How the 20th-Century Heirs of 19th-Century Evangelicalism Divided (and Squandered) Their Heritage


From Kenneth J. Collin’s forthcoming book, Power, Politics and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism:

The key issue in the breakup of American evangelicalism [from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries] was not that leaders like Rauschenbusch and Gladden were endorsing social concern. Indeed, the Salvation Army did not miss a bit in its social witness from one century to the next. Rather Social Gospel leaders were perceived by their fundamentalist cousins as undertaking social action “in an exclusivist way.” Such a judgment set up an unfortunate dynamic among fundamentalist evangelicals, who eventually abandoned important parts of their own story (“everywhere there is a revival there must also be reform”) by deprecating social issues. Moreover, the consequence of this shift was filled with a good deal of irony, for by 1930 the fundamentalists themselves had become as nearly exclusivist as their liberal counterparts. This time, however the unswerving focus was not on social action but on a personal, individual gospel. The cause of the Great Reversal then was not simply “the fundamentalist reaction to the liberal Social Gospel after 1900.” It also included the prior action of the Social Gospelers themselves, who had neglected the very depths of personal religion. Even as late as 1966 at the World Congress on Evangelism, Billy Graham, who was by no means a fundamentalist, yet exclaimed: “The ‘new’ evangelism says soul winning is passe. It wants to apply Christian principles to the social order. Its proponents want to make the prodigal son comfortable, happy and prosperous in that far country without leading him back to the Father.”

I received a galley copy of Collins’ book, which will be released by IVP Academic this October. I like the book so far. It has instructive things to say not only about how 19th-century evangelicals united personal evangelism social concern, while their 20th-century fundamentalist and liberal heirs divided them, but also about how Wesleyans and Pentecostals often avoided making the same mistakes.

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2 thoughts on “How the 20th-Century Heirs of 19th-Century Evangelicalism Divided (and Squandered) Their Heritage

  1. I am continually amazed at how people of faith react to what others do (e.g., fundamentalists abandoning their own values because Social Gospelers claim them) instead of responding to the Spirit’s leading. Not so sure my research bears up that Pentecostals avoided the same trap as the Fundamentalists.

    • I haven’t finished the book yet, Howard. But I do notice how often Collins points out the different path charted by Wesleyans/Pentecostals in a number of areas.

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