[Part 5 in the Revival and Reform Series]
What can we learn from the 19th century evangelicals who both confronted structural injustice and preached Christ to sinners? With the perspective afforded by more than 100 years, what can we take away from their example? I have already written of their emphasis on holiness and anticipation of Christ’s return, and will wrap up this series with three broader historical observations and a challenge for our day.
1. Social change is possible
Nineteenth century evangelicals accomplished an astonishing amount of progress. Their most prominent cause, the temperance movement, was successful in cutting the amount of liquor Americans drank in half. The work of Christian abolitionists played a significant role in ending slavery in America. Institutions created for serving and educating “the least of these” are still doing good work. We should be encouraged that Christians’ work of prayer, organization, networking, and public advocacy can have a positive effect on our nation.
2. Social change is complicated
As encouraging as these social gains were, they did not abolish the realities of injustice and oppression. While freed blacks enjoyed a few decades of influence and prosperity, in the South they were soon brought back under a slave-like oppression through Jim Crow laws and disempowered sharecropping. The gains of the temperance movement, climaxing in Prohibition, yielded multiple unintended consequences. The saloon was replaced by the speakeasy, and the revenue from the sale of outlawed alcohol funded organized crime.
3. Social reform and evangelism easily part ways
Many evangelicals continued to emphasize both social reform and evangelism after the Civil War and into the 20th century. However, during this period the two emphases also parted ways. The Social Gospel movement shifted the focus of salvation away from the personal to the social. The coming of God’s kingdom was conceptualized as the relief of poverty and inequity. Social Gospel leaders discarded doctrines about the Bible’s truthfulness, the atoning nature of Jesus’ death, and the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection and return. In contrast, many conservative believers who embraced these “fundamentals” shied away from engagement with social issues and focused solely on personal evangelism.
The example of our 19th century counterparts challenges us to be willing to address injustice and oppression wherever they are found. Their impressively broad range of social action defies political or idealogical categorization, and we too should address issues regardless of their label of conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat. This is fundamental to our calling to be salt and light in our world.
Yet we should not assume that our involvement will bring about the change we desire. Only God can transform human hearts and only Christ’s return will bring final peace and justice to earth. We pray, organize, and labor toward renewal yet entrust the final results of our work to God.
Finally, as difficult as it may be, we must maintain the “both/and” of evangelism and social engagement. If we successfully alleviate short-term poverty without offering eternal hope, we abandon Jesus’ great commission to make disciples of all nations. If we preach the hope of heaven without showing any concern for others’ holistic needs, we abandon Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.
This is why we joyfully endorse ministries like Crisis Pregnancy Centers, Hope Women’s Center, and Mending the Soul Ministries. They address real needs while faithfully proclaiming the gospel of Christ.
As God opens our eyes to other areas of abuse of the vulnerable and exploitation of the powerless in our society, may he grant us the courage to move toward those in need and share with them not only our resources but our greatest Treasure–our crucified, risen, and returning Savior.