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A temporary reversion to sinful behavior or lapse into unbelief following a spiritual conversion is known as backsliding. The concept of backsliding, biblical in origin, emerged in the theology of Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609), which emphasized human free will in the acceptance or rejection of Christ's salvation. The ability to freely embrace or, by extension, spurn redemption implied the risk of backsliding. Arminianism was first accepted in American religion through the ministry of John Wesley (1703–1791) and his Methodist followers, who arrived from England in the wake of the transatlantic religious revivals of the 1730s, popularly known as the Great Awakening (and later as the first Great Awakening). Arminian beliefs became accepted among many Baptists as well in the early national period as the second wave of religious revivals drew in converts from Maine to the backcountry of Kentucky and Tennessee. The earlier revivals, concentrated in New England, were strongly associated with Calvinism, which assured elect believers that they, by virtue of the doctrines of predestination and perseverance, could not fall from grace.

The possibility of backsliding stimulated both a high degree of insecurity and self-scrutiny among the converted. They devoted themselves to prayer, scriptural study, fasting, and active church fellowship as expressions of faith but also to protect themselves from backsliding. Some reassurance was taken from Scripture that suggested backsliders were not forever lost to divine grace. Baptist and Methodist hymnals in the 1790s included songs for backsliders in the process of regaining their faith and both churches permitted some offenders to rejoin their church communities after a public expression of repentance. Despite the human responsibility implied in their conception of salvation, preachers and laypersons expressed concern in their journals and memoirs that for no overt reason and against their will, they might nonetheless yield to temptation or become insensible to their sins and fall from grace. Many laid the blame for their fear of backsliding squarely on Satan and believed their dread to be one of his insinuations. Some testified that the devil's stratagems extended to assuring believers that they could not fall from grace and need not fear temptations at all. Wesleyan theology did allow for the possibility of achieving a permanent state of sinless perfection, termed "sanctification," but this divine gift of grace was thought to be reserved for the most saintly adherents. The concept of backsliding in effect prevented believers from fully trusting in the authenticity of their conversions even while it motivated an exacting spiritual self-discipline.

See alsoFrontier Religion; Revivals and Revivalism; Theology .


Heyrman, Christine Leigh. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Holifield, E. Brooks. Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003.

Ann Kirschner