The Making Of Evangelicalism | Notes & Reflections

Posted on August 17, 2016


Randall Balmer. The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond. Baylor University Press, 2010. (89 pages)

Journal of Southern Religion review. Interview with Scot McKnight, Patheos.

the making of evangelicalism 9781602582439


As I will argue later, the American strain of evangelicalism is peculiarly, well, American, and it derived from the eighteenth-century confluence of three “P”s: Scots-Irish Presbyterianism, Continental Pietism, and the vestiges of New England Puritanism. Evangelicalism in America has evolved and mutated over the centuries–that, in fact, s the burden of this book–but it is still possible to identify some generic characteristics: an embrace of the Holy Bible as inspired and God’s revelation to humanity, a belief in the centrality of a conversion or “born again” experience, and the impulse to evangelize or bring others to the faith. (2)

The genius of evangelicalism throughout American history is its malleability and the uncanny knack of evangelical leaders to speak the idiom of the culture, whether embodied in the open-air preaching of George Whitefield in the eighteenth century, the democratic populism of Peter Cartwright and Charles Finney on the frontier, or the suburban, corporate-style megachurches of the twentieth century. Evangelicalism is always changing, adapting to new surroundings and fresh circumstances. (3)

| One of the reasons evangelicalism is so pliable is that, unlike other religious traditions, it is not (for the most part) bound by ecclesiastical hierarchies, creedal formulas, or liturgical rubrics. (3)

Evangelicals are willing, even eager, to experiment with new ideas, especially in the realm of communications, and they are not afraid to discard ideas that do not work. This ability to discern and to speak the cultural idiom lends an unmistakably populist cast to evangelicalism in America. It also gives rise to a kind of cult of novelty. (4)

* * *

What emerged early in the nineteenth century was a theology that fit the temper of the times, an assurance to people who had only recently taken their political destiny into their own hands that they controlled their religious destiny as well. (4)

| These early nineteenth-century evangelicals, it turned out, believed not only in the perfectibility of individuals but in the perfectibility of society itself, so they set about the enterprise of constructing a millennial kingdom here on earth and, more particularly, here in America. This ideology of postmillennialism–Jesus will return to earth after his followers had ushered in a millennial age of righteousness–animated various efforts of social melioration all aimed at reforming society according to the norms of godliness. By the waning decades of the nineteenth century, however, in the face of urbanization, industrialization, and the influx of non-Protestant immigrants, evangelicals faced a second quandary: retain their vision of social reform or adopt an alternative theology, something called dispensational premillennialism, that would effectively absolve them from the task of improving society. (4-5)

The adoption of premillennialism late in the nineteenth century, a theology of despair, had turned evangelicals inward as they felt more and more estranged from the dominant culture. … This insular world, a refuge from the depredations of the larger culture, protected evangelicals–and especially their children–from contamination. But it came at the price of almost total segregation from the outside world (5)

* * *

Four turning points. Four critical junctures in the formation of American evangelicalism. Four times when, in Robert Frost’s memorable words, “two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” Each of these junctures–the transition from Calvinist to Arminian theology in the embrace of revivalism, the shift from postmillennialism to premillennialism, the retreat into a subculture, and the rise of the Religious Right–invites counterfactual speculation. What if evangelicals had gone another way, had taken a different road back there in Robert Frost’s woods? Might history have been different? Might evangelicals have been more faithful to the gospel they espouse had they chosen a different course? (6)

1 The Age of Revivals and the First Amendment

I generally refer to the ingredients in this [strain of evangelicalism unique to North America] as the three “P”s: the remnants of New England Puritanism, Pietism from the Continent, and Scots-Irish Presbyterianism. (11)

By circumventing the clergy and the established churches, Whitefield and his evangelical confrérés displayed the knack for populist communications that would become characteristic of evangelicalism to the present day. From the open-air preaching of Whitefield and a passel of itinerant preachers to the circuit riders and the colporteurs of the nineteenth century to the urban evangelism of Billy Sunday and Billy Graham in the twentieth century, evangelicals have always understood the importance of communicating directly with the masses, absent the niceties of ecclesiastical and denominational forms or even sanctified venues. (13)

* * *

…itinerancy had an enormous effect on religion in the eighteenth century. It provided religious choices for the populace, options other than the established Congregationalist churches in New England, the Church of England in the South, or the traditionalist Dutch Reformed and Anglican churches in the Middle Colonies. The presence of itinerants forced the settled clergy to compete in what was emerging as a religious marketplace. (14)

A kind of religious populism emerged in the eighteenth century that obtains to this day and can be seen most clerly in the televangelists and the megachurches. (15)

But the ubiquity of itinerant preachers and the emergence of religious options int he eighteenth century had another important effect: the absence of anticlericalism. The caricature of the besotted, overweight, indulgent vicar or parson–so common in British humor–has no real counterpart here in America. The reason, I believe, is simple. In a free marketplace of religion, clerics cannot afford to be complacent or negligent toward their congregants. They must always be conscious of popular sentiment–a two-edged sword, no doubt, because  populism can always degenerate into demagoguery or into a theology of the lowest common denominator. (15)

[Roger] Williams [1631] feared the deleterious effects on the faith if church and state were too closely aligned. In his words, he sought to protect the “garden of the church” from the “wilderness of the world” by means of a “wall of separation,” and it is important here to remember that the Puritans did not share our romantic visions about wilderness; for them, the wilderness was dark and forbidding, a place of danger where evil lurked. (15-16)

Williams’s ideas about disestablishment were picked up by such evangelical leaders as Isaac Backus and John Leland, and one of the great paradoxes of the eighteenth century is that these evangelicals allied themselves with Enlightenment types to press for religious disestablishment in the new nation. (16)

| This alliance of strange bedfellows produced the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads in part: “Congress shall make now law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It codified the free marketplace of religion that had been the configuration by default in many of the colonies. (16)

…Thomas Jefferson wanted to maintain that “wall of separation” in order to protect the fragile new government from religious factionalism, whereas Williams wanted the “wall of separation” to preserve the integrity of the faith… (17)

…no group has functioned more effectively in this marketplace than evangelicals themselves. Evangelicals understand almost instinctively how to speak the idiom of the culture, whether it be Whitefield’s extemporaneous, open-air preaching, the circuit riders blanketing the South in the antebellum period, or the curricula and the entertainment of the megachurches, exquisitely attuned to the tastes of suburbanites in the late twentieth century. No religious movement in American history has benefited more from religious disestablishment, which makes the persistent attempts on the part of the Religious Right to eviscerate the First Amendment utterly confounding. Why would any evangelical seek to compromise the very basis for the popularity of his faith? (17-18)

If the founders had not stood up to those who wanted to designate Christianity as the religion of the new nation, the religious environment would most likely look very different, anemic in comparison with the religious vitality we see both today and throughout American history. (18)

* * *

Whereas Jonathan Edwards had understood revival as “a surprising work of God,” Finney described it as “the work of man.” (21)

* * *

What is the attraction of Calvinism to contemporary evangelicals? I think their attempt to recast themselves in the Reformed tradition is a reaction, at least in part, to the runaway success of pentecostalism in the twentieth century. That is, many evangelicals, especially those associated with seminaries, believe that Calvinism is more intellectually respectable and theologically rigorous than Wesleyanism or Arminianism, and so they have taken great pains to associate themselves with the Reformed tradition in an attempt to trade on what they perceive as its intellectual heft–even to the point of denying their own historical and theological roots. (24)

2 The Transition from Postmillennialism to Premillennialism

Although this may appear to be a recondite doctrinal debate, the unfortunate detritus of people with too much time on their hands, this distinction has had enormous repercussions for the ways that evangelicals approach society. (29)

* * *

The corollary of postmillennialism was that believers bore the responsibility for bringing on the millennium by dint of their own efforts. (30)

And that is precisely what they set about to do. … They recognized that slavery was an abomination and inconsistent with a millennial society, so they organized to abolish it. They were part of the temperance crusade, which in the nineteenth century was a progressive cause. They joined with Horace Manna and others in support of public education, known as common schools in the nineteenth century; many of the early leaders of public education were Protestant clergy. (30) … Evangelicals opened female seminaries to raise the literacy rates among women to a level of parity with men by the middle of the century, and they sought to advance the rights of women generally, including the right to vote. (31)

[Lyman] Beecher decided that the barbaric practice of dueling was not a fixture of the millennial kingdom, so he launched a campaign, ultimately successful, to outlaw dueling as part of his efforts to inaugurate the millennial age. (31)

Postmillennial evangelicals int he antebellum period, convinced that they could bring about the millennium by their own efforts, energized social reform and utterly reshaped American society. The power of their arguments and the urgency of their activism led Americans to the brink of irreparable schism and the Civil War. (32)

The character of American society over the course of the nineteenth century was reshaped by both industrialization and urbanization. (32)

Men cam to be seen as “worldly,” an impression that lent urgency to the Second Great Awakening in boom areas like Rochester, New York, but that also fed what scholars have called the “feminization” of American religion, the shift of the spiritual responsibility from men to women. (32-33)

…John Nelson Darby, who had left the Church of England in 1832 for a small. Pietistic group called the Plymouth Brethren…became enamored of a new hermeneutic of biblical interpretation called dispensationalism, or dispensational premillennialism. (34)

Just as Finney’s Arminianism suited the temper of the new nation, the pessimism implicit in Darbyism took hold among American evangelicals. Premillennialism, with its its assertion that Jesus would return at any time, effectively absolved evangelicals of any responsibility for social reform. Dispensationalism taught that such efforts ultimately were unavailing. (35)

* * *

Led by such pastor-theologians as Washington Gladden of Columbus, Ohio, and Walter Rauschenbusch in New York City, aided by such theorists as Richard T. Ely of the University of Wisconsin, and popularized by Charles M. Sheldon’s novel In His Steps, the Social Gospel emerged to take up the cause of social reform. Although they seldom invoked the language of postmillennialism, the proponents of the Social Gospel, also known as Social Christianity or Christian Socialism, sought to make this world a better place, especially for the wretched of society. They believed that Jesus redeemed not merely sinful individuals but sinful social institutions as well. (37)

* * *

Throughout most of the twentieth century, at least until the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s, evangelicals clung to premillennialism and its emphasis on individual regeneration rather than social amelioration. (38)

I can think of two material consequences related to the evangelical penchant for dispensationalism. The first is lack of concern for the environment and the natural world. (39)

The second twentieth-century legacy of evangelical premillennialism is less pernicious but no less regrettable: bad religious architecture, sometimes spectacularly bad architecture. (40)

3 The Construction of a Subculture

Although no one could have suspected it at the time, nothing reshaped the internal dimensions of evangelicalism in the twentieth century more than the events in Topeka, Kansas, on January 1, 1902, the first day of the new century. Agnes Ozman, a student at Charles Fox Parham’s Bethel Bible College, began speaking in tongues after the manner of the early Christians in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. …glossolalia (speaking in tongues) broke out again on April 9 at a house on Bonnie Brae Street … Within a week, the fledgling movement relocated to a former warehouse at 312 Azusa Street, and for the next several years the Azusa Street Mission became synonymous with divine healing, pentecostal enthusiasm, and the preparation of missionaries, who fanned out across North America and the world with their pentecostal gospel. (45)

Another irritant to evangelicals was their uneasy relationship with mainline Protestant denominations, as evidenced by the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. (46)

In 1923, J. Gresham Machen, a theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary, published a book entitled Christianity and Liberalism. The two, he argued, are fundamentally different, and liberal–or modernist–Protestants should take the honorable course and withdraw from Protestant seminaries and denominations, leaving them to conservatives, the rightful heirs of Protestant orthodoxy. (47)

The ignominy surrounding the Scopes trial convinced evangelicals that the larger culture had turned against them. They responded by withdrawing from the culture, which they came to regard as Satan’s domain, to construct an alternative universe, an evangelical subculture. (49)

| The building that took place among evangelicals in the second quarter of the twentieth century was nothing short of astonishing. They set about forming their own congregations, denominations, missionary societies, publishing houses, Bible institutes, Bible colleges, Bible camps, and seminaries–all in an effort to insulate themselves from the larger world. The project was ambitious and Herculean and costly, but evangelicals believed that the integrity of the faith was at stake. In this era of separation, evangelicals sought to remain unsullied by liberalism, by modernism, or by the world. They withdrew from politics and from any culture outside of their own subculture. That was dictated in part by necessity, by the financial and logistical demands of creating a whole new infrastructure, but it also represented a choice to remain pure. (49)

* * *

The evangelical strategy of involvement with the larger culture in the third quarter of the twentieth century prepared evangelicals for a fuller engagement beginning in the mid-1970s. By then the so-called evangelical resurgence was well under way, a resurgence that was both real and illusory. (53)

It is not unusual, then, for a mainline congregation to list a membership of, say, one thousand and have only two hundred show up on a given Sunday, whereas the situation may be exactly the opposite in an evangelical congregation: one thousand on a Sunday, but a membership of only two hundred. (54)

Beginning in the mid-1960s, however, and continuing more or less to the present, the trajectory of mainline membership, attendance, and giving has been in steady decline. At the same time, evangelicalism has been growing–in numbers, certainly, but more importantly in cultural visibility and influence. (55)

| Why did evangelicals emerge so emphatically in the 1970s? The short answer is that the time was ripe. (55)

4 The Rise of the Religious Right

January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court handed down its landmark Roe v. Wade decision… (59)

…we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother. – Southern Baptist Convention resolution, 1971

I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person. – W. A. Criswell, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church

The catalyst for the Religious Right, however, was indeed a court decision, but it was a lower court decision, Green v. Connally, not Roe v. Wade. In the early 1970s, the federal government was looking for ways to extend the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark legislation that Lyndon Johnson pushed through Congress and signed into law during the summer of 1964. (62)

In response to Green v. Connally, Bob Jones University decided to admit students of color in 1971, but, out of fears of miscegenation, the school maintained it restrictions against admitting unmarried African Americans until 1975. Even then, however, the school stipulated that interracial dating would be grounds for expulsion, and the school also promised that any students who “espouse, promote, or encourage others to violate the University’s dating rules and regulations will be expelled.” (63)

* * *

The evangelical defense of Bob Jones University and its racially discriminatory policies may not have been motivated primarily by racism, and I do not think it was. Still, it is fair to point out the paradox that the very people who style themselves the “new abolitionists” to emphasize their moral kinship with the nineteenth-century opponents of slavery actually coalesced as a political movement effectively to defend racial discrimination. (65)

* * *

…the leaders of the Religious Right, who were and are overwhelmingly male, opposed the women’s movement, thereby betraying evangelicalism’s own heritage as nineteenth-century feminists. (69)

* * *

In their search for a comprehensive political agenda, the leaders of the Religious Right grabbed onto such issues as support for Israel, derived from their millennialist reading of biblical prophecies, and the abolition of the federal department of education. But in establishing a social agenda, which they insisted was based directly on the teachings of scripture, they ignored the issue of divorce in favor of opposition to abortion and, later, homosexuality. (69)

| On the face of it, this was a curious move. The Bible, not to mention Jesus himself, says a great deal about divorce–and none of it good. The Bible says relatively little about homosexuality and probably nothing at all about abortion, though pro-life advocates routinely cite a couple of verses. Jesus himself said nothing whatsoever about sexuality, though he did talk a good bit about money. Still, the preponderance of the biblical witness, which the Religious Right claims as formative, is directed toward the believer’s responsibility to those Jesus calls “the least of these,” toward an honoring of the meek and peacemakers, and, on social matters, against divorce. Yet the Religious Right made no attempt to outlaw divorce. (69)

This attempt to externalize the enemy proved effective. By the logic of their own professed fidelity to the Scriptures, the leaders of the Religious Right should have been working to make divorce illegal, except in cases of infidelity. Not more difficult, but illegal, because they seek to outlaw abortion. Instead, they have chosen to be draconian on abortion and homosexuality, even though the biblical mandate on those matters is considerably more ambiguous. The Religious Right’s opposition to abortion has been weakened, moreover, by its insistent refusal to be consistently “pro-life.” Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which, following the lead of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, has talked about a “consistent life ethic,” the leaders of the Religious Right have failed to condemn capital punishment or even the use of torture by the Bush administration.

| The failure to oppose capital punishment and torture leaves the Religious Right open to the charge that their agenda is driven by hard-right ideologues rather than by moral conviction. (70)

* * *

Politics, they [Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas, former assistants to Jerry Falwell in Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?] argued, was an arena of compromise, not suited to religious convictions. (72)

* * *

…the dangers of trivializing or fetishizing the faith by associating it with the state. The overwhelming lesson of American religious history is that religion, especially evangelicalism, has flourished here as nowhere else precisely because we have followed Roger Williams’s dictum that the church should remain separate form the state, lest the “garden of the church” be overcome by the “wilderness of the world.” (74)

| The other lesson for evangelicals in American religious history is that religion always functions best at the margins of society and not in the councils of power. (74)

When the faith hankers after political power or cultural respectability, however, it loses its prophetic edge. (74)

Indeed, history may very well judge the ascendancy of the Religious Right in the final decades of the twentieth century as an aberration because of its distortion of the New Testament and its failure to honor the legacy of nineteenth-century evangelical activists. (75)

Evangelicalism has profoundly shaped American history and culture. The challenge facing evangelicals now, in the early years of the twenty-first century, lies in finding a way to reclaim the faith from the depredations and distortions of the Religious Right. (76)


A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. – Martin Luther King Jr.

The very people who purport to hear a fetal scream turned a deaf ear to the real screams of fully formed human beings who were being tortured in the name of our government. And am I the only one who finds it a tad ironic that the same folks who sought to teach something called “intelligent design” in public-school classrooms seemed to evince precious little interest int he handiwork of the Intelligent Designer? (79)

Columns of the faithful (including family members) regularly excoriate me when they learn that I rarely vote Republican. How can I call myself a Christian, they ask, much less and evangelical? For too many years I offered an exasperated defense, arguing that the Bible I read enjoins me to act with justice and points me toward the left of the political spectrum. More recently, however, I turn the question around and ask my accusers to explain to me how the right-wing policies of recent years are in any way consistent with the teachings of Jesus, who expressed concern for the tiniest sparrow and who invited his followers to be peacemakers, to love their enemies, to care for “the least of these.” (80)

Put simply, the Religious Right finally collapsed beneath the weight of its own contradictions–and that presents evangelicals with an opportunity to set things aright and choose a different course. (81)

* * *

As a historian, I believe that any look toward the future should begin with a glance back at the past. (81)

The past continues to warn against the seductions of power and influence. Evangelicals, though no longer mired in their subculture with its attendant dangers of insularity, must position themselves once again at the margins of society. This, after all, is where Jesus conducted his earthly ministry, and it is also where nineteenth-century evangelicals were most effective. I am not arguing here that voices of faith should not make themselves heard in the arena of public discourse. Not at all. I happen to think that public discourse would be impoverished without those voices. But we who aspire to be the followers of Jesus must never confuse political access with prophetic witness. (83)

But the real value of historical understanding is that we can learn from the past and use its lessons to chart a better future. Evangelicals now stand at the cusp of that future, another turning point, a critical juncture. We can continue the narrow, petrified policies of the recent past. Or we can chart a new course, one that more fully embraces both the teachings of Jesus as well as the best of evangelicalism’s history. (84)

— via reflections —

Pardon the pun, but reading Balmer is truly a balm to my soul. His ability to succinctly summarize wide and complicated swaths of history into accessible explications has granted me a level of understanding that I am deeply thankful for. In addition to being an astute historian with a grasp on the social, religious, political, and even psychological forces at play in American Evangelicalism, Balmer brings with him a deep personal conviction and even vision of reclamation and reformation of that Evangelicalism which inspires hope. In other words, of the subtitle of the book, the thrust is mostly about the “beyond.”