Where Shall My Wond'ring Soul Begin?: The Landscape of Evangelical Piety and Thoughtby Mark A. Noll
From classic hymns to contemporary culture, this book explores evangelical Christianity at its best.
Eight of today�s most noted thinkers here examine the nature of evangelical Christianity and explore its ongoing role in contemporary culture. These chapters discuss evangelicalism�s shared religious features, its intellectual agenda, and the impact its deeply/p>… See more details below
From classic hymns to contemporary culture, this book explores evangelical Christianity at its best.
Eight of today�s most noted thinkers here examine the nature of evangelical Christianity and explore its ongoing role in contemporary culture. These chapters discuss evangelicalism�s shared religious features, its intellectual agenda, and the impact its deeply felt religious commitments have had on society. In the process, this volume provides a significant view of evangelicalism in its broadest outlines and suggests ways to cultivate and preserve its finest qualities.
Richard J. Mouw
Mark A. Noll
Ronald F. Thiemann
David F. Wells
- Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
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Read an Excerpt
Evangelicalism at Its Best
MARK A. NOLL
Evangelicalism at its best is the religion displayed in the classic evangelical hymns. The canon of evangelical hymnody is open, which means that before very long at least a few of the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs being composed in such lively profusion in contemporary evangelical churches will be added to that canon. As they are added, they will take their place alongside three distinct layers of hymnody that, more than any other expression, define the modern evangelical movement at its best.
When did modern evangelicalism arise in the English-speaking world? We may date that beginning to Jonathan Edwards's preaching on justification by faith in his Northampton, Massachusetts, church in 1735, or to John Wesley's Aldersgate experience in May 1738, or to George Whitefield's momentous preaching tour of New England in September 1740. But as an indication of fresh religious sensibility and in a form that would both guide and inspire the experience of multiplied millions of believers to come, it makes more sense to date the emergence of modern evangelicalism to an act of composition by Charles Wesley. The very week that his brother John received an unusual manifestation of divine grace during the Moravian meeting at Aldersgate, Charles Wesley underwent a similar experience.
Many know what John Wesley wrote in his journal after his experience: "About a quarter before nine, while [the speaker] was describing the change which God works in the heart throughfaith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." Many, many more have sung the words that Charles composed:
Where shall my wond'ring soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire.
How shall I equal triumphs raise,
Or sing my great Deliverer's praise?
. . . . . .
Come, O my guilty brethren, come,
Groaning beneath your load of sin;
His bleeding heart shall make you room,
His open side shall take you in.
He calls you now, invites you home,
Come, O my guilty brethren, come.
If you doubt the weight of Charles Wesley's contribution to the emergence of modern evangelicalism, ask yourself how many of the words of Edwards, Whitefield, or John Wesley you can quote, and then reflect on how much of Charles Wesley is stored away, not only in your brain but in your heart:
Hark, the herald angels sing,
Glory to the new-born King ...
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die ...
Jesu, Lover of my soul, Let me to thy bosom fly ...
Arise, my soul, arise; shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding Sacrifice in my behalf appears ...
Love divine, all loves excelling,
joy of heaven to earth come down ...
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free,
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee ...
Ye servants of God, Your Master proclaim,
And publish abroad His wonderful name:
The name all-victorious of Jesus extol;
His kingdom is glorious and rules over all ...
"Christ the Lord is risen today,"
Sons of men and angels say!
Raise your joys and triumphs high:
Sing, ye heavens; thou earth reply.
The hymns of Charles Wesley and his contemporaries like John Newton, Anne Steele, William Cowper, and William Williams (Pantecelyn) mark the first great outpouring of evangelical hymnody. The second appeared during the remarkable expansion of evangelicalism throughout Britain, Canada, and the United States during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century. Like the first wave, the classic hymns of the evangelical nineteenth century featured redemptive encounter with the living Christ described through images, tropes, metaphors, and quotations from the Bible. Evangelicalism always involved more than Christ-centered, biblically normed religious experience. But for leaders and followers alike, especially in day-to-day ordinary experience, that kind of piety remained the defining center of the evangelical movements.
In the North Atlantic countries, massive efforts in evangelism, voluntary social reform, and the refinement of taste led to something like an evangelical cultural hegemony. In the United States, for example, the sway of evangelicalism can be noted by the intensely revivalistic tone of religious life manifested in both armies and on both home fronts during the Civil War, and also by the way in which public political discourse developed along lines marked out by itinerating evangelical preachers and evangelical voluntary societies in other words, by the features of American life that so impressed visitors like Alexis de Tocqueville. But a more intimate and quotidian measure of nineteenth-century evangelical cultural influence is found in the incredible popularity of the hymns of Fanny Crosby of Brooklyn, New York. Among the approximately 8,500 hymns that this blind author wrote, dozens became defining emblems of evangelical experience:
Tell me the story of Jesus, write on my heart every word ...
All the way my Savior leads me;
what have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt his tender mercy,
who through life has been my guide? ...
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
praising my Savior all the day long.
In an American world very different from the refinement of Brooklyn Heights, a similar process was at work among those whom an ethical malignancy had made into America's hewers of wood and drawers of water. The decades between the American War for Independence and the Civil War witnessed an accelerating evangelization of African Americans, both slave and free. When allowed, churches were formed, and blacks exerted great energy in learning to read the Bible. Where allowed or not allowed, African Americans sang of their faith. The most distinctive form of that singing was the spiritual. Although authorship, origin, and exact distribution of many spirituals seem to lie beyond historical recovery, by mid-century the spiritual had become a sturdy anchor of African-American religion. The life course reflected in those spirituals was very different from the world in which Fanny Crosby lived. But one thing was similar: the use of biblical materials focused on the omnicompetence of Jesus Christ:
What ship is this that's landed at the shore!
Oh, glory hallelujah!
It's the old ship of Zion, hallelujah! ...
What kind of Captain does she have on board?
Oh, glory hallelujah!
King Jesus is the Captain, hallelujah....
In that morning, true believers, In that morning,
We will sit aside of Jesus, In that morning,
If you should go fore I go, In that morning,
You will sit aside of Jesus, In that morning,
True believers, where your tickets, In that morning,
Master Jesus got your tickets, In that morning.
It was the same in Canada. If anything, Protestant evangelical influence was manifest even more strongly and in more ways throughout the Maritimes and Ontario than in the United States. Yet more than the shaping of churches, schools, and public discourse, evangelicalism in nineteenth-century Canada could be defined by the hymns it produced. None of them touched more lives than a hymn written by Joseph Scriven, who, in its words, was reflecting on the dislocation and personal tragedies that had attended his migration from Ireland to Port Hope, Ontario:
What a Friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer! ...
Are we weak and heavy-laden,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge,
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
In his arms He'll take and shield thee,
Thou wilt find a solace there.
Nineteenth-century Britain was an arena in which evangelicalism interacted deeply with conceptions of political economy; where different kinds of evangelical faith virtually monopolized the dissenting churches and also exerted a powerful influence in the Church of England, the Church of Ireland, and the Church of Scotland; and where evangelicals probably contributed more than any other source to the constitution of Victorian sensibility. In such a venue of multivalent evangelical activity, still nothing spoke more directly of the spirituality that undergirded evangelical public life than the hymn. Horatius Bonar, who gave up his parish to join the Scottish Free Church in 1843, was one of the most eminent of those hymn writers, and most of his best-known hymns reiterated for a new era what were already classical evangelical themes:
Not what these hands have done
can save this guilty soul;
Not what this toiling flesh has borne
can make my spirit whole....
Thy work alone, O Christ,
can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God,
can give me peace within....
Thy grace alone, O God,
to me can pardon speak;
Thy power alone, O Son of God,
can this sore bondage break.
Yet none of Bonar's hymns, popular as they are, has spoken to and for so many evangelicals as words written in the early 1830s by Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871), sister of an evangelical clergyman in the Church of England, cousin of the missionary activist Henry Venn, and friend of the Geneva evangelical leader H. A. César Malan:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy Blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come.
Elliott's evocation of the language of the Authorized Version, her hymn's reminder of the freighted significance of saintly women (usually slightly in the background), and its quintessentially evangelical mixture of christocentric self-resignation and spiritual self-assertion all of these are powerfully succinct markers of the evangelicalism that flourished so widely in the English-speaking world in its heyday of cultural influence during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century.
It was the same in the third wave of classic evangelical hymnody that produced the gospel song around the turn of the twentieth century. For white evangelicals, Ira Sankey led the way. As D. L. Moody's song leader, Sankey was an indispensable contributor to Moody's phenomenal success in England, Scotland, Canada, and the United States. But much more than anything Moody ever wrote, Sankey's songs long continued to speak of powerful evangelical sentiments:
There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold,
But one was out on the hills away,
Far off from the gates of gold....
[N]one of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed;
Nor how dark was the night that the Lord passed through
Ere he found his sheep that was lost.
The black counterpart to Ira Sankey was Charles A. Tindley, who through patience, persistence, and tireless promotion convinced large numbers of African-American churches to enrich their singing with new hymns adjusted to a new era. Tindley is best known for a song published in 1916 that was later amalgamated with the spiritual "I'll Be All Right" and sung to the tune of the latter spiritual as an anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and '70s. In its original version, the hymn's most telling effect was to demonstrate continuity with the Christ-centered emphasis of earlier evangelicalism:
This world is one great battlefield, With forces all arrayed; If in my heart I do not yield I'll overcome some day.... Tho' many a times no signs appear Of answer when I pray, My Jesus says I need not fear, He'll make it plain some day. I'll be like Him some day, I'll be like Him some day.
As is clear from even the few hymns I have quoted from the three great eras of evangelical hymnody, these classics defined, with an unusual degree of unanimity, the essence of evangelicalism. Whatever their many differences of theology, ethnicity, denomination, class, taste, politics, or churchmanship (and in these areas divisions existed beyond number), evangelical hymn writers and hymn singers pointed to a relatively cohesive religious vision.
Driving that vision was a peculiarly evangelical understanding of the Trinity. The holiness of God provided occasion for worship but even more a standard that revealed human sinfulness, human guilt, and human need for a savior. At the heart of the evangelical hymnody was Jesus Christ, whose love offered to sinners mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God. In this savior redeemed sinners found new life in the Holy Spirit, as well as encouragement in that same Spirit to endure the brokenness, relieve the pain, and bind up the wounds of a world that the great evangelical hymn writers almost always depicted in strikingly realistic terms.
The classic evangelical hymns, in other words, contain the clearest, the most memorable, the most cohesive, and the most widely repeated expressions of what it meant to be an evangelical. But why regard the religion of these hymns as evangelicalism at its best? The answer probably has as much to do with ancient understandings of Christianity as with contingencies of recent centuries. Conflicts with Roman officials, internal battles over the character of the faith, strenuous apologetics against Jews and pagans, and in time learned discourses exegeting and synthesizing scripture all played their part in the emergence of Christianity during the first centuries after Christ. Wise commentators long since, however, have realized that the lex credendi was the lex orandi, that the way the church formally defined itself depended ultimately on what and how the church prayed.
Similarly, for the evangelical tradition, great diligence in preaching, an incredible organizational energy, and more learned theology than evangelicals and the critics of evangelicals have recognized went into the creation of modern evangelicalism. But nothing so profoundly defined the lex credendi of evangelicalism as the lex cantandi; what evangelicals have been is what we have sung.
Just as in the early church, the lex orandi, the law of prayer, did not guarantee that the early Christians would live up to the sublime faith expressed in their liturgies, so too with modern evangelicals the possession of a lex cantandi, a law of song, has not guaranteed that evangelical practice lives up to the Christ-centered, biblical piety about which evangelicals sing. In the early church, the liturgy, constructed primarily from the words and concepts of scripture, defined a religion of beauty, charity, serenity, magnanimity, holiness, and realistic hope that far outshone the often tawdry realities of actual church practice. So too the hymnody of evangelicalism, perhaps because it so obviously is a creature of the Bible's salvific themes, defined a religion that was clearer, purer, better balanced, and more sharply focused than much evangelical practice. The religion of the classic evangelical hymns is evangelicalism at its best, we might say, because Christian movements in general are at their best in worship, prayer, and hymn.
The classic hymns display evangelicalism at its best in three specific ways. First, a Christ-centered picture of redemption is the scarlet thread running through these hymns. This picture of redemption insists upon the death of Christ on the cross as the only ultimate source of human salvation. What makes the hymns evangelicalism at its best is that in them the boundary of offense is restricted narrowly to the scandal of the cross. Second, the classic evangelical hymns, as well as more general evangelical practice with respect to hymnody, define an unusually broad, unexpectedly gracious ecumenism. Third, the social vision that constitutes a prominent subtheme in the classic evangelical hymns evokes a remarkably winsome vision of altruistic Christian charity.
The Scandal of the Cross
The history of modern evangelicalism could be written as a chronicle of calculated offense. Those who know even a little evangelical history know how prone evangelicals have been to violate decorum, compromise integrity, upset intellectual balance, and abuse artistic good taste. In specifically theological terms, the evangelical movement, including many of its subcanonical hymns, offers the spectacle of a luxurious expanse of weeds, with multiple varieties of Gnosticism, Docetism, Manicheanism, modalism, and wild eschatological speculation, not to speak of confusion over the communicatio idiomatum and manifold outbreaks of unintended Unitarianism, springing up as a threat to the good seed of Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy.
The great hymns are not like that. They do not meander theologically. Whatever else they may lack, they possess the virtue of clarity. In turn, by focusing on the great hymns of evangelicalism, proponents, opponents, and the merely curious can see clearly the essence of evangelicalism with a minimum of distraction. That essence is the central theme in a vast panoply of classic hymns.
Professor Stephen Marini of Wellesley College has twice in recent years tallied the most often reprinted hymns in American Protestant hymnbooks from the colonial era to the decades after World War II. Because of the different range of hymnals he sampled for the two surveys, he has come up with two different hymns as the most often reprinted in American Protestant history. Because the message of one of the hymns is so often repeated in so many of the other classic hymns of evangelicalism, its compact, forceful lines are an especially good record of the center of evangelical concern. That hymn appeared in 1776, and I say with calculated awareness of what else was going on then in Philadelphia and in Scotland, where Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations, that of all world-historical occurrences in that year the publication of August Montagu Toplady's hymn may have been the most consequential:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
Not the labours of my hands
Can fulfil Thy law's demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone:
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy Cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
Toplady's theme was never put more succinctly, with more theological acumen and greater dramatic power, than in a hymn Charles Wesley wrote at the very beginning of the evangelical movement:
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior's blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain?
For me? Who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
'Tis myst'ry all: th'Immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature's night.
Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray;
I woke; the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
No condemnation now I dread,
Jesus, and all in him, is mine.
Alive in him, my living head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th'eternal throne,
And claim my crown, through Christ my own.
It is impossible to illustrate quickly the fixation of evangelical hymnody on the saving death of Christ. It is a prominent theme even in many songs written specifically for children:
Jesus loves me, this I know, For the Bible tells me so....
Jesus loves me! He who died Heaven's gate to open wide;
He will wash away my sin, Let his little child come in.
It remained a fixture in the memorable, though more sentimental hymns of the Victorian era, as from Philip P. Bliss:
"Man of Sorrows," what a name
for the Son of God, who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
in my place condemned he stood;
Sealed my pardon with his blood:
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Or Horatio G. Spafford's "It Is Well with My Soul":
My sin O, the bliss of this glorious thought,
My sin not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more:
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
Even in the much more therapeutic concerns of the modern praise chorus, emphasis upon the redemption won by Christ on the cross is by no means absent.
The classic evangelical hymns do not offend on doctrines of the church and the sacraments, because they touch on these matters only indirectly, if at all. Neither do they offend by promoting the particular doctrines of a faction. The Arminian Charles Wesley and the Calvinist A. M. Toplady both wrote hymns excoriating the theological positions of the other. These hymns died long before their authors, while compositions like "Rock of Ages" and "And Can It Be" are found in the hymnals of almost all Protestants and, since the 1970s, some Roman Catholics as well. While the great hymns everywhere betray implicit trust in the scripture, they do not offend by insisting on a particular definition Of biblical authority. Again, the classic evangelical hymns have virtually no politics. Charles Wesley thought the American Revolution was sinful through and through, but American patriots hardly noticed as they went on reprinting his hymns in edition after edition.
I could go on. Different evangelicals of different sorts and at different times have tolerated or advocated racism. They have cheered attacks on the intellect, indulged unimaginable vulgarity in the production of religious kitsch, acted callously to the dispossessed, confused their political allegiances with divine mandates, equated middle-class decorum with sanctification in the Holy Spirit, and tried to pass off gratuitous nonsense as if it were gospel truth as Toplady, for example, did in the essay where he first published "Rock of Ages" by claiming that the average number of sins committed by each individual in his or her lifetime was 2,522,880,000,
Such failings, as well as the particular dogmas and practices insisted upon by different evangelical churches, have been the occasion for oceans of offense. Whether all or some of these offenses are justified is an open question deserving a degree of serious attention.
The classic evangelical hymns, by contrast, are virtually innocent of such offenses. Rather, their overriding message and the single offense upon which they insist is compacted into the four words that best summarize their message: Jesus Christ Saves Sinners. These hymns, in other words, proclaim a particular redemption of substitutionary atonement through a particular act of God accomplished in the particularities of the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and kingly rule of Jesus Christ.
Evangelicalism at its best is an offensive religion. It claims that you cannot be reconciled to God, understand the ultimate purposes of the world, or live a truly virtuous life unless you confess your sin before the living God and receive new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Such particularity has always been offensive (see 1 Corinthians 1), and in the multicultural, postmodern world in which we live it is more offensive than ever. But when evangelicalism is at its best, as it is in its greatest hymns, that declaration of a particular salvation is its one and only offense.
The Ecumenism of the Gospel
Evangelicals, in point of historical fact, may never have been as factious, fissiparous, and sectarian as is commonly thought. To be sure, leaders of evangelical groups have indulged in their fair share of backstabbing, power-mongering, petty-minded polemicizing, gratuitous boundary-marking, and schismatic devilment. Although I am convinced that lay evangelicals have done better than their leaders in preserving the unity of the body of Christ, there is enough fragmentation in the evangelical world to go around for all. I have often heard said in my circles what is no doubt said about different issues in other communions as well: the presence of three confessional Presbyterians guarantees at least four potentially schismatic opinions on the doctrine of predestination.
Evangelicalism at its best, however, embodies a kind of gospel ecumenism that, while it does not overcome the fragmentation to which evangelicalism is prone, nonetheless speaks forcefully against it. In this case, evangelical hymnody has been more an eschatological sign ora unity to come than of a unity realized. Specifically, it is not so much the message of the hymns as how they are used that displays most clearly their ecumenical potential.
John Wesley, for example, eventually broke with the Moravians: they were too passive, too mystical, perhaps too cheerful. But he did not hesitate to translate a few of their hymns. The result is that generations of evangelicals to this day have joined their voices in singing the cooperative efforts of Charles Wesley the Methodist and Nicholas von Zinzendorf the Moravian long after the Moravians and Methodists went their separate ways. And what they have sung is, "Jesus, thy blood and righteousness/ My beauty are, my glorious dress."
Some of the ecumenism of the great evangelical hymns bridges even wider chasms. At the end of the nineteenth century, many evangelicals still regarded the pope as Antichrist and, if they thought of it at all, considered the Oxford Movement but a way station toward Rome. Yet within the same generation that they were written, John Henry Newman's "Lead Kindly Light" and John Keble's "Sun of My Soul, Thou Savior Dear" were being sung by evangelicals. Moreover, a translation by the evangelical Presbyterian James Waddel Alexander of Paul Gerhardt's German translation of Bernard of Clairvaux's "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" had become a fixture in evangelical hymnbooks.
It is also ecumenically significant to ponder the translating history of Martin Luther's "Ein Feste Burg," the very Marseilles hymn of the Reformation that English-speaking evangelicals were also singing widely by the end of the nineteenth century. Two of the most popular translations of that great hymn were in fact made by individuals whose theological convictions would have excluded them from leadership in almost all evangelical churches George McDonald, a renegade Scottish Congregationalist run off into Universalism, and Frederick Henry Hedge, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and promoter of Unitarianism as a pastor and professor.
The ecumenism of the classic evangelical hymns extends beyond ecclesiastical division to the polarities of gender and race as well. Although these hymns follow the conventions of their day in using masculine pronouns for all humans, they do not promote gender wars, and only a lunatic fringe of evangelicals has ever scrupled at not only singing but singing with enthusiasm the hymns of Fanny Crosby, Charlotte Elliott, Frances Ridley Havergal, Carolina Sandell, Cecil Frances Alexander, and Margaret Clarkson.
Race, the most intractable divider of Christians in the modern West, yet is not intractable enough to completely stifle the gospel ecumenism of evangelical hymnody. Many of us whitebread evangelicals act uncomfortable in black churches, and I suspect that many African Americans feel the same in white churches. Yet the white folk still try to sing "A Little Talk with Jesus Makes It Right" or Thomas A. Dorsey's "Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on, to the light, take my hand precious Lord, lead me home."
Hymn-inspired racial inclusiveness goes way back in evangelical history. It was there in 1792, when eleven hundred African Americans some refugees from slavery in America, others escaping social harassment in a marginally freer Nova Scotia waded ashore off the West African coast onto a strip of land purchased for their use by the British evangelicals of the Clapham Sect. As they came ashore, so it is said, the settlers joined their voices in Isaac Watts's "Awake, and sing the song of Moses and the Lamb," a hymn drawing on both Testaments and bearing great significance in that hour.
On Whitsunday in 1862, when five thousand South Sea Islanders from Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa gathered to inaugurate a new specifically Christian government with a professedly Christian king, they marked the occasion with a hymn that had become the missionary beacon of the evangelical movement. The consequences of Western imperialism have always been mixed, but it was the Islanders' own choice to appropriate an expressly evangelical gift to mark that day, as they sang Isaac Watts's Christianized version of Psalm 72:
Jesus shall reign where'er the sun Doth his successive journeys run; His kingdom stretch from shore to shore Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
Although on ecumenical matters evangelicals have not always been at their best, in the spirit with which the classic evangelical hymns have been put to use, evangelicalism expresses an ecumenical vision shaped by the gospel itself. By so doing they illustrate in a specifically Christian way the truth of a German saying: Wer spricht mit mir ist mein Mitmensch; wer singt mit mir ist mein Bruder; that is, the folks I talk to are my fellow human beings; the ones I sing with are family.
A Social Vision
An important subtheme in the classic evangelical hymns is a persistent concern for the relief of suffering. Although this subtheme is almost never developed systematically or structurally, it is nonetheless there from the first, as in the hymn of Isaac Watts sung by the South Sea Islanders:
Blessings abound where'er he reigns; The prisoner leaps to lose his chains, The weary find eternal rest, And all the sons of want are blest.
As J. R. Watson points out in his fine recent book, The English Hymn, "Charles Wesley's hymns are forceful because they contain so many words which are physical: for him the life of a Christian was to be experienced in the body as well as in the soul." Thus, the note struck in Wesley's "O for a thousand tongues to sing" is by no means untypical:
Hear him, ye deaf, his praise, ye dumb, Your loosen'd tongues employ, Ye blind behold your Saviour come, And leap ye lame, for joy.
Nor is the challenge to this-worldly service found elsewhere in Wesley's hymns an oddity:
A charge to keep I have, A God to glorify; A never-dying soul to save, And fit it for the sky: To serve the present age, My calling to fulfil; Oh, may it all my powers engage, To do my Master's will.
In the Victorian era, Fanny Crosby expressed directly the care that at least some evangelicals showed to those for whom few others cared:
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying, Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave; Weep o'er the erring one, lift up the fallen, Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save. Rescue the perishing, care for the dying; Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.
At its best, the evangelical desire to rescue the perishing has meant putting the perishing on their feet in the here and now as well as preparing them for eternity. Of course, we evangelicals are often not at our best, so the occasions are many of having been lured away from Christ-inspired social service by prejudice, class consciousness, middle-class fastidiousness, blindness to the structural conditions of power that condition personal choices, and the many other forms of social sinfulness that beset the human race in general.
But at its best, evangelicalism is William Wilberforce, who for the sake of the kingdom of Christ devoted his life to the destruction of slavery. At its best, evangelicalism is the Grande-Ligne Mission of Madame Henriette Feller, who in nineteenth-century Quebec patiently joined Protestant witness to educational exertion. At its best evangelicalism is the tireless, unpretentious, but absolutely stunning social achievements of the Salvation Army and the Mennonite Central Committee. And at its best evangelicalism is the motivation from the Gospel of Matthew that has inspired many to establish shelters for pregnant women in distress and to march on pro-life picket lines: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Matthew 11:28-29). "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:14).
Concern for the terrestrial outworking of the kingdom of God is not as fully developed in the classic evangelical hymns as it should be. But it is indubitably there, reflecting a vision of human need inspired by the love of Jesus and devoted, not to extrinsic social or political causes, but to the good of the ones being served.
* * *
The researchable historical question as to when, how, in what proportion, and to what extent evangelicals have functioned at their best is too complex for easy adjudication. As an academic committed to the values of modern historical research when those values function at their best, I am reluctant to attempt a quick answer, since there is so much contradictory evidence.
In the history of evangelicalism, for every Jonathan Edwards dedicating the mind to discern the glories of God in the stuff of daily human existence, there are many James Davenports running amuck into mind-denying enthusiasm. For every William Jennings Bryan eager to judge the marketplace by the cross, there is a Russell Conwell eager to bury the cross in an acre of diamonds. For every Johann Albrecht Bengel or Gordon Fee examining issues of biblical interpretation with painstaking care, there are many more evangelicals racing from slipshod plundering of the biblical text to bogus exegetical certainties. For every Wilberforce bringing the resources of evangelical faith to bear for spiritual and terrestrial liberation there is a James Henley Thornwell bringing pretty much the same resources to bear for a now incomprehensible mixture of spiritual liberation and terrestrial enslavement. For every Billy Graham maintaining theological, financial, and sexual integrity as a traveling evangelist, there is a Marjo exploiting kerygmatic charisma for base ends. Or to take trenchant examples from Charles Marsh's captivating study, God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (1997), about the dramatic civil rights confrontations of 1964 in the state of Mississippi, for every Fannie Lou Hamer who was sustained by thoughts of Jesus as she was being beaten in the Winona, Mississippi, city jail, there is a Sam Bowers, imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, believing that he was defending the sovereignty of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ by conspiring to murder three civil rights workers.
From a historical perspective, therefore, I am reluctant to conclude too much about the question of whether evangelicals in practice have lived up to the vision of faith and life found in the great evangelical hymns. Yet as a historian who is also an evangelical, I must say more. Even if, historically considered, evangelicals have not always acted at our best, evangelical convictions are not compromised. In fact they may be strengthened.
It is evangelical to insist that humans are redeemed by God's grace rather than by the exercise of their own capacities; it is evangelical to claim that the righteousness on which we rely is a forensic gift rather than a personal possession; it is evangelical to claim that power resides in powerlessness and that the cross is a symbol both for human weakness as well as divine love. Holiness unto the Lord is a prominent evangelical theme, but it rests upon justification by faith alone.
Thus, even if evangelicals have acted at our best only inconsistently, there is nothing in that fact contradicting evangelical conviction. In fact, for evangelicals to confess how far short they have fallen of the divine beauty that they claim to honor is a very important first step toward realizing evangelicalism at its best.
At the end of the twentieth century, all Christians, indeed all humans, have multiple reasons to hope that evangelicalism will be at its best. In the United States, sophisticated surveys suggest that more than a fourth of the national population are active participants in evangelical churches (that is, about the same number as active Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants combined). A recent survey by John N. Vaughan published in his newsletter, Church Growth Today, reported that nine out of the ten most rapidly growing non-Catholic churches in the United States, and 93 out of the top 100, identify themselves as evangelical, charismatic, Pentecostal, Southern Baptist, fundamentalist, or by some other label usually considered as fitting under the broader evangelical umbrella.
The situation for world Christianity reveals the same picture. Annual tabulations by the missiologist David Barrett suggest that of the world's nearly 2 billion people identified with Christian churches, something like 700 million are evangelical in a broad sense of the term (for Barrett, this category also includes some Roman Catholics). His figures make clear that the only varieties of Protestantism growing with any concerted energy in the world are evangelical in general and most likely Pentecostal in particular. Thus, it is important not just for the evangelical community but for the world as a whole that evangelicals live, think, and pray at their best.
That it might in fact be possible to hope for such a prospect is indicated by an account of two last hymns. Christian missions began among the Bor Dinka on the east side of the White Nile River in the southern Sudan in 1906. But For the first seventy years and more of its activity the Anglican Church Missionary Society experienced only scant results. From the 1970s, and with accelerating force in the 1980s and '90s, however, Christianity under the guidance of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan has expanded with remarkable strength. The external circumstances of this expansion are tragic, for the Dinka have been caught in civil war with succeeding Muslim factions from the northern Sudan and have suffered great loss of life and property.
Precisely in those circumstances the Christian faith has taken root but in a distinctively Bor Dinka manner. Everywhere in the new Dinka churches and among the burgeoning tide of converts is seen the cross. The display of the cross is particularly striking in massed processions on holy days when, as described by Marc Nikkel, "their crosses [create] a thick forest, surging with the crowds, thrusting heavenward with every beat of the songs they sing." The prominence of the cross in Bor Dinka life represents a christianization of existing cultural forms, for the Dinka had historically put to use a wide variety of carved walking sticks, staffs, and clubs. Among Dinka converts, the Christian symbol has filled a Form provided by traditional culture.
But the Dinka appropriation of the cross has also become a powerful expression of pastoral theology, expressed in a flourishing of fresh, indigenous hymnody. These hymns reprise historical evangelical emphases by pointing to the cross as a comprehensive reality of great power. The cross provides protection against hostile spirits, or the jak; the cross figures large in the baptisms that mark conversions; in hymns the cross becomes an ensign or banner raised high for praise and protection; the cross brings the great God, Nhialic, close to the Dinka in the person of Christ, whose suffering is appropriated with striking subjectivity; the cross is spoken of as the mën, or the solid central post that supports the Dinka's large, thatched cattle sheds; and the cross becomes a symbol of the potent Spirit who replaces the ancestral jak, whose protective powers have so obviously failed in recent years. A song composed by Mary Nyanluaak Lem Bol is only one of the many recent hymns illustrating the depth to which the cross has entered Dinka culture in desperate times:
We will carry the cross. We will carry the cross.
The cross is the gun for the evil jok.
Let us chase the evil jok away with the cross.
This expression of Bor Dinka faith is in the great tradition of classical evangelical hymnody. It brings the saving work of Christ near; it is a sign of miraculous hope in a dark and threatening world. If such circumstances continue to lead to the writing of such hymns, it may be possible to think that evangelicalism can approximate its best.
In the second survey made by Professor Stephen Marini, "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" emerges as the most often reprinted hymn in American Protestant hymnbooks. This hymn's story reveals much that is typical of evangelicalism. As an indication of the kind of ecumenism that flourishes among evangelicals, the version of the hymn most often sung today actually represents an original composition of Edward Perronet, who was a pedobaptist associating primarily with the Methodists, and John Rippon, a Baptist. In addition, the tune "Diadem," the most lively of several tunes to which the hymn is sung, was composed by an eighteen-year-old Wesleyan hat maker, James Ellor.
Less auspiciously, Edward Perronet's career is also not untypical of evangelicalism. Perronet, it turns out, was not an easy chap to get along with. As a young man he eagerly joined in the work of the Wesleys, but his zeal for revival led him to bitter attacks on the Church of England that soon alienated him from the Wesleys, who always saw their work as a complement to official Anglicanism. Perronet next took one of the chapels in the Countess of Huntingdon's Connection, but the violence of his festering anti-Anglicanism remained so strong, he wore out the countess's patience and finally ended up pastoring a Congregational church.
Evangelicalism at its best is not the career of Edward Perronet. Evangelicalism at its best, rather, is the hopes, dedication, aspirations, and longing that have led tens, maybe hundreds of millions of evangelicals to sing, decade after decade, and with all their hearts:
All hail the power of Jesus' Name;
Let Angels prostrate fall;
Bring forth the royal diadem
To crown Him Lord of all....
Sinners, whose love can ne'er forget
The wormwood and the gall,
Go spread your trophies at His feet,
And crown Him Lord of all.
O that, with yonder sacred throng,
We at His feet may fall,
Join in the everlasting song,
And crown him Lord of all.
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