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.”

4 comments
  1. Indeed, there must be people who say the sinner’s prayer hoping it will solve their earthly problems, get them out of debt, relieve their sense of guilt, help them find a hot wife like the pastor has, etc. But, I think the Bible is filled with people who simply heard and believed the simple gospel message without thinking about or understanding the sin nature of man, the virgin birth of Christ, the trinity’s role salvation, etc. In the Bible people heard the gospel and were saved. Think of the Philippian jailer, those saved at Pentecost, Cornelius in Caesarea, or people in the cities that Paul traveled to. The problem of “easy believism” is not the sinner’s prayer nor the conversion process that occurs in the altar call. The problem is in: 1-the anemic condition of the church’s academic UNDERSTANDING, 2-the church’s DESIRE to teach truth, 3-the church’s ABILITY to communicate the revelation of scripture to the new believer. The problem is not the new believer’s academic understanding, desire for truth or ability to learn. We do not need a more academic salvation message because, salvation is as easy as “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Peter tells new believers to “crave pure spiritual milk so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” Indeed, there must be many conversions that are not genuine, but that is not the problem. The problem is the church is starving these infant believers by not teaching them the truth (doctrine, Scripture, the faith, etc.). The problem is not “easy believism” but “easy Bible doctrine, no study required.”

    Of course, I am skeptical of the salvation of the 3 people who went forward after hearing the sermon about the Apostle Paul, his wife Silas and their crippled little boy named Timothy who was healed by Jesus.

    1. @Galyn Wiemers, Hey Galyn, sorry I took so long responding. I’ve been on “hiatus” and this was a scheduled post.

      I agree with problem as you frame it, but I am not referring to being “more academic.” I know coming to Christ is simple, as is the Gospel message. I’m certainly not discounting or doubting those who have received Christ that way. I’d be discounting my own salvation. But before I ever prayed I was also searching and had questions so the harvest wasn’t really that spontaneous. It was a gradual conviction and drawing by the Holy Spirit.

      We just need to be careful in evangelism to remember that ultimately it the Holy Spirit is the evangelist. It would be easy, when focused on wanting someone to “pray the prayer” to manipulate people to do so. I’ve unfortunately have witnessed that. I pray that I haven’t been guilty of it myself.

      That was thrust of my comments.
      .-= Shane Vander Hart´s last blog ..Iowa Angry Mob Diaries =-.

  2. Totally agree with Galyn….it IS easy to become a Christian. Jesus said unless we become as little children,w e cannot see the kingdom of God. When my son, who was almost 4 at the time, came to receive Christ, I was so sceptical because I felt “he couldn’t possibly understand it all.” But as I asked him questions like,”why will you go to hell when you die?” and he said, “Because God can’t have sin in heaven,” my jaw dropped.I don’t even think he learned this from me or Sunday School….he KNEW and was convicted in his heart, and because of his simple, child-mind, he could easily believe in Jesus to rid him of sin.
    No, a prayer never saved anyone….it’simply the words that accompany an accepting heart….”if we confess with our mouths the Lord Jesus, and believe in our hearts,we WILL BE SAVED.”

    1. @Melody, Yep, I agree with Gayln as well, but I think he misunderstood what I was saying. See my response to him.

      I think we often times forget that ultimately it is the Holy Spirit that is the evangelist. No one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws them, (John 6:44).

      I’ve just seen some things done in the name of evangelism that have more to do with manipulation & a sales pitch than it does with the Gospel “that is the power of God for salvation for those who believe,” (Romans 1:16).
      .-= Shane Vander Hart´s last blog ..Iowa Angry Mob Diaries =-.

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