Some time ago, I attended a seminar on the topic of Evangelicalism – looking at the history, primarily as it has played out in the United States. To summarize…what a mess. I felt sooner or later it would be a topic worth writing about at this blog. It seems to follow well my earlier post on Christian Arrogance.
Evangelicalism did not arise at the time of the Reformation. Protestants travelled through pietism and puritanism before discovering this new identity.
What does it mean to evangelize? To bring the Good News. Nothing at all wrong with that. Evangelism focusses on four distinctive matters: conversionism, activism, Biblicism, and Cruxi-centrism (a focus on the cross and Christ’s sacrifice). The four of these began to come together in the eighteenth-century revivals – the “Great Awakening,” both in the United States and England.
John Wesley would preach of the need for conversion; George Whitfield would draw crowds in the thousands; Jonathan Edwards would write of the surprising work of God. Congregational churches would form in New England; Presbyterian in the middle colonies; Methodists and others in the south. Sermons were all based on Biblical texts, with pointed messages and offering direct application.
Then the fragmentation began (as if these three major denominations didn’t offer enough of this).
There was revivalism: western New York, Tennessee, the Cumberland Valley. Charles Grandison Finney – emotionalism for the sake of emotionalism. People have the free will to choose salvation (see Luther and Calvin spinning in their graves). You don’t have to wait for God to do His work; you decide – just come forward (a prototype for Billy Graham, it seems).
D. L. Moody – the YMCA, hymnals, the Moody Press. Billy Sunday – went from professional baseball player to evangelist. He attracted the largest crowds of any in the late eighteenth-century – and he played a significant role in the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment (no booze).
Biblicism was weakened – just get a confession of faith; the door was opened to liberalism and the leftist version of the social justice movement. The Enlightenment contributed here: reason, divorced from God, could not accept many of the claims of the Bible. Let’s just try to hold onto the moral stuff, without the grounding in the Bible or in worship.
I am reminded of Murray Rothbard’s work, World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals:
Also animating both groups of progressives was a postmillennial pietist Protestantism that had conquered "Yankee" areas of northern Protestantism by the 1830s and had impelled the pietists to use local, state, and finally federal governments to stamp out "sin," to make America and eventually the world holy, and thereby to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.
The high-bar (or low-bar, more accurately) of this merger can be summed up in two words: Woodrow Wilson.
Returning to the evangelical timeline and splintering… What I view as, perhaps, the most corrupting: John Nelson Darby and Cyrus Scofield. A focus on end-times theology, a focus on a state for Israel (resulting in a worship of the modern state with that name). Scofield, a scoundrel in his personal life, would somehow have his reference Bible printed by the prestigious Oxford Press! Many denominations would read from his Bible.
There would be a further splintering in the form of “Bible-believing Christians” vs. liberal modernists – they would push for all having to conform (leftists never change). There would also be a mushy middle in every denomination, eventually leading to a growth in the liberal side – after all, if you don’t feel strongly about something, you won’t really fight for it.
Lyman Stewart, founder of Union Oil in California, would publish The Fundamentals, a set of ninety essays – call it a creed, a statement of “what we believe.” Try as we might, we can’t escape the need for such a thing. According to the forward of this work, it will be sent to every pastor, evangelist, missionary, theological professor, theological student, Sunday School superintendent, YMCA and YWCA secretary in the English speaking world – as far as addresses can be obtained. And…
…the time has come when a new statement of the fundamentals of Christianity should be made.
Given my previous post in this series, you can tell how I feel about such a statement: arrogant.
J. Gresham Machen would write of Christianity and Liberalism – Christianity being one religion and liberalism being another. Yet, the clearer that the lines were drawn, the more that mushy middle Christians would move to the left.
The Scopes Trial: fundamentalists won in court, but lost in public opinion. The fundamentalists would now splinter even further. Having lost in public opinion, they opened other avenues: missions, unaffiliated Bible colleges, Wycliffe translators, publishing houses, radio, Our Daily Bread. But this was all irrelevant to the broader culture – it had moved on. The seminaries at Harvard, Yale and Princeton all went hard left.
Dallas Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Biola, Moody, the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today, World Vision, the Lausanne Initiative, The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Promise Keepers, Forty Days of Purpose, seeker-sensitive churches, the Left-Behind series of books.
What a mess.
There will be at least one more part to this series. Two Christian Reformed pastors lamenting (to various degrees) the loss of a unified, worshipful Church – the Kingdom of God, with Christ at its head.
Perhaps we are coming full circle.