So then, how has American Christianity come to this spot. To answer the question, we have to remember what R.L. Dabney once said, “. . . it is essential to your own future that you shall learn the history of the past truly.” As we seek to pass on a legacy to our children, we keep getting tripped up by what we think happened to our fathers. So as we finish this very short thumbnail sketch of the history of Christ’s Church, we must always take care to remember that it is His church, and He will care for her throughout all history, as He has to this point.
Although we addressed George Whitefield (1714-1770) in the previous post, a few more things should be said about him, and about the general impact of the Great Awakening. Whitefield preached for thirty years, and preached somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 sermons. He was consumed for the sake of the kingdom of God. He preached in a culture shaped by the Puritans — both here and in England. Positively, he was used to bring many thousands of people into a vibrant relationship with God through Christ, and he did this in the years just prior to the War for Independence. Without the first GW (Whitefield), there would have been no place for the second GW (Washington). Negatively, one of the results of his catholic and open air proclamation was a general cultural disparagement of the role of the Church. We are still dealing with the results of that today. But though this was a negative consequence, we ought not to lay the central blame for it on the evangelical preachers. Whitefield and the Wesleys were Anglican priests who were denied the use of church pulpits. It is always a suspicious criticism when the establishment kicks you out and then blames you for being out. We should take a skeptical stance when the burst wineskins chide the wine for being there on the floor.
But negative consequences are still negative, and new wine on the floor doesn’t stay new wine. The Second Great Awakening, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was markedly less doctrinal than the first had been, and the stage was set for revivalism to replace true revivals. Charles Finney (1792-1875) was a lawyer who was suddenly converted in 1821, and then ordained in 1824. He labored for many years as a revival preacher. His impact historically was almost entirely negative. Doctrinally, he was a rationalist and a pragmatist, and he departed radically from the Reformed faith. His doctrine of the will had a practical impact also; he instituted “the anxious bench,” which is where our common practice of “going forward” came from. Finney taught that revival was something we could necessarily bring about through utilizing the right “methods.” This can-do pragmatism has thoroughly devastated the modern church.
The War Between the States (1861-1865) was a horrible conflict that was a judgment of God on our entire nation, North and South together, and we are still suffering under the consequences of this judgment today. For our purposes here it is important to note that it was also a clash between two cultures. Unitarian theology was very influential in the North; Southern leadership was dominated by orthodox Christianity. God used the forces of unbelief in the North to chastize and humble the more orthodox but no less disobedient South. As we consider this horrific time in our history, we should acknowledge this as a time of judgment — our French Revolution.
J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) was a champion of educated orthodoxy, and led the fight against the rising theological liberalism in the Presbyterian church. He was removed from the church, and was instrumental in founding the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Machen also distinguished himself in his opposition to Prohibition. The latter distinguishes him as much as the former. The Bible is our authority, not wowserism.
Following defeat in the mainstream denominations, conservative theology became reactionary, and retreated from any significant interaction with American culture. Earning the label fundamentalism, it stayed this way until the early 70’s, when they were roused by Francis Schaeffer. But when conservative Christians took up arms again for the culture wars, they found them badly rusted through lack of use.
Modern American evangelicalism can be identified with D.L. Moody in the last century (“I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it”), and Billy Graham (1918- ) in this century. Evangelicalism can be described as a theological attempt to split the difference between reactionary fundamentalism on the one hand, and Reformed orthodoxy on the other. For the most part, this attempt has been unsuccessful, though it has made some significant contributions to the Church generally. The modern ecclesiastical scene is a circus, and the only real cohesion evangelicalism has is found in individuals, not doctrine or liturgy. And this is our ailment; this is our disease. The Church must stand or fall by what she believes and does, and not by her personalities or, as they have now become, our celebrities.