Book Reviews -- By: Anonymous
JETS 36:3 (September 1993) p. 375
Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling: Heaven and Hell in American Revivalism, 1870–1920. By Jonathan M. Butler. Brooklyn: Carlson, 1991, 197 pp., $50.00.
Revivalism has remained perhaps the most significant hallmark of American evangelical history. Popular media depictions range from the sinister Elmer Gantry to the bombastic buffoonery of televangelists. The image of the hellfire revivalist has always been most popular in media depiction. Yet such depictions, exaggerated though they are, illustrate themes that have pervaded the history of American revivalism.
The hellfire theme in American revivalism stems from J. Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Terror filled the hearts and minds of his hearers, causing some to experience a sense of dread and damnation. Others begged Edwards to stop preaching. Alongside Edwards were the famous revivalists G. Whitefield and G. Tennant, who themselves utilized the images of hell for their audiences. Butler contends that the revivalists of the first and second great awakenings placed a significant emphasis on the theme of hell. From the Cane Ridge, Kentucky, revival of B. Stone to the upstate New York revivals of C. Finney, images of hell played on the fears of revival audiences. Images of heaven were not left out of the picture entirely during the first two awakenings. It was common for revivalists to hold heaven out as an alternative to the consuming fires of hell. Nevertheless hell still remained the primary tool for cajoling revival masses. Butler points out that the first two awakenings reflected a shift from “Calvinism or neo-Calvinism to Arminianism.” The wrathful God of Calvinism, who held the rebellious sinner over the abyss, was a useful image from the time of Edwards to Finney. But as the kind and loving God of Arminianism became more popular among revival audiences, hellfire became a less effective theme.
By the time D. L. Moody (1837–1899) began his career as a revivalist preacher, the wrathful God of hellfire had become the kind and loving God who willed that none should perish, a God wooing the lost sinner to come home. The title of the book under review, which is also the title of a famous revivalist hymn, “Softly and Tenderly,” reflects this theme. Sentimental gospel tunes such as “Tell Mother I’ll Be There in Answer to Her Prayer,” “Will You Answer a Mother’s Prayer Tonight?” and “Your Mother’s Heart Is Breaking” were used by revivalists to instill into the wandering, wayward child that now was the time to come home.
Butler’s work is significant for our understanding of how the kingdom of God has been presented to our culture down through history. But he is a little too ambitious with his use of th...
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