Forty years of evangelicalism in America

John Thornbury
John Thornbury John Thornbury is senior pastor of Winfield Baptist Church (ABC), Winfield, Pennsylvania. He is a conference speaker and author of several books.
01 February, 2007 6 min read

I congratulate Evangelical Times for its 40 years of publication, and commend the Editors for holding firm the true Christian faith in challenging times. I have been asked to review some general trends in evangelicalism in America during this period.

The last forty years in the USA have witnessed departure, compromise and apostasy in ‘mainline Christianity’ – the churches which grew out of the Protestant Reformation and evangelised the USA for 200 years thereafter.

Whatever their differences, the denominations founded by Wesley, Luther, Calvin, and even Henry VIII, held a high view of Scripture and agreed on the fundamentals of the gospel.

When most scholars in the Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches sold out to the ‘higher critical’ view of Scripture in the early 20th century, the ‘Fundamentalist’ movement sought to stem the tide, but with limited success.

Here and there, pastors and churches in all these groups remained true to their trusts and faithfully preached the gospel, but the centres of power were lost. The last forty years have solidified liberal control of the major denominations and confirmed their departure from their historical roots.

The Charismatic movement

A second major feature of these 40 years is the rise of the Charismatic movement. I believe there are many real Christians involved and I count as brothers all who love Jesus Christ and hold to basic biblical truths. Nevertheless, in my view, the movement reflects neither revival nor reformation. Rather, it expresses the weakness of modern evangelicalism.

When I began my pastoral ministry in the 1950s, Pentecostalism was more or less a fringe movement, whose worship style reflected high emotion but gave little attention to serious biblical exposition or doctrinal integrity.

But in the 1950s tongues-speaking and claims to miraculous cures began to surface in formerly staid groups such as the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches.

Seminary trained pastors and scholars rose up and announced that they had received the long neglected ‘gifts of the Spirit’. These claims began as a trickle but became a tidal wave across the land.

Initially it seemed to meet a real need in declining churches, where empty ritualism and spiritual apathy were rife. But it proved to be a dubious improvement as people sought experiences and entertainment rather than Christ.

Such was the power and influence of the ‘new Pentecostal’ religion that its advocates were able to purchase television time – when ‘televangelists’ offered miraculous healing, tongues-speaking, and revelations which allegedly came straight from God and not from the Bible. What previously was a fringe movement now led the way in proclaiming what purported to be the evangelical faith.

Where has the Charismatic movement gone astray? You will find the answer in the writings of such men as John Mac-
Arthur Jr., R. C. Sproul, Walter Chantry, Michael Horton, Hank Hanagraaff and Eric Wright – who have brought this aberrant movement before the bar of Holy Scripture.

Positive developments

But ‘When the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord will lift up a standard against him’ (Isaiah 59:19). Sometimes quietly, sometime dramatically, sometimes within the walls of the church itself and sometimes in the larger arena of human affairs, God is carrying on his program.

Despite the discouragements of recent decades, the standard of truth is being lifted up against the flood of error and unbelief. Here are some positive trends in the USA that are furthering the gospel cause.

Science and biblical faith

Many think that scholarship and science pose a serious threat to the historic Christian faith. Fragile believers a century ago trembled when scholars began to treat the Bible no longer as the inspired word of God, but subjected it to the same critical inspection as other literature.

Everything about the traditional view of Scripture – its sources, authors, internal consistency and above all its lofty claims – were fair game. And when Darwin’s theory of organic evolution took the world by storm, it threatened to blow away what remained of the old landmarks.

But the Bible is emerging with credibility. Scriptural assertions once dismissed as mythical have been vindicated by archaeology. For example, historians declared that the biblical Hittite civilisation never existed, while the stories of Abraham and the Exodus were inventions. But now ancient inscriptions have verified the existence of these and countless other biblical events.

In science the ‘Intelligent Design’ (ID) movement is providing scientific support for creation (and thus for divine revelation). Although it does not identify the Designer, ID provides powerful evidence against a naturalistic view of origins.

Public institutions wedded to Darwinistic atheism are fiercely resisting, of course, aided and abetted by the courts. But ‘the sinners in Zion are afraid’ and a great blow has been dealt to atheism and unbelief.

The legal brouhaha over ID has led young people to study it for themselves, and polls show that in spite of its unchallenged official status, most Americans reject Darwinism.

Classic Christian writings

A further encouragement is that the Reformers, the Puritans and their successors are being studied again in churches, seminaries and homes in the USA. In the 1950s some samples of Puritan literature were published and these ignited a yearning among many believers for a more solid approach to truth and worship.

Spurgeon believed that the Puritan period was the halcyon era of the Christian church, and his sermons brought to the masses the old biblical truths expounded by Owen, Flavel, Manton, Sibbes and Bunyan.

Pilgrim Publishers of Texas republished all Spurgeon’s sermons – and they are now available on the internet (www.spurgeongems).

Although there is little sign of spiritual awakening such as visited our country in the 18th and 19th centuries, I believe that reform is taking place. Churches built on solid gospel preaching are often small, but their number is growing and they are making an impact.

In the past few years I have observed more emphasis on united prayer for revival and reform than I have seen before. Sensing the desperate need of the hour, God’s people are pleading for him to intervene.

Growing interest in our Lord’s return

Undue fascination with Bible prophecy can be unhealthy. Many Christians are unbalanced in their obsession with the book of Revelation. Some love to speculate about anything that is strange, bizarre and mysterious. They have no interest in the book of Romans or the Gospel of John but will flock to conferences on UFOs and the antichrist.

Yet in spite of such excesses, I think the Lord is turning the hearts of his children to the glorious truth of Christ’s Second Coming. All true believers should rejoice that the last prayer in the Bible – ‘Even so, come Lord Jesus’ – is increasingly heard in our day.

The church and culture

When Dr Francis Schaeffer produced his book and video series How shall we then live? he convinced many of us that God is at work in every field of human concern – including politics, the arts and public morality.

When modernism caused consternation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many believers reacted by embracing an unbiblical worldview. Dispensationalists of that era stressed that the church was ‘heavenly’ and had no place corporately in a fallen world.

During this age (they taught) Christ is a refugee in heaven – having failed in his mission to set up an earthly kingdom 2000 years ago. ‘The kingdom is future’ was their cry. Satan (the ‘god of this world’) was in control of all secular institutions – whether commercial, educational, or political.

The business of the godly was therefore to huddle together and wait for the rapture. Why should they pray for reform in society when God had pronounced his curse on this world and everything in it?

A sovereign God

This dismal pessimism had a devastating effect on the church. Believers forgot Calvin’s insistence that Christ is sovereign over all of life. Believers should seek to be salt and light in every realm.

This present age is not a parenthesis, but is one in which Jesus remains King of kings and Lord of lords. Of course, the church has no remit to impose a Christian worldview on a rebellious public. Pursuing this error, some have embraced the absurd notion that ancient Jewish civil laws are a model for nations today.

Nevertheless we applaud the efforts of men such as Os Guinness who have sought to address directly the way the gospel should be applied to all the realms of human life.

I believe we live in a wonderful day to be a Christian. God has given the church more resources to proclaim the gospel than at any time in all human history. Not only radio and television but also the internet can be used to take God’s message to places heretofore closed to the name of Jesus.

This is no time for discouragement or despair. The night is darkest before the dawn. All the enemies of God, perhaps sooner than we think, will bite the dust. To the Christians in Rome, troubled by many of the problems facing us today, Paul could write, ‘And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly’ (Romans 16:20).

A discussion of Pop-psychology in American evangelicalism, which was too long for inclusion here, will appear in a future issue of ET.

John Thornbury
John Thornbury is senior pastor of Winfield Baptist Church (ABC), Winfield, Pennsylvania. He is a conference speaker and author of several books.
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