Volume III - Church History

Nineteenth Century

Western Europe and America

The Protestant West in the 19th century was generally characterized by greatly expanded missionary efforts and liberal theology, along with the rise of the powerful Social Gospel Movement in America. Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries worked together with government administrators as the various nations of western Europe carved up Africa and parts of Asia, the East Indies, and the Pacific islands in their colonial conquests.

In Protestant theology, this was the era of rationalistic reinterpretations of the Gospel accounts using the so-called “scientific methods” of historical and biblical criticism. This movement was begun by the Hegelian German scholar David Strauss (1808–1874) with his very controversial book called The Life of Jesus (1836), in which he denied the historicity of all the supernatural elements in the four Gospels. This movement peaked with the publication in 1910 of the famous, and also very controversial, The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), the famous theologian and medical missionary to French Equatorial Africa.

Generally speaking, in these years in the West, Protestantism (with the exception of Anglicanism) emphasized either emotional experience (Evangelicalism/Pietism/the Holiness Movement), or rigid dogmatic conservatism (the beginnings of Christian Fundamentalism, usually Calvinistic in doctrinal orientation), or liberal theology expressed especially in social action (the Social Gospel), rather than being centered in the traditional theology and liturgical/sacramental life of historic Christianity.

The Second Great Awakening

In the first decades of the 19th century, America—especially New England, upstate New York, and the Tennessee-Kentucky-Ohio frontier—experienced the Second Great Awakening. This was a wave of Protestant, evangelistic revivalism, centered in a new phenomenon known as the “camp-meeting,” which could last for a week or more. These stirring events featured outdoor preaching, congregational singing, calls for repentance, and fervent prayer, sometimes led by women. Thousands were converted to faith in Christ in these meetings, and several new denominations coalesced in these years. The largest of these was the Disciples of Christ, arising from the Restorationist Movement led by the Presbyterian clergyman Barton Stone (1772–1844), leader of the noteworthy Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 in Kentucky, and by the Presbyterian pastor Thomas Campbell (1763–1854) and his son Alexander Campbell (1788–1866) in western Pennsylvania. The Baptist movement, characterized by hundreds of small churches led by local farmer-preachers, also was given great impetus by the Second Great Awakening.

Charles Finney (1792–1875), a young Presbyterian lawyer who was converted to Christ on October 10, 1821, was the leading traveling evangelist during the Second Great Awakening, followed by Lyman Beecher (1775–1863). In his preaching Finney emphasized the need to combine spiritual growth with active social work, such as participating in the great social movements of his day. In 1835 he became professor of theology, teaching a moderate form of Calvinism, at the newly founded Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. This remarkable school, America’s first coeducational college, became “the abolitionist hotbed of the country.” It was a major stop on the Underground Railroad, helping slaves fleeing from the South.

Rise of the Social Gospel

Politically-minded liberal Christians in America, along with socially-minded evangelical Christians, became greatly involved in interdenominational causes for social justice and moral reform such as the Abolitionist Movement, which helped lead to President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863; the Women’s Rights Movement, which helped lead to the 19th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote, in 1920; and the Temperance Movement, which helped lead to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing the manufacture, importation, and sale of all alcoholic beverages, in 1919. These movements, along with the work of urban ministry groups like the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), founded by George Williams in London in 1844, and the Salvation Army, founded by William and Catherine Booth in London in 1865, all were various aspects of the Social Gospel Movement.

Another aspect of the Social Gospel was the so-called “Gospel of Wealth,” espoused by the wealthy business magnate Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919). In a seminal essay, written in 1889, entitled “Wealth,” he claimed it was God’s will for a few individuals to gain tremendous wealth so they could administer their fortunes during their lifetimes for the public good. He especially advocated the establishment of institutions, such as colleges, libraries, concert halls, and philanthropic foundations.

Responses to the Social Gospel

Many conservative Christians, especially in the American South, tended to maintain a more individualistic understanding of the ­Christian Faith, at the expense of participation in social justice efforts. As an example, most southern Christians defended slavery—on the basis of what they understood as being a literal reading of the Bible, among other things.

In England, the Oxford Movement arose in the 1830s within the Anglican Church partly in reaction to the spread of Liberalism in theology. John Henry Newman (1801–1890) was the leader of this movement, which was shaped theologically more by the early Church Fathers than by the Schoolmen of medieval western Europe. A great emphasis within the Movement was a restoration of higher standards of worship. Several of its leaders, including Newman, eventually joined the Roman Catholic Church.