Evangelism and its influence on the US

9781439131336The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, Frances Fitzgerald, Simon &Schuster, April 2017

 

This is a valuable book on the importance of evangelical theology and the varieties of its  practice, through the lives of leaders and evangelical bodies as they have impacted, and are impacting, America. Fitzgerald chronicles the history of Evangelism in the USA from before Johnathan Edwards to the present. The sweep of the book is grand, but it also full of detail.  It is well written in an almost conversational tone; a journalistic style of who, what. when and why.

 

Too often we think of Evangelicals only in present terms, as a conservative portion of Christianity aligned with the political right and fundamentalism, but such short-sighted historical thinking does not recognize the historical reality of the movement. Evangelicalism has been part of America from the Colonial period to the present. Thinking only of the religious right portion of the movement does not allow an appreciation of the variety of positions and different groups within it.

 

Evangelicalism rests upon the Calvinistic conclusion of the total depravity of humans and the need for personal atonement through a personal commitment to Christ. It has not always been either fundamental nor on the political right, as evidenced by its stance with abolitionists, creation of universities and other pushes for social advancement like public hospitals and public education; along with the influence of early believers on Jefferson and his anti-establishment of a religion as well as, of course, Madison and the concept of the need to separate Church and State well stated by preacher and reformer, Roger Williams.  It is the latter development of Evangelicalism after Azusa Street and Nixon’s Southern strategy that has produced the alignment of Evangelicalism and the political right which often defines our general public concept of the movement. In truth, the term is used by early Reformers back in Luther’s period and is used to refer to the Christian need to spread the Gospel to individuals considered lost in sin. This is not to say the general group has always been less than conservative.

 

Evangelicalism has always had at its core the responsibility of the individual for one’s life, including an act of commitment bringing salvation to the individual. One of the first best sellers, so to speak, in what became America, was Jonathan Edwards, Sinners In The Hands of an Angry God, that some of us recall having to read in high school American Lit. courses.  Individual redemption should produce a redemptive stance to neighbors, meaning the individual should redeem society and not any state. These positions easily align members of various church expressions to be solidly on the side of our economic system of individual capitalism and the politics of the individual, rather than the group. It also meant for many decades that Believers stay out of too much political involvement, but this has changed.

 

I find The Evangelicals to be a good book of religious anthropology and American history, for one cannot understand America without knowing of its religious history and its varieties of influence. The book is not cheap and it is not a fast read but it is worth every cent and every minute. I obviously believe the title is important. Due to shelf space, we may not always have the book in stock, but we can special order without extra charge and the order should not take more than a week or less.

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