Recently, Progressive Christian Blogs invited progressive Christians to write a post, at our own blog or forum, on the hope of progressive Christianity from our perspective—and then to post it to the PGB Google+ community at http://tinyurl.com/puqhk86.
I am excited about the project and will write my post on The Hope of Progressive Evangelicalism, but first I must explain evangelicalism because I find that many readers do not understand clearly what it is. And to do that, we must begin with the extraordinary energetic activity called evangelicalism that occurred in America in the last half of the 19th century.
The Rise of 19th Century Evangelicalism
Actually, this was not the first movement called evangelical. Evangelical earlier referred to the Lutheran Church, but it was not the origin of American evangelicalism. Evangel simply transliterates the Greek term for ‘good news’.
After the American Civil War there was tremendous development and excitement in certain Christian circles that coalesced into the evangelical movement; it affected many Christian traditions. The roots of this evangelicalism go back to revivalist Charles Finney and the Second Great Awakening, to John Wesley who founded the Methodist Church, and to other influences.
19th century evangelicalism was not a single organized movement, but the central personality characterizing the movement was revivalist Dwight L. Moody. He and the people working closely with him were key figures in the development of evangelicalism. Two stalwart institutions of 19th century evangelicalism were Moody Church and Moody Bible Institute, both in Chicago.
19th Century Theology
An important aspect of 19th century evangelicalism was the quest to live a victorious Christian life over sin. One expression of this urge was the Holiness Movement that began among Wesleyan (Methodist) churches but spread to Christians across all denominations. Its emphasis was on a second work of grace after salvation, called sanctification, that enabled the Christian to live a perfect life. At the very beginning of the 20th century, Pentecostalism developed from the Wesleyan Holiness Movement.
A second expression was the higher life movement associated with Phoebe Palmer and the Keswick movement. It was similar to, but not the same as, the Holiness Movement, and it also emphasized a transformational experience. Two books that helped popularize the movement were Hannah Whitall Smith’s The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life (1875) and Charles M. Sheldon’s In His Steps (1897).
There were other religious currents besides evangelicalism. New Thought was spreading in America through such advocates as Mary Baker Eddy and the Fillmores, developing into the Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science), the Unity Church, and others. Theosophy was also being popularized through the work of Madame Helena Blavatsky.
Among Christians, the dominant theology involved postmillennialism—the belief that Jesus would return after a thousand-year period of peace and tranquility. The idea was that the world would become increasingly better through Christian involvement until it ushered in the millennium. This optimism resulted in the adoption of the Social Gospel in the late 19th century.
One of the most disturbing factors to many conservative Christians was the growing influence of biblical criticism from European theologians. Two reactions against this ‘low’ view of the Bible were British dispensationalism and Princeton Theology, both of which espoused a ‘high’ view of scripture.
Dispensationalism originated in the work of John Nelson Darby beginning in the 1830s. Darby taught that prophecy was more integral to the biblical story than previously thought. Instead of the popular postmillennialism, Darby introduced a novel sort of premillennialism.
Two principles of dispensationalism are that the Bible should be read literally at every point and that everything in the Bible should be divided into passages that apply to Israel and those that apply to the Church. Based on these presuppositions, dispensationalists created an elaborate prophetic end-time scenario that included a secret rapture and the rise of the antichrist.
In America, dispensationalism became a topic of interest and Bible conferences, and some of Moody’s close associates became dispensationalists. Today, millions of American Christians assume dispensationalism as biblical truth; it became popular though a few important publishing events.
Jesus is Coming by WE Blackstone (1878)
The Scofield Reference Bible by CI Scofield (1909)
The Late, Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey (1970)
Left Behind by Tim LaHaye (1995)
Princeton Theological Seminary was established in 1812 and became a bastion of defense for Calvinism. Princeton Theology is associated with several powerful names: Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, AA Hodge, BB Warfield, and J. Gresham Machen.
As forces seemed to erode the high standing of the Bible, Princeton became a leading defender of traditional confidence in the Bible and was instrumental in defining and promoting inerrancy.
The Fundamentalist Crisis
19th century evangelicalism is essential to understanding the fundamentalist crisis of the early 20th century. We will talk about that next time.
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