Review and Response to “The Evangelicals” by Frances Fitzgerald

“The Evangelicals” by Frances Fitzgerald is many things. It’s huge for one thing. There are 636 pages of reading materials. And that’s not counting bibliography and notes at the end.

It’s chock full of stories. It’s a running narrative of an assortment of Evangelical figures throughout American history, but with a large section devoted to the time from WWII on. The book ends in 2016, not really dealing with the role of Evangelicals’ influence in the previous administration. But even without that, this book is really good.

And it’s not exactly kind of evangelicals. Not because the author goes on some kind of attack, but rather because the author shows the arguments, beliefs, and disputes in the words of the men who made them. They haven’t weathered well.

Also, please understand, I’m not an evangelical. I was born and raised Roman Catholic and became Lutheran in my 30’s. In many ways, especially in the current state of evangelicalism, evangelicalism feels like a different religion. With that said, I think learning about evangelicalism is important because it has had such an impact and influence on America.

If you want to have a deeper understanding of the Evangelical movement in America, understand the trajectory of the movement, and have an understanding of the basis of so many foundational ideas of the movement, then this is your book. The book allows the reader to see how the current state of evangelicalism came about, the people (really mostly men) who shaped evangelicalism into what it is today, and how fundamentalism has had an impact on evangelicalism.

The world, and especially evangelicalism has changed significantly since the 1970’s when Jimmy Carter was an evangelical.

The beginning the book traces the origins of evangelicalism to the revivals in the English-speaking world and Northern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here’s the summary of what makes evangelicalism different from other forms of Protestantism: “A religion of the heart, as opposed to the head.” (pg. 13). Individualized experience is a key part of evangelicalism. Which is ironic really, because that comes closer to mysticism than any evangelical would safely admit. The impact of this is a battle with established churches that would continue long after the age of revivals would end.

In this mix, you have the Puritans. “The Puritan rulers valued order above all other social virtues and saw themselves as responsible only to God.” (Pg. 15). This would be a foundation piece of what would become fundamentalism. Order is a theme that runs through the history of evangelicalism. But the question is always what is meant by order. In reading the book, it became clear to me over and over again that the author should have used the word “control” instead of “order,” because that’s really what these men who would lead this movement were most concerned with. Controlling what people thought, what they believed, and how they lived out the faith that they were told to believe. That may sound harsh, but that’s the take away from reading the book.

To give one example from the early foundation of evangelicalism, here’s a quote from John Leland, “Religion is a matter between God and individuals, and the individual conscious should be free from human control.” (pg. 29). While this comes off as a liberty of conscious, the challenge going forward was that these men just wanted to replace the established order with themselves. The only difference being that the established order had a hierarchy that people had to answer to, which prevented a great deal of radical ideas. In the new order, those with authority have no one to answer to and so all sorts of crazy ideas are allowed to spawn and grow. Out of this change of order, you end up with folks like John Nelson Darby and his ideas about the Rapture.

A great divide in evangelicalism formed before the Civil War, which the northern evangelicals and southern evangelicals splitting over slavery. The real divide though went further – with each side wedged in with their defenses, giving in to the other side would mean a change in the new established order. And who knows what that would unleash – possibly even women’s rights (oh the horror!).

It was during this period that the evangelical focus went deeper into faith being solely a personal struggle and individual salvation. The benefit of this shift in focus is that there is no debate on how faith impacts in a public way or how salvation goes far beyond just the individual to justice for people as a whole. If salvation is solely a private matter, then slavery is a moot point of argument theologically. Problem solved.

After the Civil War evangelicalism shifted again, battling between the individual salvation mantra and a social gospel. “The task of the church was, now as always, the regeneration of the social order as well as the regeneration of man, and that meant suffusing the institutions of society with the Christian spirit fo truth and love.” (Pg. 67). This idea grew out of Charles Finney’s vision of “building the Kingdom of God on earth.” (pg. 67).

In response to this, fundamentalism came and with it came a backlash – “The militancy of their antimodernism.” (Pg. 72). This means that there was emerging two “different ways of understanding science, history, and, most profoundly, the nature of truth.” (pg. 72). That line right there could just as easily been written for today because it sums up well the great divide in Christianity in American in 2022. The roots of this divide, as evidenced through Fitzgerald’s book, go back far in American history and have a deep hold on people.

One of the key divisions that came about during this rise of fundamentalist thinking and believing dealt with Scripture. Fundamentalists would “have to read [it] literally with no allowance for myths, metaphors, or different levels of meaning.” (pg. 76). This of course is hard to defend since scholars have long argued a that “successive transcriptions and translations of the Bible did not perfectly accord with each other.” (pg. 77). Of course not. So why hold onto such a belief that is clearly off course?

In this system of belief, “if even the tiniest error were found in the Bible, all truth claims for the Christian faith would collapse.” (pg. 78). It’s all or nothing thinking. There is no room for complexity or perplexity. There is no room for other options. There is only order and control. Options don’t lend themselves to order and control.

The effect of this way of believing was “proof-texting,” which “turned the Bible into an encyclopedia, or a dictionary, where words or concepts appeared shorn of their textual and historical contexts. Quite simply, it turned ideas into things that could be piled up in any order.” (pg. 83). Or in other words, it turned the Bible from the Word of God used to inspire conversation and build relationship into a weapon to be used to end discussion – establishing order and control.

Dwight Moody was a key player in this. He “said nothing of social reform or of the obligation of Christians to the welfare of the society at large…His focus was on the individual…As he explained it, the poor are responsible for their poverty.” (Pg. 90). Never mind Scripture’s call for justice, care for the poor, and more. It’s all about the individual and their ability to be saved.

Moody was a prosperity gospel preacher. His message was that a true conversion meant “prosperity seemed a supernatural gift to those who converted.” (pg. 90). Again, never mind the fact that the Gospel is Good News to the poor, that Scripture never promises earthly wealth and comfort for “true” believers who make Jesus their personal Lord and Savior. It’s just not there. And when it comes down to it, my question is this – what about the cross that Jesus promises to those who would be his disciple and follow him? Doesn’t seem like it matches very well with this prosperity idea.

I’ll pick up from 1900 in my next blog post reviewing this book.

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