An almost forgotten evangelical movement and theology: Keswick

An almost forgotten evangelical movement and theology: Keswick

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Recently my wife and I watched a travelogue about Britain’s “Lake District”. The presenter traveled to several towns and villages and showed Keswick as something of a ‘party town’ in the North West of England. The focus of this segment was on tourists flocking to Keswick to enjoy the festivals and pubs etc. I was furious that no mention was made of Keswick’s religious significance. 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 the annual conventions from July to August that emphasized what was called “higher life” theology and spirituality. The movement started in 1875 but is still flourishing although the number of people attending has greatly diminished. Yet, and nevertheless, “Keswick” and its Christian conventions were and still are hugely influential among a certain branch of evangelical Christianity through speakers and writers.

Recently I attended a home Bible study where we were reading and discussing a well-known and widely read devotional book called “A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm” by Phillip Keller. I noticed the expression “overcoming the Christian life” and it immediately reminded me. I’m sure Keller was influenced by the Keswick movement and its distinct theology of Christian living.

“Keswick theology” has emanated from its origins in England all over the world. I was raised on it. My local church and family home were saturated with Keswick theology even where it was not called that. Here are some of the books and authors I have read – mostly from my father’s pastoral library, but also found on the shelves in my house: Hannah Whitall Smith, “The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life” and many books by J. Sidlow Baxter, AW Tower, RA Torrey, Andrew Murray, Ian Thomas, Alan Redpath, Stephen Olford, Watchman Nee and Amy Carmichael.

What did all of these elements have in common that makes them representative of Keswick’s theology? »

The basic idea of ​​Keswick’s theology is that the normal Christian life is not one of sin and forgiveness without victory over sin. It is possible and preferable, even normal, for a true Christian to attain, with the help of the Holy Spirit within, a “victorious”, “higher”, “deeper”, holy life devoid of sin. voluntary.

Now, some of you more knowledgeable readers (of church history and especially evangelical theology) will immediately think of the Wesleyan Holiness movement. Yes, there are parallels between the two, but Keswick teachers and writers were and generally are not of the Wesleyan persuasion of holiness – when it comes to HOW the “victory over sin” life turns out. product. The Keswickians taught no experience of eradicating the sin nature; they generally avoided speaking 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 of them was AB Simpson, founder of the Christian Missionary Alliance denomination. He was at least influenced by Phoebe Palmer, the key figure in the 19th century development of the American Holiness movement.

There is a very good video lecture on the Keswick movement called “Keswick and Revival” (31 minutes) by Mike Attwood – a British Keswickian. For those of you who wish to explore this movement further, I suggest this one on the web: “Keswick: A Bibliographical Introduction to the Movements of the Higher Life [the middle “e” accidentally omitted]— Asbury Theological Seminary. Here you will find a list of almost every name associated with the Keswick movement from its beginnings (and origins) to recent times.

A “background” person was Charles Grandisson Finney – a 19th century revivalist who believed in a kind of Christian perfection but had no experience in eradicating sin. The Keswick movement and its theology were probably more popularized by the late 19th century revivalist DL Moody than by anyone else. Billy Graham admits in his autobiography to having been strongly influenced by Keswick’s theology.

I grew up in a non-Wesleyan branch of the Pentecostal movement and our view of sanctification was deeply influenced by Keswick theology through the authors (and more) I mentioned above. We did not believe in a “third blessing” after the infilling of the Holy Spirit that would bring “Christian perfection.” Instead, our belief about the higher Christian life was that of the Keswick movement. My father, a Pentecostal minister for fifty-three years, said he knew a few people he considered “sinless.” This was not uncommon among our people, but we did not believe in any eradication of the sinful nature. We believed that the sin nature would always be with us and in us until our “glorification” in the resurrection (and, presumably in our intermediate state 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, this exhortation has spread far beyond the confines of Keswick theology, but for Keswickians it means: stop trying to overcome sin on your own and let God take control of your life. by crucifying “me” and allowing the Holy Spirit to take over. its place at the center of your motivational drive.

Keswick’s theology particularly divided the Evangelical Reformed “family” of Christians. Some adopted it and combined it with Calvinism and some Calvinists reacted against it, calling it almost heresy. A recent book by Andy Nasselli, a Calvinist theologian, critiques Keswick’s theology and its influence. Calvinist theologian JI Packer criticized its influence on his early Christian life. I suspect most people in the Gospel Coalition are against it.

If you are wondering about the biblical basis of Keswick theology, watch and listen to “Keswick and Revival” on Youtube by Mike Attwood mentioned above.

I detect, discern, that Keswick’s theology has lost its popularity but still exists as “echoes” in many devotional books and speaker presentations. It is rarely called that (Keswick theology). It is almost always called “High Life” Christianity. Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ was greatly influenced by this. It appears here and there in Bible studies (as I mentioned above) and sermons and devotional books – rarely mentioned by name as “Keswick theology”.

While I don’t agree one hundred percent with Keswick’s theology, I think it was a worthwhile antidote to what evangelical philosopher Dallas Willard called “sin-handling” mainstream (not normal) Christian life. . The Keswickians clearly recognized this problem in the lives of most Christians and developed their “higher life” theology to counter it.


Barry F. Howard