Sweeney’s Booknotes: Asahel Nettleton and Revivalism


E. A. Johnston, Asahel Nettleton: Revival Preacher, A Biography (Ashville, NC: Revival Literature, 2012).

This is a work of hagiography most likely to be read by Reformed evangelicals. Written by an evangelist, prolific Christian author, and conference speaker with Ambassadors For Christ International, its author also serves as a fellow of the Stephen Olford Center for Biblical Preaching.

Johnston’s book is the longest one on Nettleton to date. It is more current than Bennet Tyler’s Memoir of the Life and Character of Asahel Nettleton (1844); more thorough than J. F. Thornbury’s God Sent Revival: The Story of Asahel Nettleton and the Second Great Awakening (1977); and more readable and useful to a wider range of people than the now-dated dissertations written on Nettleton and his work: George Hugh Birney, Jr., “Life and Letters of Asahel Nettleton, 1783-1844” (Hartford Theological Seminary, 1943), and Sherry Pierpont May, “Asahel Nettleton: Nineteenth Century American Revivalist” (Drew University, 1969).

Aimed at kindred spirits seeking revival in the present, it is spiritually edifying but historically inaccurate. It is rather thinly researched, full of massive block quotations from the author’s favorite sources but hardly any interpretation of the subject’s life, work, or even historical location that is informed by recent scholarship or older social histories. It repeats the shop-worn caricatures of Nettleton’s opponents as harmful wolves in sheep’s clothing. (Nathaniel Taylor was as a Pelagian, Charles Finney one of the greatest threats to genuine religion in all of American church history, modern evangelical history a story of declension, etc.) It claims to provide reliable history of the New England Theology, but does so without reference to most of the leading works of scholarship by specialists in the field (Joseph Conforti, Allen Guelzo, David Kling, Mark Valeri, Jack Fitzmier, Mark Noll, Charlie Phillips, Oliver Crisp, et al.)

On the bright side, Johnston has reprinted 40 letters written by Nettleton to colleagues (taken from Birney’s dissertation); first-hand accounts of the revival of 1820, mainly in upstate New York, and Nettleton’s role in leading it; memories of Nettleton’s life by Francis Wayland and others; and large sections of important primary sources.

This is not a book for scholars, or for students of church history. But among modern-day Calvinists who are looking for support as they work to revive the church, it is a book that will be cherished. Evangelical Arminians (and others) will feel attacked. But Nettletonians should find in their eponym great inspiration.