Skip to content

Old Princeton and the Second “Great” Awakening

By Chris Cooper–

Many young men venture out from seminary and into their first pastorate and encounter firsthand the legacy of American revivalism. Some find that the piety in their congregations centers not on constant exposure to a catechism and family prayer in the home and to the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments in the church, but upon Spring and Fall revival campaigns. Others do not discover a piety that focuses on revival meetings per se, but do meet a style of worship designed to incite the emotion of a revival in each and every service. Such encounters are as old as America herself (though not much older). Early in the nineteenth-century, the Princeton theologians confronted revivalism during the Second “Great” Awakening. Their struggles against revivalism provide helpful lessons for the reformed pastor.

First, the Princeton theologians recognized the danger among revivalists to shift doctrinally in ways that would best engender a response from enlightened men and thus promote revival and societal reform. In fact, the connection between doctrinal deviation and revival would have been hard to miss given the outcome of two schools of thought that claimed Jonathan Edwards as father and that shared Edwards’s longing for revival. The Hopkinsians, who produced the New England Theology, represent the first group that the Princetonians clashed with over key reformed doctrines. This group of theologians envisioned virtue and sin in terms of disinterested benevolence and self-love rather than in the legal terms used in orthodox Calvinism’s federal theology. This led the New England Theologians to reject the doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin and to embrace the moral government theory of the atonement. Such doctrinal shifts placed responsibility for sin upon the sinner and highlighted a sinner’s need for regeneration, so that he could go from a life of self-love, fostering societal ills, to a life of disinterested benevolence, stimulating progress and reform. The Princeton response to these doctrinal shifts was moderate in tone compared to other Old School Presbyterians who wanted to stamp out any influence of the New England Theology from the Presbyterian Church. The Princeton theologians despised the deviation of Reformed orthodoxy in the New England Theology, but they refused to divide the church over their differences with Hopkinsians. However, the Princetonians found the New Haven Theology coming from Yale to be beyond the pale.

The New Haven Theology represents a second school of thought that claimed Edwards as their own and whose desire for revival led them away from orthodox Calvinism. Those ascribing to the New Haven Theology agreed with the Hopkinsians concerning what they envisioned as the absurdity of imputation and the reasonableness of the moral government theory of the atonement. But, they went further than the New England Theology in their definition of sin and regeneration. They held that sin consists in voluntary actions, not nature, and that regeneration takes place when the Holy Spirit influences but does not change the will, so that a sinner may act freely in choosing God. Such doctrines had obvious benefits for revivalists, who could tell sinners that they both had the responsibility and the ability to repent of their sins and believe the gospel. However, these doctrines ventured far from the doctrines of the Princeton Theology and the Westminster Confession of Faith. Therefore, when the Princeton theologians found that such doctrines had reached the Presbyterian Church, they boarded the movement to oust the doctrinally deviant from their communion.

Through their encounters with the Edwardeans, Princeton men learned firsthand the danger of equating pastoral ministry and religious piety with the ebb and flow of revival. Relating them can turn shepherds into revivalists who use unchangeable, biblical doctrines as discardable means to accomplish what on the surface appears as a desirable end: the revival of religion and the reform of morals in society. Likewise, today’s reformed pastors should understand that measuring pastoral faithfulness upon the amount of decisions recorded, the level of emotional fervor provoked, or even upon the church’s influence upon the culture breeds doctrinal innovation.

Second, the Princeton theologians recognized the tendency among revivalists to jettison the scripturally prescribed means of Christian nurture for the innovative methods of revivalism. The Princetonians found the “new measures” of Charles G. Finney particularly offensive. Finney held protracted meetings where he would call restless sinners in pursuit of a crisis conversion experience forward to an anxious bench. While the Princeton theologians did not oppose the possibility of revival and welcomed them on occasion, they believed that it was neither the common, best, nor desirable mode available for the advancement of the Christian religion. Princeton’s Charles Hodge, for instance, pointed out several problems with revival. First, revivals tend to produce pastors and laypeople who envision conversion as always sudden and sensible. Such revivalists take it for granted that children grow up unconverted and in need of the drama of a revival experience in order to enter the Christian fold. According to Hodge, such a scheme does not allow for the more regular, scriptural, and desirable method of Christian nurture. Under this system, parents immerse their children in prayers, catechesis, and Christian encouragement, so that they may be quietly, although no less supernaturally, converted without the pomp and circumstance of revival. Second, Hodge argued that revivals generate an unscriptural form of piety that makes the exercise of strong emotions essential to true religion and worship. Such an opinion produces unstable Christians whose religious stability is gauged by their emotional state. This approach also demeans the ordinary means of grace that are given by God not to foster great emotional highs that are inevitably followed by lows, but to serve as a more constant encouragement to Christian pilgrims.

Hodge pointed out that revivals are, by their very nature, extraordinary occasions and are not meant to be relied upon by pastors and laypersons to whom God has given the task of parental nurture and pastoral ministry. Likewise, pastors today ought not to rely upon revival or the vestiges of revivalism, but would do well to instill within themselves confidence in the ordinary means of pastoral ministry and into their congregants a sense of responsibility for the nurture and edification of their children. This is the difficult task of a pastor. It demands comprehension of the intricacies of Christian theology and an understanding of the labyrinth that is the human heart. It takes patience, wisdom, and the willingness to love people enough to get to know their struggles and to wait for them to grow in grace. Co-opting the responsibility of making disciples and fostering piety to a traveling itinerate and a team of musicians is easy. Making disciples through baptism and Christian nurture is hard. But such is the calling of the reformed pastor.

Christopher C. Cooper is book review editor for Credo Magazine and is a Ph.D. candidate in historical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Chris is married to Jessica and they have one son, Will. Chris is a member of Clifton Baptist Church, Louisville, KY.     

This article was taken from the recent issue of Credo Magazine. Read others like it today!

To view the Magazine as a PDF {Click Here}

Each of us are indebted to those theologians of ages past who have gone before us, heralding the gospel, and even fighting to their last breath to keep the God of that gospel high and lifted up. It is hard to think of a group of men more worthy of this praise than those of the Old Princeton heritage. Men like Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and many others, stand in this rich heritage, men who defended the faith once for all delivered to the saints against the ever-growing threat of liberalism around them.

Since this year marks the 200th anniversary of Old Princeton (1812-2012), it is fitting that we devote ourselves to remembering and imitating these great theologians of yesterday, not because they are great in and of themselves, but because their example points us to the great and mighty God we worship. And who better to introduce us to these Old Princetonians than James M. Garretson writing on Archibald Alexander, W. Andrew Hoffecker making our acquaintance with Charles Hodge, Fred Zaspel reminding us of B. B. Warfield, and D. G. Hart increasing our love for J. Gresham Machen? Not to mention a very in-depth interview with Paul Helseth on Old Princton and the debate over “right reason.”  May these articles and interviews inspire us so that in our own day we might experience a revival of this rich orthodoxy that has stood the test of time.

Back to Top