What would American evangelicalism look like if the southernization of American evangelicalism had never happened, and instead the evangelical fervor of the Second Great Awakening had continued in the North and produced an ongoing legacy of New England-centered global evangelism combined with advocacy for egalitarian-minded social justice?
This question has taken on increasing importance this week, after the Southern Baptist Convention narrowly averted a further lurch to the cultural right. In the leadup to the SBC’s annual meeting, it was easy perhaps for some to equate American evangelicalism mainly with Trump-voting, culturally conservative defenders of the Second Amendment and opponents of critical race theory. In the South and in southern-influenced regions of the country, there is no question that this particular brand of white evangelicalism has an outsized influence and colors national perceptions of the meaning of the word “evangelical.” But in the Northeast, there’s another version of home-grown evangelicalism that is a direct continuation of the social justice tradition of the Second Great Awakening. If this version of evangelicalism had been able to define the tradition, I think that current declarations that evangelical theology is inseparable from racism and patriarchy would be a lot less persuasive. Instead, I suspect that evangelicals would be known as a small, mission-minded minority of social justice advocates who would never think of supporting Donald Trump, but who instead devoted their political activism to pushing the Democratic Party to becoming more sensitive to the concerns of the marginalized.
If we look solely at the northeastern region of the United States, the largest home-grown denomination that firmly holds to the four theological points of David Bebbington’s quadrilateral is the 1-million member American Baptist Churches USA, whose headquarters are in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and whose historic center of strength is in New England and other parts of the Northeast. Bebbington argued that evangelicals are characterized by belief in the atoning death of Christ on the cross, the necessity of personal conversion, a commitment to biblical authority, and an eagerness to live a sanctified life characterized by evangelism and social mission. I don’t know if the American Baptist Churches USA had Bebbington’s definition in mind when they created their website, but even if they did not, they could hardly have written a more direct affirmation of the principles that Bebbington said characterize evangelicals.
“American Baptists are a Christ-centered, biblically grounded, ethnically diverse people called to radical personal discipleship in Christ Jesus,” the denomination’s website declares. “Through the cross of Christ we embrace the world as neighbor. Our vision for mission energizes a multitude of servant ministries of evangelism, discipleship, leadership, new church development, social justice, healing, peacemaking, economic development and education. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we work together in mutual submission, humility, love, and giving that the gospel might be preached and lived in all the world.” The number one fact that people should know about American Baptists, the denomination’s website asserts, is that “American Baptists believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, and that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God that serves as the final written authority for living out the Christian faith. . . . The events of the first Easter week are the cornerstones of our faith: the death of Christ, in which He took upon Himself the sin of the world, and the Resurrection, which gave proof of His triumph over sin and death. Holy Scripture always has been for American Baptists the authoritative and trustworthy guide for knowing and serving the God who is revealed as Creator, Savior and Advocate.”
Certainly, most of this sounds unarguably evangelical. Yet American Baptist Churches USA are more often counted in political science surveys and sociological studies as a mainline denomination than an evangelical one, and when scholars have written the recent history of evangelicalism, the current activities of the American Baptist Churches USA are often never mentioned. Why is that? And would the history of evangelicalism look different if it were?
No one questions that in the early 19th century, the Baptist churches of the Northeast were at the forefront of American evangelicalism. Before the split with southern Baptist churches, northern Baptists were strong advocates of both religious freedom and religious mission, because of their belief in voluntary, born-again conversion as a prerequisite for church membership. After splitting with Southern Baptists over slavery in 1845, Northern Baptist churches and colleges (such as Brown University) were centers of antislavery activism. But, the generally accepted historical narrative goes, Northern Baptists lost their evangelical identity in the early 20th century when the theologically liberal professors in their seminaries (such as Shailer Mathews at the University of Chicago) accepted German higher criticism and abandoned belief not only in the historicity of the Bible but even in biblical miracles such as the bodily resurrection of Christ. After that, historians of evangelicalism (including myself) have focused our narrative entirely on Southern Baptists, northern fundamentalists, Billy Graham, Wheaton College, and the National Association of Evangelicals that grew out of northern fundamentalism.
But what if we had instead made the American Baptist Churches USA central to our study of American evangelicalism? We would have found that although the denomination did indeed include elements of theological liberalism, it never entirely lost its evangelical theological orientation, and has recently made its evangelical commitments even more central. (It was the denominational home of 20th-century evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry, after all). Nor did it lose its commitment to racial justice. Martin Luther King Jr. earned his divinity degree in an American Baptist theological seminary in Pennsylvania – partly because it was one of the relatively few seminaries affiliated with a white denomination in the 1940s that welcomed Blacks and members of other races and encouraged them to engage with ideas of social justice.
Because of their concerted outreach efforts to non-whites, the American Baptist Churches USA claims that it is now “the most racially inclusive body within Protestantism,” and will soon have a non-white majority. As such, it is deeply committed to “the Gospel mandates to be directly active in the institutions of society to promote holistic and healing change.” In 2019, the denomination passed a sweeping, multi-page resolution on racial justice that included pledges to oppose economic racism and immigration quotas, and to advocate policies that addressed racial injustice in “housing, mental health, criminal justice and employment.”
The American Baptist Churches USA advocate universally available healthcare and environmental stewardship. Its denominational resolutions have expressed concerns about global warming, weapons buildup, and American reliance on military force in its foreign policy. On abortion, it has retreated from its more overtly pro-choice stance of the late 1960s and 1970s, and has instead adopted a stance that opposes abortion as a means of “avoiding responsibility for conception,” but nevertheless admits that “we are divided as to the proper witness of the church to the state regarding abortion.” “Many of our membership seek legal safeguards to protect unborn life,” one resolution passed in 1987 declared, but others did not, so the denomination agreed to respect the liberty of individual consciences when it came to public policy on this issue. The denomination does not recognize same-sex marriage, and it has declared its resolve to “submit to the teaching of Scripture that God’s design for sexual intimacy places it within the context of marriage between one man and one woman.” But on women’s equality, the denomination is much more culturally liberal; it has ordained women as pastors for over a hundred years, and by the last decade of the 20th century, 12 percent of its clergy were women. One of the denomination’s leading seminary professors, Ron Sider, is known for his pacifist advocacy of a consistent life ethic and his insistence on making poverty relief a high priority for “rich Christians in an age of hunger,” as he famously phrased it.
The Northeast’s largest homegrown evangelical denomination, then, is unapologetically forthright in its declaration that salvation comes through the work of Christ on the cross, and that the Bible is its final authority. It is conservative on sexuality, but politically liberal on almost all other political issues, because of its belief that the gospel mandates a concern for social justice.
The American Baptist Churches USA are not alone in these stances; several smaller evangelical denominations have taken a similar position of left-leaning social justice advocacy combined with an affirmation of the importance of personal conversion and salvation through the work of Jesus on the cross. The Evangelical Covenant Church (a historically Pietist denomination headquartered in Chicago) has taken social justice positions that are nearly identically to those of the American Baptist Churches USA. The Christian Reformed Church (whose US headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan) is a more confessional denomination than either the ECC or the ABCUSA, but it, too, has combined moderately conservative stances on abortion and sexuality with advocacy of racial justice and environmental stewardship. All of these denominations are based in what are now solidly Democratic regions, and their evangelical theologies suggest a distinctly northern brand of evangelical politics – a politics that may uphold an evangelical understanding of sexuality and human life but otherwise embraces the progressive, social justice politics that have characterized liberal Protestantism – though usually doing so with a distinctive evangelical witness. And all of these denominations (as well as other northern evangelical denominations that could be mentioned, such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church) ordain women as senior pastors.
For the last few decades, the outsized southern wing of evangelicalism, which experienced extraordinarily high growth rates in the late 20th century even as northern church attendance rapidly declined, dominated public discussions of evangelicalism and came, in the public mind, to stand for all evangelicals. Many northern evangelical institutions, which depended on a sizeable body of southern or southern-influenced evangelical students, largely went along with this political capture of evangelicalism, partly because they shared southern evangelicals’ concerns about abortion and the nation’s secular drift. And even in the liberal Northeast, a lot of community evangelical churches are essentially southern theological imports, with a political culture that is almost as strongly conservative as the Southern Baptist Convention’s. In fact, a few of these northern congregations are affiliated with the SBC. But if the SBC and a substantial component of southern evangelicalism move further away from the northern evangelical commitment to social justice, northern evangelicals, including especially those in the American Baptist Churches USA, may decide to reassert their own distinctive brand of an evangelistically minded Christianity in keeping with the northeastern version of the Second Great Awakening.
In any case, whether or not a full split between northern evangelicalism and its southern white counterpart occurs, we would do well to consider the northern evangelical brand of politics before being too quick to judge the entire evangelical tradition as a shill for Trump-branded Republican Party populism. If northern evangelical denominations have combined an affirmation of biblical authority and cross-centered evangelism with racial justice advocacy, gender egalitarianism, and a concern for the oppressed and marginalized, the Southern Baptist Convention’s latest debate over critical race theory is not an inevitable theological byproduct of David Bebbington’s quadrilateral but is instead a particular regional and cultural manifestation of a religious tradition that also includes a lot of political progressives, especially in regions that are less politically conservative. But to find these social justice-minded evangelicals, we might have to look beyond the Southern Baptist Convention and acknowledge that as important as they are, Southern Baptists do not speak for all evangelicals or even for all Baptists. Evangelical Christians in the American Baptist Churches USA are part of the story, too.