Transatlantic Revivalism: Popular Evangelicalism in Britain and America 1790-1865

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Transatlantic Revivalism: Popular Evangelicalism in Britain and America 1790-1865. By Richard Carwardine. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2007, 268 pp., $36.99 paper.

Richard Carwardine has been Rhodes Professor of American History at St. Catherine's College Oxford since 2002. His work Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power published in 2003 won the Lincoln Prize in 2004 presented annually by the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute at Gettysburg College. This work was so popular that even President Bush claims to have read it! This Lincoln biography cemented the author's reputation as one of the premier historians of American religion in the pre-Civil War era.

Carwardine's Transatlantic Revivalism was first published in 1978 by Greenwood Publishing Group. The reprint by Paternoster Press is not a revision of the original work, but a republication of it as part of the series Studies in Evangelical History and Thought. In light of the notoriety that the author has received for his work on Lincoln, it makes sense to reintroduce Transatlantic Revivalism to a fresh audience.

The author's general premise is that revivalism had a major impact not only on American religion, but also in the shaping of American society and culture. Although most Americans saw this revivalistic environment as markedly distinct from religious life in Europe, Carwardine shows a strong connection between Britain and America especially as it concerned the Methodist movement. British enthusiasts devoured the literature of American Methodism, and many major American revivalists made grand tours of Britain. The author also notes the major changes in revival techniques, moving from a more passive waiting for God to start a revival to the "new measures" of the 1820s and 1830s by which revivalists sought to foster conditions for revival.

Painting a broad panorama of the spirit of revivalism, Carwardine focuses on the major figures that spanned both countries. James Caughey and Charles Finney were the most famous and most effective, but the author also looks at other important evangelists such as Asahel Nettleton, Calvin Cotton, William Bell Sprague, Edward Norris Kirk, Edward Payton Hammond, and Walter and Phoebe Palmer.

Revivalism was not as respectable in Britain, at least among the more privileged classes and the ecclesiastical establishment, but the impact of revivalism was still significant. Carwardine documents hundreds of thousands of converts, most of whom joined non-established churches. Furthermore, in America, the revivalists eventually became the establishment while in Britain the revivalist churches always remained on the periphery. Carwardine notes that this is the reason why revivalism has received so little attention among historians of British history compared with the vast amount of material accorded to the movement in America.

The author is also careful to define his terms. He notes two different usages for the word "revival." First, "it referred to a period of unusually intense 'religious interest' in a single church at a time when penitents sought counsel and salvation in above-average numbers." In a broader sense, it can also mean a revival movement "or the multiplication of local revivals over a broad geographical area for a prolonged period of perhaps several years" (p. xv).

Starting with a survey of "new-measure revivalism" in the 1820s to 1830s, the period generally known as the Second Great Awakening, Carwardine notes that it was part of the Jacksonian optimism of the period, an era in which leaders sought to affect a moral revolution in American society. The new measures were techniques that the revivalists used to try to stir up the revival. The idea that man could do something to "kick-start" a revival ran counter to the prevailing Calvinist approach that emphasized God's role in fostering a revival. Moreover, this new approach served as a challenge to established norms of order and decency. …