What Would Jonathan Edwards Have Thought of Billy Graham’s Revivals? And Other Questions for the Contributors of a New Book

In 1997 Mark Noll wrote a book entitled Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (now in its third edition). Written for laypeople and introductory students—the book began as an adult Sunday School course at Noll’s church—he offered three reasons for selecting (admittedly subjective) decisive “turning point” in the history of Christianity:

  • It provides an opportunity to select, to extract from the immense quantity of resources available for studying the history of Christianity a few striking incidents and so to bring some order into a massively complicated subject.
  • Concentrating on the turning points of church history also provides an opportunity to highlight, to linger over specific moments so as to display the humanity, the complexity, and the uncertainties that constitute the actual history of the church, but that are often obscured in trying to recount the sweep of centuries.
  • Studying specific turning points more closely also provides an opportunity to interpret, to state more specifically why certain events, actions, or incidents may have marked an important fork in the road or signaled a new stage in the outworking of Christian history.

Now many of Noll’s friends and former students have gathered to present a new volume, using the same approach, but concentrating on Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism, edited by Heath W. Carter and Laura Rominger Porter. Here’s the lineup for the book, showing the contributor and the turning point they identity and discuss:

  • turningpointsNathan Hatch’s tribute to Mark Noll
  • Harry S. Stout on the Great Awakening
  • Catherine A. Brekus on the evangelical encounter with the Enlightenment
  • Jon Butler on disestablishment
  • Richard Carwardine on antebellum reform
  • Marguerite Van Die on the rise of the domestic ideal
  • Luke E. Harlow on the Civil War and conservative American evangelicalism
  • George M. Marsden on the rise of fundamentalism
  • Edith Blumhofer on urban Pentecostalism
  • Dennis C. Dickerson on the Great Migration
  • Mark Hutchinson on the global turn in American evangelicalism
  • Grant Wacker on Billy Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles revival
  • Darren Dochuk on American evangelicalism’s Latin turn
  • Martin Marty offers an afterword

The editors asked a few of the contributors some questions to continue the discussion, and I am happy to reprint the exchanges below.

Evangelicalism remains a contentious category, both in scholarly and popular debates. Our Turning Points book doesn’t champion any particular definition, but we’re curious as to how you all might respond to this hypothetical: if Jonathan Edwards had attended Billy Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles revival, what would have seemed most familiar to him? Most strange?

George Marsden: I don’t think that Jonathan Edwards would have been surprised by too much in the 1949 Billy Graham revival meetings, aside from the technology. Having heard George Whitefield, he would have recognized the basic message and patterns. He might have thought that the reactions of the crowd were a bit restrained in comparison to some of the intense emotional outbursts that he had witnessed in the revivals of his day. I think it was at the 1949 revivals, by the way, that Graham preached an updated version of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I don’t think it was a great success, but it does show that Graham was aware of the continuity.

[JT: you can hear Graham introduce and then preach the sermon below, starting around the 8:30 mark.]

Luke Harlow: I think Edwards would have found common ground with Graham in his appeals to the Bible, particularly chapter and verse, to ground the simple message of Jesus’s salvation for a sinful humanity. Edwards likely would have understood, on some level, what was happening with the large numbers of conversions in Graham’s 1949 revival. In the broadest relief, Graham’s message was in continuity with Edwards’s and that of the earliest evangelicals.

But I think Edwards would have found much else completely foreign. Surely the use and presence of modern technology would have been startling. I’m actually not sure what Edwards might have made of microphones and amplified audio, radio broadcasts, magazine covers, the modern city, motorized vehicles, and much else; surely Edwards would have found everything but the tent completely alien.

Similarly, the underlying politics of Graham’s message would have been inscrutable to Edwards: “What are these Communists you speak of, Rev. Graham?” It’s always been the case that “mere” evangelical messages are filtered through a political context, and just as Graham would not really understand Edwards’s full message, neither would Edwards understand Graham’s. That discontinuity over time is profound.

Martin Marty: Most familiar to Jonathan Edwards in Billy Graham’s revival would have been (1) the focus on a personal relation to God in Christ and (2) the consistently biblical focus. Edwards may have been most unfamiliar with the externals of Graham’s revivals. Edwards’s emphases were rhetorical more than demonstrative. He could describe the terrors of hell and preview the pleasures of heaven while, some say, he stared at the bell rope.

The book identifies twelve turning points in the history of American evangelicalism. If you had to pinpoint one of these as the most decisive, what would it be and why? If you had the ability to add one more turning point into the mix, what would it be and why?

Luke Harlow: It is worth considering World War I as an additional turning point. We’re now in the centennial, and lots of work has appeared over the years exploring the role of World War I in challenging theology and assumptions about the nature of Christianity in Europe. In the United States, we tend to think less about the Great War as a formative moment. Yet a growing literature, including recent books by Jonathan Ebel and Cara Burnidge, has suggested a variety of ways that it directly impacted American faith communities. From the faith of the soldiers themselves, to the nature of the American state and its suppression of religious traditions deemed insufficiently patriotic, to the subsequent red scare, to Wilsonian foreign policy, to the events following with racist violence and the Great Migration, World War I seems ripe for further consideration.

George Marsden: I think that the American Revolution may have been the most important turning point in giving American evangelicalism a distinct shape and tying it to the national ethos. Jon Butler insightfully turns the question to the impact of disestablishment and the ongoing tensions regarding that. But the Revolution would be the real turning point regarding not only that issue but also regarding what Nathan Hatch calls “the democratization” of American evangelicalism.

In the introduction we contend that the scholarship of Mark Noll and a number of others (including many of you) proved a turning point in the study of American evangelicalism. In your view, what are the most exciting new trends in the field today?

Luke Harlow: Longstanding questions about disestablishment and moral reform in the early republic will never get old. Race, the slavery debates, and civil rights have long animated work on the history of evangelicalism and they will continue to do so. In the more-recent past, emerging work on labor and capitalism has opened up a variety of fascinating questions about the forces informing evangelical faith.

Martin Marty: The maturity and at-homeness of “evangelical” historians in what some call “the mainstream” is surely a significant trend today. I think a turning point was when Gene Genovese in New Republic reviewed a work by Mark Noll and said he was “as fine a historian as America now boasts,” not only the best religious historian or historian of religion. Others were saying something similar about particular works of Stout and other evangelicals who wrote history.

Grant Wacker: Historians like to debunk the notion of turning points, partly because history never feels like history when you are in the midst of it, and partly because every new dissertation requires it in order to have a new subject to work on. But the farther back we stand, viewing the entire story at once, it seems almost self-evident that at key points enough people began to think and act differently that the evidence requires historians to recurve the narrative. That being said, claims for turning points always need to be regarded as provisional, open to the verdict of fresh research and fresh visions of the past.

Last summer Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, published a book entitled The End of White Christian America, which argued, based in large part upon changing demographics, that the era of white Protestant dominance in the United States is rapidly coming to an end. But much has been made, of course, of the decisive role that white Christians—and evangelicals, in particular—played in the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States. Are we standing at another turning point in the history of American evangelicalism?

Martin Marty: Yes, we could call this a turning point within a cultural schism. Mainstream evangelicals were embarrassed by Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and the other show-biz evangelical leaders, but across the board they were seen as strange excrescences, but still “some of us.” The total sell out by Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, and others to the man who shall not be named, was strictly a political move which ran counter to everything that historic or revised modern evangelicalism stood for theologically, and which ecclesiastically portends an enduring breach. The main critics of the sell-outs are responsible evangelicals who don’t need the Christian Left or secularists to point out the hypocrisy of evangelical support for Trump.

Grant Wacker: Well, what this disconnect suggests is that historians should resist the temptation to predict the future, since they are no better at it than anyone else, and resist the urge to analyze the present, since their prejudices come into play as much as anyone else, and focus on doing what they are trained to do: analyze and interpret the past, a task at which they are becoming more competent and more astute with each new generation of (increasingly) amazing graduate students.

What did the Trump election campaign and the persistent tone of anger, bitterness, and hostility now evident in his presidency say about evangelical voters who supported him enthusiastically, not just perfunctorily?  Do they comment on core evangelical sentiments slighted or covered over in our effort to make evangelicalism “understandable?”  Or, put another way, has the anger that once seemed so pervasive in the old “fundamentalist” movement, which H. L. Mencken ridiculed, been far more resident within American evangelicalism broadly, resurfacing in the era of Trump?

Luke Harlow: There are a few ways to consider this question. Certainly Jones’s work documents a significant demographic shift. The sociological numbers are true, and white Christians are no longer a majority in the United States. But that reality did not correspond to voter turnout in 2016, where more than fifty percent of voters were white Christians. It is worth asking what it will mean when white evangelicals truly lack the power to pull off their political agenda. But 2016 is not that year, with white evangelicals largely responsible for Republicans controlling the White House, Congress, and the majority of state governorships and legislatures. The findings published on prri.org, Jones’s research firm’s website, show clearly that Trump fared best in states with white Christian majorities—especially in the South and Midwest states responsible for his electoral college victory. Other research also shows that white evangelicals voted for Trump in large number because they support most of his policy proposals. In many ways, those right-wing voting patterns—not simply on “culture wars” issues like abortion and gay marriage, but on economic policy and national security—are in keeping with longstanding white evangelical politics. White evangelicals have largely served the interests of right-wing politics, though not exclusively and with several notable exceptions, since the Civil War. In that sense, it does not appear that 2016 was much of a turning point.

However there are other questions evangelicals must ask themselves about what 2016 reveals, and in this way may very well be a turning point. For much of the twentieth century, evangelicals styled themselves as having a different, biblically-derived ethic on a whole host of questions. That did not translate to much support for notable progressive causes like the civil rights movement, where white evangelicals were silent at their very best. But there are still a number of issues one can point to.

To choose just one: evangelicals have long been known for their global-minded outlook, especially through missionary endeavor. But in 2016 it became clear that white evangelicals clearly privileged “America First,” over against the least of these world-wide. The news of World Relief, who has done so much work among refugees, having to lay off significant numbers of staff is just one example of a prominent evangelical organization having to retool its work in light of American evangelical politics. There’s a long debate among historians and other cultural analysts about the extent to which evangelicalism (or any religious system) is “culturally captive”: is the religion completely embedded in culture or does it push back in some ways? 2016 seems to suggest the pendulum has swung completely to cultural captivity, and white nationalism at that.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore was vocal throughout 2015 and 2016 about the ways in which evangelicalism had become a “political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it.” Historians can point to the ways in which evangelicalism has always operated that way, but there have also been countervailing forces that sought to be evangelical salt and light to the powers that be, as work by David Swartz and Brantley Gasaway has shown. Symbolically, was 2016 the year those sorts of forces were written out of evangelicalism? The fact that a respected theological conservative like Russell Moore faced a significant backlash from within his own community suggests it’s more than possible.