History Changed Evangelicals
page is excerpted from the "The Surprising History of
Evangelicalism" by Robert Linthicum. For the
complete paper on evangelicals William Wilberforce, Jonathon
Blanchard and Charles Finney , see the end of this page for ordering
This examination of the origins of the
evangelical movement seems very much at odds with contemporary
could a movement so grounded in working for social justice change
into a movement that seems privatistic, pietistic and isolated from
life? Church historians
are well aware of this phenomenon, and have even coined a term for
it – the Great Reversal! What
caused the Great Reversal? ...
All three phenomena – evolution, communism and higher criticism
– were birthed in Europe in the middle of the 19th
century. But these theories took close to 50 years to reach the shores
of the United States. When
they arrived, however, it was as if a critical hurricane had gained
Those battling the new ideas created the
discipline of “apologetics” – seeking to defend Christianity
before its cultured despisers.
Those who went on the defensive sought to define clearly the
fundamental beliefsof evangelical faith and simply refused to believe any
concept that differed with those beliefs. ...
The result, however, for the evangelical movement, was
devastating because it turned the movement into a defensive
movement, isolating itself from the attacks of the world.
Rather than seeking the world’s transformation, over the
years they became refugees from a hostile world.
The second force that caused the Great Reversal from a
socially activist 19th-century evangelical faith to an
isolationist 20th century faith was a profound theological
shift. ...Thus it was that evangelicals not only began to
doubt their all-out effort to reform society.
They began to question the theology on which that action was
built. ...From about 1880 through 1910, a massive switch
occurred in the evangelical community, in which depression caused by
seeing worsening urban conditions and escalating poverty was
translated into an embrace of the new pre-millennial teachings that
proclaimed, “Don’t worry with how bad the world is becoming”. ...
The third factor
that thrust the evangelical church into a protectionist, isolated
existence was that the constituency of evangelical
Christianity changed. For the century
from 1830 to 1930, a striking phenomenon occurred within
evangelicalism. ...And slowly, they moved into the middle class,
became increasingly fiscally and politically conservative. And
they sent their children on to college and perhaps even to graduate
schools. And they began to build and manage significant
wealth. ...This is why the evangelical movement has changed so
radically in the 20th century, losing its roots as a
movement designed to be engaged in public life on behalf of the
oppressed. It has become escapist to the inevitable
hostility of society. It has embraced a theology that allows
it to avoid social responsibility. Its constituency has
changed to represent the self-interests of the middle class.
what makes evangelicals change?
What makes them reclaim their roots in social reform?
What makes them become engaged in sometimes uncomfortable and
confrontive public life?
I think it takes three things.
The first is that of building significant relationships with
them. ... Second, they will get engaged if there is a cause
that is compelling enough for them to join. Evangelicals are naturally compassionate people. ...
But third – and this is the crucial point -- it takes biblical
reflection. Remember that evangelicals are first, last and
always, people of the Word. They are grounded in scripture as
their ultimate authority.
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