Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Roots of American Evangelicalism, Part Five

The Roots of American Evangelicalism

Donald W. Dayton does an admirable job of highlighting the significant influence of Charles Finney and other leading evangelicals of the 19th c. It would be wrong to overlook their contribution to the history of American evangelicalism. Dayton’s account provides a helpful correction to any characterization of American evangelicalism that would overlook or minimize the influence of the leaders of this period. However, Dayton is wrong to assert that the foundation of American evangelicalism is an Arminian, revivalistic foundation originating with Finney and the Second Great Awakening.

As we have seen, American evangelicalism can trace its roots back to the 16th c. when “evangelical” was synonymous with “Protestant,” especially in Germany. The term came into greater prominence during the 18th c. with the Evangelical Revival in England and the Great Awakening in America, which are now both seen as a part of the same movement of God at this time. While Arminian theology may have been widespread during the period of the Second Great Awakening, Calvinism was tremendously widespread, influential, and predominant from the early 1600’s to the end of the 18th c. This important period of American evangelicalism cannot be overlooked or discounted.

It could be argued that the influence of the theology and practices of the Second Great Awakening have had a greater impact on the church today (for the worse, I believe) but that is different than claiming that the revivalistic, Arminian, and social activist elements of the 19th c. are the heart of American evangelicalism. As we seen, the American origins or foundation of evangelicalism began in the 18th c. with the revivals of the Great Awakening. The roots of evangelicalism can be traced back the Reformation. Calvinism was predominant from the early 1600’s to late 1800’s [see previous posts in this series for the background behind these assertions]. Therefore, it could actually be argued that Dayton’s Arminian, revivalistic evangelicalism of Finney and the Second Great Awakening was a hijacking of evangelicalism as it existed at that time. Arminian theology and revivalistic practices were erected on the Reformed evangelical foundation laid in the 18th c.

So who are the true evangelicals? It is impossible to say today. Regardless of the conclusions one draws from a study of the history of American evangelicalism, there is no going back. The evangelicalism of today is greatly different from what it once was. The evangelical movement is so diverse that the name seems practically meaningless once one constructs a lowest-common-denominator description of evangelicalism that would be acceptable to all who would claim the name. As one "Historic Evangelical" blogger remarked, "If Joel Osteen, R.C. Sproul, Benny Hinn, Chuck Swindoll, Oral Roberts, J.P. Moreland, T.D. Jakes, Jimmy Carter, Billy Graham, Brian McLaren, Pat Robertson, and John Piper all distinguish themselves as 'evangelicals,' then we must admit that the disignation both means everything and nothing at the same time." Surely he is correct. Big "E" evangelicalism does not exist.

So what should evangelicals do? Abandon "evangelical?" Fight for the name? Use it only with a modifier such as "reformed," "confessional," or "historic?" Frankly, I am torn. Some say, "get over it...its just a doesn't matter." They have a point to some degree. However, as this series has attempted to demonstrate, evangelicalism enjoys a rich heritage generally dating back to the Reformation period and it should not be abandoned lightly. Yet, remaining under the evangelical umbrella and fighting for the right to describe "evangelical" according to Reformed or Arminian or Charismatic principles seems like a waste of time, effort and resources, not to mention the heightened bitterness and divisions such campaigns would produce. On the other hand, amorphous, albeit irenic formulations of Evangelicalism, such as An Evangelical Manifesto, seek a more accomodating and ecumenical approach to the problem but hardly seem helpful (I cannot imagine many Christians disagreeing with "the Evangelical principle that seeks to be faithful to the Good News of Jesus and to the Scriptures"). This discussion will continue. In the meantime, "evangelical" should mainly be used as an adjective describing the sort of Presbyterian or Lutheran, etc. one is.

While this series has merely been a brief overview of the roots of American evangelicalism, I hope it has provided some helpful and interesting insights. I look forward to continuing to participate in the ongoing discussions on the state of evangelicalism today and beyond.

[Originally posted at Conservative Reformed Mafia]

1 comment:

  1. Good article. One of the problems with Christian history in our day is that it's all over the map.

    You may be interested in another attempt to get at the root of the problem in Modern Evangelicalism -