Continuing looking at how the American Evangelical mind has been shaped, Mark Noll in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind first saw how revivalism made an impact on its development.  At the time what the First Amendment accomplished was something that was totally unique.  Many came to the American colonies for the purposes of religious freedom in order to worship independently and freely from a state sanctioned church.

The Constitutional Convention decided that there would be no “Church of the United States.”  So in the First Amendment we see, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  How that was interpreted and viewed then, and how it has been interpreted today is very different.

Needless to say, this new right which took effect in 1791 made a distinct marking on the development of the American Evangelical mind in this new country.  They had an unprecedented degree religious freedom, and Noll points out that while is is a very good thing for churches to be free of government (which really was the purpose of the Amendment), this “freedom from an establishment had an ironic result for Christian thinking,” (pg. 64).

Noll states for the first time churches had to compete for adherents.  Before in Europe, churches were assigned responsibility for parishoners.  Denominations, now in “competition,” accomplished this through revivals.  This process led to a “religious market” which caters to individuals and stresses personal conversion and faith.  This had both a positive and negative effect:

This combination of revivalism and disestablishment had effects whose importance cannot be exaggerated.  Analyzed positively, the combination gave the American churches a new dynamism, a new effectiveness in fulfilling the Great Commission, and a new vitality in bringing the gospel to the people.  Analyzed negatively, the combination of revivalism and disestablishment meant that pragmatic concerns would prevail over principle.  What the churches required were results – new adherents – or they would simply go out of business.  Thus, the production of results had to override all other considerations, (pg. 66).

It also, Noll adds, predisposed believers to utilitarian apologetics or functional theology.  Now they were asking questions of what would expand the church and what would advance the cause of the church in society.  Noll notes that it was this that caused much difficulty for the life of the mind.

American evangelicals never doubted that Christianity was the truth.  They never doubted that Christian principles should illuminate every part of life.  What they did do, however, in the years between the Revolution and the Civil War, was to make most questions of truth into questions of practicality.  What message would be most effective?  What do people most want to hear?  What can we say that will both convert the people and draw them to our particular church?  The heavy pressure for results meant that very little time or energy was available to think about God and nature, God and society, God and beauty, or God and the shape of the human mind, (pg. 67).

In that context those issues simply became irrelevant.  My note, I see this sustained today in much of the church growth movement – a focus on practicality.  Not saying that is inherently wrong as we do want to bring the Gospel to the people.  Unfortunately it seems in some circles the ends justify the means, and we could question the end results in some of those cases.  I think we also see a lack of intellectual depth as well with the focus on “how to” books – a shift from systematic, biblical and historical theology to practical theology.

A shift from “is it true?” to “does it work?”  What do you think?

Next in this series – how a Christian-Cultural synthesis impacts evangelical thought.

4 comments
  1. It seems like the Secular Progressives use the Separation clause like a hammer to drive God right out of the public arena. That wasn’t the intent of the Founding Fathers at all.

    When the founders came up with Separation of Church and State weren’t they just concerned with one Christian denomination being favored over another or did they have atheism and other religions like Islam in mind as well?

    From what you’re saying they had no idea that Christianity itself would be driven out of the schools and just about everywhere else it could be driven from.
    .-= LarryK12309´s last blog ..A Wild Ride Into Schenectady Politics =-.

    1. @LarryK12309, I agree with you Larry. Oh I think they were mostly considering Christian denominations, but they had a Jewish population, Muslims, Unitarians, and others to consider.

      I’m actually not addressing that effect of the establishment clause. Actually I’m dealing with the mainly free exercise clause and how that religious freedom effected the Church, in general, and evangelicals in particular internally. The establishment clause also had an effect as I note.

      What you bring up is an entirely different matter.
      .-= Shane Vander Hart´s last blog ..The Power of a Hail Storm =-.

  2. I understand the point of the blog (I think) and I agree there is a problem with the evangelical mind of today that is somehow connected back to the revivalism of the 1800’s. This revivalism and the “disestablishment” that followed would be the obvious result of the Reformation. The Reformation was good. The Revivals of the 1800’s were good. Also, the Fundamental movement of the 1920’s was good. Heck, I even enjoyed the Jesus Movement and the Charismatic movement in the ’60’s and ’70’s. Who would complain about the Great Awakening that we saw in the 1700’s? The problem with the Revivalism was not the movement but man’s nature. Free enterprise is good even when dealing with the truth. I mean, start a church, preach the truth and those with ears to hear will come. But, man’s nature (as in preachers and church people) doesn’t want to deal with the failure of being rejected by those without ears to hear. Fear of failure leads to compromise and is followed by the establishment of some form of institutionalism to defend against further challenges and growth. Thus, as foreseen in your quote above, “pragmatic concerns would prevail over principle” (simply put, “fear stifles truth”). For me it is as simple as “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct , rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.” To be truly successful in ministry we must follow the principle of the cross before the crown even in the midst of potential church growth and revivals. In other words, you can not be afraid of failure and rejection which must occur when teaching the Word of God and the orthodox theology found in scripture. Jesus and Paul promised that if you teach truth you would be met with rejection and failure, but credited with being faithful. I believe when enough people reject institutionalized evangelicalism and once again seek the truth as found in the Scriptures they will themselves experience reformation, great awakening, revivalism, and what is more, they will find THE TRUTH DOES WORK. Put truth first, and functionality follows. (I enjoy your blogs.)

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