They say when trouble comes to close the ranks. The way we do this is to be thoroughly Christian in every respect. This requires that we not apologize for what the Bible says, use family devotions to teach our kids, reclaim the Lord’s Day, read good books, trust the promises of God—no, really trust God’s promises, strategically resist woke ideology, and get along with other Christians. But if the church is going to do these things effectively, a little perspective helps. How did evangelical Christianity get to be so thin and flaccid? What are the ties that bind the sundry groups of evangelicals together? It’s the sort of thing that needs threshing out in all its aspects, including a look at the beginning. American evangelicalism was not birthed in a cradle of stability. Several key features of early American culture helped create American evangelicalism.
First, The Fear of Roman Catholicism
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the American colonies were living in the long shadows cast by the European imperial wars, which were tinged with religious overtones. The colonies feared Roman Catholicism—especially in light of what happened in France when the French Huguenots were violently destroyed by the French monarchy. This fear of Roman Catholicism is illustrated when in April of 1774, the British Parliament passed the Quebec Act. This returned French civil law to the 70,000 French speakers in Canada. It gave them the right to practice Roman Catholicism, expanded Quebec’s borders into the Ohio Valley, and exasperated the colonies, who had been forbidden to go into the Ohio Valley by the Proclamation of 1763.
When the Republican Party formed in the mid-1850s, it brought together two beliefs: First, slavery is evil and needs to be eliminated. Second, Catholicism is evil and needs to be eliminated. The Republicans thought these two things were the greatest threat to the republic. Many Republicans thought slavery and Catholicism hindered the fulfillment of God making the United States his chosen nation. When Abraham Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate in 1858, the Republican Party slogan in Illinois was “Vanquish the Twin Despotisms—Catholicism and Slavery.”
The fear of Roman Catholicism is part of the foundation of American evangelicalism, which became convinced from the earliest of days to resist ecclesiological authority.
Second, The Development of Liberal Democracy
The American value of liberty dates back at least as far as 1620 when the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact and agreed to form a civil body politic. These are the seeds of liberal democracy. Yet, we need to be careful to not overstate its influence. Once the Plymouth colony went by the wayside, the Mayflower Compact was hardly noticed. Its importance is that it began the practice of consent in the New World, but it wasn’t brought to attention until after the War for Independence. Consent was integral to English political thought as a whole. Stretching back to the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Right (1628), and the English Bill of Rights (1689), consent was a fundamental principle of English political philosophy. The Mayflower Compact didn’t innovate consent, it reflected the long-established principle of it. As the colonies become a nation in 1776, the trajectory toward liberal democracy was set. Nevertheless, it was a gradual development.
Liberal democracy, as we know it today, didn’t begin when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October of 1781. Not only are there political and constitutional developments yet to happen, but there is also a cultural mindset inherited from the British where many people in the newly formed nation still looked at the world as hierarchical, with patricians and plebians, and patriarchal dependence on the strata of society.
But the seeds of liberal democracy are part of the American colonies from the beginning—and the United States is created with a clear view toward liberty. The central liberty in the American experiment is religious liberty. It’s not just the Separatists who come to the New World for religious reasons. They are joined in the colonies by Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Presbyterians, and other kinds of dissenters fleeing from religious oppression. These different groups are possible because the churches are being disestablished—modern denominationalism is born. The older denominations—Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists—were challenged by the new energetic denominations such as the Baptists and Methodists.
During the war, people took their government away from the King. So, why shouldn’t they apply the principle of consent to religion? In 1809, Baptist Elias Smith summed it up: We must be “wholly free to examine for ourselves what is truth, without being bound to a catechism, creed, confession of faith, discipline, or any rule excepting the scriptures.” Think of it as evangelical defiance.
The development of liberal democracy is part of the foundation of American evangelicalism, which became convinced from the earliest of days that sovereigns are only in charge if we say so.
Third, The Supremacy of the Individual
It’s a misconception to think that the seventeenth-century immigrants landed on the shores of North America embodying Robert Bellah’s description of expressive individualism. The Plymouth Pilgrims were a covenant community. Individualism didn’t become a key part of the American ethos until many decades later.
The rise of individualism plays out politically and religiously. In the political arena, the American colonists fought a war against the hierarchical authority of the British government. In the religious arena, the colonists were shifting away from Calvinism, where God is the final determining factor in salvation, to Arminianism, where man is the final determining factor in salvation. In the hunt for political independence, they cast off the king, George III. In the hunt for religious independence, they claimed to maintain allegiance to God—the King—but then believed that supreme authority was found in the individual will. One word to describe this is confusion.
The supremacy of the individual is part of the foundation of American evangelicalism, which became convinced from the earliest of days that the core theological truth is man’s choice.
Fourth, The Private Interest of Capitalism
Individualism was groomed by the budding economic system of capitalism—the Middle-Class Order. After the War for Independence, Americans viewed their role in the economy as pursuing their self-interest. They weren’t as restrained by virtue as we might like to think. The influence of money and the desire to make skrilla was one of the things holding American society together in those early years. Tocqueville observed that personal “interest” was the chief societal glue, by which he meant that work wasn’t about the good of man or the glory of God, but only about that sweet moolah.
The private interest of capitalism is part of the foundation of American evangelicalism, which became convinced from the earliest of days that work is all about money.
Fifth, The Test of Pragmatism
American pragmatism is an influential part of evangelicalism. William James (1842 – 1910) especially connected pragmatism with religion. His definition of pragmatism is if it works it is true. Many evangelicals have taken that definition at face value and used it as a way to evaluate their ministry methods. If a method is successful in bringing people into the church, it is a good method. For example, Charles Finney argued that his methods of conversionism were valid because of the number of people who responded.
James’ most famous book, Varieties of Religious Experience, is the application of his “radical empiricism,” which seeks to establish the legitimacy of not just outer facts, but inner facts. The foremost of the inner facts were mystical experiences that ought to be included in any complete understanding of reality. James talks about “piecemeal supernaturalism,” which is the idea that human consciousness can shift to the point that it is receptive to supernatural energies. James doesn’t attempt to play the part of a Christian theologian and he doesn’t regard the “supernatural” as the God of the Bible. Rather, the attitudes and concerns wrapped up in the inner experience are the person’s most important “inner fact,” which means it transcends everything else in life.
The test of pragmatism is part of the foundation of American evangelicalism, which became convinced from the earliest of days that personal experience is the supreme religious value.
American evangelicalism is built upon the amalgamation of these five things. When you combine them, the result is that the central binding characteristic of evangelicals in the United States, regardless of denomination, is subjectivism. There are feelings within, internal values, and yearnings for pleasure and meaning that combine into a porous foundation. The primacy of subjectivity is the reason God is weightless in most evangelical churches. It’s manward religion that begins not with God, but with man.
Godward religion begins with God rather than man. It starts with God as the unchanging norm of truth, righteousness, and beauty. No matter if you live in the fifth century or the twenty-first; no matter if you live in Africa, Asia, or Huntsville, Alabama; no matter if you are married or single, boss or minion, boy or girl, God is objectively true. And this changeless God summons all people, in all places, of all languages, for all of history to receive the Lordship of his lovingkindness. When the church once more begins with the objective reality of God, the kingdom of God will be extended and Christ’s name made known throughout all the earth.
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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.
 Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1991), 332.
 Ibid., 336.
 David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1994), 91.