There are three possible futures for American Evangelicalism. These diverse destinies depend upon the moral, social and theological convictions of the communities and leaders of the different streams. They also represent patterns found in three centuries of American Evangelical history. These futures will also determine whether or not particular communities flourish economically and socially.
American Evangelicalism has never been a uniform subculture. The term “Evangelical” denotes adherents of historic Christian faith within a Protestant ethos.
Remembering the Past
Synthesizing the insights of historians George Marsden and Mark Noll, the Awakenings that gave shape to the Evangelical ethos between 1730 and 1840 focused on five key attributes: (1) Biblical authority and inspiration, (2) affirmation of historic creedal theology, (3) the necessity of personal conversion, (4) commitment to local and global evangelization/missions, and (5) integration of personal piety and public charity and engagement in making the world a better place.
Integrating personal faith with deliberate generosity of material and spiritual resources for the common good was normal discipleship for Evangelicals. John Wesley, founder of the Methodists, eschewed any separation of piety and public charity, insisting that members develop relationships with the recipients of their largesse. He also commended entrepreneurship and hard work, enjoining friends to “earn, save, and give” in proper proportion.
The three reactions mentioned above have their origins in the 18th century. One group resisted change and rejected the affective experiences of renewed believers and their insistence that their ministers display sufficient enthusiasm and fidelity to Scripture. These were the “Old Lights.” They eventually split into two camps, with some retaining historic creedal faith and others embracing Deism and/or Unitarianism as the Enlightenment calls for eschewing old superstitions gave way to modern scientific understanding.
By 1800, reactions to change are established: (1) retrenchment and rejection of new experiences and ideas, (2) revision of the faith itself, including questioning cardinal doctrines, and (3) renewal leading to reform and revival of biblical faith. (more…)