Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt

Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt

by David Hempton

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300198256
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 08/13/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 246
Sales rank: 1,279,122
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

David Hempton is Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies and John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He is also Dean of Harvard Divinity School. He lives in Bedford, MA.

Read an Excerpt

Evangelical Disenchantment

Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt
By David Hempton

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 David Hempton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-14067-5

Chapter One

Introduction Evangelicalism and Disenchantment

I never could understand the light manner in which people will discuss the gravest questions, such as God, and the immortality of the soul. They gossip about them over tea, write and read review articles about them, and seem to consider affirmation or negation of no more practical importance than the conformation of a beetle. With me the struggle to retain as much of my creed was tremendous. The dissolution of Jesus into mythologic vapour was nothing less than the death of a friend dearer to me than any other friend whom I knew. -William Hale White, The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford (1881)

The idea for this book first occurred to me some thirty years ago when, as a research student in the University of St. Andrews, I spent the time between the completion of my Ph.D. dissertation and my oral defense by engaging in research for a journal article on the so-called crisis of evangelicalism in the 1820s and '30s. The article eventually appeared as "Evangelicalism and Eschatology" in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History (1979), but more important than my rather pedestrian article was a riveting anonymous essay Iread in the Westminster Review for 1855. What was striking about the essay was how beautifully it was written and how clever were its insights into the state of early Victorian evangelicalism. It was clearly written by someone of unusual brilliance, and I soon found out that it was by George Eliot, who also happened to be the author of Middlemarch, which was then, and remains to this day, my favorite novel.

As is the way in scholarship, my research soon took a different turn, but the essay on evangelicalism in the Westminster Review continued to intrigue me, so much so that I collected everything I could find written by Dr. Cumming, the evangelical Presbyterian minister who was the object of the essay's attack. It was clear from a first read that Eliot's acerbic treatment of Cumming was motivated by more than mere passing interest. The prose leaps from the page, reflecting someone with an unusually personal engagement with the issues at stake. In fact it was written by Eliot as an ex-evangelical about the aspects of the evangelical tradition she came most to dislike. More than a commentary on Dr. Cumming, the metropolitan preacher, Eliot's essay is really a religious disenchantment narrative reflecting her own journey of faith.

In the years that followed my reading of Eliot's essay I became more interested both in what motivated people of all classes, colors, and genders to embrace evangelical Protestantism, and also in what caused some of them subsequently to repudiate that religious tradition. This book stems from that interest. It is not intended to be a subversive book of a great and multifaceted religious tradition or its devotees; nor is it meant to imply that disenchantment was anything other than a minority pursuit within the evangelical tradition, though that minority is probably more substantial than some might think. The great majority of evangelicals, past and present, have lived and died contentedly within their faith tradition. But many did not. In a book called Leaving the Fold, published in 1995, Edward T. Babinski produced a litany of testimonies by former fundamentalists who later became moderate evangelicals, liberal Christians, agnostics, or atheists. Among those who remained as Christians of some stripe were the Harvard Divinity School professor and writer Harvey Cox, the distinguished religious journalist Tom Harpur, and the historian of Christian origins Dennis Ronald McDonald. Among those who became agnostics or atheists were Babinski himself, Charles Templeton, a one-time revivalist associate of Billy Graham, and the free thought activist Dan Barker. Although Babinski cites some historical figures in his book of testimony, including the influential nineteenth-century public intellectual Robert G. Ingersoll, his concern is more with contemporary figures and also with promoting the agenda of "leaving the fold" of fundamentalism. My intentions are rather different.

This book is about a collection of energetic and talented historical figures who once had close encounters with various species of evangelical Christianity, but who did not remain in that tradition. What attracted them to evangelicalism and what later caused disenchantment are intriguing questions that reveal much, not only about their own aspirations and limitations, but also about the strengths and weaknesses of the evangelical tradition. Perhaps there is no better way of understanding the essence of any religious tradition than by looking at the lives of those who once loved and later repudiated it. Put another way, it has been said that nothing reveals as much about the inner workings of institutions as their complaint departments. Evangelical disenchantment narratives are in reality referrals to the complaint department of the evangelical tradition. What motivated them, how they were handled, and what their outcomes were all tell a story about the nature and values of that tradition. In that sense this book is as much about the evangelical tradition and its struggles over important issues as it is about the biographies around which the book is organized.

I hope the following pages will be of interest to the countless millions who remain spiritually engaged in the evangelical tradition, to those who have left it, whether actively disenchanted or merely apathetic, and to still others who have wanted to know more about it but who have not found conventional historical treatments to be of their liking. Biography, or in this case multiple minibiographies organized around a single theme, is often a more accessible window into religious faith than are other kinds of historical analysis. As a social historian who has devoted much of my career to understanding and accounting for the popular appeal of evangelical movements to countless millions of people, I offer the following narratives as complementary, not alternative, materials for understanding the inner workings of a tradition that is now a rapidly expanding global phenomenon. Moreover, by concentrating on evangelical disenchantment it is not my intention to deny that most evangelicals remained enchanted with their religious faith or, as Timothy Larsen recently has shown, that a vigorous tradition of reconversion to orthodox Christianity existed among cohorts of Victorian secularists. As a new generation of scholars disenchanted with old secularization theories is beginning to find out, in the ebbing and flowing of religious faith not all the water has flowed in the same direction. In that sense, this book makes no grand representative claims beyond the intrinsic interest of the stories themselves and what they reveal about the strengths and weaknesses of the evangelical tradition.

It also has become clear to me that disenchantment is almost inevitably a part of any religious tradition, Christian or otherwise, as noble ideals of sacrifice, zeal, and commitment meet the everyday realities of complexity, frustration, and disappointment. Another book could be written, for example, about those who became frustrated with the apparent accommodationism of more liberal brands of Christianity, which sometimes leaves its adherents with the perception that there is no longer left any solid ground upon which to stand. It may be, however, that disenchantment is a particularly marked characteristic of evangelicalism because so many are swept into the tradition at a relatively young age, and because the claims and aspirations are so lofty while the liturgical management of failure and dissatisfaction is so weak. Roman Catholicism, for example, has its symbols, rituals, and confessionals, and differential levels of religious commitment, whereas evangelical Protestants are often thrown back on the infallible word and the local church, which may in fact be as much part of the problem as the solution for those tasting the bitter fruits of disenchantment.

The Evangelical Tradition

From its inauspicious beginnings among the religious revivals that swept the North Atlantic, Anglo-American world in the early eighteenth century, evangelical Protestantism, broadly conceived, has become one of the most popular faith traditions in modern history. Given the difficulties of offering a precise definition, and the fact that it is a multidenominational tradition with many different styles and characteristics, it is difficult to offer a fully accurate assessment of its current numbers. Conservative estimates place the figure at around fifty million evangelicals in the United States and close to half a billion worldwide, but more expansive estimates suggest that the number approaches one hundred million in the United States and, if Pentecostals are included, as many as eight hundred million worldwide. The disparity in these figures shows how difficult it is to agree on definitions of evangelicalism, or to estimate the extent of its transmission, but even the conservative figures point to a remarkable worldwide expansion. Since most of this growth has been sponsored, not by armed states and military conquest, but by the voluntary activities of the evangelical faithful, it is evident that evangelicalism has been a remarkably successful conversionist movement, perhaps one of the most successful in the history of civilization. Although evangelicalism has benefited from large-scale population movements, and from being associated with two expanding empires of commerce and civilization, the British and the American, its growth, on the whole, was largely self-produced and self-directed. Its expansion has benefited from, but was not caused by, favorable circumstances. Changes in global culture, associated with the rise of market economies and democratic structures, facilitated the growth of evangelicalism in the modern era. However, although evangelicalism's populist and democratic style was a good fit for the population migrations and economic transformations associated with modernity, its growth was produced primarily by the dedicated women and men who disseminated the evangelical message.

Determining the content of that message, even in a particular place at a particular time, is a difficult matter, since evangelicalism has always been a broad church of theological traditions, social classes, religious denominations, and voluntary organizations. Definitions have nevertheless been attempted. It has become a commonplace for commentators to cite the historian David Bebbington's fourfold definition of evangelicalism as conversionist, biblicist, crucicentric, and activist. According to this scheme evangelicals have been those who have emphasized a conscious religious conversion over inherited beliefs, the Bible as an authoritative sacred text in determining all matters of faith and conduct, Christ's death on the cross as the centerpiece of evangelical theologies of atonement and redemption, and disciplined action as a way of redeeming people and their cultures. In each of these categories evangelicals have often disagreed about precise formulations of their beliefs and practices, but most evangelicals, past and present, would locate their faith tradition somewhere within the bounds of this quadrilateral. A rather different approach to defining evangelicalism, however, can be found in the recent work by the distinguished historian of early evangelicalism W. R. Ward. He suggests that early evangelicals, deriving from the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment, were broadly united in their embrace of a hexagon of religious ideas: experiential conversion, mysticism, small-group religion, vitalist conceptions of nature, a deferred eschatology, and opposition to theological systems. He also shows how profoundly nineteenth-century evangelicals departed from the tradition they claimed to inherit. Biblical inerrancy, premillennial dispensationalism, propositional systems of all kinds, and bureaucratic denominationalism all eroded what was once an engaging intellectual culture. An infallible text read with wooden literalism, an instant millennium, an absence of mystery, a lack of interest in nature, priestly personality cults, and modernist soteriological systems are not what the early evangelicals had in mind. Ward's approach has a particular resonance for what follows in this book, because it could be argued that some kinds of evangelical disenchantment were caused more by what the evangelical tradition had become by the second half of the nineteenth century than by the principles of its seventeenth-and eighteenth-century founders and shapers.

Writing more specifically about the United States, George Marsden has defined evangelicals as those who believe in the final authority of Scripture, the historical reality of God's saving work as recorded in Scripture, salvation to eternal life based on the redemptive work of Christ, the centrality of evangelism and missions, and the importance of a spiritually transformed life. These propositions are very close to Bebbington's quadrilateral. But the evangelical tradition is not easily contained within a tidy geometrical structure, or a convenient statement of propositions. Some interpreters have emphasized the importance of religious experience and assurance of salvation. Others have drawn attention to the importance of an evangelical style-populist and pugnacious-as being almost as important as its core beliefs and practices. Still others have drawn attention to the way evangelicalism has both adapted to, and been shaped by, its surrounding culture and has therefore changed substantially over time and location. Sometimes perceived pressure from the surrounding culture has led sections of evangelicalism to morph into fundamentalism, which Marsden describes as an angrier, more militant, more conservative, more anti-intellectual, and more antiliberal species of evangelicalism. But whatever the disagreements on points of emphasis, there is no doubt that evangelicalism has been in the past, and remains in the present, an influential shaper of religious cultures, first in the North Atlantic region, and then throughout the world.

Although evangelicalism was once a despised and little studied tradition, there is now no shortage of good scholarship on how, why, and where it expanded since the early 1700s. There is equally no shortage of biographies of leading evangelicals, even if women and people of color remain significantly underrepresented. There is also a luxuriant literature, from the eighteenth century to the present, of how evangelicalism has been excoriated by its opponents. Evangelicals have been lambasted for, among other things, weakmindedness, naked enthusiasm, telescopic philanthropy, pervasive hypocrisy, financial fraudulence, sexual lasciviousness, anti-Catholic bigotry, and psychological manipulation. What is surprisingly lacking in the literature, however, and what this book hopes to address, is the question of how evangelicalism was viewed by those who once found it appealing, but who for a variety of reasons left its fold for greener pastures. Francis Newman stated that such a perspective was especially important because erstwhile evangelicals, having experienced the tradition as both insiders and outsiders, were in the best position to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. In some respects that is a highly contentious claim, since the disenchanted are rarely dispassionate or disinterested observers.

As with all powerful religious traditions, evangelicalism has had its fair share of conscientious objectors and wounded lovers. What is surprising is not the truth of that statement, but the lack of research on its implications. One explanation is that because evangelicalism is not a formal religious denomination or a national religious tradition, its followers have been able to slide in and out of allegiance without requiring excommunication or formal disinheritance. Another reason is that evangelicals themselves have paid little attention to their disenchanted. Not only has it been an activist tradition without much time or inclination for rumination and self-criticism, but also the assumption generally has been that those who fell by the wayside were either theologically heterodox or morally reprehensible, or both, and hence not deserving of much consideration, except as warnings to the faithful. The idea that disenchantment from a religious tradition is an interesting field of enquiry in its own right, as well as an unusual and potentially revealing vantage point from which to view that tradition, is what motivates this book.


Excerpted from Evangelical Disenchantment by David Hempton Copyright © 2008 by David Hempton. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


1 Introduction Evangelicalism and Disenchantment....................1
2 George Eliot-Dr. Cumming's Fundamentalism Evangelicalism and Morality....................19
3 Francis W. Newman-The Road to Baghdad Evangelicalism and Mission....................41
4 Theodore Dwight Weld-The American Century Evangelicalism and Reform....................70
5 Sarah Grimké, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Frances Willard-Bible Stories Evangelicalism and Feminism....................92
6 Vincent van Gogh-A Hard Pilgrimage Evangelicalism and Secularization....................114
7 Edmund Gosse-Father and Son Evangelicalism and Childhood....................139
8 James Baldwin-Preacher and Prophet Evangelicalism and Race....................163
9 Conclusion Enchantment and Disenchantment....................187

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