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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Roots of American Evangelicalism, Part Three

The Roots of American EvangelicalismThis series, The Roots of American Evangelicalism, has two main parts (thus far): "Donald W. Dayton's Characterization of American Evangelicalism" and "The 18th c. Origins of American Evangelicalism." This post begins the second main part.

The 18th c. Origins of American Evangelicalism

As we have seen, Dayton believes that American evangelicalism is largely “Arminian, pietistic revivalism that was epitomized in Finney.” The heart of evangelicalism is Finney’s and Weld’s combination of revivalism and radicalism. Dayton places the origins of American evangelicalism in the revivals of the Second Great Awakening of the 19th c. rather than the American and English revivals of the First Great Awakening of the 18th c. Such a view fails to take into account the evangelicalism of those who preceded Finney in America such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. It does not give the influence of Calvinistic theology the place it deserves within the history of American evangelicalism. While Dayton is correct to point out the influence of the various elements he highlights in his writings on American evangelicalism, he overemphasizes their importance and fails to acknowledge equally significant elements in evangelical history.

A Correcting yet Reactionary Account

Dayton’s account of American evangelicalism in Discovering an Evangelical Heritage provides a correction to the accounts of evangelicalism which overlooked the influence of figures such as Theodore Weld, Jonathan Blanchard, and Oberlin College. He reminds evangelicals of their history of social reform and even radicalism through anti-slavery efforts and Christian feminism. Dayton is right to remind those who portray American evangelicalism as primarily Reformed or Calvinistic that a significant portion of evangelicalism is Arminian, pietistic, and revivalist. The period of the Second Great Awakening was indeed characterized by these elements. Dayton provides a helpful corrective to accounts of American evangelicalism which fail to take these elements seriously and give them the weight they deserve.

Dayton’s account becomes unbalanced, however, when he proceeds to elevate the Arminian, revivalist, and social reform/Christian radical streams of evangelicalism to the status of the “heart” of evangelicalism. It could be argued that these elements enjoy a degree of prominence within American evangelicalism today but it is a different matter to apply this characterization to the history of American evangelicalism as a whole. The only way Dayton’s view can stand is by ignoring the American evangelicalism of the periods prior to the Second Great Awakening and Charles Finney, which is what Dayton does. The following sections will demonstrate that American evangelicalism actually began in the 18th c. and is rooted in the evangelicalism of the Reformation period.

The Origins of American Evangelicalism

The Roots of Evangelicalism
Part of the difficulty in describing American evangelicalism concerns pinpointing when it began. Can it rightfully be traced back to the Protestant Reformation? Did it begin in America in the 18th c.? Or did it begin in the 19th c. as Dayton suggests? Reviewing the historical roots of American evangelicalism is important because where one places the origins of evangelicalism greatly affects how one describes evangelicalism.

The term “evangelical” was in use going back to the Middle Ages. Historian Mark A. Noll has written a great deal on the subject of American evangelicalism. Noll points out, as do many other historians, that the term “evangelical” began as a transliteration of the Greek noun euangelion, “which was regularly employed by the authors of the New Testament to signify the glad tidings – the good news, the gospel – of Jesus who appeared on earth as the Son of God to accomplish God’s plan of salvation for needy humans.”[1] Noll adds that the term was used in the English middle ages to describe “the message of salvation in Jesus,” to refer to the New Testament which contained this message, and to refer to the four Gospels in particular.[2]

“Evangelical” became synonymous with “Protestant” in the 16th c. “The churches of the Lutheran Reformation first put evangelical into common usage, using the term to describe their distinctive features: salvation by grace alone, through faith, and the Bible as the Christian’s supreme authority. In time, Germanic people equated evangelical with Protestant, meaning especially the Lutherans.”[3] Martin Luther was very much opposed to the idea of referring to his ideas and his followers by his name but knew that the descriptor “Christian” needed to be modified in some way in order to acknowledge the distinctiveness of his teachings and the movement associated with them.[4] Luther preferred the term “evangelical” and regularly made use of it referring to “this common evangelical cause,” for example.[5] Church historian Iain H. Murray summarizes the origins of “evangelical” this way,

'Euangelion,' that we call the gospel is a Greek word; and signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man’s heart glad, and maketh him sing, dance and leap for joy.’ So William Tyndale wrote in 1525, and at the same period all who so thought became described as ‘gospellers’ or, less commonly, as ‘evangelicals’. Over two hundred years later it was the latter term that was to pass into more permanent usage at the time of the ‘Evangelical Revival’. That it did not do so earlier is largely due to the fact that all the churches of the Reformation were ‘of the gospel’ in their creeds and confessions. By the eighteenth century, however, while the profession of the national churches in England and Scotland remained orthodox there were many pulpits from which no gospel was heard and when the evangel was recovered a term was necessary to distinguish its preachers from others: they were the ‘evangelicals.’[6]
The term “evangelical” took on added meanings in the 17th c. The Puritans of England “stressed conversion, a personal experience of receiving God’s grace, and downplayed the inherent saving value of liturgy and sacraments.”[7] The Pietist movement of the European continent arose due to the perceived lack of spiritual vitality in Lutheran and Reformed churches.[8] The Pietists also “stressed the need for conversion, but they downplayed rationalistic and creedal definitions of religious truth, insisting that truth be validated by experience” which led to their emphasis on “prayer, self-denial, close fellowship, Bible study, and evangelistic zeal.”[9] According to Noll, the 17th c. produced three key movements which had a great influence upon the evangelicalism of the 18th c.: “an international Calvinist network in which English Puritanism occupied a central position, the pietist revival from the European continent and a High-Church Anglican tradition of rigorous spirituality and innovative organization.”[10]

The Roots of American Evangelicalism
The 18th c. is when most historians observe the origins of American evangelicalism. This is the time of the Evangelical Revival in England and the Great Awakening in America. Whereas onetime these two movements were considered separately, they are now commonly seen as one movement. One author, who refers to these two revivals as the “origins of English-speaking evangelicalism” writes, “On both sides of the Atlantic, the resemblance and the remarkable simultaneity of the revivals were noted and were interpreted as signs that the universal, millennial spread of the gospel might be imminent.[11]

Jonathan Edwards
Three key figures are often associated with this period of revival: George Whitfield, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards. Noll traces the earliest development of the Great Awakening to happenings in Northampton during the fall of 1734. Jonathan EdwardsHe notes several significant events within the Northampton community: “a cyclical return of Puritan seriousness among the laity, special interest by the town’s youth in religion, the untimely death of two well-regarded young adults, unusual concern for religion in the nearby settlement of Pascommuck and the earnest labors of Northampton’s thirty-one-year-old pastor Jonathan Edwards.”[12] Edwards was struck by “dangerous theological notions” among the clergy and laity of the region, particularly what he observed as “the Arminian tendency to rely on self and natural abilities for obtaining salvation before God.”[13] To counter these notions, Edwards preached a sermon in November of 1734 entitled “Justification by Faith Alone” declaring “We are justified only by faith in Christ, and not by any manner of virtue or goodness of our own.”[14] Reflecting on the tremendous response to this sermon, Edwards wrote,

All seemed to be seized with a deep concern about their eternal salvation; all the talk in all companies, and upon occasions was upon the things of religion, and no other talk was anywhere relished; and scarcely a single person in the whole town was left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world…Those that were more disposed to condemn vital and experimental religion, and those that had the greatest conceit of their own reason, the highest families in the town, and the oldest persons in the town, and many little children were affected remarkably; no one family that I know of, and scarcely a person, has been exempt.[15]
This was a prelude to what is now known as the Great Awakening. Six years later, in December of 1740, Jonathan Edwards wrote, “Now, God is pleased again to pour out his Spirit upon us; and he is doing great things amongst us…You have had your life spared through these six years past, to this very time, to another outpouring of the Spirit.”[16] Contrary to some accounts, the Great Awakening was not a product of a combination of favorable conditions which culminated in a great revival of religion. One biographer of Edwards wrote, “The American colonies were not in a condition favourable to a sudden transformation. On the contrary, as Samuel Blair of New Londonberry in the Middle Colonies wrote of the situation in the Spring of that year, ‘Religion lay as it were a-dying and ready to expire its last breath of life in this part of the visible church.’” The author goes on to explain,

Those who stood closest to the centre of events were also those who were most deeply persuaded that success was not in the hands of man to bestow. Unitedly they felt with new force the words of Christ: ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth’ [John 3.8]. In short, the Great Awakening is one of the many confirmations of the statement: ‘The history of religious revivals proves that all real, spiritual awakenings of the national mind have been those in which God and not man, has been the prime mover.’[17]
George Whitefield
During this time, Edwards began a friendship with a co-laborer in the ministry, George Whitefield of England. Whitefield began his preaching ministry in England in 1736 and “from the beginning, Whitefield drew large crowds and attentive listeners.”[18] George WhitefieldJohn and Charles Wesley, who were ministering in Georgia at the time, urged him to come to Georgia and Whitefield decided to go.[19] A year had passed before arraignments were made and in the meantime, “the young novice preacher of justification by faith, was transformed into a national sensation.”[20] Whitefield preached many times in many places throughout England from 1736-37 which greatly contributed to the spread of revival throughout the country. “Whitefield’s great effect arose from what he proclaimed about the need for the new birth, but even more from how he proclaimed it urgently, immediately and as the great question for every hearer right now.”[21] Whitefield traveled to Georgia in December of 1737 and returned to England in December of 1738. Noll describes Whitefield’s time in Georgia as “eventful, even if it could not compare with the dramatic scenes he had left behind.”[22]

In November of 1739, Whitefield wrote to Edwards informing him of his intention to come to Northampton and elsewhere to join in the work God was doing in the colonies. He included a journal with the letter explaining to Edwards what the Lord had been doing in England. Commenting on the revivals of the colonies and England, Edwards wrote, “God’s providence may not unfitly be compared to a large and long river, having innumberable branches beginning in different regions, and at a great distance one from another, and all conspiring to one common issue.”[23] Murray adds, “The friendship of Whitefield and Edwards, which dates from this period, was certainly the joining of two hitherto separate ‘branches’ of this ‘river.’”[24] Whitefield preached throughout the colonies for all of 1740. Noll summarizes his influence this way,

Much of what Whitefield did was admirable by any standard, and his commitment to Christ-centered preaching was a shining beacon. But while his character and purpose possessed great integrity, there was no consistency to his broader actions, no depth to his thinking about culture. Ready, fire, aim was his style. In a word, much that would be best and much that would be worst in the later history of evangelicals in America was anticipated by Whitefield in this one stirring year.[25]
Whitefield biographer Arnold Dallimore adds this insight regarding Whitefield’s influence upon the revival of the Great Awakening:

But any attempt to estimate the results of Whitefield’s work must especially recognize his part in the Revival. Accordingly, we recall that (1) the Revival began (humanly speaking) under his ministry – this at a time when John Wesley was in Georgia and was as yet unknown as an evangelist. (2) Whitefield inaugurated almost all the enterprises by which the Revival had its growth and consolidation: (a) He began the open-air ministry, and led the Wesleys into following him in it. (b) He was the first to adopt the aggressive method of evangelizing and to take to himself the liberty of preaching wherever and whenever opportunity afforded. (c) He was the first to form a number of Societies and link them together in an organized movement. (d) He was the first to hold a Conference and to make use of a weekly publication. (e) His congregations were by far the largest in the Revival and throughout life he was
known as its leading figure and as ‘The Founder of Methodism.’[26]
John Wesley
A third figure most associated with the revivals of the 18th c. is John Wesley. Wesley, the father of Methodism along with his brother Charles and George Whitefield, was one of the more prolific writers during this period. John WesleyAs mentioned previously, it was Whitefield who urged Wesley to undertake the open-air preaching he is so well-known for. Concerning Wesley’s roots, Noll writes, “The significance of Puritanism, Pietism and High-Church Anglicanism for what would become evangelicalism is suggested by unconnected events at Oxford and Herrnhut in the late 1720s.”[27] John and Charles Wesley were members of the “Holy Club” at Oxford which was comprised of like-minded men for “prayer, spiritual reading, self-examination and good deeds for the less fortunate.”[28] One of Wesley’s most famous experiences is his Aldersgate experience. Wesley wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given to me that He had taken away my sins, even mine.”[29] This was an impacting event for Wesley’s theological development, particularly concerning sanctification and Christian perfection, although this was one many similar occurrences during Wesley’s “year of assurance and many accounts of other spiritual experiences.”[30] Suffice it to say, John Wesley had a tremendous impact on American and British evangelicalism in the 18th c. which has been widely written about for many years.

Summary
A more substantial account of the so-called First Great Awakening and the impact of its leaders such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley is beyond the scope of this paper. Significant space has been devoted to this period, however, due to the fact that Dayton’s account of American evangelicalism lacks any significant treatment of this critical period in the history of evangelicalism. This section began by raising the issue of when American evangelicalism began. The roots of evangelicalism can be traced back to the Reformation of the 16th c. and English Puritanism and Pietism in the 17th c. American evangelicalism emerged from this stream in the 18th c. through the English and American revivals of the First Great Awakening. Attempts to overlook this important period in the history of American evangelicalism will result in a skewed view of evangelicalism. Charles Finney and the Second Great Awakening had a tremendous impact upon American evangelicalism but American evangelicalism did not originate during this time period.

To be continued...

Next: "The Influence of Calvinism in the History of American Evangelicalism."

[1] Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, A History of Evangelicalism, ed. David W. Bebbington and Mark A. Noll (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 16.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Joel A. Carpenter, “The Fellowship of Kindred Minds: Evangelical Identity and the Quest for Evangelical Unity,” in Pilgrims on the Sawdust Trail, ed. Timothy George (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 30.
[4] Derek J. Tidball, Who Are the Evangelicals? Tracing the Roots of Today's Movements (London: Marshall Pickering, 1994), 11.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, a Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), 1.
[7] Carpenter, “The Fellowship of Kindred Minds: Evangelical Identity and the Quest for Evangelical Unity,” 30.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, 50.
[11] John Walsh, “"Methodism" and the Origins of English-Speaking Evangelicalism,” in Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond 1700-1990, ed. David W. Bebbington Mark A. Noll, George A. Rawlyk (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 19.
[12] Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, 77.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 154.
[17] Ibid, 159.
[18] Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, 86.
[19] Ibid, 87.
[20] Ibid, 87.
[21] Ibid, 88.
[22] Ibid, 93.
[23] Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 156.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, 108.
[26] Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the 18th Century Revival, vol. 2, 2 vols. (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1980), 531.
[27] Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, 68.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Roy Hattersley, The Life of John Wesley: A Brand from the Burning (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 136.
[30] Ibid.

[Originally posted at Conservative Reformed Mafia]

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