28 July 2012

The Rise of Evangelicalism

I'm currently reading The Rise of Evangelicalism, a 2004 work by Mark Noll that looks at evangelical history to about 1800. While I'm only about 70 pages in, Noll makes a few important arguments in this general overview of the movement. One of the arguments that is not really common in evangelical circles is the importance of High Church Anglicans in the movement. However, Noll points out that the parents of John and Charles Wesley were High Church Anglicans and that the more famous Wesleys attended Oxford to become Anglican ministers.

Noll points out a convergence of Puritan (dissenting Anglican), Pietist (German groups like the Moravians), and High Church Anglicans that led to the emergence of the Evangelical movement. Many who were concerned with a church hierarchy and a national church had a problem with the evangelicals. The early evangelicals tended to favor use of the Bible over tradition and a sort of lay piety that encouraged lay meetings on a regular basis. It is easy to see why an established church might have problems with this.

Two thoughts come to mind. 1) The clergy may have been worried about their place in society. 2) The clergy may have been worried about the new and unique doctrines that might arise in such an environment. The first concern did not really come to pass, at least in American church history. Religious sentiment actually increased after what Nathan Hatch referred to as the "Democratization of Religion." However, the second concern did, in fact, happen. The Second Great Awakening is widely considered the biggest revival in American church history. Some of the ministers were quite orthodox in their beliefs. It is important to note that some unorthodox and heretical groups came out of this movement.  I'm interested to see the major figures that Noll notes in the rest of the book, as it is more of a general historical overview than a narrow look at one group or movement.

13 July 2012

Confidence in Religion?

I just read an interesting article that discussed the opinion that people have of organized religion.  The article cited a recent Gallup poll that asked people to tell whether they had confidence in organized religion.  Apparently, the number of Americans saying they did have confidence in organized religion fell to an all-time low of 44%. 

This begs the question of why.  The article stated that two major trends discouraged people--the 1980s scandals of people like Jim Bakker and the 2000s Catholic scandal where priests liked altar boys a bit too much.  While there have been seemingly random swings up and down, but the trend has generally been to the negative.  Of course, the article also noted that other major institutions have also been trending down--such as schools and television news.  The others are no surprise.  One only needs to watch the news to see why both schools and television news are trending down.  Schools seem to be violent with kids often learning little, and television news, especially the cable variety is so skewed left or right with little semblance of objectivity.

All of it is sad, but especially the negative opinion of religion.  Since Christians and nominal Christians make up the vast majority of the general public in America, the findings are an indictment upon Christians to some degree.  But the truth is, as a Christian, I'm appalled by much of what falls under the general rubric of "Christianity."  Many of the "preachers" on TV seem to be peddling health and wealth, which just seems to fall right in line with the worship of money and materialism that is rampant in our society.  Jesus was rich, after all, wasn't he?  Then you have the Westboro "Baptists" of the world who think that it's great when bad things happen because they hate just about everybody.  Jesus hated everyone except a small congregation of about 50 people, right?   

When these types are what the majority of people see, is it any wonder that faith in religious institutions is falling?  Perhaps, if people in authority in religious institutions were more like Jesus, there'd be more respect, but also more disagreement.  Jesus said that he'd divide people and that his followers would divide people, just not because they act like everyone else.


04 July 2012

Today Is July 4--Founding Fathers and Thoughts on Theological Liberalism

Well, it's another July 4, where many people will celebrate the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.  Of course, declaring independence and actually winning it are two different things.  Perhaps we should actually celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 as our official independence day.  That's not as fun, though, because it took far less in terms of guts.

There is frequently a debate over whether or not the founding fathers of the nation were all evangelicals or all Deists.  I've argued before that it's difficult to lump the founding fathers into one easy group.  There were founding fathers from both groups.  The link above is a post from last your that discusses a bit about John Witherspoon, a minister who signed the Declaration of Independence.  Baylor professor Thomas Kidd wrote about the top five forgotten evangelical founders this week.  The good thing about his posts are that they are actually scholarly and written by an expert in early American religious history, unlike some other "experts" that try even Thomas Jefferson out to be an evangelical, rather than the Deist he actually was.  People who study American church history should not just cherry pick documents that seem to argue what they want.  It's important to look at a person's entire body of work. 

Another post this week that interested me was a discussion about historians of liberal Protestantism, which deals with the twentieth century.  There is quite a bit about evangelical religion in this period.  My own work deals with the subject of evangelical history.  The question arises why there are not as many historians of liberal Protestants.  A definition is in order, liberal Protestants tend to be liberal in the theological sense.  While they frequently have liberal leanings in a political sense, the major emphasis is theological liberalism, at least as far as I understand.

Perhaps the answer to this question is the fact that theologically liberal Protestants are much less influential in American society because they are a shrinking demographic in society.  Some evangelical denominations have lost members and there is a growing number of non-religious people in America today, but these losses are nothing when compared to the influence that the mainline denominations once had in American society.

Much of this could probably be explained because of the non-supernatural bent of these liberal Protestants.  For example, if Jesus was just another man who had a special spark of the divine, there's not much to differentiate him from the descriptions that other religions have of their founders.  If he actually resurrected from the dead and was God and man as the New Testament describes, on the other hand, then Christianity holds infinitely more importance.  I think this difference is the reason for much of the decline of liberal Protestantism.  If Jesus isn't really who the Bible claims, why not just become a hedonist and skip church?