguing that the fundamental Christian doctrines depended on this truth. At about the same time, Jonathan Dickinson published his True Scripture-Doctrine Concerning Some Important Points of Christian Faith, which Thomas Foxcroft ranked — with John Norton's Orthodox Evangelist and Samuel Willard's Compleat Body of Divinity — as one of the three outstanding American treatises that set the ''great points of Gospel-Truth'' together in ''one View.'' Dickinson's aim was to vindicate the Calvinist doctrines of original sin, conversion, justification, and predestination.52

Arguing that God's Will was God's essence, Dickinson insisted that if the Will changed in response to conditions in the world, then the divine essence would change, which he saw as impossible. The language of divine election in Ephesians 1:4 therefore entailed the eternal predestination of the elect. Dickinson used a Lockean argument to show that this divine necessity was consistent with human freedom. Since every free agent must choose whatever the understanding, appetites, and affections represented as the fit object of choice, freedom could not be opposed to necessity. Agents were free when they could choose in accord with their understanding and affection and then act as they chose, even though their choices were determined. The unregenerate freely chose to turn away from true faith because their understandings, appetites, and affections prompted such a choice.53

The revivalists attributed salvation solely to the righteousness of Christ, and they preferred the traditional language of ''imputation'' — God imputed to all humanity the guilt of Adam's sin and to the elect the righteousness of Christ — to describe sinfulness and conversion. They had no doubt about the alternative against which this language of imputation should be directed. They were contrasting faith in Christ with reliance on human virtue. They compared their ''preaching [of] Christ'' with the preaching of ''meer Morality,'' ''natural religion,'' and ''moral Duties'' that they found when they read the sermons of their opponents.54

Andrew Croswell (1708-85), for instance, was the minister in Groton, Connecticut, and an itinerant revivalist known for invading Old Light parishes. When he defended Whitefield in 1741 against Anglican critics in South Carolina, he insisted that the issue was justification: the ''followers of Mr. Calvin'' knew that elect believers could receive it without doing ''one Good Work.'' An admirer of the volatile itinerant James Davenport (1716-57), Croswell carried his denigration of ''abominable good Works'' to such an extreme that even other revivalists suspected him of antinomianism. He replied that ''only a few'' New England Congregationalists dared to ''adhere to the Doctrines of the Reformation.''55

Among the prominent critics of the revival, however, deviations from Calvinism on the doctrines of justification by faith and election are hard to locate. Chauncy's formulation of justification in his Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England in 1743 shows how narrow the differences were. Chauncy believed that salvation came solely by grace, ''antecedent to all other Causes and Considerations.'' He believed that justification resulted not from good works but from the ''free, unmerited mercy of God,'' ''the Righteousness of Christ,'' and the gift of faith. Like every other New England Calvinist, he believed that the law remained as a ''Rule of Life'' for the Christian, but he thought that the scriptures made it plain that ''we are saved by Grace.'' What he wanted to add, however, was that faith included ''a living, active, never-failing Principle of all holy Obedience to the Laws of God.'' Only on this point — whether the gift of justifying faith included a principle of obedience — did Chauncy differ from the revivalists about justification. The division, however narrow, was about virtue.56

The second dispute, alongside the one over justification, was about rebirth and preparation for salvation. Eighteenth-century Calvinists interpreted the new birth, or regeneration, as the result of a new supernatural principle wrought by the Spirit in the soul, making possible faith and obedience. Dickinson's Nature and Necessity of Regeneration (1743) argued, against Anglicans in England, that rebirth was essential and that it resulted from the ''immediate'' influence of the Spirit on the will and understanding, bringing a new ''View of divine things,'' a new volition, and a new obedience. Only through the new birth could faith arise in the soul. Faith was the ''first grace'' exercised by the reborn soul.57

Revivalists often suggested that regeneration proceeded in stages—that one could distinguish a variety of sequential graces. A similar argument appeared in continental Pietism and in reforming movements in Holland. The Dutch pastor Theodore Frelinghuysen (1691-ca. 1747), active in the Raritan Valley in New Jersey, might have encouraged Gilbert Tennent to emphasize it. But not everyone approved of it. Jonathan Edwards was cautious about the idea, and several opponents of the revival were even more wary. John Thomson, one of the ablest Old Side Presbyterian opponents, especially disliked any suggestion that regeneration occurred in a set manner, as if the Spirit always first worked faith, then repentance, then love. Thomson assumed an ordering of regeneration, but he saw it as more variable than some of the revivalists seemed willing to admit.58

The revivalist view of the order of salvation resurrected questions about preparation. No topic recurred more often in revivalist preaching and polemics. The New Light and New Side theologians believed it necessary that the Spirit ''prepare'' the heart for regeneration by bringing the sinful to discover ''their Guilt and Misery.'' Dickinson wrote his Display of God's Special Grace (1742) to press this point, and Tennent argued that it was incumbent on every minister to proclaim ''the great necessity of a Work of Humiliation, or Conviction, in order to [effect] a sound Conversion from Sin and Satan, to God and Holiness.'' The first act ''in the Order of the Spirit's working'' was to produce a conviction of guilt and misery. It became a New Light truism that conviction preceded regeneration.59

Old Light and Old Side ministers actually agreed with the revivalists that the Spirit normally convinced the heart of its sinfulness before infusing the grace of regeneration. Chauncy conceded that there was ''ordinarily some Preparation'' by which the Spirit brought ''conviction'' to sinners by opening to them a view of their guilt. Opponents of the revivals usually denied, however, that the preparatory convictions had to be so great ''as to fill the heart with a fear and terror.'' Solomon Stoddard had urged the preaching of terror, and Whitefield was known for his ability to induce it. Revivalists regularly employed ''the Terrors of the Law,'' and their opponents thought that they fell into excess. But even the tactic of terror denoted no clear theological distinction. Chauncy said that he had no objection in principle to the ''Preaching of Terror,'' and neither did John Thomson, who insisted only that the terrors of the law remain ''secondary'' to the ''inviting and encouraging doctrines'' of the gospel. New Lights were not averse to including comfort and encouragement in their sermons. The antirevivalists merely denied that preparatory convictions were always necessary. The dispute was about a matter of emphasis, a question of strategy, not of bedrock doctrines.60

A third point of disagreement was about self-love. Tennent saw error in the tendency of Old Light and Old Side preachers to equate the glory of God with human happiness—a tendency that John Thomson defended as being in harmony with the Westminster Catechism. Tennent felt especially uncomfortable when Old Lights appealed to self-love as a motive for Christian belief and practice, but Thomson replied that self-love was so closely linked to the rational human constitution that it was impossible to renounce it. The issue seemed to create a clear party distinction. Yet revivalists like Benjamin Colman and Thomas Foxcroft also believed that self-love was part of human nature. This was again no dividing line between theological factions; it was a dispute over strategy in the pulpit.61

Chauncy thought that he found a fourth point of difference when he accused the revivalists of appealing to the passions alone. He thought religious faith precarious if it arose from the passions rather than the will and understanding, and he saw the revivals as outbreaks of passion. As a description of some revivalist practice, the criticism made sense. Extremists like Davenport and Croswell did play on the emotions of their congregations. But other revivalists denied that their theory differed from Chauncy's. Tennent said that revivals excited the passions only ''after the information of the understanding,'' and he contended that the ''first and principal work'' of the Spirit in conversion was to give light to the understanding, which in turn established the heart and engaged the will. Dickinson believed that the renewing of the will and affections followed the renewal of the understanding. For at least some of the revivalists, the difference faded away.62

The revivals did produce a real dispute over a fifth matter: the meaning of Paul's claim in Romans 8:16 that the Spirit bears witness with the spirits of the faithful that they are children of God. From the beginning of the revivals, Whitefield maintained that Paul intended for Christians to have an immediate experience of the Spirit that assured them of their faith. This brought the accusation that the revivalists were ''enthusiasts'' who believed in immediate revelations from God, so when Dickinson preached his 1740 sermon on The Witness of the Spirit, he spoke cautiously. Sometimes, he said, the Spirit witnessed to the faithful by infusing the sanctifying influences that produced a holy life. But sometimes the Spirit's witness was more ''immediate'' and ''extraordinary,'' with an influence ''sensible'' and ''perceptible.''63

Gilbert Tennent's insistence on the immediate witness was at the center of his debate with John Thomson, who believed it wrong to interpret Paul as meaning that all believers were ''assuredly sensible'' of their gracious state from the time of their first entrance into it. Tennent seemed to him to be saying that assurance was of the essence of faith, and this was not the doctrine of the Westminster Catechism. Assurance, as Thomson saw it, normally came through the fruits of holiness and humility, though he did not deny that some converts might also be ''sensibly assured'' of their estate. He also thought it ludicrous for some of the revivalists to claim that one converted person could surely recognize another.64

The disagreement contributed to the split of the Presbyterian Church in 1741, and after this division Tennent tried to state his view with more precision. He did not believe, he said, that all gracious people attained a full assurance in this life; he did not insist that everyone be able to recite the time and place of conversion; he did not believe that to lose the sense of assurance was to lose one's faith. But he did think that ''ordinarily'' most true Christians had ''a lesser or greater Degree of comfortable Perswasion of their gracious state.''65

This was not enough for more radical New Lights like Croswell, who disliked it when Jonathan Dickinson tried in 1742 to formulate a mediating position. Dickinson argued that true believers would never content themselves without assurance and that assurance could come from the sensible impressions of the Spirit, but he also denied that assurance was ''essential to true faith,'' and he insisted that believers look to their ''habitual course of vital and true Holiness'' for evidence that their inner sense of assurance really came from the Spirit. This seemed to Croswell more dangerous than ''the worst Arminian Performance that ever was written.'' Croswell told Dickinson that

"persuasion of our justified estate'' was essential to faith, that no one could trust Christ without being ''sensible'' of his or her trust, and that Dickinson was making assurance dependent on holiness without the joyful ''Discoveries of Christ'' that the direct witness of the Spirit made possible.66

Chauncy formulated the Old Light position. Citing the Westminster Confession, the Cambridge Platform of 1648, and the synod that condemned Anne Hutchinson, he declared it an error to say that assurance belonged to the essence of faith. The problem as he saw it was a recurrence of antinomian heresy. The new Hutchinsonians were decrying sanctification as evidence of justification and asserting wrongly that one believer could peer into the heart of another. Chauncy had no objection to a properly formulated doctrine of assurance, but he thought that assurance came when the faithful perceived God's sanctifying work within them through their new capacities for love and humility, not from ''the immediate Witness of the Spirit.'' Claims of direct testimony from the Spirit struck Chauncy as ''enthusiasm.''67

When Dickinson replied to Croswell in 1743, he sounded almost like Chauncy. He never repudiated his belief in the direct witness of the Spirit, but he agreed that the danger now came from the new antinomians. Citing the Westminster Confession and the first-generation New England theologians, he denied that assurance was essential to faith. His reading of Ephesians 1:13, which seemed to imply a distinction between faith and the Spirit of promise, provided him a biblical warrant. He insisted that the New Testament assumed a holy life as the chief evidence of a faithful heart.68

Croswell had conceded from the beginning that the ''work of sanctification'' had some evidential value. Dickinson, therefore, could not understand Cros-well's vehemence. He thought him simply inconsistent. But when Croswell published What is Christ to Me, If He is Not Mine? (1745), he showed that the revivalists disagreed about the witness of the Spirit. For Croswell, faith was ''particular'': when people were faithful they had a ''particular faith'' that they were forgiven, not simply a ''general faith'' that Jesus was the savior. Faith and assurance were the same thing: believers had ''just so much Assurance'' as they had faith. The faithful gained their assurance ''directly, immediately,'' before they saw any good works in themselves.69

Croswell became increasingly disinclined to tolerate the ''terms and conditions'' of the covenant theology, and his theology of ecstatic experience drew him away from the other revivalists. When he said that justification came from faith, he meant that it came without preparatory convictions, without any requirement of repentance, without humiliation, and without any prior love to God. And assurance was no inference from sanctification, no accompaniment of the virtuous life. Christ gave the faithful the ''personal confidence'' —

immediate, not inferential—that salvation was theirs. Solomon Williams, the pastor in Lebanon, Connecticut, pronounced the majority verdict of the ''cal-vinistical ministers.'' Croswell's faith, he said, was ''refined self-love,'' and it was antinomian, as well. On the matter of the witness of the Spirit, the two sides had a real disagreement, but the dispute drove both Tennent and Dickinson to emphasize anew the correlative evidence of sanctification. In order to avoid the excesses of Croswell and his allies, the revivalists felt it necessary to display their own convictions about the importance of virtue.70

When the debates over the revival are set alongside the disputes over Armin-ianism and Anglican theology, they highlight the degree to which questions of ethics assumed increasing importance in eighteenth-century theology. In debating about how far to expand the scope of the natural and the volitional, theologians were asking partly about the significance of ethics in the definition of what it meant to be a Christian. But they were also asking what it meant to insist on the reasonableness of Christianity; they were trying to decide whether rationality lay in Samuel Johnson's intuitive illumination, in Jonathan Dickinson's cautious argument for converging historical, natural, and scriptural probabilities, or in the inductive explorations of ''physico-theology.'' And they were attempting to define rationality in the midst of a revivalist piety that raised quite another set of issues about conversion, faith, and assurance of salvation. It was rare to find a theologian able to write thoughtfully about such a broad variety of questions, but these were the debates that produced the theological works of Jonathan Edwards, and no American theologian of the era matched Edwards in either the breadth of his undertakings or the subtlety of his arguments.

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