Recovering a Heritage | Sojourners

Recovering a Heritage


The major focus of this series has been the pre-Civil War era in America. That period provides the clearest historical examples of the conjunction of "evangelical" faith and social reform. There the revivalism of evangelist Charles G. Finney gave major impulse to a variety of reform campaigns, including some that called for a radical restructuring of society.

In this last essay of the series, I would like to give some indication of how this heritage was worked out in the post-Civil War era. In Revivalism and Social Reform, Timothy Smith advanced the somewhat controversial claim that the "social gospel" movement owed much to the impulse of the pre-Civil War revivalism. Whatever the validity of that thesis, it is the "social gospel" that has received the greatest attention from historians of this period. It is generally assumed that the increasing polarizations in American Protestantism that climaxed in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy forced a split between those who emphasized a "social gospel" and those who advocated a "personal gospel" of individual regeneration.

This is not entirely accurate. Just as the social gospel was a manifestation of a social conscience on the "left," there was also a disaffection with bourgeois church life on the "right." This movement (in some ways more conservative and in some ways more radical than the social gospel) even more clearly drew its inspiration from Finney's "new measure" revivalism. This little known aspect of American church life cries out for further study, not only to fill out the history of the period, but also for the illumination of current questions. Here I will attempt only to trace one major theme of this movement as a way of identifying some of the material available for study.

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