Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Usable Past For Justice-Loving Evangelicals

At a time when the public face of American evangelicalism is strongly associated with the cultural conservatism of the White South, it may surprise some of us to hear that evangelicals are also heirs to a tradition of progressive reform. Indeed, it may surprise evangelicals themselves. Both within the church and without we have been inundated with narratives of resentment and reaction from the descendants of southern enslavers and White supremacists. Jerry Falwell's transition from a provincial segregationist pastor to avatar of the "Moral Majority" has been told many times not only because he was important in his own right, but because his story embodies some of the embarrassing roots of contemporary evangelicalism.

But our roots go deeper than that, and they're important for young evangelicals to know. Then perhaps they can fight for justice because they are evangelicals, not in spite of it. I was reminded of this when reading Daniel Walker Howe's excellent history of America from 1815-1848, What Hath God Wrought. Religion is prominent in Howe's interpretation, and few figures loom larger than Charles Grandison Finney. Finney is well known to contemporary evangelicals because of his phenomenal success and influence as an evangelist. That we are less likely to be aware of his other exploits is itself an indication of the dominance the White supremacist evangelical tradition has in our understanding of ourselves. Here's Howe:
Finney saw social implications in the Christian message. He preached against the evils of alcohol and tobacco [At a time when alcohol consumption was much higher than now and really was a vast social problem]. He ran greater risks by his active opposition to slavery. Although New York had begun a process of gradual emancipation, some persons remained in bondage there until 1827. When Finney was preaching at Chatham Street Chapel...he refused the sacrament of communion to slaveholders on the grounds that they were unrepentant sinners. In October 1833, he offered the chapel to a meeting of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. Their demands for immediate, uncompensated abolition met a hostile reception in New York...When a mob stormed the building, the leaders of the society barely escaped....A series of disorders followed, all deriving from the church's support for the antislavery cause. After the Broadway Tabernacle was built for Finney's use to replace the theater-turned-chapel, arsonists burned it down...

In 1835, Finney went to Ohio to teach theology at the exciting newly founded Oberlin College. Oberlin had been created by one of the major student rebellions in American history. Seventy-five radical antislavery students left Lane Seminary in Cincinnati en masse, protesting racist practiced by the seminary trustees...

In 1851, he would become president of the college. During Finney's years there, Oberlin defined the cutting edge of social and religious innovation. At a time when women could find little higher education open to them, it was the first coeducational college in the world. It trained Christian missionaries and antislavery activists of both sexes...The college was racially desegregated on more than a token basis; indeed, before he accepted his professorship Finney stipulated that "we should be allowed to receive colored people on the same conditions that we did white people." Oberlin became a safe haven on the underground railroad for slaves escaping to freedom in Canada...

For widespread influence, personal integrity, social conscience, and spiritual power, few American evangelists of a later age could equal Charles G. Finney.
I was surprised by Howe's nearly hagiographical tone here, but nonetheless, I hope the stories of people like Finney find a larger evangelical audience. I do not have any desire to obscure evangelicalism's myriad failings, but I do want evangelicals to know that they have antecedents beyond the White supremacist South. We want to reform evangelicalism. Reformers often ground the legitimacy of their efforts in a certain  narrative of the past. Often mythologized, such narratives nonetheless do important work. They provide a usable past for those seeking to change the future. Justice-loving evangelicals need to know that they have a usable past, and they barely even need any mythology to lay claim to it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this. I was not aware of Finney's social conscience and that Oberlin was the first coeducational college ever!