Evangelicalism, with Randall Balmer

American evangelicalism, Randy Balmer observes, is perculiarly American, and emerged out of three P’s: Scots-Irish Presbyterianism, Continental Pietism, and New England Puritanism. But Balmer’s burden is that evangelicalism in America mutates, even if it is connected always to the Bible as inspired, the centrality of a born-again experience, and the impulse to evangelize others. He argues this, and much more, in his small and important book, The Making of Evangelicalism. Those three (he does not have Bebbington’s crucicentrism) connections create substantive diversity and variety within evangelicalism.

But this means it is always changing. Why? “It is not bound by ecclesiastical hierarchies, creedal formulas, or liturgical rubrics” (3).

Balmer sees four shifts, or four turning points, and each of these has lingering effects in our culture today:

Where do you see these turning points today? 

First, a transition from Calvinism to Arminian theology in the embrace of revivalism. It begins with Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, whose oratory and popular appeal, began to shift the focus. And society gave people options — so appealing for congregants influenced evangelicalism; the most appealing became the most successful. Balmer’s point then is a free market kind of religion prevails in America. At work here is the foundation of the First Amendment, something that gives life and breath to American evangelicalism.

The Second Awakening saw a theological shift, from Edwards to Finney. The focus shifted to humans’ choice and that means persuasion was lifted to new heights. Finney’s approach fit the temper of America because it connected with self-determination. Balmer observes that many would like to undo this Finney funnel in evangelicalism and pretend it is only Calvinist, and he observes a shift in the Evangelical Free Church toward more Calvinism. The attraction to Calvinism, he surmises, is a reaction to Pentecostalism. I would argue that may be the case, but there is also a strong reaction to the pragmatism and (often lack of) theology in post-denominationalism and non-denominationalism.

Balmer thinks this battle is unwinnable — American evangelicalism has a revivalist, self-determined core.

Second, a transition from postmillennialism’s hope for creating a new society to a more pessimistic posture in (often dispensational) premillennialism. Self-determination could change society, so the early phases after Finney were about changing America. It was about kingdom building, but this set of hopes was replaced — eventually — by a more pessimistic premillennialism that entailed continued corruption in society and culture that were more or less irredeemable.

Slavery, intemperance, education, female seminaries and the rights of women… then so much immigration and industrialization and drinking … and premillennialism set in. Some Prots did  not share the pessimism; they are in the line of Rauschenbusch and the progressives. The premillennialist devoted his or her time to evangelism and global missions.

Third, a transition from a place in culture to an underground, disestablished subculture. Balmer says in general one can say there are four periods in the relation of evangelicalism to society: 1900-1925, 1925-1950, 1950-1975, and 1975-2000. The Topeka and Azusa Street events influenced this first, and Billy Sunday … and The Fundamentals… all led to a subculture… Scopes Trial… and the construction of an evangelical/fundamentalist subculture of publishing houses and schools. By mid Century we have Carl Henry calling for re-engagement. Billy Graham and a capacity to speak into culture. Jimmy Carter’s rise, and he rode on the waves of evangelical support (who then turned against him four years later to support Reagan). The last quarter sees total capitulation of evangelicals to politics.

Fourth, a transition from a subculture to re-engagement in the Religious Right. 1973, Roe v. Wade, awoke evangelicalism from a stupor of inactivism — this is the fictional revisionist story of many today. Balmer shows that the Roe v. Wade decision was largely ignored and partly supported by evangelicals, and he names names. What galvanized was what followed from the Civil Rights Act, in particular the Green v. Connally and Bob Jones University and its decision not to admit unmarried African Americans and to prohibit interracial dating. The IRS revoked the school’s status. This decision threatened the viability and sacredness of the evangelical subculture through govt interference. There’s the beginning of American evangelicalism’s renewed political activism. Balmer says it was not racism. Then the rest of the set of factors, now well known, gathered round… though the results in DC are negligible.

The most effective religious groups are in the margins and not the seat of power. Evangelicalism has too often been co-opted by powers in DC and seats of power.

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  • I think we evangelicals are going to continue to fragment into smaller and smaller subgroups. Politically, soteriologically, and eschatologically, we just can’t seem to get along. It seems that our most popular voices are also our most hardlined, which makes unity difficult. Fear of liberals and liberalism are accelerating this fragmentation. Think about this for a second: In the past couple of years, Rob Bell said, “Love wins,” David Platt said, “God hates sinners,” and Mark Driscoll said, “God hates you.” Which one did we drive out? Rob Bell. I don’t like where we’re headed.

  • Rick

    Andy #1-

    Those quotes are a little out of context, and each said much more than just that.

    Making such positions fit bumper stickers will not help the situation.

  • Larry

    “What galvanized was what followed from the Civil Rights Act, in particular the Green v. Connally and Bob Jones University and its decision not to admit unmarried African Americans and to prohibit interracial dating… Balmer says it was not racism.”


  • John

    @ Larry
    Obviously, there was racism present in the University’s decision. But freedom from Gov’t interference especially in religious matters cuts to the core of Evangelicalism. I think it was motivated by race for some, but wanting your neighbor to be free to live out convictions even when you yourself don’t support it, is a call to action, especially in the south.
    Every year a Hindu Temple has a parade around my neighborhood for one of their gods. They have police blockades, and use public roads. I’m a Christian, but I’d fight for them if the gov’t told them they couldn’t do it anymore.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Balmer’s pointing toward the Bob Jones U. decision is definitely a different take on what has been the standard narrative. Historically, that makes a lot of sense as evangelical institutions were beginning to take enjoy strength at the time and the decision squares with anti-government concern and paranoia (some of both have been present).

    As for the rest of Balmer’s narrative, there are sections I would argue with as a historian, but how many pages did he have to lay this all out? I wouldn’t want to pursue that task.


  • Kenton

    Andy (#1)-

    I’m not quite as pessimistic as you are about the future, but bumper sticker/schmumper sticker I absolutely love your last 3 sentences.

  • Rick

    Kenton #6-

    “I absolutely love your last 3 sentences”

    I am sure you do.

  • Kenton, thanks!

    Rick, I was as critical of Love Wins as I’ve been of any book I’ve read or reviewed on my blog, but never got a negative comment about it. When I took Platt and Driscoll (mostly Platt) to task for preaching “God hates sinners/you,” the neo-Reformed floodgates opened and I got more negative feedback than I’ve ever received on my lightly-read blog. What I saw within Evangelicalism (albeit a tiny sample size) was an eagerness to defend God’s hatred of sinners and a refusal to accept his love for all mankind. I found this disturbing.

  • Phil U.

    I have a hard time separating the opposition to govt interference from racism. I went to a private Christian fundamentalist school in the 70’s in Alabama that expIicitly forbade African Americans from attending. Bob Jones was a hero, there. BJU and Pensacola Christian were the only colleges worth attending, according to many of the faculty. My fifth grade teacher absolutely hated MLK, and used racists remarks in describing him to us. Racism was pretty pervasive among the students and some of the faculty. I’m fairly certain that school desegregation was a motivating factor for the school’s formation.

    This is one example, yes. But racism was certainly a driver for this school. And perhaps Young Earth Creationism, as well.

  • Rick

    Andy #8-

    I don’t doubt you heard from some of them. I have experienced the same. That being said, all the quotes indicate a heavy leaning in one direction or the other, thus a lack of emphasis on the other aspect (love or justice). The Bell/”love” extreme certainly sounds nicer, but certainly is not without some complex, and for some, troubling implications.

  • Does Balmer ever discuss Methodists as part of evangelicalism? Seems like, if he does not, he should read Nathan Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity or Doug Strong’s Perfectionist Politics. It would soften his judgment of evangelicals, or, at the least, cause him to revise some of his generalizations. If he does take Methodists-qua-evangelicals into account, I’d be interested to see how.