Review: Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage


Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage, 2nd editionDonald W. Dayton with Douglas M. Strong. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014.

Summary: An updated edition of a study of the pre-Civil War nineteenth century roots of evangelicalism in the United States and the combination of piety, preaching, and social reform characteristic of this movement in this period.

In the mid 1970’s, Donald Dayton, a church historian wrote a series of articles for The Post-American (now Sojourners) that was collected into the first edition of this work. In it, Dayton traced for a rising generation of socially-conscious boomer evangelicals (of whom I was a part) the reform, social justice tradition within American evangelicalism, going back to its nineteenth century pre-Civil War roots. That edition, called Discovering an Evangelical Heritage gave a generation of us the basis for contending that it was possible to care both about the eternal destiny of people and about social injustices within our society and in our international relations, that both were part of Christian faithfulness for people who took their Bibles and the kingdom that Jesus announced seriously. In 1988, the first edition was re-printed with new preface by Dayton. This new, second edition includes updated supplemental material by Douglas M. Strong as well as a new introduction and conclusion written by Strong. What we have is not only Dayton’s original work, but a sense of the trajectory of evangelicalism in the forty years since, including the rise of the Religious Right, and more recent Millennial efforts to recover this heritage.

Dayton began this work with a profile of Jonathan Blanchard, first president of Wheaton College. He came to Wheaton from pastoring a black Presbyterian church in Cincinnati, continued his anti-slavery work as president of Knox College in Illinois before going to Wheaton, founded by abolitionist Wesleyan Methodists, with a commitment to carrying on this reform tradition. Another, whose career trajectory was similar was Charles Grandison Finney, known not only for his revivalist preaching but also for his fervent abolitionism and his commitment to permit women to pray and speak. He carried these commitments into his presidency of Oberlin College, which Dayton traces in a subsequent chapter, particularly as the abolitionist wing of Lane Theological Seminary departed Cincinnati for Oberlin, forming a college that admitted blacks and women, preparing both for ministry and other professions. Later, Dayton recounts the resistance and civil disobedience to Fugitive Slave laws, culminating in the Wellington case, where fugitive slave John Price is rescued from custody in nearby Wellington.

Dayton also profiles Theodore Weld, converted under Finney and serving as an assistant to him. Instead of joining him at Oberlin, he heads up the American Anti-Slavery Society, using techniques he learned in Finney’s revivals to mobilize commitment to abolition. Eventually he marries fellow abolitionist Angelina Grimke, in what was clearly an egalitarian marriage, in which Weld renounced his “right” to her person and property. Dayton profiles the Tappan Brothers, wealthy New York businessmen who used their resource to fund anti-slavery efforts, including the work of Finney and Weld. At one point, Arthur Tappan pledged nearly all his annual income of $100,000 to Oberlin College (there was a Tappan Hall, eventually torn down to be replaced by Tappan Square, across the street from Finney Chapel).

The remainder of the book explores the evangelical roots of feminism, the development of ministries among the poor, including the work of the Salvation Army, and what happened to evangelicalism over the next century. One of the most fascinating trends is the tension between the tradition represented by Finney and the tradition represented by the Princeton Theologians. One emphasized experience and practice, the other theological orthodoxy. It seems these two have been in a kind of “tug of war” throughout our nation’s history. In the post-Civil War period, the focus turned more to matters of personal morality, and the resistance to theological liberalism and Darwinist science, leading to a retreat into fundamentalism, from which the movement began to emerge only in the post-World War Two period, the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam war era, as a rising evangelicalism sought resources to address these issues of the day.

Strong traces the movement from 1976 and the election of Jimmy Carter, an avowed evangelical, down to the present. The rise of the Religious Right, and the strategy of Republicans to regain the white South led to political re-alignments and a re-focused agenda for many evangelicals that has continued to this day, along with the rise of a complementarian neo-Calvinism bent on defining orthodoxy for all evangelical scholarship. Strong traces the rise of Millennials, disenchanted with the polarized politics, and concerned with a new set of social justice issues and racial reconciliation as a counter-movement to these trends.

I had a lot of mixed feelings reading this book. There is a certain amount of pride that much of this evangelical history runs through my home state, from Cincinnati to Oberlin. Yet I feel a great sadness that by and large, we are not cognizant in the evangelical community in my state of that history or how we might carry it on. One striking exception has been a continuing effort to fight human trafficking, which harks back to the Underground Railroad, a prominent part of Ohio history.

I would like to be as sanguine as Strong about the rising generation. I can’t help but think about how the movement of the 1970’s by and large was co-opted by affluence and became part of a reactionary establishment. For most, there was neither a grounding theological vision, nor an orthopraxy of pursuing both piety and justice embedded in our lives and church communities. We grew intellectually lazy and comfortable. I hope the rising generation can indeed recover this great tradition of both vigorous piety and reform. My own hunch is that if it is to happen (and Strong alludes to this), it will arise not out of white evangelicalism, which I think is too far gone in its cultural and political captivity, but out of minority and immigrant communities, and multi-cultural church communities where whites may be in the minority. That may be a good thing, both for the American church, and the country that is its earthly home.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


2 thoughts on “Review: Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: September 2016 | Bob on Books

  2. Pingback: Ten Books For Understanding Evangelicalism | Bob on Books

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