Evangelical Culture, Then and Now
To read Randall Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory as an evangelical in 2015, rather than 1989 when the book was first released, is to experience several moments of pronounced dissonance. Though a great deal has been made of the shifts in evangelicalism in recent years, it’s hard to appreciate how pronounced some of these shifts have been until you read a book like Balmer’s that throws you back into the evangelicalism of the 1980s.
The book has been reissued in 2014 as a twenty-fifth anniversary edition with new chapters on Rick Warren, Thomas Kinkade, and the rise of Latino evangelicals, but the bulk of the book remains the same—and it’s the chapters first published in 1989 that are so interesting. The evangelicalism Balmer meets in those pages shows a theological breadth that doesn’t exist in the same way in contemporary evangelicalism.
This was the eighties, when Pentecostal groups still had some loose ties to evangelicalism and before the Prosperity Gospel had taken such hold in parts of that movement. Thus Balmer decides to travel to Phoenix to meet the Pentecostal evangelist Neal Frisby, a man who, were he alive today, would be treated as no different than controversial Florida pastor Terry Jones, but who at that time had a large church and was perceived by some to be an evangelical.
This was also a time when fundamentalists still had some cultural cachet and held quite a lot of sway within what few established evangelical institutions there were, such as Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Indeed, one of the main changes that Balmer describes is captured in the word “university.” In one chapter Balmer travels to Multnomah School of the Bible to study the broader phenomenon of Bible colleges that filled a significant role in the evangelical movement for nearly fifty years. Founded mostly in the early twentieth century, these Bible colleges (or Bible institutes, as they were first known) filled a gap in higher education that had opened up in the United States as more separatistic evangelicals looked with suspicion at state-funded land-grant universities and the liberalizing old universities of the northeast. Schools like Biola (originally the Bible Institute of Los Angeles), Moody, Multnomah, and Liberty (Lynchburg Baptist College at its founding) were all started in response to the mistrust evangelicals had toward the public universities and the older private universities. They also were marked by an exclusive focus on Bible study at the cost of other traditional university disciplines. Many of these schools offered only one or two degree programs and every program required extensive coursework in the Bible. But as Balmer arrived at Multnomah a movement was already underway.
In 1976 Lynchburg Baptist College became Liberty Baptist College. In 1984 Liberty Baptist College became Liberty University. This was part of a broader trend that saw many of the old Bible institutes shifting into conventional universities, albeit ones with evangelical convictions. At the time of writing, Multnomah School of the Bible had held out against that change, sticking to the old curriculum. But in 1993 the school became Multnomah Bible College. And in 2008 it became Multnomah University.
This change is indicative of a broader shift in the evangelical movement. Though Balmer doesn’t get into this specific history himself—his book is focused on evangelicalism on the ground in the 1980s—the roots of evangelicalism were decidedly anti-institutional. Evangelicalism grew out of the open-air preaching of the Wesleys and Whitefield as well as the revival meetings of the Second Great Awakening. Its deepest roots were in the old West (now Midwest) and the American South where towns and homes were spread so far apart that it was difficult to maintain a single institutional church in the place, much less any of the institutions that grew up around churches. When you combine those historical roots with the well known tendency of midwesterners and southerners to mistrust social elites you have the recipe for a non-institutional, free-form brand of Christian faith with strong separatistic tendencies. You have, in other words, the evangelicalism of the mid-twentieth century. But Balmer comes to evangelicalism at a time when those characteristics were beginning to shift—and his twenty-fifth anniversary edition has come out at a time when the shift has progressed even further.
The naming conventions of those Christian institutions of higher education suggest what has changed. As regionalism has died and as a younger generation has grown up in an evangelicalism defined by battles that were no longer being fought, the disdain for social elites and the separatistic impulse has faded, or at least has morphed into something slightly different. The grandparents of today’s evangelicals would in most cases be deeply suspicious of research universities. But today’s evangelicals typically embrace them. Indeed, scholars like James Davison Hunter, Nathan Hatch, and Mark Noll have become respected figures in academia and have found success at major institutions outside of the evangelical world with Hunter at the University of Virginia, Hatch at Wake Forest, and Noll at Notre Dame.
In assessing Balmer’s book, then, one of the major questions is whether or not Balmer himself anticipates this shift away from separatism and toward a kind of parallel society that exists alongside the non-evangelical world. For the most part, the answer is “not really.” Though he recognizes that the older anti-institutional spirit of separatistic evangelicalism is dying, the story Balmer seems to tell is less about evangelicals remaining evangelicals while setting aside their separatism and is more about evangelicals simply beginning to look more like typical Americans. In one particularly telling chapter on this point, Balmer profiles an Atlanta-area Episcopal church whose congregants had been Pentecostal before they and their leadership began to discover church history, the sacraments, and defined liturgies, driving them to embrace a more structured form of worship.
But in Balmer’s telling this isn’t simply a story of people who are theologically evangelical discovering the Lord’s Prayer and responsive readings. It’s a story of their theology itself also undergoing a type of modernization. Indeed, when Balmer caught up with the pastor of the church, Stanley White, in 2013, White was saying precisely the sort of things you’d expect a liberal Episcopalian to say, spouting mainline shibboleths about how if the church doesn’t change with the culture with regard to sexual ethics then the church will be left behind. Like other Episcopal churches, White’s congregation welcomes men and women living in same-sex relationship into the membership. The story of these Georgia Episcopalians is thus not one of evangelicals changing, but of evangelicals ceasing to be evangelicals. But Balmer does not seem to see the issue in those terms. For him this is simply an evangelical church that is evolving to look more like mainline Protestantism and less like the worst sort of schismatic evangelical that defined the movement in the 1950s.
It is perhaps worth noting at this point that Balmer himself is now an Episcopalian but still sometimes identifies himself as an evangelical. When I saw him speak as a student at the University of Nebraska he introduced himself as an evangelical before going on to speak at some length against the excesses of the older fundamentalist version of evangelicalism that he knew as a child and that defined much of the movement in the early to mid twentieth century.
This raises a question that Balmer’s book walks around many times but never quite gets around to addressing directly—what is an evangelical? For Balmer, an evangelical seems to be any professing Christian not belonging to a mainline Protestant denomination or to Rome or Constantinople. This, perhaps, is why he is so comfortable naming a figure as marginal as Frisby as evangelical. Most evangelicals, however, would find such a definition deeply unsatisfying. They would instead want to cite things like Bebbington’s quadrilateral of evangelical distinctives—cross-centered, conversionist, activist, and biblicist. They would also likely cite the movement’s older historic roots, pointing out that the first Protestants in northern Germany during the sixteenth century were initially called “evangelicals,” and that historically figures like John Newton, William Wilberforce, and Hannah More are best described as evangelical. Viewed this way, evangelical believers are theologically orthodox Protestants who typically have historic roots outside the state churches and who place a strong emphasis on the new birth and the primacy of scripture.
Balmer’s book, then, ends up being about what you would expect from a gifted scholar who has done much of his work in sociology rather than theology and who has become an Episcopalian while he still has a bit of an axe to grind with evangelicals. At times it is supremely helpful in assessing the movement and trajectory of evangelicalism. But at other times Balmer’s lack of theological precision leads him to misunderstand or misrepresent evangelicalism in a way that a more secular audience is likely to miss but that will rankle his evangelical readers. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory is a fine book and certainly has its use for students of American evangelicalism. But the book’s lack of theological sophistication limits its value to those same students.
Jake Meador is a writer and editor from Lincoln NE. He is a contributing editor with Fare Forward and Mere Orthodoxy and is the creator of the soccer newsletter The Inside Channel. His work has been published in First Things, Front Porch Republic, Christianity Today, and Books & Culture. He lives in Lincoln with his wife and two children.
Posted: March 29, 2015