The Destruction of a Good Word


Charles Grandison Finney. Preacher, abolitionist, and second president of Oberlin College. An example of a nineteenth century evangelical. Photo, Public Domain via Wikimedia

Yesterday, I reviewed the new edition of Donald Dayton’s Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage. My own sense as I reflect on the book and its title is that the identifier “evangelical” in the American context has been eviscerated of its meaning. “Mourning a Lost Heritage” might be a better title.

Almost no one I know thinks this is a good word any longer. It is associated with the racial and political divides in our country. To be “evangelical” is to be white, Republican, anti-immigrant, among other things, none of which has to do with the word’s etymological roots or historic usage.

Literally, the term means “one who bears or is associated with a good message” or more briefly, “a bearer of good news.” There are four qualities that have made this good news, historically, noted by historians like David Bebbington and Mark Noll:

1. Conversion. The idea is that the message of Christian faith is not try harder, but become a new person through trust in Christ. It is a message that offers hope across all ethnic groups, economic strata, and every human condition.

2. God has spoken. Evangelicals affirm a Bible that is trustworthy and speaks with authority about the crucial questions of life, not leaving us to wander in the dark.

3. The Person and Work of Christ. Evangelicals have affirmed that Christ is fully God and fully human, and thus the perfect mediator to bring God to us, and us to God. His death and bodily resurrection root our hope of life and future with God not in what we do but what has been done for us in time and space.

4. Activism. Gratitude for the above three realities motivates a care for others expressed both in word and deed, both in seeking to persuade others to believe, hopefully but not always with grace and humility, and caring for needs of the body and injustices of society as well as spiritual renewal. Dayton’s book highlights how nineteenth century evangelicals like Charles Finney were in the vanguard of abolitionist and feminist movements, anti-trafficking movements, and urban outreaches to the poor, many immigrants. Some of this continues to the present in organizations like the Salvation Army.

Sadly, outside a historically and theologically informed sub-culture, I suspect there are few in American society today who would think of these distinctives when they hear the word “evangelical.” I seriously doubt they would think “good news” when they hear this word. It’s not their fault, however. It is ours. We’ve traded the pursuit of these wonderful distinctives and a message that transcends Left and Right for attempted political influence with one political party. And the sad truth is that in the end, we’ve had little political influence and lost spiritual influence in our culture. We’ve been political and cultural captives, and we are dying in captivity!

I’ll be honest, I had hoped that this would be the election when “evangelicals” would abstain from endorsements and public advocacy for particular candidates, given who the nominees are. Sadly, if anything, evangelicals have been among the most visible advocates for this year’s Republican candidate. Given what seems to be a deepening racial estrangement in our nation, this identification if anything has only seemed to deepen the corresponding estrangement between white evangelicals and black churches, and other ethnic minorities.

There are many believers, black and white who are seeking to bridge these divides. Many of us think that if we have any engagement in the political process, it is not to lodge our hope in political power, but to advocate with whoever is in office for justice. My sense is that most are very uncomfortable with the identifier of “evangelical.” Truthfully, I am among them. I often describe myself as a “mere Christian,” drawing on the example of C. S. Lewis. But it is not the case that I have left “evangelicalism” but rather that I would say “evangelicalism,” at least in its American form, has left me. Scratch me, and I bleed Bebbington’s distinctives.

But I grieve for the destruction of a good word about good news. I hate the fact that it is an epithet in the ears of many, and for all the wrong reasons. The real issue isn’t the word, but the loss of what the word has represented as a vital stream within American (as well as global) Christianity. I also grieve because of how much “damage control” it seems is necessary because of the political captivity of American evangelicalism. It often seems so hard to get to the good news, because first we have to deal with all the barriers and misconceptions that associates Christian faith in any form with “bad news.” I wish those “evangelical” leaders who make endorsements understood how every endorsement makes it just that much harder to pursue those core distinctives some of us still hold dear.

This particular movement may die, as Robert P. Jones and others are predicting. God’s way seems to be when one group ceases to be faithful to its call, others are raised up to take their place. Today, the most vibrant forms of Christianity are outside North America, and it might be argued that the most vibrant forms of Christianity inside North America are outside the white, evangelical church, in immigrant and ethnic minority communities. God is not bound to our cultural and political captivities. The question is whether we are willing to walk with Him on His long road to freedom.


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.