What Was a 19th-Century Evangelical?
Image is John Wesley,founder of Methodism. From https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/john-wesley-17031791-80701
I often refer to my character Maggie Blaine Smith, as well as her daughters Lydia and Frankie, and best friend Emily Johnson, as “evangelical.” Today, that word often calls up images of people who apply their understanding of the Bible to social issues such as abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, racism, the general rights of women, and more. Some groups of Evangelicals are attempting to change laws in the United States to make them more closely fit their beliefs on these social issues. As a result, an increasing number of people who don’t share Evangelical beliefs are shying away not only from Evangelicals, but also from other people and organizations who identify as “Christian.”
I want to clarify that in Maggie’s day, evangelicalism and evangelicals were different. For my own uses, I will use the term “Evangelical” (with a capital E) to identify people and concepts that developed around the early 20th century and still with us in 21st century. When I use the term “evangelical” (with a lower-case e), I am referring to people and concepts at large among many Protestants in the 19th century.
Justin Taylor provides a nice summary for us of what evangelicals were: “In 19th century North America, evangelicalism basically referred to a loosely associated, intradenominational coalition of Protestants who held to the basic reformational doctrines of sola fide [faith alone] and sola scriptura [Scripture alone], mediated through the revival experiences of the Great Awakenings.”
Taylor is saying that people like Maggie basically believed a person was “saved “ (aligned with God and God’s will) by faith alone, and their main frame of reference for understanding the world was the Bible. They were influenced by the Great Awakenings, which were a nationwide religious revival, one in the mid-1700s and the other in the early 1800s. The impact of the Awakenings continued into Maggie’s era as camp meetings and revivals by evangelists such as Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875).
In addition, the spiritual and practical life of many Methodists most likely were mediated through something called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” a four-sided way of looking at an issue developed by Methodist founder John Wesley. The Bible (scripture) was of course one’s primary tool, but Methodists also employed reason (God gave us a brain), experience (what your own life tells you about the issue), and tradition (what the church historically has said about the issue).
Added to this were John Wesley’s Three General Rules: 1) Do no harm; 2) Do good; and 3) Attend to ordinances of God (i.e., the things that God gave us to help us grow in love and faith, such as public worship, sacraments especially the Lord’s supper, preaching, private and communal prayer, reading the Bible, and fasting from food or other things.
Note: The third rule has been shortened by author Reuben P. Job to “stay in love with God” in his book Three Simple Rules. The slogan has been picked up by the United Methodist Church in general and has become universal among us. Although “stay in love with God” is a nice little piece of shorthand, I feel that I must disagree with Job. I think Wesley’s idea was more nuanced. In the twenty-first century, which is so fractured and individualistic, “stay in love with God” might be understood as a “God and me" or a "Jesus and me" thing. For instance, I pray and meditate on my own. When I go to worship, the music and the prayer makes me feel happy and good. But I believe it's more than that.
It is my understanding that Wesley was talking about “me, God, and my community of faith” in this third rule. I believe that he was emphasizing a person’s need to have individual faith practices (i.e., personal prayer and fasting) in addition to taking part in communal practices. Communal practices might include Bible studies, prayer groups, communal worship and the sacraments, mission and service projects, and all the other groups in which we might share our lives, hopes, and fears with one another and pray for one another. I believe – firmly believe – that Wesley’s third rule “attend upon the ordinances of God” is precisely what gives us the power to do good and refrain from doing harm on a both personal and communal levels.
But I digress. As a theologian and a historian I do that. Sorry-not sorry.
Anyway, all of the above explains Maggie’s penchant for doing good and attempting to ease the pain she sees around her, not to mention her habits of praying, referring to the Bible, sharing her life with her household around the dining table, writing in her journal, and attending church.
On Friday, we’ll look at nineteenth-century evangelicals in social change movements.
Scott, Donald. “Evangelicalism as a Social Movement. Queens College, City University of New York. National Humanities Center. Downloaded 17 May 2019.
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