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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

From time to time in the history of American Protestantism there have been mass re-awakenings of religious faith and devotion throughout the country. These movements are part of revivalism, a name that applies also to the method of intensive preaching and prayer meetings that inspire such mass religious fervor.

Religious historians view revivalism in America as an effort to revitalize the religious devotion of those whose ties with a church had been weakened as they moved from Europe to America, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Western frontier, and, after the Civil War, from rural areas to cities. However, every major revival also has featured a new doctrinal angle or moral practice, indicating dissatisfaction with established church policy and organization. Both of these motives reflect the appeal of revivalism to the mass of “un-churched” people, who can thus be made to feel that Christianity has some meaning for them even without membership in one of the conventional religious bodies.

In every revival from colonial times onward, the inspiration and mood of the movement has been provided by one or two outstanding preachers. Thus, the history of American revivalism must be centered around the personalities of the men who dominated each movement.

The Great Awakening. Although there were minor episodes of revivalism in America from the early seventeenth century, the first large-scale revivalist movement was that called the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century. This movement began as an American counterpart to a European reaction against formality and coldness in the official Protestant churches. It was influenced by Pietism in the Netherlands and Germany and by John Wesley’s preaching in England. See Pietism; Wesley, John.

The Great Awakening dates from the arrival in 1720 of Theodore Frelinghuysen (1691—1748) to the pastorate of four Dutch Reformed churches in and around New Brunswick, N.J. Frelinghuysen, who had come under Pietist influences in his native Germany, was one of the leaders in a movement to vitalize and Americanize the Dutch church In the colonies.

In opposition to some of the more conservative ministers in the colonial Dutch church, he and his followers sought freedom to adapt church practices to American needs, and his followers eventually did succeed in establishing a college for the training of ministerial candidates within the colonies. Founded at New Brunswick, N.J., their Queen’s College later became Rutgers University.

Similar controversies developed within the churches of other denominations in America. Within the Presbyterian church, Gilbert Tennent (1703—1764), a minister of strong evangelistic preferences, became the leader of a revival party. A scathing sermon that he preached in 1740 criticizing some of his own churchmen for worldliness, coldness, and ineffectiveness helped to bring about a schism in the American Presbyterian church that lasted until 1758. It was his revivalist party that was responsible for the founding, in 1746, of the college that was to become Princeton University.

Another key figure in the Great Awakening was George Whitefield (1714—1770), a Methodist evangelist from England. Whitefield made several preaching tours in America, where he aroused the religious conscience of thousands. Although he was originally a follower of John Wesley, he was markedly more Calvinist and rigid and frequently aroused the antagonism of ecclesiastical authorities, including the faculty of Harvard College, who rebuked him as “an enthusiast, a censorious, uncharitable person.” However, his preaching influenced the attitudes and practices of the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and many of the religious sects that developed in the South. See Whitefield, George.

During the Great Awakening the Congregationalist Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and other New England writers undertook to defend revivalism against its critics. In his Treatise concerning Religious Affections (1746), while he admitted the abuses of revivalism, Edwards argued that there can be no true religion without deep inner feelings, which it is the purpose of the revival to arouse. See Edwards, Jonathan.

Nineteenth-century Revivalism. The names of Joseph Bellamy (1719—1790), Samuel Davies (1723-1761), Francis Asbury (1745—1816), Timothy Dwight (1752—1817), and Alexander Campbell (1788—1866) are prominent in the transition period of revivalism from colonial times to the early days of the United States. Their activities led to the rise of new denominations and, in the case of Asbury, to the formal organization of the Methodist movement as a church. See Asbury, Francis; Campbell, Alexander.

Two revivalists in the nineteenth century stand out for their lasting effect on American Protestantism. One was Charles C. Finney (1792—1875), called the “Father of Modern Revivalism.” In his sermons he demonstrated a clinical knowledge of the motives for sin and his ideas were particularly appealing to social reformers. He wrote several books and over 100,000 copies of his published Lectures on Revivals were sold. It was through reading Finney that George Williams, a young London shop assistant, was inspired to start, in 1844, the Young Men’s Christian Association which spread from England to America. See Young Men’s Christian Association.

The other outstanding revivalist was Dwight Lyman Moody (1837—1899), who founded the Bible Institute Colportage Association for the production of inexpensive religious literature. A shoe salesman who had joined the Congregationalist Church, Moody gave up his business to concentrate on missionary work. In the course of his religious career he made preaching tours throughout England and the United States, founded a seminary for women and a school for men, and organized student conferences on Bible study. His association grew out of a mission established for the Chicago World’s Fair of the 1890s. See Moody, Dwight.

Twentieth-century Revivalists. William (Billy) Sunday (1862-1935) dominated American revivalism in the early part of this century. A showman who pranced round the platform in shirt sleeves and hurled the furniture to “sock it into Satan,” he

once addressed over 2 million people at a one-week mission at Philadelphia. However, his antics temporarily lowered the public’s esteem for evangelism. The mid-century revivalist Billy Graham has done much to restore it. See Sunday, William.

William Franklin (Billy) Graham was born in North Carolina in 1918. In 1939 he gave up his nominal Presbyterian affiliation to join the Baptist church, in which he was ordained a minister. He was an educator and local radio personality as well as a pastor before he rose to national prominence as an evangelist late in the 1940s. Since then he has reached countless millions of people, not only through his preaching tours but by his radio broadcasts, television appearances, and his books and newspaper columns. His revivalism has spread to a dozen countries, including England, France, and Korea, and his preaching has drawn crowds even where people are not familiar with the tradition that he represents and where his sermons are understood only through translation.

Theologically, Graham is a moderate Calvinist. He speaks of human nature as “radically bad” and maintains that “the power to suppress vice and develop virtue is not in man. It must be in Christ.” No doubt the main reason for Graham’s unprecedented success has been the solid scriptural basis of his sermons, with their constant appeal to the infallible word of the Bible.

Revivalism and Protestantism. The effects of mass evangelism on the vitality of American Protestantism have been manifold. Bible institutes of the Moody type are now an accepted method of preparation for the ministry; the laity have been stirred to “campaigning for Christ” through such organizations as the Gideon’s, Christian Businessmen’s Committees, and religious missions on campuses; missionary enterprise has been increased, as is evident from the number and size of “faith societies” sending evangelists to foreign countries; Bible distribution in schools, hotels, and public institutions has multiplied to an all-time high; and the Protestant equivalent of Newman clubs have been organized to care for the spiritual needs of students in secular colleges.

In addition to these effects, the modem version of revivalism has taken on another significance. Formerly, the revival was a competitor of the established denominations, and its effect was to deplete their congregations. Now, however, ministers generally regard the revivalist as their ally, acting in behalf of no particular church and stimulating religious interest to increase the membership and attendance of all Protestant churches. Behind this new relationship between the local pastor and the evangelist there is a changed concept of Protestant Christianity in the United States. Evangelists recognize the broad area of doctrinal agreement in which they can appeal to their audiences, and the local clergy ignore their denominational differences in uniting to endorse the revivalist. A sense of solidarity has thus developed between the separated churches and has promoted the ecumenical movement in America.

For further information read Calvin, John; Evangelistic Associations; Protestantism in the Unites States.

Catholic Encylopedia for School and Home
Vol. #9, pp. 317-319

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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