Volume 13, Issue 2: Eschaton
Evangelical Retreat Pt.2 1865-1925
Jack Van Deventer
A shift away from the Church’s historic position of eschatological optimism took place during the period from 1865 to 1925. Part one in this series provided an overview of how America went from being a society heavily influenced by Christianity to one where Christianity was openly ridiculed. The goal of this series is to explain the events leading to the development of the modern and unbiblical phenomenon of a pessimistic worldview.
The sixty-year period opens with the increasing acceptance of Darwin’s evolutionary theory and closes with the infamous :Monkey Trial." Until Darwin it had been assumed by Christians that a scientific study of nature would confirm Scripture, but suddenly all that changed as Christianity and evolution came into conflict. This unanticipated theological crisis caused Christianity to break into two general camps. There were those, like Charles Hodge, who believed that Darwinism was speculative, not scientific. The opposite view was held by those choosing to redefine the relationship of science and Christianity. This latter, liberal viewpoint reduced the realm of religion to matters of the heart, religious experience, and morality. Intimidated by the science of the day, this group retreated to the safety of realms untouchable by science.
Henry Ward Beecher, likely the most popular preacher of the 1870s, typified the new liberalism of the day: "While we are taught by the scientists in truths that belong to the sensual nature . . . we need the Christian ministry to teach us those things which are invisible." Theological liberals embraced Darwinism and merged it into their thinking.
Theology was no longer a study of absolute truths, but rather an evolutionary process affected by culture and changing societal standards. Beecher taught that the Kingdom of God was the evolutionary progress of civilization, especially with regard to science and morality. He taught that "meeting the Lord in the air" had to do with God being at work in natural laws, shining in scientific discoveries, and opening human consciousness.
Clearly, Darwinism and theological liberalism had momentum. Christian conservatives found themselves embattled and on the defensive. Whereas the first part of the 19th century had been influenced by postmillennial optimism, now the belief in a conquering gospel where Christ would subdue His enemies seemed less plausible. The good guys weren’t winning any more. Indeed, they were under attack and on the run.
Because many of the mainstream denominations had become shackled or corrupted by liberalism, a free enterprise system of extra-ecclesiastical organizations sprang up. There were independent evangelism organizations, student groups, groups devoted to foreign and domestic missions, literature ministries, Sunday schools, charities, summer conferences, Bible schools, etc. These parachurch organizations tended to encourage personal empire-building and there was a tendency for strong allegiances linked to personalities rather than doctrinal beliefs. Because these organizations lacked ecclesiastical accountability, and their leaders generally lacked
formal theological training, the stage was set for a doctrinal paradigm shift, particularly in the area of eschatology.
Like many popular preachers of the day, Dwight L. Moody was a product of the parachurch. Moody rose quickly in the YMCA movement and eventually gave up a promising shoe business to devote himself full-time to the YMCA and various ministries. Moody feared controversy and tried to avoid themes or doctrines that would cause a stir. If he preached on sin, he stressed personal sins involving oneself or one’s family. He focused on pietism and personal victory over sin. Motherhood, domesticity, sentimentality, and emotion were key themes in appealing to his hearers.
Moody typified a new class of fundamentalism that opposed the growing liberalism of the day. He did not believe the gospel would have a lasting influence on society, rather he believed that the world would "grow worse and worse." He knew that this pessimistic premillennialism was a departure from the dominant tradition of American evangelicalism. Still, he felt his pessimistic view of culture was a strong catalyst for evangelism.1
In his efforts to avoid controversy, Moody adjusted his gospel preaching to emphasize the love of God for individuals and avoid topics of hell. "Terror never brought a man in yet," claimed Moody. But while individual terror was out, premillennial terror was in. Global fear was emphasized over individual fear. The message fit well with the growing pessimism triggered by the looming threats of Darwinism and liberalism.
Moody exemplifies the shift in gospel preaching that took place in the 1800s that emphasized emotion and pietism. Religion could transform an individual, but societal or cultural transformations were no longer anticipated. "I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel," said Moody. Just as liberals had reduced religion to matters of the heart, "conservatives" now followed down the same path.
In the early 1800s, when the Church believed the gospel would transform society, the cultural agenda encouraged missions, justice for the poor, justice to Indians, and promotion of Sabbath keeping. As retreatism crept into the Church, the thought of cultural advancement was modified. The new agenda was to shun or prohibit card playing, dances, liquor, tobacco, and theaters. Historian Marsden summarizes the shift: "No longer was the goal to build a ‘perfect society,’ at best it was to restrain evil until the Lord returned."2