A Diversity of Baptist Revival Theologies

Theologies of the American Revivalists
by Robert W. Caldwell III

“From the 1780s to the 1850s Baptists emerged as one of the largest denominational groupings within American evangelicalism. Like the Methodists, their growth was due in part to their zealous participation in evangelism and revivals. Unlike the Methodists, however, Baptists did not espouse a unified revival theology.

The reason for this is simple: their identity as Baptists did not arise primarily from their soteriology but rather from their ecclesiology.

In other words, ecclesiological issues–the church as a covenanting body of rightly baptized believers (according to believer’s baptism), the autonomy of the local congregation, and religious liberty–defined them more fundamentally than matters related to their revival theology.

Because of this, we find the full spectrum of revival theologies reflected in early American Baptists. Some were Arminian, some embraced Edwardsean revival theology, while others were traditional Calvinists of varying degrees. Thus this section will not explore the revival theology of early American Baptists for the plain reason that only one did not exist.

Instead we will sample selections from among multiple revival theologies advocated by different Baptist leaders of the period. In many ways, Baptists mirrored the diversity found among early American evangelicalism at large.

In what follows, we will sample, chronologically, the spectrum of revival theologies among early American Baptists. This topic is complex and largely unexamined.

Our first stop will be to examine the Baptists who welcomed the popular revivalism of the period and fanned its flames with zeal. The so-called Separate Baptists, who evangelized the Carolinas and rural South, as well as the Freewill Baptists, who articulated a Baptist version of Wesleyan soteriology throughout New England, will be treated.

Second, we will turn our attention to the long-forgotten proponents of Edwardsean revival theology among Baptists, such as Jonathan Maxcy and the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, William B. Johnson.

Last, we will examine the more traditional Calvinist views of Jesse Mercer, editor of the influential Christian Index, a Georgia Baptist periodical.

The goal here is not so much to show the unique Baptist revival theology but to demonstrate the diversity of revival theologies harbored historically in the Baptist tradition in the early decades of the United States.”

Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney

Robert W. Caldwell III
IVP Academic, 2017.