13 December 2003

A mixed legacy: evangelicalism's puritan roots

Jim Skillen's brief commentary has moved me to think further about the vast evangelical protestant subculture in the United States numbering in the scores of millions. I was raised in the heart of this subculture in Wheaton, Illinois, which over the decades has accumulated a large number of professedly evangelical organizations, mostly of the parachurch variety. At the pinnacle stands Wheaton College, founded in the middle of the 19th century by abolitionists with Wesleyan, Presbyterian and Congregational connections. Few churches in my hometown have escaped the influence of the College, including, not only various baptistic and independent churches, but even those congregations affiliated with what are conventionally seen as mainline churches, such as Presbyterian (USA), Episcopal and United Methodist. 

One of the singular strengths of evangelicalism is its emphasis on heart religion rooted in a personal conversion to faith in Jesus Christ. Although different evangelicals put slightly different slants on this conversion experience, it is usually seen as a once-for-all acceptance of the shed blood of Jesus' Christ for the remission of one's own sins. In my teen years our family attended a congregation where this understanding of conversion was the accepted one. I recall my own efforts at about age 12 to articulate for myself such a conversion story so that it would be intelligible to the other members of this congregation. I was never altogether successful, as I recall, as my cradle upbringing in a confessionally Reformed denomination gave me a rather different experience of the life in Christ. Indeed I cannot recall a time when I was not conscious of belonging to Christ. As for awareness of my own sins and of the need for conversion, I eventually came to see these as something on-going, rather than once for all. 

The primary weakness of evangelicalism, as Skillen intimates, is its lack of a sufficient ecclesiology, or doctrine of the church. This includes the church as the Body of Christ and as a particular institution with its own task within this body. Due to this lack there is a contradictory tendency both to deprecate the church as church and to ascribe a kind of ultimacy to the national community, however this be defined. The institutional church, far from being seen as divinely ordained to preach the word, administer the sacraments and uphold discipline, is reduced to a kind of voluntary association composed of individuals coming together of their own free wills. Their membership is conditioned upon their free acceptance of salvation effected through personal conversion. It is by no means coincidental that this voluntaristic notion of church should resonate so strongly in a political culture so heavily influenced by the liberalism of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. 

The place of Jonathan Edwards in American evangelicalism is especially strong. Edwards' version of Puritanism lies very largely at the basis of this subculture's self-understanding. I was intrigued by George McKenna's review of George Marsden's Jonathan Edwards: A Life appearing in the October issue of First Things. The following paragraphs caught my attention:

The question of how to define a “church” was a long-running issue in Massachusetts. The Church of England defined it territorially: everyone in the nation was a church member except for those officially excommunicated. The Puritans, however, insisted on a “gathered” church: only those who were “visible saints” could be admitted. In the early years of the Puritan settlement in America, that meant people who were not only orthodox in belief and free from scandal but able to affirm that they had undergone a “conversion experience.” This was not very difficult for the first generation of Puritans, whose religious zeal had been tested by persecution in England. But what of their children, those born in America? Many could not testify to such a soul-wrenching experience, so they were barred from church membership. But plummeting church enrollments eventually forced a compromise, known as the “Halfway Covenant”: the unconverted sons and daughters of church members were allowed to have their children baptized, but they could not be admitted to the Lord’s Supper until they could testify to a conversion experience. By the end of the seventeenth century the Halfway Covenant had became standard throughout most of Massachusetts. Then Solomon Stoddard, Edwards’ famous grandfather, who preceded him as pastor of the Northampton congregation, took the final step of admitting to full church membership everyone who was orthodox in faith and free from open scandal, in effect reconstituting a “national” church in the region.

Edwards incurred the wrath of his congregation by attempting to recover the first-generation Puritan definition of church membership as rooted in a demonstrable conversion experience. Somewhat ironically, American evangelicals have retained both Edwards' conversionist definition of the gathered church and Stoddard's territorial notion of covenant. Although the typical evangelical congregation limits actual church membership to those demonstrating a genuine heart conversion, it tacitly expands God's covenant to include all those born within the territory bounded by the political or national community. There is thus a tendency to identify God's eternal purposes with the destiny of the American people, who are deemed, at least in principle, to be in a covenant relationship with him. Perhaps more than any other people on earth -- except possibly the various Orthodox nationalities -- Americans easily fall prey to a kind of God and country piety identifying the corpus Christi with their own nation. That this requires a somewhat dubious biblical hermeneutic seems largely to have escaped their attention. 

I can hardly avoid saying something about Canada here, since this country has been my home for eighteen years. Admittedly, I do not know the Canadian evangelical scene as well as I do its American counterpart. I do have connections with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, whose new president I have known for more than two decades. My sense of the matter is that Canadian evangelicals are far less prone to attach salvific significance to the destiny of their particular political community. There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this relative lack of a nationalistic emphasis, including the fact that for so many decades Canada was part of the multinational British Empire. But I venture to say that it also has more than a little to do with the absence in our past of a substantial community of Christians viewing themselves as a righteous remnant setting up a "city on the hill" in a new continent.

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