19th Century Evangelicalism: Why is it Important Today?

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.

Dwight Lyman Moody

Dwight Lyman Moody

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 Theology

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.

I invite your comments and observations below.
If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, please sign up for updates in the column to the right (email, RSS, Facebook, or Twitter) so that you don’t miss future posts.
Also consider sharing this post using the buttons below. Have a great day! ~Tim
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30 Responses to 19th Century Evangelicalism: Why is it Important Today?

  1. sheila0405 says:

    Wow, Tim. Just great. Reading about the variations in the history of Protestantism is fascinating. Having been raised in a Fundamentalist church that used Scofield’s Bible, I wondered just how deep into the weeds you were going to go with dispensationalism. Not too far, I see! You could probably devote entire series to the movements listed in your blog. Can’t wait for the next installment!


    • You are correct Sheila, not too deep into the weeds with dispensationalism–not just yet! The topic right now is Progressive Evangelicalism, so I don’t want to get bogged down with side issues, important though they are.

      I hope to address dispensationalism more thoroughly later on though.


  2. michaeleeast says:

    I’m not sure that I quite understand what Progressive Evangelicalism is.
    Most Evangelicals I have come across have been anything but progressive.
    I can understand how Progressives could be evangelical but not vice-versa.
    Perhaps your future blogs will enlighten us.


    • Michael, there is a growing number of evangelicals who have become theologically progressive; this is what I am talking about.

      You say that you can understand how progressives can be evangelical. What do you mean by this? And how is an evangelical progressive different from a progressive evangelical? I am sure you mean something specific, but I cannot figure it out.


      • michaeleeast says:

        My understanding of evangelical is to evangelize or preach enthusiastically. Which means that you can preach Progressive Christianity enthusiastically – spreading the good news.
        But my understanding of Evangelical Christians is that they are a sect which is fundamentalist in their theology. Perhaps I am using the word in a different sense.


        • Michael, I think you understand the term evangelical Christian correctly, but no stereotype applies to all members of a movement.

          Beginning in the 1970s, there was a transition in the thinking of many evangelicals. It primarily involved the idea of biblical inerrancy. Since then there has been a growing number of evangelicals that no longer hold to inerrancy and other theological suppositions of fundamentalism. I am among those evangelicals.


          • michaeleeast says:

            I see.
            Perhaps this applies to Churches like Hilllsong here in Australia.
            They are evangelical.
            But I believe that they were considering their position on homosexuality.
            There may be others like the Paradise Church in Adelaide
            These are modern evangelical Churches which don’t fit the mold.


          • I am not familiar with these churches Michael, but they are perhaps the sort of theologically progressive evangelicals I am talking about.


  3. fiddlrts says:

    This is a very interesting post. I have had to go back and explore some of the history for myself.

    I read In His Steps in junior high, and was rather disappointed to see its thoughtful treatment of the topic devolve into WWJD bracelets – but such is the nature of American commercialism. Ah well.

    I look forward to the rest of the series.


    • I agree Fiddlrts, the WWJD bracelets, and bumper stickers, and other paraphernalia were an embarrassment. I was in the Family Christian Bookstore business at the time; we sold tons of them, and I shuddered.

      When I read In His Steps during college, I thought it was inspiring. But I also noticed that the characters were very judgmental of those who did not participate in the movement as they did, and I did NOT find that inspiring. I saw much the same attitude among those of us who pursued holiness.

      Even though there are many positive expressions, the pursuit of this type of holiness seems often to lead to legalism and judgmentalism.


  4. Gary Blinn says:

    My first bible was a Scofield ref. Read it till the covers came off. But after studying more, left dispensationalism. But it was a great reference bible.


  5. lotharson says:

    I’m looking forward to your post.

    I still hold fast to the definition that the Bible is our only infaillible source of knowledge about God 🙂


    • I hope you like the coming post Lothar, son of Lothar. I would say, a bit differently, that Jesus is our only source of knowledge about God.


      • michaeleeast says:

        Jesus is our source of knowledge about God.
        I like this .
        Rather than being some supernatural being
        I see Jesus as a man who drew close to God.
        And as such is a reliable source of knowledge about God.
        But I do not believe that Jesus is our only source of knowledge about God.


        • lotharson says:

          Hello Mike, I wrote a post for this event too:

          Best wishes!


        • Hi Michael, what other sources of knowledge about God do you have in mind?


          • michaeleeast says:

            Other sources of knowledge about God include Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi, and mystical texts like Julian od Norwich.
            Some knowledge can also be obtained from ancient mythological texts.
            The writings of Yogis can also produce knowledge about God.
            So there are many other sources about God.
            But Jesus’ vision is the most complete.
            By following the teachings of Jesus – love God and neighbor, love your enemies – we encounter the real God.


          • sheila0405 says:

            Tim, since people are spiritual beings, could beliefs about God be seen in other religions? Do you think that there is truth in other faiths? I do. I think God can inspire people to learn abou thim in many faiths. The inner soul craves truth, beauty, and peace. There are those things in some of the other great religions, like Buddhism.


          • Sheila, I believe that all truth is God’s truth no matter where it is found, so to the extent that other religions have truth about God–it is true. Who know what God has shown to those of other religions?

            On the other hand, I think that much of what Christians traditionally teach about God is not true–that he is angry, violent, and vindictive and will torment people forever in fires of hell. For me, the most solid information I have about God is what Jesus tells us of the Father.

            You mention Buddhism. I have a special, elevated respect for the Buddha, his attitude, and his teachings. I even have a large statue of him in my home, but I think Jesus had clear, direct access to the Father that the Buddha did not. This does not denigrate the Buddha but recognizes the uniqueness of Jesus (not Christianity).


          • michaeleeast says:

            I agree that Jesus’ vision of God is unique and the clearest we have.
            it is significant that even Mahatma Gandhi (A Hindu) was inspired by Jesus.
            Satyagraha or non-violent resistance is based on Jesus’ teachings.
            Nelson Mandela also adopts Jesus’ teaching of forgiveness and reconciliation.
            Tony Blair was inspired by Jesus in Northern Ireland.
            This is the genius of Jesus at work.


  6. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I read this post a few days ago. It was really timely for me, since I was reading James Barr’s book, Fundamentalism.


  7. Gary Blinn says:

    I know the yogis of yoga, especially kundalini call God the Infinite and is not really a personality such as God the Father, Son and Spirit.


    • Gary, I think we know very little of who God is and what he is like. When we finally understand God, I think all of us will be surprised–especially Christians who think they have put God in a theological box!


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