Modern (Evangelical) Church History

Reading two books I received for Christmas, I came across the following accounts of modern evangelical history. Though these are not exactly “scholarly” sources, they present the history as I have previously heard it described. Ron Sider speaks a bit about this history in the collection of interviews, Heaven and Earth. Also, look for the reflection questions at the end of this post.

moneyThe Man Who Quit Money (Mark Sundeen, 2012)

For those not raised fundamentalist, the Rapture seems a cartoonish fairy tale. But in the past half century the notion has become mainstream. As the percentage of Americans belonging to mainline Protestant denominations has steadily dropped since the mid-1960s from a quarter to a tenth, those belonging to evangelical or fundamentalist churches have held fast at about 25 percent. Factoring in population growth, that firm percentage reflects an increase in numbers. In the popular imagination, the child’s nightmare has been replaced by the Apocalypse of the Book of Revelation, with its four horsemen and pits of boiling sulfur. Those raised in the faith accept as fact that this world’s days are numbered. Clocks will stop, and time as we know it will cease. (pp. 29-30)

The year was 1946, decades before fundamentalism reached the mainstream. “Born again” and “personal savior” were phrases cried out under revival tents, not under the dome of the United States Capitol. Billy Graham’s evangelical crusades would not begin until 1948, and Jerry Falwell would not found his church until 1956. (Though some might quibble, I use the terms “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” interchangeably. Both describe a faith based more on literal Bible reading than on membership in an organized church.) As the size and scope of secular government increased during the New Deal and World War II, and mainline churches focused on social justice instead of personal salvation, more Christians responded to what looked like the apocalypse–D-day, Auschwitz, Hiroshima–by seeking the moral certainty of scripture. (p. 33)

Among evangelical Christians, all of whom await the Second Coming of Jesus, there are historically two camps: postmillennialists and premillennialists. For most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most were of the “post” variety, meaning that they expected the Messiah’s return after the thousand-year reign of peace. In order to hasten His arrival, they set out to create that harmonious world here and now, fighting for the abolition of slavery, prohibition of alcohol, public education, and women’s literacy.

The chaos of the Civil War and industrialization cause many evangelicals to rethink their optimism. They determined that Jesus would actually arrive before the final judgment. Therefore any efforts toward a just society here on earth were futile; what mattered was perfecting one’s faith. As historian Randall Balmer writes, these believers “retreated into a theology of despair, one that essentially ceded the temporal world to Satan and his minions.”

This schism widened in the twentieth century. After the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in which fundamentalists were humiliated by the national press, premillennialists retreated into their own subculture, shunning the politics and causes of the times. “They turned inward,” writes Balmer, “tending to their own piety and seeking to lure others into a spiritualized kingdom in preparation for the imminent return of Jesus.” (pp. 36-37)

redRed Letter Revolution (Shane Claiborne & Tony Campolo, 2012). This excerpt adds more details to the history of the terms fundamentalism and evangelical.

During the late 1800s, scholars in Germany created a critique of the Bible that really tore traditional beliefs about the Bible to shreds. They raised questions about who the authors of Scripture were and suggest that much of the Bible was only the rehashing of ancient Babylonian myths and moral codes. In addition, theologies came out of Germany from the likes of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, Ernst Troeltsch, and others who raised serious doubts about such crucial doctrines as the divinity of Christ and his resurrection from the dead.

There was a reaction to all of this “modernism”–the name given to this recasting of these new Christian teachings that were attempts to be relevant to a rational and scientific age–and a collection of scholars from the Unites States and England got together and published a series of twelve books called the Fundamentals of the Christian faith. These books were an intelligent defense of the traditional doctrines that we find outlined in the Apostles’ Creed.

It was in reaction to those books that Harry Emerson Fosdick, a prominent liberal preacher in New York City, preached a sermon called “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” which was printed and circulated throughout the country. Thus the term fundamentalist was born.

The label fundamentalist served us well until about 1928 or 1929. From that time on, and especially following the famous Scopes trial in which William Jennings Bryan argued against Darwin’s theory of evolution, fundamentalism began to be viewed by many as being anti-intellectual and naive. Added to this image of anti-intellectualism was a creeping tendency among fundamentalists toward a judgmentalism, by which they not only condemned those who deviated from orthodox Christian doctrine but any who did not adhere to their legalistic lifestyles, which were marked by condemnation of such things as dancing, smoking, and the consumption of alcohol.

By the time the 1950s rolled around, the word fundamentalist carried all kings of negative baggage…. About that time Billy Graham and Carl Henry, who was then the editor of Christianity Today magazine, began using a new name: evangelical. Again, orthodox Christians had a world that served us well, and did so right up until about the middle of the 1990s. By then, the word evangelical had lost its positive image with the general public. Evangelicals, to a large extent, had come to be viewed as married to the religious Right, and even to the right wing of the Republican Party.

When preachers like you [Shane Claiborne] and me go to speak at places like Harvard or Duke or Stanford and are announced as evangelicals, red flags go up and people say, “Oh, you are those reactionary Christians! You’re anti-woman; you’re anti-gay; you’re anti-environmentist; you’re pro-war; you’re anti-immigrant; and you’re all in favor of the NRA.” Defending ourselves, we say, “Wait a minute! That’s not who we are!” I think evangelicalism also has been victimized by the secular media, which is largely responsible for creating the image by treating evangelicalism and the religious Right of the Republican party as synonymous.

It was in this context that a group of us, who were sometimes referred to as “progressive evangelicals,” got together and tried to figure out how to come up with a new name for who and what we are. We kicked around various names and eventually came up with the Red Letter Christians. We wanted people to know that we are Christians who make a point out of being committed to living out, as much as possible, what those red letters in the Bible–the word of Jesus–tell us to be and do. We’re not into partisan politics, though we have a bias for political policies that foster justice for the poor and oppressed, regardless of which party espouses them. (pp. 3-5)

Note: Donald Dayton provides a history of evangelical social reformers in Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (1976).

Reflection Questions:

  1. Where does my faith tradition fit in this history? Where does my family fit?
  2. How have world events shaped church history and theology?
  3. How would you change church history (the reaction to world history) if you could?
  4. What is at stake with labels and public perception?
  5. Are the red letters central to my Christianity? Why or why not?
  6. What is the relationship between the red and black letters of the Bible, between what Jesus said and what came before and after him?
  7. If you’re a Protestant Christian (the assumed main intended audience of the book), what elements from mainline Christianity and from evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity do you value or accept? If you’ve read the introduction to the book, you know the question could be expanded to include what elements of Catholicism (and Orthodox) are also meaningful to you?
  8. Is there any value in contemplating this history, or is it all nonsense or simply not relevant for our world today?
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2 Responses to Modern (Evangelical) Church History

  1. Chris Blake says:

    I’m in the middle of reading Red Letter Revolution, which is bracing and excellent. Highly recommended.

  2. Jeff Boyd says:

    I’m just getting started with it, but already I appreciate the spirit in the introduction–we share a commitment to the Word, but how we embody this faith involves much variety. Unity in diversity. Looking forward to moving into the three categories of chapters!

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