Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism: III -- By: Randall Balmer

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 38:0 (NA 2006)
Article: Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism: III
Author: Randall Balmer


Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism: III

The Construction of a Subculture

Randall Balmer

When talking about evangelical attitudes toward society, it is possible, with only modest contrivance, to divide the twentieth century into four equal twenty-five-year periods: 1900 to 1925, 1925 to 1950, 1950 to 1975, and 1975 to 2000. Within each of these quarters, evangelicals approached the broader culture in very different ways, moving from suspicion and separation during the first half of the twentieth century to engagement and something very close to capitulation in the latter half. Just as social and demographic changes in American society profoundly shaped evangelical theology in the nineteenth century, so too the historical circumstances in each of these eras had broad repercussions on evangelicals and evangelicalism in the twentieth century.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, America’s evangelicals were profoundly suspicious of the social changes that had buffeted the United States in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Evangelicals’ adoption of dispensational premillennialism in the waning decades of the nineteenth century, with its assurance that Jesus would return at any moment, effectively absolved them from the task of social reform. The social needs of the cities, in any case, were overwhelming and seemed to defy redress. Better to hunker down, seek the regeneration of other individuals, and scrutinize your own spiritual affairs in preparation for the rapture.

In an odd and somewhat indirect way, evangelicals’ embrace of Charles Finney’s Arminian theology during the antebellum period exaggerated this tendency. Whereas Wesleyanism and Arminianism empowered individuals to seize control of the salvation process, the corollary was that salvation thus attained could also be imperiled by the failure to live a godly life. Endless theological discussions about “eternal security” among evangelicals (whether or not one’s eternal fate had been irreversibly secured at conversion) would have been, if not impossible, at least somewhat less probable among die-hard Calvinists, who taught the “perseverance of the saints,” that those whom God had elected for salvation he would preserve to ultimate glorification. Arminians could claim no such assurance of “eternal security,” so the task of examining the state of one’s soul and devising various devotional exercises to shore up one’s spirituality became at least a minor obsession.

With these characteristics—the emphasis on a personalized, introspective faith combined with a general disregard for social reform—evangelicals entered the twentieth century.

Although no one could have suspected it at ...

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