An Almost Forgotten Evangelical Movement and Theology: Keswick
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Recently my wife and I watched a travelogue about Great Britain’s “Lake District.” The presenter went to several towns and villages and showed Keswick as a kind of “party town” in the northwest of England. The focus of that segment was on tourists flocking to Keswick to enjoy festivals and pubs, etc. I was furious that no mention was made of the religious significance of Keswick. Keswick is one of the holiest towns in evangelical history—the site of the great Keswick Convention for many years. Thousands of Christians flocked there for July-August annual conventions that emphasized what was called the “Higher Life” theology and spirituality. The movement began in 1875 but still flourishes although much diminished in numbers of people attending. Still, and nevertheless, “Keswick” and its Christian conventions were and still are extremely influential among a certain branch of evangelical Christianity through speakers and writers.
Recently I attended a home-based Bible study where we were reading and discussing a well-known and widely read devotional book entitled “A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm” by Phillip Keller. I noticed the phrase “overcoming Christian life” and immediately that rang a bell. I’m sure that Keller was influenced by the Keswick movement and its distinct theology of Christian living.
”Keswick theology” emanated from its origins in England throughout the world. I was raised on it. My home church and my family home were saturated with Keswick theology even where it was not called that. Here are just some of the books and authors I read—mostly from my father’s pastoral library but also found on bookshelves in my home: Hannah Whitall Smith, “The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life” and many books by J. Sidlow Baxter, A. W. Tower, R. A. Torrey, Andrew Murray, Ian Thomas, Alan Redpath, Stephen Olford, Watchman Nee and Amy Carmichael.
What did all these have in common that makes them representatives of Keswick theology?”
The basic idea of Keswick theology is that the normal Christian life is not one of sin and forgiveness without victory over sin. It is possible and best, even normal, for a true Christian to achieve, with the help of the Holy Spirit within, an “overcoming,” “higher,” “deeper,” holy life devoid of willful sin.
Now, some of you more knowledgeable readers (about church history and especially evangelical theology) will immediately thing about the Wesleyan-Holiness movement. Yes, there are parallels between the two, but the Keswick teachers and writers were and are not usually of the Wesleyan-Holiness persuasion—when it comes to HOW the life of “victory over sin” happens. The Keswickians did not teach any experience of eradication of the sinful nature; they typically shied away from talk of “Christian perfection” or “entire sanctification.”
However, there were “crossover” people who had one foot in the Wesleyan-Holiness movement and the other foot in the Keswick movement. One such was A. B. Simpson, founder of the Christian Missionary Alliance denomination. He was at least influenced by Phoebe Palmer, the key figure in the nineteenth century development of the American Holiness movement.
There is a very good video talk about the Keswick movement entitled “Keswick and Revival” (31 minutes) by Mike Attwood—a British Keswickian. For those of you interested in examining this movement further I suggest this one on the web: “Keswick: A Bibliographic Introduction to the Higher Life Movments [the middle “e” accidentally omitted]—Asbury Theological Seminary.” There you will find a list of almost all the names of people associated with the Keswick movement from its beginnings (and backgrounds) to recent times.
One “background” person was Charles Grandisson Finney—nineteenth century revivalist who believed in a kind of Christian perfection but without an experience of eradication of sin. The Keswick movement and its theology was probably popularized more by later nineteenth century revivalist D. L. Moody than anyone else. Billy Graham admits in his autobiography being strongly influenced by the Keswick theology.
I grew up in a non-Wesleyan branch of the Pentecostal movement and our view of sanctification was profoundly influenced by Keswick theology through the authors (and more) that I mentioned above. We did not believe in a “third blessing” after the infilling of the Holy Spirit that would bring “Christian perfection.” In place of that, our belief about Christian higher life was that of the Keswick movement. My father, a Pentecostal minister for fifty-three years, said that he knew a few people who he considered “sinless.” That was not uncommon among our people, but we did not believe in any eradication of the sinful nature. We believed the sinful nature would always be with us and in us until our “glorification” in the resurrection (and, presumably in our intermediate condition of bodiless existence with Christ in Paradise awaiting the resurrection).
A key phrase used by Keswick teachers was and is “Let go and let God.” Of course, that exhortation has spread far beyond the limits of Keswick theology, but for the Keswickians it means—stop trying to overcome sin on your own and let God take over your life through crucifying the “self” and allowing the Holy Spirit to take its place at the center of your motivational will.
Keswick theology divided especially the Reformed evangelical “family” of Christians. Some adopted it and combined it with Calvinism and some Calvinists reacted against it, almost calling it a heresy. A recent book by Andy Nasselli, a Calvinist theologian, criticizes Keswick theology and its influence. Calvinist theologian J. I. Packer has criticized its influence on his early Christian life. I suspect most of the Gospel Coalition people are opposed to it.
If you are wondering about the biblical basis for Keswick theology, watch and listen to “Keswick and Revival” on Youtube by the above mentioned Mike Attwood.
I detect, discern, that Keswick theology has lost its popularity but still exists in “echoes” in many devotional books and speakers’ presentations. It is rarely called that (Keswick theology). It is almost always referred to as “High Life” Christianity. Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ was strongly influenced by it. It pops up here and there in Bible studies (as I mentioned above) and sermons and devotional books—hardly ever mentioned by name as “Keswick theology.”
While I do not “buy into” Keswick theology one hundred percent, I think it was a worthwhile antidote to what evangelical philosopher Dallas Willard labeled “sin management” as the common (not normal) Christian life. The Keswickians clearly recognized that problem in most Christians’ lives and developed their “Higher Life” theology to counteract it.