Is the Term ‘Evangelical’ Redeemable?

Before the 2016 election, I was comfortable with using the term “evangelical” for people like me, in spite of the problems with it. Now I am not so sure. The reason is that, whatever its historic value, the word “evangelical” in America has become inextricably tied to Republican politics. This is because the dominant media is far more interested in the political expressions of religion than in religion itself. But it is also because strong majorities of white evangelicals support Republican candidates, including Donald Trump. Because it has become inextricably politicized, “evangelical” has become an essentially divisive term among Bible-believing Christians, as many African Americans, Hispanics, and others cannot identify with the political ramifications of being an “evangelical,” especially after the election of President Trump. Kevin DeYoung, Mika Edmondson, and Russell Moore had an excellent discussion at TGC about the problems and use of the term: [embedded content] In a previous post at this blog, I addressed how politics and polled killed the term “evangelical.” In American pop culture parlance, “evangelical” now basically means whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican. George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards would be utterly perplexed by this development. These early evangelicals were fighting specifically against cultural Christianity, which was politicized in state churches. In their day, if you lived in Britain or its colonies, and had been baptized as an infant, you were regarded as a Christian. No questions asked. Swimming against the stream of culture, the evangelicals of the Great Awakening preached against nominalism and national faith, declaring that you must be born again. The born-again believer would find a radically different, kingdom-minded way of life in the community of the redeemed. Much has changed since the 1700s, and the change seems to have accelerated since the 1980s. I would point to… Read More

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An Open Letter from Christian Scholars on Racism in America Today

​Like many Americans, we are grieved by recent events in Charlottesville. The white supremacist rally there showed that overt racism is alive and well in America, and that it can turn violent and murderous. As Christian scholars of American history, politics, and law, we condemn white supremacy and encourage frank dialogue about racism today. ​As Americans, we love our country. As Christians, we know that no individual, people, or nation is perfect. Among the most grievous sins committed by early Americans was the enslavement of and trafficking in Africans and African Americans. Slavery was formally abolished in 1865, but racism was not. Indeed, it was often institutionalized and in some ways heightened over time through Jim Crow legislation, de facto segregation, structural inequalities, and pervasively racist attitudes. And other persons of color, including Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans, have often been subjected to official and unofficial discrimination. What we have seen in Charlottesville makes it clear once again that racism is not a thing of the past, something that brothers and sisters of color have been trying to tell the white church for years. ​Racism should be denounced by religious and civic leaders in no uncertain terms. Equivocal talk about racist groups gives those groups sanction, something no politician or pastor should ever do. As Christian scholars, we affirm the reality that all humans are created in the image of God and should be treated with respect and dignity. There is no good moral, biblical, or theological reason to denigrate others on the basis of race or ethnicity, to exalt one race over others, or to countenance those who do. ​Even as we condemn racism, we recognize that the First Amendment legally protects even very offensive speech. Rather than trying to silence those with whom we disagree, or to meet violence with more violence,… Read More

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How to Survive Graduate School

As a new semester begins, it is a good time to reflect on the practices that students—particularly graduate students and seminarians—need to survive and even thrive. Graduate programs are designed to make you part of a guild of practitioners or professionals, and require an enormous amount of reading and writing in order to prepare you for those professional credentials. The rigors of a graduate program are tough. Graduate students’ relationships, and mental and physical health often suffer. Many students never really adjust to the proper mentality of a graduate student—they’re still in the cycles of procrastination and all-nighters that they adopted as undergrads. This will not cut it any more. Though I took some bumps and bruises, I did manage to survive graduate school. Partly this was because I had a wonderful doctoral adviser who cared about his students as people. Partly it was because I was part of a supportive cohort of students. I also had helpful, understanding parents, and the University of Notre Dame offered me financial support on which I could reasonably live and eat. Prospective students will want to gauge such factors when they’re making decisions about where to go—or even IF to go to a humanities or social sciences graduate program, given the dismal state of the job market. There are three key practices that will help graduate students survive their programs and end up as healthy as possible on the other end. First is learning to read like a graduate student. I once estimated that during doctoral coursework at Notre Dame, I needed to be reading about seven books a week. A book a week for each of my classes, plus books I needed to read for research papers or other responsibilities, added up to about seven a week. “Reading” in this context cannot mean reading each… Read More

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The One Must-Read Book for Reformation 500

I was recently asked about the one book I would recommend for churchgoers to learn about the history and ongoing relevance of the Reformation. As the actual 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation approaches in October, many churches and pastors may be interested in recommending such a book. So I approached several experts for their answers. Scott Manetsch, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School: Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand:  A Life of Martin Luther (Abingdon, 1950). “This classic biography of Martin Luther remains unsurpassed as the best popular introduction to late medieval religion and the complex mental and religious world of the great German reformer.” John D. Wilsey, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: Stephen J. Nichols’s The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Crossway, 2007). “This is an accessible read for folks who have a basic knowledge of the timeline and big names of the Reformation, but struggle to see how it remains pertinent 500 years later. Nichols’s writing style is absorbing and persuasive in this helpful read, and the book is a good starter for anyone interested in going further in Reformation history.” Beth Allison Barr, Baylor University: Peter Marshall, The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009) “at $6, this provides a solid historical overview that is also easy to read”; Lucy Wooding, Henry VIII 2d ed. (Routledge, 2015), slightly more expensive but “a solid overview of the man who, in many ways, has come to epitomize the English Reformation”; and Roland Bainton, Women of the Reformation in France and England (Fortress, 1973), “an introduction to notable figures such as Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I, as well as less well known folk such as Charlotte de Bourbon and Catherine Parr.” Tal Howard, Valparaiso University: “For Luther’s life, I would recommend Roland Bainton’s old classic Here I Stand. For Reformation theology, I would recommend Alastair McGrath’s… Read More

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Martin Luther King, Conformity, and the ‘Age of Jumboism’

In late 1954, Martin Luther King had just been installed as the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He preached a sermon on Romans 12:2: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of Go.” (KJV). In the sermon, he addressed the spirit of conformity that marked the 1950s, but his words seem immediately relevant to the church today. Martin Luther King, Jr., Library of Congress, Public Domain. Instead of making history we are made by history. The philosopher Nietzche once said that every man is a hammer or an anvil, that is to say every man either molds society or is molded by society. Who can doubt that most men today are anvils, continually being molded by the patterns of the majority? Along with this has grown a deep worship of bigness. Especially in this country many people are impressed by nothing that is not big—big cities, big churches, big corporations. We all are tempted to worship size. We live in an age of “Jumboism” whose men find security in that which is large in number and extensive in size. Men are afraid to stand alone for their convictions. There are those who have high and noble ideals, but they never reveal them because they are afraid of being nonconformist. I have seen many white people who sincerely oppose segregation and discrimination, but they never took a real stand against it because of fear of standing alone. I have seen many young people and older people alike develop undesirable habits not because they wanted to do it in the beginning, not even because they enjoyed it, but because they were ashamed of saying “no” when the rest of the group was… Read More

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A Brief History of the Altar Call

By the mid-20th century, altar calls had become a staple of evangelical and Baptist life in America, especially in the South. Many evangelical and Reformed-leaning churches in recent years have stopped doing altar calls, for a variety of reasons. Critics of altar calls have pointed out that they have no strong biblical basis, and that they were part of the “New Measures” introduced by Charles Finney in the later stages of the Second Great Awakening. In his anti-revivalist tract The Anxious Bench (1843), theologian John Williamson Nevin admitted that Finney’s “anxious bench” tactic was sometimes associated with real revivals. (Finney invited the unconverted to come to this bench at front of the room to pray, and to be prayed for, often resulting in an emotional breakthrough for the person.) But, Nevin wrote, Spurious revivals are common, and as the fruit of them, false conversions lamentably abound. An anxious bench may be crowded, where no divine influence whatever is felt. . . . Hundreds may be carried through the process of anxious bench conversion, and yet their last state may be worse than the first. Evangelists such as Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday also employed invitations to come to the front of the preaching hall. For Sunday, the journey to the front in response to a gospel invitation became known as “hitting the sawdust trail,” as recently explained by Justin Taylor. Billy Graham issued the most famous invitations of all, telling people “your friends will wait for you” as the choir sang “Just as I Am.” Although some have made a sharp distinction between the era of Finney’s “New Measures” and the theologically pristine revivalism of the First Great Awakening, there were signs of calls for an immediate response to the gospel from First Great Awakening evangelists, including George Whitefield. Whitefield at the 1742… Read More

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The Banner of Truth Trust Turns 60 Years Old

Iain Murray is 86 years old. Sixty years ago today, along with Jack Cullum and Sidney Norton, officially founded Banner of Truth, the Reformed-evangelical publisher that began out of Westminster Chapel in London in 1957. It is headquartered today in Edinburgh, Scotland, with distribution offices in Carlyle, Pennsylvania. Here is a 15-minute overview of the non-profit publisher’s history and distinctives: [embedded content] The Banner’s website recounts some of the historical background: By late 1956, Iain Murray was in London as an assistant to Dr Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel. One of his duties was to take a Wednesday night meeting. Initially this meeting was to be a biblical exposition, but Lloyd-Jones changed this, and under his direction, Iain Murray was tasked with giving addresses on church history. One of those who regularly attended these Wednesday night meetings was a businessman, Jack Cullum. In his forties, dark haired, and standing 6ft 4ins tall (1.93m), he was a distinguished-looking character. As he listened to the addresses on church history and heard of the way that God had worked in times past, learned of the people God had used and what they believed, he was prompted to meet with the speaker and ask how it was that this thrilling history of the church was so little known to contemporary Christians. Iain Murray’s answer was that quite simply it was because the books that told of these things, that were so rich in information and teaching, were almost all long out-of-print and consequently known to very few. When in the recent past second-hand Puritan books had been available, no one had wanted them and therefore British publishers generally took the view that such old titles were unsaleable and not worth reprinting. To most publishers of the day, the emphasis of that literature was not congenial to much… Read More

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What Andrew Jackson Could Teach Donald Trump about Religion

We are pleased to run this guest post by Dr. Miles Smith IV, assistant professor of history at Regent University and a historian of the South and Atlantic world, specializing in the Nineteenth Century United States. You can follow him on Twitter at @IVMiles. Certain Evangelical leaders friendly to Donald Trump recently prayed over the president. Photographs of the event emerged, and the image presented a visceral image of the presidency being cloaked in the mantle of certain sectors of Evangelical Christianity friendly to the President’s ideals and image. Dubbed “Court Evangelicals” by Messiah College professor John Fea, these religious leaders argue that Trump is—or is becoming—a Christian man worthy of emulation. Hanging over the praying ministers was a portrait of the president Trump claims to admire most: Andrew Jackson. Perhaps unbeknownst to those in the room, Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) had been offered a similar religious blessing by Christian leaders. Jackson, however, consciously refused to claim God’s protection on his presidency. He believed that it was presumptuous and inappropriate to claim any special favor from God in his presidency, a caution not shared by his successor in 2017. Similarities between Presidents Jackson and Trump Historians have noted a few similarities shared by the seventh and forty-fifth presidents. (Professor Thomas Kidd of Baylor University wrote an excellent primer at this blog on how Evangelicals might begin to conceptualize comparisons of Jackson and Trump.) Jackson saw his election as raising the voice of the common man to its rightful place in politics. President Trump’s constant invocation of representing the forgotten common man played well with working-class white Americans, especially working-class Evangelicals from revivalist traditions. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, believes “Mr. Trump is America’s blue-collar billionaire,” claiming Trump was “down-to-earth. He loves America and the American people. He is a true patriot and a champion of the… Read More

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The Elusive Gay Gene

I write this as a response to various discussions in which I have been involved. As a professing Bible-believing Christian, I hold the view that God intended and created marriage as the vehicle in which sexual union is licenced between one man and one woman. And that the Bible quite plainly teaches that sexual activity outside of marriage is not in accord with His intentions – His ‘blueprint’ for mankind. Inevitably, in our current social climate, this exposes me to accusations of ‘homophobia’, bigotry – and many other appellations which accompany the outrage which is stirred when someone declares a belief that goes against the ‘PC’ ruling. I refuse to be ‘speech-policed’ or ‘thought-policed’ by bullying attitudes and reactions which will not tolerate disagreement. But I do wish to lay out, so that it can be clearly seen and understood, some of the thinking behind the view I hold. First let me say that my personal relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ has imbued my old, stubborn, selfish heart with new life and new love. That happened over fifty years ago. I can honestly say that I bear no hatred whatsoever for any other mortal man or woman. Indeed, God’s Spirit within me presses me to do good indiscriminately to all, even to those with whom I disagree on any count. So the accusation that because of what I believe about sexuality, and the fact that I hold that homosexual activity goes against the moral directives of God to man, as explained in the Bible – the accusation that this causes me to ‘hate’ gays is totally false and unfounded. Indeed, those who have made that accusation online have no grounds or basis to do so; they know relatively nothing about me, and thus their attitude is judgmental in… Read More

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Politics and What It Means to Be an ‘Evangelical’

The election of Donald Trump has elicited a great deal of frustration and dismay among non-Trumpian evangelicals. Some have suggested that the “court evangelicals” who unapologetically support Trump will drive many anti-Trump evangelicals into the fold of the mainline churches or other traditions. Trump’s election, in this line of thinking, has created in some “a desire to leave their evangelical churches in search of a more authentic form of Christianity.” I have long been on record as being opposed to Donald Trump (though Hillary Clinton was not an acceptable alternative). But this idea of people leaving their evangelical church because the majority of self-identified white “evangelicals” support Trump seems out of whack to me. What did you start going to your evangelical church for in the first place? For me, and I suspect for most churchgoing evangelicals (in the age of Trump, we have to contend with the fanciful category of “non-churchgoing” evangelicals), the reasons to choose a church had nothing to do with electoral politics. My church choices have to do with a belief that the church and its pastor adhered to the Bible as the Word of God; and proclaimed that Jesus Christ is our only hope for salvation the church was dynamic, growing, outreach- and missions-oriented the church had a polity and a view of baptism that accorded with my convictions the church afforded opportunities for my family to get to know, and live life with, like-minded believers the church was effective at helping me raise my kids in the faith Sure, there were occasional “voter guides” around at election time in my church a number of years ago, and we pray for the nation and for our elections, but not by assuming the political commitments of our attendees. Electoral politics is hardly the center of my evangelical… Read More

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The Day Martin Luther King Jr. Prayed at the Billy Graham New York Crusade

On July 18, 1957, the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—gave a public prayer at Madison Square Garden as part of the long-running Billy Graham evangelistic campaign. In an earlier interview with historian Grant Wacker, I asked him about the background of this development by Graham to address racial justice through his ministry. He responded: Till then, his racial justice efforts were mostly memorable for starting to de-segregate his crusade audiences in 1953 (possibly 1952). In the context of the early 1950s, insisting that he would not tolerate segregated audiences was a momentous and courageous step. One Graham biographer, generally not sympathetic to him, called it his “handsomest hour.” But 1953 was not 1957. “Time makes ancient truth uncouth,” the poet James Russell Lowell had said. Graham knew that he had to do more. From the beginning at the Garden, Graham saw that his audiences were overwhelmingly white. A few days in, he contacted his black friend Howard Jones, the pastor of a large African-American Christian Missionary Alliance church in Cleveland, and asked what he should do about it. Jones advised, Do not wait for blacks to come to you. You need to go to them. The sub-text was clear: you and everything else about your crusade–associates, artists, music, choir, and congregation–present a virtually solid white front. If blacks are hesitant to come, what would you expect? Inviting King—the most prominent black Christian in America—was a logical next step. The Montgomery Bus Boycott—led by King—had ended just seven months earlier, in December 1956. King was 5’7″. Graham was 6’2″. Both were Southerners. King, the son of a pastor, was born in Atlanta, Georgia; Graham was reared on his family’s dairy farm outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. King was 28 years old at the time.… Read More

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The Pro-Life Movement Before ‘Roe v. Wade’

Critics of the pro-life movement argue that it was a phenomenon that emerged as a reaction beginning in the early 1970s, when some states began liberalizing abortion laws. The pro-life movement really got off the ground, the story goes, when the Supreme Court stepped in and guaranteed the right to abortion in the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade. Critics contend that the pro-life movement began mostly among Catholics (evangelicals came a bit later) who were alarmed by the feminist movement generally. As Justin Taylor’s post suggested a few weeks ago, Daniel K. Williams’s book Defenders of the Unborn shows that the pro-life story played out quite differently. Williams writes: Most histories of postwar American politics say almost nothing about the millions of Americans who opposed abortion before Roe v. Wade. They do not mention the African Americans in Detroit, the Lutheran wheat farmers in rural North Dakota, or the Catholics in Midwestern parishes who mobilized on behalf of the unborn at the beginning of the 1970s. They do not discuss the pro-life movement’s success in defeating abortion liberalization proposals in dozens of state legislatures and ballot initiatives in 1971 and 1972. . . . Instead, most histories of postwar American politics treat the pro-life movement—if they mention it at all—only as a reaction against Roe v. Wade, the feminist movement, the sexual revolution, and the growth of federal power. As Rickie Solinger has written, “There was no organized anti-abortion movement in the United States until after 1973. In reaction to Roe, a growing number of people, identifying a pervasive ‘values crisis,’ called for laws and policies to restrain what they saw as an excess of equality.” Solinger, who is one of the nation’s leading authorities on the history of abortion and reproductive rights in twentieth-century America, is hardly alone; her summary represents… Read More

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What Did It Mean to ‘Hit the Sawdust Trail’?

By 1901, the pro-baseball-player-turned-revivalist Billy Sunday was popular enough that construction of large wood tabernacles would begin to be constructed months in advance of his revival. They were large enough to hold up to 10 percent of a population in a smaller city, and up to 20,000 people in major cities. The aisles of the earthen floor of the tabernacle were covered with sawdust, which accomplished several purposes. It was less expensive than constructing temporary wooden floors. In an age before air conditioning—or antiperspirants!—it could be swept out and refreshed with a fresh new smell throughout the tabernacle. But the most significant reason was explained in 1917 by newspaper man Theodore Thomas Frankenberg, whose book on Billy Sunday explained the architecture of the tabernacles and the importance of acoustics: The prime requisite in every instance is the best possible accommodation of a single voice. To this end, lofty ceilings are abandoned and low straight roofs are used. The platform or speaking pulpit is pushed as far as possible toward the center of the auditorium. Necessity as much as anything else gave rise to the famous “sawdust trail.” Where thousands of people are gathered together even an occasional shuffling of feet is a serious disturbance. No sort of floor is noiseless, certain none that is possible in a temporary structure—therefore the sawdust covering. This is absolutely soundless and by giving it a base of tamped tanbark it is also impervious to fire. Ma Sunday, Billy’s wife, traced the terminology of “hitting the sawdust trail” back to a tabernacle revival in Bellingham, Washington, in 1910: Billy had been preaching for seven or eight nights . . . without giving an invitation, and finally he decided that it was time to give one. And, as people started to go forward and take Billy’s hand to… Read More

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What Is Revisionist History?

Malcolm Gladwell has a podcast called Revisionist History. In general nomenclature, “revisionist history” usually has a pejorative term. But this not the case for historians. As the great Civil War historian James McPherson of Princeton once wrote, while serving as the president of the American Historical Association: Revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. . . .  The unending quest of historians for understanding the past—that is, “revisionism”—is what makes history vital and meaningful. Gladwell is not a professional historian—and at times, his own desire for compelling narrative gets him into trouble for its simplicity—but being a historian has never been a necessary (or sufficient!) requirement for accurately interpreting history and revising interpretations of history. His podcast on one of the most iconic photos of the Civil Rights era—pictured above—is an interesting half-hour listen. Gladwell plays audio from an interview with the man who was once the boy in the photo, and he interviews the widow of the police office and the sculptor who offered his own interpretation. I won’t spoil it by revealing what Gladwell found out. And there may be more to the story than even Gladwell knows. But the upshots should not be all that surprising: It’s always worth reexamining the details to see if a standard interpretation stands up to scrutiny. When interpreting history, we must remain aware of our own presuppositions and expectations, seeking not to eliminate them altogether (which is impossible) but to see and account for any ways they might be distorting our analysis. A picture may be worth a thousand words—but not all of those words may be… Read More

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