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Position Statements
Where Do We Come From?

A brief look at American church history

by Ron Teed

Unfortunately fewer and fewer Americans are aware of their roots in God's family. Today the word fundamentalist as it applies to Christians has become a four letter word. But the roots of fundamentalism go back to revivalists in the pietist tradition (especially at Princeton theological seminary). In tracing America's family tree we begin with revivalism, then the rise of fundamentalism, and finally the fundamentalist-modernist battles.

In the early 1700's a revival swept through the American colonies affecting all classes of people. It became one of the first inter-colonial events in American history and may have united the colonies more than any other event before the revolution. For this reason some historians agree that it even helped to make the revolution possible.

The beginnings of the revival seem to have begun in new Jersey in the 1720's with some Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian ministers who began to preach an evangelical (emphasize substitutionary death of Jesus to provide salvation for all people) Gospel, call for a life of discipline, and hold private prayer meetings. One of these men would even found a log college in the 1720's to train such ministers, and that college would eventually blossom into Princeton University.

While this took place in the middle colonies, a revival in New England was touched off by the experience of a church in Massachusetts pastored by Jonathan Edwards, a puritan Congregationalist educated at Yale. He challenged the townspeople to evaluate themselves in terms of God's standpoint, not society's. Within a short time God's Spirit swept through the town and brought life where there had previously been religious apathy and self-interest. The revival peaked around 1741.

This Great Awakening did as much to promote controversy as it did to stimulate revival. Theological differences and denominational splits ensued, particularly within Presbyterian and Congregational churches. As the Great Awakening died down, the European Enlightenment hit North America. It was first felt in a philosophy known as deism. Deism taught that God created the universe and humans with a moral conscience, but that He is no longer active in human history. College students were especially influenced by the deistic thought of Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine, ideas that were shared by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. By the 1780's interest in religion was significantly low. Estimates are that only five to ten percent of the colonial population were church members.

There was a Second Great Awakening that actually began in 1802 and it began at Yale University after the president of Yale, Timothy Dwight, had instituted a mandatory four year Bible program. It was the Baptists and Methodists that dished up religion “red hot.” This type of frontier revivalism was very effective. There were other revivalists who carried the message throughout the nineteenth century. The outcome of all this was that this religious movement was very much in “sync” with American culture, and vice versa.

Princeton University, founded in 1812, defended the orthodox idea of biblical inspiration. There were three significant elements to their teaching:

  1. Verbal inspiration (every word of the Bible is inspired by God).
  2. Biblical inerrancy (Scripture itself teaches it is without error).
  3. Original autographs (inerrancy applies only to the original documents), even though God superintended the faithful transmission of the copies.

The Princetonians also believed that theology must be pursued scientifically, using rationalistic methods that compared to Newtonian physics. Using a kind of Baconian method of pursuing science (against the liberals speculation), the idea was that facts in the Bible were there to be studied by anyone who wanted to find them, just as the scientist had only to look around him to discover the facts which he would collate into scientific laws.

It was, therefore, God who created the laws of science as expressed in nature for humans to discover, and He also created the behavioral or spiritual laws which He placed in the Bible for humans to discover. So rather than disproving that God exists, both scientific and spiritual investigation should confirm His existence. There is a dimension to God that exists apart from our ability to understand, no matter how sophisticated humankind becomes, and that is the dimension that allows God to operate in supernatural ways (miracles, if you will) that we cannot explain.

Unfortunately there were those who felt it necessary to save the Christian faith by modifying it to fit the intellectual standards and scientific findings of the day; it stressed cultural adaptation, an optimism regarding human potential and progress, the immanence of God in the evolution of the human race, and a stress on ethics and natural religious feelings over against beliefs. Those who maintained that the Bible as written was the source for all truth were labeled fundamentalists.

The conservatives dug in for the fight against modernism in every facet of life (circa 1910). The conservatives lost the battle finally with the verdict in the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. Led by lawyers, William Jennings Bryan (for the fundamentalists) and Clarence Darrow (defending public school teacher, Scopes, who had illegally taught evolutionary theory), this trial really marked the demise of fundamentalism in society. The press sensationalized the proceedings and poked fun at Bryan and the fundamentalists, making them look like intellectual buffoons.

By the mid 1930's the more moderate fundamentalists began to part company with those who were more militant. As the 1940's began, the answer for some of the moderate fundamentalists was to reclaim the more historic term, evangelical. Billy Graham was a leading figure in this movement. The activities and institutions promoted by these moderates led to a decisive negation of fundamentalism's distinguishing marks, helping to define the resulting evangelical movement.

First, rejecting the defensive separatism of fundamentalists, evangelicals attempted to transform culture by involvement in the world. No more would Christian colleges merely be Bible colleges preparing students for missions and pastorates. From the mid-1950's on the Christian college movement emphasized a Christian liberal arts education. The idea was to produce graduates who could work as professionals: lawyers, politicians, doctors, teachers, corporate executives, and the like, to transform the United States from within by working as Christians in the societal structures.

As the twenty-first century begins the prevailing American culture has dramatically shifted. The 1950's Judeo-Christian consensus has evaporated; diversity of values and beliefs has become the defining social virtue. American society is progressively being fragmented by an increasing plurality of ethnic, gender, and social worlds. Nothing dares to claim universality. Even science, which once held normative sway, is now viewed as just one research tradition among others.

The old theological control beliefs such as the inspiration and sole authority of Scripture, Jesus as the God-man, the centrality of Christ's atoning work, salvation solely through a personal trust in Jesus Christ are no longer solid beliefs. Rather, the Scientific Method is often given priority over the claims of the Bible. Other ways to God and eternal life, outside a personal trust and faith in Jesus Christ, are openly debated. Where do we go from here? That's pretty simple. Believing Christians must return to their roots. They must defend the validity of Scripture from cover to cover and they must also deal with the attitude of toleration and civility that not only permeates our culture but the evangelical academy as well.

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What else we believe:
God's Promises  |  Doctrine  |  Equality of Gender/Race  |  Religion  |  Judgment/Eternal Life  |  The Church  |  The Great Divide

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