A Short History of Evangelical Confusion

The Second Great Awakening, beginning at the turn of the nineteenth century, established Christianity as the cohesive moral force of the country, but it failed to unite Christians as one people. Rather, it had the effect of applying burgeoning democracy and commerce to Christianity. Competition wasn’t just part of the emerging marketplace, it was a uniquely Americanized race to win converts into a growing number of denominations.

During the first one hundred years after the Reformation, there was no denominationalism, at least not as we understand it today. There were different Reformed sects, such as the Reformed-Swiss and the Lutheran-Germans. There were national Reformed churches in Switzerland, Hungary, Scotland, and England. But it wasn’t denominationalism. Instead, there were established territorial churches. The term “denomination” didn’t come into popular use until the nineteenth century, replacing the word “sect.” The change in terminology tracks with the process of disestablishment. As churches became disestablished in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, their political relationship with the state changed. “Denomination” was more of a politically neutral term compared with the politically charged word “sect.”[1]

American denominationalism emerged in the throes of Colonial America. Immigrants would sojourn to the New World with religiously compatible people, sometimes even members of the same congregation back in Europe. Upon arrival, groups settled and procreated. The original clusters disintegrated over time. The promise of free unsettled land was too great to keep like-minded communities together.

More ships arrived. More people went inland. More cities were formed. Unlike the territorially separated groups in Europe, the different groups in America were simultaneously spread out from each other yet nearer to the widening diversity of other religious and ethnic groups. American pluralism was born. To counter the mobility and diversity, Pastors of like-minded groups formed inter-colonial associations. American denominationalism arrived. By the time of the Declaration of Independence, these denominations competed for members and converts.[2]

When the U.S. Constitution was ratified, nine of the thirteen states had established religion. For example, the established religion of Virginia was The Episcopal Church and in Massachusetts, it was the Congregational Church. This meant the state had formal relationships with those churches, which included monetary and legal support. The last state to disestablish was Massachusetts in 1833.

As states were disestablished, churches could no longer rely on state support. They were forced to compete for converts. The older denominations—Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists—were challenged by the new energetic denominations such as the Baptists and Methodists. In the process, Christianity was fragmented and privatized even more. It was the natural result of American individualism.

The rise of individualism played out in many different areas. In the political area, it led to a fight for liberty, a fight that pitted the American colonists against the hierarchical authority of King George III. In evangelicalism, the shift from Calvinism to Arminianism emphasized the supreme authority of each individual’s will. Each person was thought to bring about their own salvation.[3] Once saved of their own action, each person was their own theologian, unbounded from catechisms and creeds. It was an evangelical defiance that matched the political defiance of the War for Independence.

Christians were liberated from the bondage of the church—as they saw it—to follow their conscience. They had a relationship with God. Just them and God and no pastor or church were to interfere. Christianity was redefined to be merely personal, based on the consent of each person. People were free to move from one church to another, searching for the signs and promises that spoke to the preference of their sovereign spiritual sentiments. Churches struggled to hold their members as new denominations shattered into other denominations. Now there were many stripes of Presbyterians (Old School Presbyterians, New School Presbyterians, Cumberland Presbyterians, Springfield Presbyterians, and Reformed Presbyterians) and Baptists (General Baptists, Regular Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Separate Baptists, Dutch River Baptists, and Permanent Baptists). Competition for congregants was fierce and specialized. Churches were socially homogenous. For example, the Unitarian and Episcopal churches attracted the elites while the Baptists and Methodists attracted the commoners.[4]

With the dispersion of authority came a dispersal of truth. Every person was told that his ideas and preferences were just as legitimate as the learned men. The American epistemological crisis was born, one where people were confident that they could determine their own truth and mistrustful of anything they didn’t experience for themselves. As this epistemology normalized within the Christian conscience, only a thin consensus united American Christianity, namely, that Christians can think whatever their spiritual conceit tells them to think.

The resulting problems today are many: lack of connection to the local church, viewing other faithful churches as competition rather than brothers and sisters in Christ, trusting what “God spoke to me” in the prayer closet more than the words God spoke in Scripture. Canadian sociologist Charles Taylor has documented that the rise of pervasive individualism, such as that found in the fragmented evangelical church, comes at the cost of rejecting all hierarchical authorities.[5] If each Christian embraces the power of the self and is true to that power, then each person becomes their ultimate authority. And if each person is their own ultimate authority, how can the God of the Bible be their ultimate authority? This is the abiding evangelical confusion. Overcoming it requires overcoming hundreds of years of history. That’s why you need to know the story.

[1] Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998), 32.

[2] Peter Leithart, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church (Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2016), 56 – 59.

[3] Jason Cherry, The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call (2016), 25.

[4] Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 330 – 333, 362.

[5] Charles Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity, in the CBC Massey Lectures (Toronto: Anansi Press, 1991).

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.