Monday, September 19, 2011

What does revivalism have to do with Social Reform?

When we think of Revivalism, we tend not to think of social reform, but in the 19th century there often was a connection.  Yesterday I asked the question of whether we need to reclaim the "social gospel," which was a movement rooted in the liberal Protestant tradition.  Jesus was looked to not necessarily as savior of humanity of its sinfulness, but rather as the moral example and teacher of the correct path of life.  But, in the years prior to this revivalists, especially Charles Finney, who was known for his "New Measures" for bringing about conversion, was a strong proponent of social reform -- including lifting the status of women and advocating for abolition of slavery.

Social reform, therefore, can be considered an important by-product of revivalism.   Early evangelicals were not simply interested in saving souls, rather they were on the in the forefront of social reform.  Many abolitionist leaders had roots in the holiness movement and in revivalism. Among these leaders was Timothy Dwight Weld.  The temperance movement and the women's movement also had similar roots.

By the time that Finney went to Oberlin College he had developed a thorough doctrine of perfectionism.  Timothy Smith points out this Finney's perfectionism was just as radical as that taught by the Wesleyans.  In part, this perfectionism emerged from his belief that each person was a free moral agent who could respond freely to God.  This led next to the conclusion that complete devotion to God required a changed life.  The doctrine that emerged from Oberlin College had several names from entire sanctification (Finney) to holiness to Christian perfection (Asa Mahan).  By Christian perfection or entire sanctification, the revivalists did not necessarily mean sinlessness, rather, they spoke of a perfect trust or an experience of "the fullness of Christ."  Finney defined entire sanctification as the "entire and continued obedience to the law of God."*

For Charles Finney and his followers conversion involved casting one's ballot for divine government.  The achievement of divine government in America would not come through coercion but through moral persuasion.  His program of reform was rooted in his belief that societal evil resulted from the selfishness of individuals.  In addition, he believed that God would establish his kingdom through a gradual increase of moral government.  Revival preaching formed the foundation for this effort.

Finney could neither accept the idea that people were so depraved that they were compelled to act badly, nor did he believe that evil institutions forced people to violate moral law.  For Finney, each person was expected to resist laws and governments that were incompatible with divine rule.  Yet, Finney did not call for revolt, but for reform.  Finney and his followers hoped to develop a national consensus that would lead to the implementation of moral law.  As a result, Finney spoke out against both slavery and the war with Mexico as examples of evil based on selfishness.  

"To adopt the maxim, `Our Country right or wrong,' and to sympathize with the government of a war unrighteously waged, must involve the guilt of murder.  To adopt the maxim,  `Our union, even with perpetual slavery,' is an abomination so execrable, as not to be named by a just mind without indignation."**

As for slavery, Finney did not mince words.  He saw it as the selfish exploitation of one's neighbor for profit.  As a result, Finney chose to exclude slave-holders from communion in his New York church.  
"If I do not baptize slavery by some soft and Christian name, if I call it Sin, both consistency and conscience conduct to the inevitable conclusion, that while the sin is preserved in, its perpetrators cannot be fit subjects for Christian communion and fellowship."***

While social reform was not the central concern of Finney and his co-revivalists, including Lyman Beecher, it was the natural outgrowth of a theology that believed in the moral agency of human beings.  It also fit well with the belief that conversion to Christ involved the complete commitment of a person's life to the way of Christ.  Thus, selfishness that manifested itself in slavery and other forms of oppression was not allowable.

*Timothy Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War, p. 104
**David Weddle, The Law as Gospel, pp. 256-257
***Weddle, p. 257.  

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