Indiana Revivalism, Calvinism, and The Babies / by Shane Anderson

James Faris has a fascinating post at Gentle Reformation about the rise of anti-Calvinistic revivalism in Indiana during the founding of the Hoosier state. Quoting an account of an 1824 camp meeting near Bloomington he writes,
...had Calvin suddenly thrust in among us his hatchet face and goat’s beard, he would have been hissed and pelted, nay possibly, been lynched and soused in the Branch; while the excellent Servetus would have been toted on shoulders, and feasted in the tents on fried ham, cold chicken fixins and horse sorrel pies!

In my experience, antipathy toward a caricatured Calvinism still pollinates the corn fields in Indiana, making Reformed church planting there a difficult task. Yet, Faris' post uncovers another sad reality of revivalism's American history: it wasn't only fueled by an individualistic rejection of biblical, Calvinistic doctrines and practices. It was often a legitimate Christian rejection to an unbiblical, unfeeling, and lifeless Calvinism. Particularly, as the sermon highlighted in Faris's article shows, Calvinists were known (at least popularly) for lacking assurance of their children's salvation and using the doctrine of election to undermine such assurance in others. That strain of Calvinism, though not supported in any way by our confessional standards or best history, still infects the Reformed churches in America.

Contemplate the following excerpts and compare the kind of Calvinism the revivalist preached against with the kind of Calvinism described in the old Reformed liturgies. The revivalist describes a Calvinism that would disaffect a nursing mother from her infant and encouraged Christians to doubt the salvation of their infants because "election." First the revivalist's sermon against Calvinism:

“Dear sisters, don’t you love tender little darling babies that hang on your parental bosoms?  (amen!) –Yes! I know you do—(amen!  Amen!)—Yes, I know it, I know it—(Amen, amen! hallelujah!)  Now don’t it make your parental heart throb with anguish to think those dear infantile darlings might some day be out burning brush and fall into the flames and be burned to death! (deep groans)—Yes it does, it does!  But oh!  Sisters, oh! Mothers!  How can you think your babes mightn’t get religion and die and be burned forever and ever?  (the Lord forbid—amen—groans.)  But, oho! Only think—only think oh! would you ever a had them darling infantile sucklings born, if you had a known they were going to be burned in a brush heap!  (No, no!—groans—shrieks)  What!  what  what!  if you had foreknown they must have gone to hell!—(hoho! hoho!—amen!)  And does anybody think He is just a tyrant as to make spotless, innocent babies just to damn them?  (No! in a voice of thunder.)—No!  sisters!  no!  no!  mothers!  No! no!  no!  sinners no!!  He ain’t such a tyrant!  Let John Calvin burn, torture and roast, but He never foreordained babies, as Calvin says, to damnation!  (damnation –echoed by hundreds.)—Hallelujah!  ‘tis a free salvation!  Glory!  a free salvation!—(Here Mr. S. battered the rail of the pulpit with his fists, and kicked the bottom with his feet—many screamed—some cried amen!—others groaned and hissed—and more than a dozen females of two opposite colors arose and clapped their hands as if engaged in starching, etc., etc.)  No ho! ‘tis a free, a free, a free salvation!—away with Calvin!  ‘tis for all; all!  ALL.  Yes! Shout it out!  Clap on!  Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Oho-oho!  Sinners, sinners, sinners, oh-ho-oho!”
And now the historic Calvinism the of French Baptismal Rite:
For you, little child, Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you he entered the shadow of Gethsemane and the horror of Calvary. For you he uttered the cry, "It is finished!" For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and there he intercedes
— for you, little child, even though you do not know it.
But in this way the word of the Gospel becomes true.
"We love him, because he first loved us." (citation)
Or the Dutch Reformed Form for Baptism 1619:
Thou hast forgiven us and our children all our sins…and received us through Thy Holy Spirit as members of Thine only begotten Son and so adopted us to be Thy children. (citation)
Or the prayer offered in the Strasbourg liturgy for baptism 1537:
Almighty God, Heavenly Father, we give you eternal praise and thanks, that you have granted and bestowed upon this child your fellowship, that you have born him again to yourself through your holy baptism, that he has been incorporated into your beloved Son, our only Savior, and is now your child and heir. (citation)

Is the revival preacher's caricature of Reformed practice in his time fair? Probably not entirely. But let's not let our steel-spine Calvinistic confidence keep us from humbly admitting that the doctrine of election is sometimes preached in a way that destroys faith rather than encourages it. Against that abuse, our standards (Dort and Westminister) stand firm, but Presbyterian, Reformed, and especially Calvinistic Baptist piety has not always remained confessionally sound, encouraging the faith of parents.

As I contemplate the difference between the best of our biblical Reformed tradition and the caricature painted by the revival preacher, I agree with Bavinck:

Against a dead orthodoxy, Pietism and Methodism, with their conventicles and revivals, always have a right and reason to exist.