Interpreting the History of American Evangelicalism: 2 Lenses (Part 1)

It has been said that one of the themes in the history of evangelicalism is that energetic populist or democratic new movements eventually become more middle class and staid. One might seek to interpret the history of American Christianity in light of this lens (the democratization of American Christianity). However there are other primary lenses for interpreting American Christianity for instance one might interpret American Christianity in light of theological principles (such as how God works), doctrines, intellectual or interpretive assumptions that shape use of the Bible, practices, moral standards and concerns, leadership, personalities of leaders, zeal and organization for evangelism and missions, responses to the challenges of the surrounding culture, effective use of media, or other factors.

In this brief series of posts I would like to examine the history of American Christianity through two lenses: 1-the lens of democratization and 2-the lens of doctrinal disputes. Today we begin with the democratization of American Christianity.

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In his book The Democratization of American Christianity, Nathan Hatch argues that the central force behind evangelicalism has been its democratic or populist orientation. This populist orientation is manifested in three different ways. The first way he sees the populist spirit played out is in the fact that evangelicals consider individual religious experiences of utmost importance. The second way is in lack of a firm distinction between clergy and laity. During the rise of evangelicalism ordinary people began to distrust their established leaders and sought out to shape their own faith according to their own likings and to choose their own leaders. The third way is the way that evangelicalism has always been led by populist, charismatic leaders with big dreams to change the world, for instance Francis Asbury and Charles Finney.

Although Evangelicalism prior to the civil war was a populist religion, eventually it shifted towards becoming more middle class, to the point where it eventually became the established form of religion among the American people. Hatch points out that in the South Baptists and Methodists became the established forms of religion. As they became more established, middle and upper-class citizens sought to join these churches, in turn these churches sought to dampen populist tendencies so that they might find respectability among its new members and society at large. The way this played out was in the adoption of middle-class methods of ministry and in the establishment of institutions of higher education.

One character that sticks out in this shift from populist to established is Charles Finney. Finney bridged both cultures, and introduced the indigenous methods of popular evangelism to the middle class. But he also brought middle class interests to populist religion; he brought along with him middle class ways of preaching and an interest in orthodox theology that up to this point had not been a major interest for many evangelicals.

This pattern of being populist and democratic to becoming more middle class and staid is a pattern that can be seen through the history of evangelicalism. In the next post I would like to briefly look at two movements within evangelicalism that display this pattern.

 

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