The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

The Evangelical Shift

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A cursory reading of the Fundamentals, a series of papers published in 1917 to define the fundamentals of the Christian faith, do not deal with an evangelical evaluation of social reform. There is an article in the Fundamentals that criticizes reforms as modernists developed them, but nothing is offered to replace these social-gospelers. Of course, it was about this time that the dispensational view of eschatology was making its way on the evangelical scene and its doctrine of the “imminent” return of Jesus. Cyrus I. Scofield’s (1843–1921) note-filled study Bible was first published in 1909 and later revised by Scofield in a 1917 edition. Dispensationalism is all about what happens after the rapture of the church. Our time in the “parenthesis” is only temporary. The church is God’s afterthought, His “Plan-B” after His plan-A failed.

The earlier reform worldview espoused by the revivalists “was replaced by an eschatology that looked for the return of Christ to rescue the ‘saints’ out of this world. Premillennial teaching implied that the world was in such bad shape that it would only get worse until the return of Christ. Some even argued that efforts to ameliorate social conditions would merely postpone the ‘blessed hope’ of Christ’s return by delaying the process of degeneration.”[1]

This shift in eschatology had profound, and somewhat mixed, impact on the social involvement of Evangelicals. On the one hand, the expectation of the imminent return of Christ freed many from building for the immediate future (social advancement, pension plans, etc.) to give themselves wholeheartedly to the inner cities and foreign mission fields. Resulting contact with poor and oppressed peoples often pushed these devoted souls into relief and other welfare work—and occasionally into reform.

But more characteristic was the tendency to abandon long-range social amelioration for a massive effort to preach the gospel to as many as possible before the return of Christ. The vision was now one of rescue from a fallen world. Just as Jesus was expected momentarily on the clouds to rapture his saints, so the slum worker established missions to rescue sinners out of the world to be among those to meet the Lord in the air. Evangelical effort that had once provided the impulse and troops for reform rallies was rechanneled into exegetical speculation about the timing of Christ’s return and into maintenance of the expanding prophecy conferences.

The extent to which this shift in eschatology was felt throughout Evangelical life and thought is difficult to overestimate. One of the most striking contrasts between pre-Civil War revivalists and those after the war is that the former founded liberal arts colleges while the latter established Bible schools. To the post-war premillennialist the liberal arts college involved too much affirmation of the cultural values of this world and took time away from the crucial task of getting minimal knowledge of the Bible before rushing into the inner cities or the mission fields to father as many souls as possible before the imminent return of Christ. In the late nineteenth century the Bible school movement picked up the message of the prophecy conferences and trained a whole generation of Evangelicals in the new doctrines.[2]

America is paying the price for this century of indifference.

Why should we abandon an area of legitimate biblical concern just because humanists have perverted our methods and goals? In fact, every biblical doctrine has been perverted in some way. Salvation by grace through faith has become “easy believism” for some. A misunderstanding and misapplication of Romans 6:14 that we are “no longer under law but under grace” have led to incipient antinomianism. A belief in Jesus’ Second Coming has turned many Christians to be preoccupied with the next event in eschatological time while ignoring present worldly conditions. As Christians, we do not jettison these biblical doctrines because of abuse by some. In the same way, we cannot abandon biblical social reform because of a similar abuse. The Bible considers outward reform to be, first, evidence of internal renewal (Matt. 7:15–23), and second, a beacon to those who are in darkness to see the light of the gospel of grace (5:13–16; Luke 2:32). Failure to comply to the Bible’s admonitions for outward reform hinders an effective proclamation of the gospel. Reform acts as a “light on a hill” for those without the gospel.

See, I have taught you statutes and judgments just as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it. So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him? Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” (Deut. 4:5–8).

The statutes and laws that God has given to His people are the standards of reform. They are the “good works” that those outside of Christ are to “see” (Matt. 5:16).

Is it possible that when the church abandoned its duty to reform society along biblical lines (personal transformation leads to societal transformation) the vacuum was filled by humanistic forces?

As several scholars have noted, the legacy of nineteenth-century Evangelicalism was not only a stalwart commitment to the growth of Christianity (through domestic revivals and evangelisation and through foreign missionary activity) but also, within many quarters, a dedication to concretely address the needs of the socially and economically disadvantaged. . . . Though the chief priority was always “spreading the gospel,” the philanthropic dimension of Christianity was in a way ignored. This was true not only among the Presbyterian Calvinists and the Baptists, who connected this with their postmillennial hope of reforming society in preparation for the return of Christ, but also among the Holiness and Pentecostal denominations and sects in their passion for revival. . . .[3]

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Once again, though the practical, benevolent side of Christianity was always secondary to the supreme purpose of evangelism and personal piety, the two objectives were seen as working hand in hand. Uplifting the sinner and saving his soul fused together in an integrated thrust.[4]

In time, however, the social dimension of the gospel was looked upon with suspicion by those who held to an orthodox Christianity. Liberalism gave up the gospel for “Social Christianity.” Conservatives saw the “priority of social service in the mission of the Christian church”[5] as a breach of the faith. Instead of retrieving the gospel, fundamentalists abandoned social service.

The United States was being rapidly industrialized, and the Christian Gospel was beginning to influence the situation. Evangelical sentiment was expressed by Mrs. Barnardo thus: ‘The State should deal with it, but does not: the Church of Christ must!’ Responsibility of the State was recognized.

In the same sequence of logic, once the State has undertaken its responsibilities in the way of education, medicine and the like, there is no longer the same urgency or even reason for missioners to shoulder the burden. Their very limited funds could be put to better use elsewhere.

In the homelands of Evangelical Christianity, the step-by-step improvement of social conditions, the leavening of the lump by the Christian conscience, was accompanied by a development of social impetus by Society itself, so that it was no longer necessary for Christians to initiate ideas for new social improvements—they simply joined efforts with other enlightened citizens. Their ministry of pioneering was channeled more an more into needier fields abroad. There, where the social conscience was often feeble, they were free to combine their urgent evangelism with urgent social betterment, their hosts accepting the former so long as it was accompanied by the latter.[6]

While the devil’s house of social ills was being swept clean by the gospel and social applications of the gospel, turning society over to the State brings to mind the words of Jesus: “When the unclean spirit goes out of man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and takes along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first” (Luke 11:24–26).

The State in the nineteenth century, reflecting some remnant of the Christian worldview having been “swept clean” through a powerful Christian influence, was looked upon as a “Christian partner.” But in time, with the State’s increasingly secular character, the social facets under its care reflected the State’s messianic aspirations. Are we surprised that so many Americans look to the State for salvation rather than Jesus Christ?


[1] Donald Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 126.
Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, 127–128.
James Davison Hunter, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 40.
Hunter, Evangelicalism, 41.
Hunter, Evangelicalism, p. 41.
J. Edwin Orr, The Fervent Prayer: The Worldwide Impact of the Great Awakening of 1858 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1974), 181.

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