When I was in seminary way back when, I read Donald Dayton’s Discoveing an Evangelical Heritage. Dayton reminded evangelicals that their 19th century forebears were social activists that supported the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, labor reform and other causes now deemed “liberal” or “progressive”. Dayton’s thesis was that what became the “social gospel” movement was rooted firmly in an earlier form of evangelical piety.
I recently read D. G. Hart’s The Lost Soul of American Protestantism which makes a similar argument: the progressive liberalism of mainstream Christianity and the social conservatism of evangelicalism are both children of what he calls Anglo-American revivalism that began with the Great Awakenings. Revivalism itself was the child of continental pietism.
The sort of religion heralded by the revivals of the First Great Awakening is chiefly responsible for the triumph of a utilitarian view of faith. The itinerant evangelists of these revivals, as well as their successors, transformed Christianity from a churchly and routine affair into one that was intense and personal. The conversion experience marked the beginning of this new form of faith. But it was only the start. True converts were expected to prove the authenticity of their faith through lives that were visibly different from nonbelievers. Indeed, the demand for a clear distinction between the ways of the faithful and those of the world not only propelled many of the social reforms associated with evangelicalism but also provided the foundation for viewing Christianity in practical categories. If faith was supposed to make a difference in all areas of life, not just on Sunday but on every day of the week, it is no wonder that the emphasis in Protestant circles shifted from church forms of devotion to one that should be seen in personal affairs, community life and national purpose. In other words, the cycle of revivals throughout American religious history, inaugurated by the First Great Awakening, secured the victory of pietism within American Protestantism. Like its European antecedents, American pietism dismissed church creeds, structures and ceremonies as merely formal or external manifestations of religion that went only skin deep. In contrasts, pietists have insisted that genuine faith was one transformed individuals, starting with their heart and seeping into all walks of life.
Hart also argues, however, that historians have ignored a “third way” within American Christian history. Hart identifies this stream as confessionalism.
Confessional Protestants resisted revivals in large part because the methods of the evangelists and the piety expected of converts were generically Christian – sincerity, zeal and a moral life. As a result, revivalism did not respect but in fact undermined the importance of creedal subscription, ordination and liturgical order. In a word, confessionalists opposed revivalism because it spoke a different religious idiom, one that was individualistic, experiential, and perfectionistic, as opposed to the corporate, doctrinal and liturgical idiom of historic Protestantism.
The pietists, Hart says, won. Confessionalism lost and persevered primarily in small, ethnically based denominations.
One way to measure this defeat is to ask any American Protestant if the Apostle’s Creed, the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper or the ministry of the local pastor is as important as personal times of prayer and Bible study, meeting with other Christians in small groups, witnessing to non-Christians, or volunteering at the local shelter for the homeless.
Pietism fit America. Hart’s history of pietism and American culture is a great read.It’s particularly interesting to discover that before 1960, it was the mainstream or progressive side of the aisle that most saw itself aligned with American history and values.
Continue reading “Confessionalists and Pietists”