Sweeney is the chair of the department of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His thesis for this work is summarized in this statement: “Nathaniel William Taylor (1786–1858), the Timothy Dwight Professor of Didactic Theology at Yale from 1822 to 1858, was arguably the most influential and the most frequently misrepresented theologian of his generation” (p. 3). Taylor and his followers claimed to be Calvinists in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards. “Unfortunately for their image in posterity,” Sweeney writes, “very few people, then or since, have believed them” (p. 4).
Taylor is often seen as a representative and perhaps even the cause of a declension in Calvinist theology in America in the nineteenth century. Taylor’s theology is often read through the lens of Charles Finney, as if Taylor is somehow responsible for this evangelist’s aberrant theology, even though there seems little reason to hold Taylor responsible for the revivalism of Finney and the Finneyites. Finney was not a student or a disciple of Taylor, even though he did popularize some of Taylor’s views. It seems unfair to hold Taylor directly accountable for Finney.
Sweeney writes to correct the misunderstanding of decades of historians’ opinions of Nathaniel Taylor. His goal is to show that Taylor’s theology was in the Edwardsian tradition, that Taylor recontextualized this Calvinist theology in the nineteenth-century American culture, that Taylor’s own works should be given more weight in the evaluation of his thought than the writings of his critics, and that Taylor’s contribution to the development of evangelicalism is under-appreciated. As Sweeney puts it, “Rather than continue the debate over whether Taylor grasped the true meaning of Edwards’s thought, I hope in what follows to elucidate the ways in which Edwardsian language shaped Taylor’s religious horizons and the ways in which, for better and for worse, Taylor carried forward the logic of the Edwardsian tradition, contributing mightily to the intellectual culture of evangelical America” (p. 12).
This is an outstanding example of evangelical historiography, an excellent contribution to the study of American religious history. Sweeney’s grasp of both the primary and secondary literature is impressive. His work nicely integrates biographical detail with theological and historical evaluation. The result is a readable, engaging story of one man’s theological heritage and influence and a glimpse into the developing revivalist tradition in America.
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