His Arm Is Strong to Save: A Trajectory of Conversion in America

Article
02.29.2012

The room is dark and packed. Heat surges over the crowd, which sits enthralled by the lone man standing before them. He is holding forth for his audience, engaging their emotions and pointing toward a bold new reality. They reward him with whoops and yells. Eventually, the prophet ascends to a rhetorical climax: The need is dire, and the way forward is clear. Let’s go!

The response is thunderous. Revival has come.

Of course, this revival is no spiritual affair. It’s the annual MacWorld conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, California. The promised bold new reality is the world of the iPod, or iPad, or iMac, and the revivalist is the now-deceased and thoroughgoing skeptic Steve Jobs. He doesn’t offer salvation, but self-indulgence. The crowd, too, has little interest in religion.

What’s striking are the motions and emotions of speaker and crowd. The fires of revival wax hot. It’s almost as if they learned to talk and act this way in some other time, on some other matter, that really did promise a bold new reality. Could it be that Americans simply learned to act this way in former times, when the kindling of Christianity, or at least a version of it, stoked those fires? And could it be that the thrill and theatrics of the revivalistic medium eventually overtook the message, so that now we just enjoy the drama, no matter what we’re talking about?

This is not an essay to discuss whether America is a “Christian nation.” Rather, I want to scan the past three centuries of American evangelical history to ask this question: how have Christians in different periods understood conversion and, more specifically, the means of conversion? America itself was itself something of a political “new birth”—and the spirit of reinvention has always been a part of the nation’s psyche. From the time the first Puritans set foot on Massachusetts soil, conversion and its implications have occupied the American mind and troubled the American soul.

Such a survey, I believe, leads to surprising places and yields a mixture of encouraging prospects and discomfiting conclusions.

TWO PREACHERS OF A GREAT AWAKENING

In 1740 Jonathan Edwards, America’s premier pastor-theologian of the era, said the following of “true conversion”:

There is no kind of love in the world that has had such great, visible effects in men as love to Christ has had, though he be an unseen object, which [is] an evidence of a divine work in the hearts of men, infusing that love into them. Thus the voice of reason, Scripture and experience, and the testimony of the best of men do all concur in it, that there must be such a thing as conversion.

He followed with a comment on man’s nature: “seeing man naturally is unholy, there must be a change of nature in order to their being happy in God” (Kimnach, Minkema, and Sweeney, eds., The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, 89). These remarks from a little-known sermon on John 3:10-11 entitled “The Reality of Conversion” suggest something of Edwards’s burden as a preacher: to help his hearers encounter the risen Christ in his saving mercy. In general, Edwards’ pulpit-work extended traditional Calvinist calls to the cross. He argued that salvation was only of grace, and not of works, and that the God who had created humankind as an emblem of his glory also stood over them as just judge.

When revival, or spiritual awakening, broke out in New England in the mid-1730s under Edwards, it was not from caramelized promises of a best self now, but from his terrifying depictions of the embodied justice of the living God. Consider this section from “The Torments of Hell Are Exceeding Great” based on Luke 16:24:

The punishment that is threatened to be inflicted on ungodly men is the wrath of God. God has often said that he will pour out his wrath upon the wicked. The wicked, they treasure up wrath; they are vessels of wrath, and they shall drink of the cup of God’s wrath that is poured out without mixture. Revelation 14:10, “The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture.” That is, there shall be no mixture of mercy; there shall be no sort of mitigation or moderation. God sometimes executes judgments upon sinners in this world, but it is with great mixtures of mercy and with restraint. But then there will be full and unmixed wrath. (Yale Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 14, 304)

In our day, such an issuance from the pulpit would at least ruffle feathers and send skittish hearers to flight. In Edwards’s day, such preaching—coupled with dozens of sermons on the glories of heaven and the kindness of the Lord—drove hearers to conversion.

The same was true in the preaching of George Whitefield, the British “awakener” who visited the American colonies dozens of times in the eighteenth century. In “The Lord Our Righteousness,” an exposition of Jeremiah 23:6, Whitefield thundered of the need for a God-granted merit:

But thus it must be, if Christ be not your righteousness. For God’s justice must be satisfied; and, unless Christ’s righteousness is imputed and applied to you here, you must hereafter be satisfying the divine justice in hell-torments eternally; nay, Christ himself shall condemn you to that place of torment. And how cutting is that thought! Methinks I see poor, trembling, Christless wretches, standing before the bar of God, crying out, Lord, if we must be damned, let some angel, or some archangel, pronounce the damnatory sentence: but all in vain. Christ himself shall pronounce the irrevocable sentence. Knowing therefore the terrors of the Lord, let me persuade you to close with Christ, and never rest till you can say, “the Lord our righteousness.” Who knows but the Lord may have mercy on, nay, abundantly pardon you? Beg of God to give you faith; and, if the Lord gives you that, you will by it receive Christ, with his righteousness, and his All. (From The Works of the Reverend George Whitefield, London, 1771-1772, accessed here online.)

Like Edwards, Whitefield told his hearers to entreat the merciful Lord for pardon. He simultaneously explained the righteous character of God, detailing the way Christ has accomplished his mission of salvation, and implored his audience to close with Christ. The sermonic material was always God-centered. Whitefield made it clear that conversion occurs by God’s pleasure, yet that hearers were still responsible to respond. Thousands heard a variation of this message, and thousands responded in true faith in the period known as the First Great Awakening.

WHO KNEW DIVINITY COULD BE NEW? THE FORGOTTEN 19TH CENTURY

Yet Jonathan Edwards’ theological legacy is a complicated one. One might think that a widely venerated figure like Edwards would spawn a virtual empire of revivalistic Calvinists. And that’s partly right. Most of his immediate followers, including the men he trained and his expansive “kinship network,” preached as he did, “for souls,” as the lingo went. Yet these Edwardseans also modified their leader’s Calvinism, producing a school of thought that became known as the New Divinity (ND).

The New Divinity, led by figures like Timothy Dwight and Nathaniel William Taylor, developed either musings of Edwards or seeds of his theological ideas and made them major doctrines. On the matter of the atonement, the ND developed a theory known as “moral government.” They suggested that Christ’s cross-work demonstrated God’s displeasure with sin even as it righted the moral order of the cosmos and made it possible for the Father to forgive sin without punishing the wicked. This is not to suggest that the ND rejected penal substitution. Joseph McKeen, the first president of Bowdoin College, believed that substitutionary and governmental theories alike explained the atonement (see Robert Gregory’s valuable work Sober Consent of the Heart). According to McKeen, Christ paid personally for the sins of his people while at the same time satisfying God’s “moral government.” McKeen, like many of his fellow ND colleagues, preached the new birth using these categories and saw many come to genuine faith as a result.

The ND was a complex bunch. Some within this movement, which splits into groups like the “Tasters” and the “Exercisers,” held to a modified Calvinism. Others took the ball and ran.

One such figure was Charles Finney, who kicked off a major revival in the 1820s that spread throughout the Northeast, ultimately leaving it something of a “burned-over district.” Finney, to the surprise of not a few readers of his systematic theology, used Edwardsian doctrinal language and categories.

Edwards had conceptually coupled humankind’s “physical ability” to come to Christ with its “moral inability,” like a prisoner who stubbornly refuses to leave the cell even though the door is open. Finney and others picked up this theological distinction and carried it in a new direction, saying there is neither physical nor moral inability. Original sin does not hinder a person from repenting and putting his or her faith in Christ. To say it did would be “nonsensical,” said Finney (Lectures on Systematic Theology, 1847 edition, 26). He pressed the point:

Ridiculous! Edwards I revere; his blunders I deplore. I speak thus of this Treatise on the Will, because, while it abounds with unwarrantable assumptions, distinctions without a difference, and metaphysical subtleties, it has been adopted as the text-book of a multitude of what are called Calvinistic divines for scores of years. It has bewildered the head, and greatly embarrassed the heart and the action of the church of God. It is time, high time, that its errors should be exposed, and so exploded, that such phraseology should be laid aside, and the ideas which these words represent should cease to be entertained. (Lectures on Systematic Theology, 26)

Finney avowed that in the sinner’s “inward being,” he or she is “conscious of ability to will and of power to control their outward life directly, and the states of their intellect and of their sensibility, either directly or indirectly, by willing” (Lectures on Systematic Theology, 35). With statements like these the die was cast. Edwards’s revival work was Calvinistic—it depended on the Spirit of God to regenerate the sinner through the free offer of the gospel. Finney’s revival work was Arminian—it did not depend on such spiritual intervention. This meant that conversion, dammed up by Edwardsian error, could now be loosed. Finney even saw himself as an evangelistic hero for unblocking the dam: “It fell to my lot, in the providence of God, to attack and expose many fallacies and false notions that existed in the churches, and that were paralyzing their efforts and rendering the preaching of the Gospel inefficacious” (Memoirs, 536-37)

Conversion in Finney’s scheme therefore became a matter of discovering the right agitator of the will. He put it like this: conversion “is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means” (Lectures on Revivals of Religion,introduction and notes by William G. McLoughlin [Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1960], 13.) Accordingly, he instituted the “anxious bench” and other methods that placed tremendous psychological and emotional pressure on the sinner. This contrasted with Edwards’s own preaching, which placed theological or biblical pressure on the conscience. Conversion for Finney did not require a miracle; it was, with the proper techniques, a given.

Finney exerted a tremendous influence on fellow Christian preachers. According to Randall Balmer and Lauren Winner, scads of “other Protestants began to adopt his practices when they saw just how many converts Finney could win in a single night of preaching” (Protestantism in America, 59). This can-do spirit fit perfectly with a changing America. The spirit of the Revolution continued to pervade, and the American psyche still believed “impossible is nothing,” to borrow from the athletic shoemaker Adidas.

The so-called “Dedham Decision” of 1820 proved a tipping point for what had been developing for decades, even centuries—the final disestablishment of the Christian church. After the implications of this decision unfolded, local assemblies no longer enjoyed the tax support of every land-owning citizen. Now every pulpit would compete for adherents. Ministers would have to draw a crowd in order to continue preaching, to say nothing of eating. This brought a truly stunning change in American life that fit the political mood of the country perfectly. It resulted, as Nathan Hatch has shown in his hugely important book The Democratization of American Christianity, in a spiritual free-for-all. Innovation and no-holds-barred gospel proclamation were in; careful training and theological precision were out. As Hatch has said, religious “upstarts” eagerly tackled the challenges of this new age, changing the nature of American ministry and preaching:

Passionate about ferreting out converts in every hamlet and crossroads, they sought to bind them together in local and regional communities. They continued to refashion the sermon as a popular medium, inviting even the most unlearned and inexperienced to respond to a call to preach. These initiates were charged to proclaim the gospel anywhere and every day of the week—even to the limit of their physical endurance. The resulting creation, the colloquial sermon, employed daring pulpit storytelling, no-holds-barred appeals, overt humor, strident attack, graphic application, and intimate personal experience. (Democratization, 57)

Hatch concludes his sweeping summary with this: “The result of these intensive efforts was nothing less than the creation of mass movements that were deeply religious and genuinely democratic at the same time” (57-8). In one generation, America went from a nation featuring an established church (the exact form of which varied by region and state) to one in which disestablishment was the only rule. Highly gifted populist communicators like Finney flourished in such an open market.

AFTER FINNEY: INVITING JESUS INTO YOUR HEART

This is not to say that we are speaking of the Day the Calvinistic Music Died. As Paul Gutjahr says in his biography of Charles Hodge, the reformed influence of Hodge and others “is still felt” and “still appreciated” in “many conservative circles” in our own day (Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy, 385).

Nevertheless, a second major force had emerged in the evangelical wing of American Protestantism. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, figures like Henry Ward Beecher dropped the hellfire stuff altogether and began preaching a “gospel of love” that won national acclaim and secured Beecher a resplendent new parish in Brooklyn.

Evangelists like D. L. Moody and Billy Sunday carried the revivalistic torch into the twentieth century. Both men had an incredible desire to win people to Christ and an aversion to complicated doctrine. Sunday famously said that he knew as much about theology as a jack-rabbit knows about ping-pong, a quip that historian George Marsden noted was stated “with some accuracy.” Sunday in particular hewed to the course charted by Finney. He preached a free-will gospel at revival events that were as carefully orchestrated as Finney’s. Though Finney has acquired a reputation in some circles as anti-intellectual due to his fiery sermonizing, he was actually a brilliant man (his systematic theology is technical and impressive in its argumentation). Sunday was not intellectually prone (though he had a near-photographic memory) and his homiletical style was perhaps even more emotional than Finney’s. Roger Bruns has said that, though “the content of his message was pedestrian and simple, he had begun to turn loose on the platform the kind of fury and force that moved people elementally” (Preacher: Billy Sunday and Big-Time American Evangelism, 78). Sunday brought his athletic background to bear on his messages, a charge that would not be said of many today: “He pumped his arms, gestured with every phrase, the pitch of his voice rising and falling with emotional moments. He seemed bursting with kinetic energy. The man had a presence under those lights, held audiences in a captivating fire” (ibid., 78).

Under Sunday, evangelism almost became a performance art. A preacher would make a spectacle and preach a simple gospel, and thousands would stream down the “sawdust trail” to convert to Christian faith. Sunday’s exploits were unparalleled in evangelistic history; by many estimations, he preached to more people than had any other revivalist in history. That is, until Billy Graham exploded on the scene.

Graham’s star shot into the ether in 1949 after newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (the inspiration for no less a cinematic character than Citizen Kane) told his staff to “puff Graham” after a number of celebrities publicly converted to Christ at the evangelist’s Los Angeles rally. Graham and his team had learned from forebears like Whitefield, Finney, and Sunday and had publicized these conversions. In a thoroughly disestablished and secularizing mid-twentieth century climate, publicity, more than ever, became the hand that rocked the cultural cradle.

Graham’s theology and methodology has been hotly, even ferociously, debated by scholars and pundits. Some see him as the methodological harbinger of evangelical doom; others see him as a beacon of unvarnished purity. (He was for many years the most admired man in America.) It seems to this writer that the truth, as often, lies somewhere in the middle. Graham is an evangelist whose preaching has introduced millions to the good news of Jesus. On the other hand, he made some regrettable choices, whether in seating liberal Protestant clergy on his crusade platforms or in delving into political matters (see Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy’s The Preacher and The Presidents). Though Graham did not believe that conversion came only from the “right use of the proper means” and credited salvation ultimately to God’s initiative, he did use language that many Calvinists dislike, such as inviting people “to accept Jesus into their hearts.” Graham, then, is a direct theological descendant neither of Finney nor Edwards. His language, reflecting a belief in man’s free-will, did dovetail with the general direction of American revivalism, though the evangelist spoke openly of his belief in “providence” and God’s control.

Graham’s position both influenced and displayed the general bent of many Southern Baptists and American evangelicals in the twentieth century. Revivalism of the more Arminian, free-will kind influenced the way modern churches have understood preaching, evangelism, and church membership. For many, preaching was basically evangelistic. It aimed at leading sinners to make a “personal decision” for Jesus. Churches as a whole, too, centered their evangelistic enterprises around producing as many verbal commitments as possible. Once an individual signaled his or her conversion by praying a prayer of faith, the church welcomed him or her into membership regardless of whether the person kept attending the church or not. God would be thanked for conversions, but the real credit would be given to effective evangelistic methods. The person’s conversion prayer would also become the ground of assurance.

THE INSTITUTION OF REVIVALISM

Revivalism became such an institution in America that it has influenced groups that might not even know that they have imbibed its practices. This is true of the Apple national conference even as it is true of the locker room and the political tradition. Many leaders today aspire, wittingly or unwittingly, to the revivalist’s methods since they seem to promise cultural dominance. If this is a generally unacknowledged reality, it is also deeply ironic in a secular and skeptical age.

The developments sketched in this essay have shaped the way many Americans understand conversion. Many people, including many reformed and conservative Christians, speak ill of “hellfire-and-brimstone” preaching. Pastors who would refuse to theologically identify with Charles Finney nonetheless speak of the church in terms of numbers and evaluate speakers based—in a profoundly Finneyite way—on how many hearers respond to their message. We have scarcely mentioned pragmatism here (and would note the importance of David Wells’s writing on this point), but a market pragmatism has merged with the revivalistic, Arminian trajectory to drive American Christians and those they influence to believe that bigger is better, that the basic needs of sinners are practical and earthly, and that conversion owes to a prayer, not to an inbreaking of God’s Spirit. The church, accordingly, is less the dynamic engine of God’s kingdom—that’s more the role of parachurch organizations and political causes—and more the repository of (some of) those who have prayed the prayer.

GOD’S ARM IS STRONG TO SAVE

Not everything that Charles Finney and those like him have preached has been bad or harmful. Paul, after all, could rejoice in the proclamation of the good news whether preached “in pretense or in truth” (Phil. 1:15, 18). This apostolic attitude surely bears on how we view those who preach the gospel from different convictions. We must evaluate the preaching, and we may find some preaching from self-professed evangelicals to be lacking. But wherever the true gospel of God’s grace in Christ is declared, we must, like Paul, rejoice.

Yet we must also go further, doing what we can to stimulate a movement of God-centered evangelism and preaching in our day. We must recognize afresh that God alone saves the sinner, and that conversion is no by-product of staging and psychology but a gift of God’s Spirit, who, like the wind, blows where he wishes and converts whom the Father has chosen (John 3:8; 17:6). The task of the preacher is to lift up Christ in all his perfections and bid every sinner come and partake, knowing as he does so that a magnificent God, resplendent in holiness, majestic in strength, awesome in righteousness, delights to save.

In an environment that trains us to be man-centered, results-driven, and pragmatically minded, our challenge is simply to remember that Christ must be preached. As we do so, praying with all our strength for God to convert wicked sinners just like us who are in danger of hell, we remember as well that God’s arm is not weak or short. It is, now as always, strong to save.