When looking at how the American evangelical mind has been shaped, Mark Noll in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind focuses first on the impact of revivalism in early American history. The Church has always gone through periods of revival, so this isn’t really anything new. What is new is how it became a prominent feature that “defined the nature and purposes of the church for Americans,” (pg. 60).
On this continent, revivalism became prominent through the experiences of the First Great Awakening in the 1740s and the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century. In the First Awakening lively preaching from the British spellbinder George Whitefield, learned defense of living faith by Jonathan Edwards and the mobilization of a whole host of ministers and laypeople combined for a remarkable spiritual renewal, (pg. 60-61).
Two shifts happened as a result of the First Great Awakening that proves to be the most significant in their impact on American evangelical thinking, Noll points out:
- A new style of leadership was promoted – “direct, personal, popular and dependent much more on a speaker’s ability to draw a crowd than upon that speaker’s place in an established hierarchy,” (pg. 61)
- The traditional authority of churches were undercut by the revival.
Revivalism has obviously had a positive benefit. They made their message heard in society. Also if there were no revivals, there wouldn’t be that many Christians around at all, (pg. 62). Noll then drills down on the problem of revivalism in relation to the life of the mind.
The problem with revivalism for the life of the mind, however lay precisely in its antitraditionalism. Revivals called people to Christ as a way of escaping tradition, including traditional learning. They called upon individuals to take the step of faith for themselves. In so doing, they often left the impression that individual believers could accept nothing from others. Everything of value in the Christian life had to come from the individual’s own choice – not just personal faith but every scrap of wisdom, understanding, and conviction about the faith, (pg. 63).
There was also focus on an immediate response to the message. 19th century revivalist, Charles Finney, wrote when describing what he thought was the best form of conversion was “where a sinner is brought to see what he has to do, and he takes his stand at once, AND DOES IT.”
One consequence of this, I believe, is what I heard a Christian Reformed pastor call, “easy believism.” What I mean is a focus on the “sinner’s prayer” and trying to get someone to pray “the prayer.” Sometimes you wonder how much someone really understands even about the facts of the Gospel. Do they treat that prayer as some magic incantation. Obviously God can turn a heart of stone into flesh in an instant, but in my time working with kids I wonder if we declare a person saved prematurely because they “prayed the prayer.”
I don’t know if that is were Noll was going with that quote from Finney, but I think it is an issue. How has having “everything of value in the Christian life had to come from the individual’s own choice” impact our teachability? Thoughts?
Next post on this topic “The American Evangelical Mind & The Seperation of Church and State.”