Randall Balmer recounts The Making of Evangelicalism.
Randall Balmer’s academic credentials find few equals among scholars of evangelical history. The Columbia University professor earned his PhD at Princeton and wrote the Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism, now published in paperback by Baylor University Press. The Texas publisher has enlisted Balmer once more, this time to write a slimmer volume, The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond. What the book lacks in comprehensiveness it makes up for with contemporary punch. And Balmer lands several punches against evangelicals both living and dead.
Balmer enlivens his narrative by focusing on four turning points in evangelical history: “the transition from Calvinist to Arminian theology in the embrace of revivalism, the shift from postmillennialism to premillennialism in the late 19th century, the retreat into a subculture, and the rise of the Religious Right.” The primary aim of his book is evidently political, as he teases out the public policy implications of all but the first turning point. In one persistent theme, Balmer credits disestablishment for America’s comparative religious vitality while denouncing the Religious Right for trying to “eviscerate the First Amendment.” Then he closes his introduction by describing how President Barack Obama’s electoral victory in 2008 “dealt a mortal blow to the Religious Right.” Younger evangelicals, Balmer writes in the conclusion, have fled from the Religious Right, because they care for the environment and care little for traditional views on sexual identity. But Balmer has treated political issues more extensively in his book Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America. So with limited space for this review, I will focus on another element of Balmer’s brief history.
Before there was Christian History, there was Christian History.
Thomas Prince Sr. may have worried that the Great Awakening was fading when he and his son started the first evangelical magazine in 1743. But he wanted to publish a journal that would document the revival that had been spreading through the American colonies. Future generations could turn to the Christian History magazine and remember God’s faithfulness. He also hoped the periodical would keep the awakened community from fracturing, encourage recent converts, and perhaps even prompt a few new ones. Whether or not the Boston pastor succeeded in all his aims, we are indebted this progenitor of evangelical publishing, who inspired generations of journalist/historians to support the church by documenting the gospel’s progress.
“Where there had been no specifically evangelical periodical publication in the first forty years of the [eighteenth] century,” Susan [Durden] O’Brien observes, “by the last forty years such literature had become a normal means of communication and propagation for several denominations.”
Thomas Kidd tells the story of a Great Awakening.
Good history books are a gift that keeps on giving. Baylor University scholar Thomas Kidd published The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America in 2007. But this landmark contribution to a much-studied period will long shape our understanding of the dynamic revival that spawned the modern evangelical movement.
Regarding that thorny question of evangelical origins, Kidd does not go so far as his colleague David Bebbington, who has argued for a “sharp discontinuity” between the transatlantic revival and earlier Protestant expressions. Rather, Kidd describes the American evangelical tradition as a “new elaboration” of the Reformation." In fact, he identifies three “chief tributaries” that fed into the burgeoning movement: Continental Pietism, Scots-Irish Presbyterianism, and Anglo-American Puritanism. But the “new elaboration” concerns “dramatically increased emphases on seasons of revival, or outpourings of the Holy Spirit, and on converted sinners experiencing God’s love personally.” This elaboration led to no small controversy in the 1740s.
Three Bethel University professors discuss the historic significance and present health of evangelicalism.
This past summer two professors at Bethel University, St Paul, Minnesota and one at sister institution Bethel Seminary (me!) were invited to participate in a recorded dialogue that would become a printed piece in the schools’ magazine. The three of us, guided by questions posed by a moderator, considered where evangelicalism is today and where it may be headed.
By necessity tentative and partial, our wide-ranging conversation nonetheless raised some important issues. When we were done, we had a meaty article, of which (for reasons of space) only a brief portion ended up being printed in the magazine.
Though somewhat longer than our typical blog posting, we offer the full edited article (“never before published,” as the marketing wallahs might say) in hopes that it will spark some conversation among our readers who care about the historical movement called evangelicalism:
Contributors to new book highlight theologian's belief in inerrant Scripture.
History lovers have to appreciate a book that charts the evangelical future by looking back on the life and legacy of a great theologian. Of course, such a strategy of turning back to find your way forward perfectly suits J. I. Packer. As an accomplished historian and theologian, Packer finds cures for what ails contemporary evangelicalism by exploring the contributions of spiritual giants such as the Puritans. So we expect nothing less than prescriptive retrospective from J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future: The Impact of His Life and Thought, a new book edited by Timothy George.
The book mostly compiles essays from a 2006 conference hosted by Beeson Divinity School. Presenters included Charles Colson, Mark Dever, Alister McGrath, Carl Trueman, and the CH blog's own David Neff. Not surprisingly, several of the essays touch on Packer's contributions to the doctrine of Scripture.
“This insistence on the Bible as the irreplaceable source for all adult catechesis in academic and church settings is arguably Packer’s most important legacy to the future of evangelicalism," writes Paul House, Beeson's associate dean. "Without this emphasis Packer’s catechesis makes little sense and will have little continuing impact, and the same is also true for evangelicalism.”
In particular, Packer has contended for more than 50 years that evangelicals should hold to the belief that Scripture is infallible and inerrant. Denver Seminary associate dean Donald Payne writes, “It is difficult to overstate the importance of biblical inerrancy in Packer’s theological method. According to this logic, obedient discipleship is possible only if Scripture functions inerrantly.”
Famed evangelist had help with the revival that almost wasn't.
Sixty years ago this summer, Billy Graham reached a decision that changed the course of evangelical events. Shaken by his friend Charles Templeton’s growing skepticism of biblical authority, Graham wondered whether he could continue to preach. The doubts grew so strong that he even considered going back to North Carolina to work as a dairy farmer. With evangelistic meetings being planned for Los Angeles that fall, Graham needed a quick resolution one way or another. He conferred with Henrietta Mears, who founded the Forest Home Christian conference center where he was speaking. He confessed his concerns to God and wrestled for an answer. Fortunately for evangelicals, Graham resolved to accept God’s Word by faith. “I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts,” Graham prayed, “and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. During his first sermon under the tent in Los Angeles, Graham thundered, “God Almighty is going to bring judgment upon this city unless people repent and believe—unless God sends an old-fashioned, heaven-sent, Holy Ghost revival.” He punctuated the end of every description of what ailed America with the refrain, “We need revival!” God heard his pleas. Aided by favorable media coverage of Hollywood conversions, Graham’s tent meetings lasted eight weeks, attracting hundreds of thousands. And the lanky Southern farm boy with the fiery delivery became a national celebrity.
This part of the story is familiar to many evangelicals. But they might not be aware of the people and events that preceded this well-known demonstration of the mid-century revival.
The vision of John Comenius and the story of the Unity of the Brethren give us a good way to test a hypothesis.
History is a great place to go to test "slippery slope" arguments ? claims that "Questionable Belief or Practice A" will inevitably lead us to "Horrifying Situation B." One way to answer the argument is to appeal to precedent: "Let's look back and see whether things like 'A' have led to situations like 'B' in the past."
These days evangelicals with a heart for (1) ecumenical dialogue, (2) liberal education, and (3) cultural engagement are being told by fundamentalist watchdogs that they are leading good, faithful, Bible-believing people straight down the road to "liberalism."
Let's put this to a historical test.
Our focus: a small, persecuted, pietistic sect to which "father of modern education" and Protestant bishop John Comenius belonged in the 1600s.
The emotional energy of Cane Ridge and other early frontier revivals arose from a strong emphasis on the Eucharist.
Many evangelicals - especially younger ones - are today re-engaging tradition. Other evangelicals worry about this re-engagement. They feel that to move toward a more liturgical form of worship or a more fixed, detailed style of theological "confession" is to give up the freer, more emotional worship style or more grass-roots, straightforward doctrinal and theological style won for us by such evangelical forefathers as the 18th century's John Wesley or the 19th century's Charles Finney.
I want to suggest that one way forward to healthier engagement with tradition for modern-day evangelicals is through a look at our own recent past. For American revivalism itself grew on unexpected foundations of liturgy and doctrinal confession.