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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Cooper on Modern Revivalism

William H. Cooper, Jr., The Great Revivalists in American Religion, 1740-1944: The Careers and Theology of Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2010).

This book will appeal most to conservative Protestants with a negative view of modern revivalism and modern American culture generally. Cooper’s introductory question gives his argument away: “How did the revival under Jonathan Edwards become the empty activity we see today?” (p. 2). Those who have read even a few of the many books on modern revivals (most of which Cooper ignores), or the jeremiads preached against the decline of evangelicalism, needn’t read Cooper further.

You have heard his story before. In short, the eighteenth century revivals were robust theologically and socially significant. Subsequent revivals have been neither of these things. “Jonathan Edwards did not live to see the next outpouring of the Holy Spirit and it probably was well that he didn’t. For Edwards’ Calvinism did not survive well in the tremendous changes of American culture. . . . whatever modern revivalism was, it certainly wasn’t the revivalism of Jonathan Edwards” (p. 53). Or as Cooper puts this later: “Ultimately then, the history of American revivalism is the story of the decline and death of an American religious institution with little lasting effects. Above all else, it is a lesson of what happens when one replaces God with oneself, His means with our methods, His truth with our culture. Revivalism had moved from an amazing act of God to a reasonable work of man to big business and finally an empty shell of showmanship. What had begun as an amazing work of God had ended as an unsatisfying effort of man. And we are all losers for that” (p. 167).

Although powerful rhetorically and brimming with moral lessons evangelicals should learn, this book runs rough shod over two centuries of evangelical history and the lives of many well-meaning and devout religious people. It fails to explain why Finney, Moody, Sunday, McPherson, and so many others led revivals as they did, or why so many around the world have followed their lead and adopted their faith. Modern revivalism produced few lasting effects? Really?

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS