Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Roots of American Evangelicalism

The Roots of American EvangelicalismEvangelicals are currently experiencing an identity crisis. One of the few good things about An Evangelical Manifesto was its statement that evangelicalism "should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally." While the Manifesto's own attempt to do so was lacking, the commitment to define "evangelicalism" theologically is a welcome one. In light of the current self-examination of what it means to be an evangelical, I offer my own meager contribution to the discussion with some observations concerning the roots of American evangelicalism. I have used the descriptions of American evangelicalism offered by Donald W. Dayton as a foil for my own views on the subject. This will be a multi-part series.

Donald W. Dayton’s Characterization of American Evangelicalism

Donald W. Dayton is a former professor of historical theology and former chair of the steering committee of the evangelical theology section of the American Academy of Religion. Dayton has authored Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (1976), was a co-editor for The Variety of American Evangelicalism (1991), and contributed to From the Margins: A Celebration of the Theological World of Donald Dayton (2007). These three books are the primary sources of Dayton’s views of American evangelicalism. The descriptions of American evangelicalism offered by Dayton fail to sufficiently account for the evangelical heritage that preceded the 19th c. and the significant influence of Reformed theology within evangelicalism. This deficiency will be demonstrated by evaluating Dayton’s description of American evangelicalism as an essentially revivalistic, Arminian, social reform movement with Charles Finney as the major figurehead. Such a depiction misplaces the origins of American evangelicalism and fails to take into account the significant heritage of non-revivalist, non-Arminian evangelicals in America, such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.

Evangelicalism and Social Reform

Jonathan Blanchard and Wheaton College
At the outset of Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, Dayton begins with what he calls the “single symbol of modern Evangelicalism,” Wheaton College.[1] Dayton juxtaposes the evangelicalism of Wheaton College’s most famous alumnus, Billy Graham, with that of Wheaton’s founder, Jonathan Blanchard. The evangelicalism of Billy Graham represents for Dayton an evangelicalism that has abandoned significant elements of its heritage. Dayton cites a statement where Graham highlights the importance of evangelism and downplays the evangelist’s role in social reform and political activism. Graham stated, “While some may interpret an evangelist to be primarily a social reformer or political activist, I do not!” and “My primary goal is to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The basic problem of man is within his own heart. That is why evangelism is so important.”[2] Graham’s statement represents a major departure for Dayton. He writes, “But while Billy Graham sometimes uses the language of repentance and faith to avoid questions of social responsibility, earlier generations of Evangelicals understood that repentance involved turning from apathy into the heart of struggles for social reform. While Billy Graham contrasts the ‘New Testament evangelist’ and the ‘Old Testament prophet,’ earlier Evangelicals combined these roles.”[3]

Enter Wheaton’s founder, Jonathan Blanchard. Dayton uses Blanchard’s example to highlight evangelicalism’s central, even radical, commitment to social reform. Dayton quotes Blanchard as saying, “every true minister of Christ is a universal reformer, whose business it is, so far as possible, to reform all the evils which press on human concerns.”[4] Blanchard believed that reformers must work with a perfect state of society in mind as their pattern and that this perfect state of society was the kingdom of God preached by John the Baptist and Christ.[5] Blanchard followed through on his ideals by becoming a committed abolitionist leader and described early Christians as “a poor despised set of abolitionists who were everywhere accused of ‘uprooting society’ to get rid of its evils, and ‘turning the whole world upside down’ to correct its errors and reform its abuses.”[6] For Dayton, Blanchard’s strong commitment to establishing the kingdom of God on earth through social reform is closer to the true heritage of American evangelicalism than Graham’s priority of evangelism over social reform and political activism.

Charles G. Finney
Jonathan Blanchard and Wheaton College followed the man who, according to Dayton, was not only the father of modern revivalism but the father of American evangelicalism as well: Charles G. Finney. In Finney, Dayton observes the ideal combination of New Testament evangelist and Old Testament prophet that he believes characterizes American evangelicals. “Though first and foremost an evangelist, Finney’s work and the way he understood the gospel ‘released a mighty impulse toward social reform’ that shook the nation and helped destroy slavery.”[7] While Finney is widely known for his controversial theological views concerning the nature of the Gospel, salvation, conversion, sin, human freedom and the innovations of his revival meetings, Dayton views Finney’s most controversial measure as “encouraging women to pray and speak in ‘promiscuous’ or mixed assemblies.”[8]

Charles FinneyDayton casts Finney as the people’s champion who was opposed by the “traditional clergy,” denounced Old Calvinism’s “aristocracy of the elect,” and provided “the seeds of a very basic egalitarianism, which was later to bear fruit in abolitionism and feminism.”[9] Dayton sees Finney’s deviations from traditional Christian orthodoxy regarding the human will and human ability as an affirmation of the fact that God has given both men and women a role in the shaping of society and that nothing had to be accepted [in society] as it was.[10] Finney sought a “reformation of mankind” and believed that the “great business of the church is to reform the world – to put away every kind of sin.”[11] This reformation of mankind was to come about not only through the church but also through legislation: “Law, rewards, and punishments – these things and such as these are the very heart and soul of moral suasion.”[12] The works of Charles Finney, with his combination of revivalism and radicalism, represents for Dayton the beginnings of the true heritage of American evangelicalism.

Theodore Weld
One of Finney’s more prominent disciples was Theodore Weld. Dayton writes, “Probably the most important of these antislavery workers was Theodore Weld, converted under the ministry of Finney and for a while the evangelist’s assistant. Weld devoted the whole of his life to reform and the antislavery struggle.”[13] As is customary throughout Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, Dayton’s account of Theodore Weld provides very little material regarding what doctrinal beliefs would qualify Weld as “evangelical.” Dayton does provide the account of the beginning of Weld’s devotion to Finney, how he copied Finney’s revivalist techniques for anti-slavery meetings, and the “abolitionist gospel” he preached.[14] Toward the end of the material, Dayton acknowledges that Weld eventually became a Unitarian but he writes it off to Weld’s dissatisfaction with existing church forms and doctrinal structures although he touch upon a theological motivation when he relays that Weld simply wanted to move toward “a simple loving and following Jesus.”[15] Further indication of Weld’s primary occupation with social reform can be seen in his motivation for attending seminary. Dayton writes, “Part of Weld’s motive in going to Lane [Theological Seminary] was ‘to introduce anti-slavery sentiments, and have the whole subject thoroughly discussed.’ He succeeded. Weld worked quietly to convert members of the campus colonization society to abolitionism.”[16]

Lane Seminary and Oberlin College
Lane Theological Seminary and particularly Oberlin College, both located in Ohio, also figure prominently in Dayton’s account of the true heritage of American evangelicalism. According to Dayton, Theodore Weld’s efforts at Lane Seminary influenced many to join the abolitionist cause. The social reform efforts of the abolitionist students caused such a disturbance in the community that the board of trustees of the seminary ruled that students were not to engage in such matters in order to avoid impeding the work of the seminary.[17] Many students therefore withdrew from the school and established an alternative institution.[18]

Asa Mahan, a member of the board at Lane, defended the reform efforts of the abolitionist students. He was soon asked to become president of a similarly reformed-minded institution, Oberlin College. Mahan, a contingent of “Lane Rebels,” and Charles Finney joined Oberlin under the condition that they have freedom of speech concerning social reform issues and would allow the admission of blacks to be decided by the faculty which was subsequently approved.[19] Dayton describes Oberlin’s distinctiveness as a “communitarian and life-style oriented radicalism” which was joined with “the radical abolitionism of the Lane Rebels” and concludes that “the foundations were laid for the emergence of the distinctive Christian radicalism of Oberlin College” which became the “last refuge for radical students.”[20]

The importance of Oberlin for Dayton’s perspective on American evangelicalism is seen in this commitment to Christian radicalism. The president of Oberlin, Asa Mahan, believed that “the fundamental spirit and aim of Christianity is the correction of all abuses, a universal conformity to the laws of our own existence as far as revealed to the mind, and a quenchless thirst for knowledge on all subjects pertaining to the duties and interest of humanity.”[21] Dayton goes on to explain that “Oberlin wished to make the whole Christian church an ‘anti-slavery society’” using Finney’s “new measure revival techniques.”[22]

Dayton reviews the history of Charles Finney, Jonathan Blanchard and Wheaton College, Theodore Weld, Lane Seminary and Oberlin College in order to highlight what he sees as the heart of American Evangelicalism. The heart of American Evangelicalism was birthed in the revivalism of Charles Finney which married evangelism together with social reform, the New Testament evangelist with the Old Testament prophet, piety with radicalism,[23] and conversion with a subsequent commitment to radical social reform. Such commitments most accurately reflect the “Divine Will” which was “expounded in the life of Christ whose gospel was such that ‘those who should follow Him, should minister to the needy; that the poor and forlorn would be blessed by it; that those ‘sick and in prison’ would be cheered by it; and that it would strike the iron from countless wretches unjustly bound.’”[24] The Christian radicalism of Oberlin College, the deep commitment to social reform of Finney and Weld, and the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening reflect the true heart of American Evangelicalism for Donald W. Dayton.

To be continued...

[Originally posted at Conservative Reformed Mafia]

[1] Donald W. Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 7. [2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid, 8.
[4] Ibid, 9.
[5] Ibid, 10.
[6] Ibid, 13.
[7] Ibid, 15.
[8] Ibid, 16.
[9] Ibid, 17.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid, 20-21.
[12] Ibid, 22.
[13] Ibid, 25.
[14] Ibid, 30.
[15] Ibid, 34.
[16] Ibid, 36.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid, 37.
[19] Ibid, 39.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid, 40.
[22] Ibid, 40-41.
[23] Ibid, 77.
[24] Ibid, 49-50.

1 comment:

  1. You may be interested to know that Finney's influence goes beyond his theology. The church today is still recovering from his deeply flawed methods. I did a 7 part series on Charles Finney's impact on the American Church that you may be interested in reading.