Sunday, March 21, 2010

Evangelical Heritage 1

I feel compelled to follow through with a book idea I've suggested before, "A Great Time for the Wesleyan Tradition." After Easter, I plan to start writing it on the seminary Dean's blog bit by bit.
The lead off chapter is, "What is a Wesleyan?" and I am reading Donald Dayton's Discovering an Evangelical Heritage this week as research. Today I read his 1988 Preface, the Prologue, and the first chapter.
Dayton is a feisty soul. The eccentricities of mortals should make us smile, not offend us--unless of course they are dangerous. I do not find Wallis and Campolo dangerous, nor my friends and relatives that are extremely conservative (like the conservative friend I ran into at lunch who suggested a Marion high schooler could beat Obama in the next election).
So Dayton is a typical intellectual, even a typical genius. If you met him you would agree. I think those who know him (which is not me) would agree that he is sometimes an offensive person and is not particularly gifted when it comes to social skills. But he is brilliant and has very much of value to say. I chuckle when such individuals bite--it's just harmless eccentricity.
All that is to say that I thoroughly enjoyed his 1988 Preface, remembering that the first edition was with Harper & Row in 1976. His dissatisfaction with Harper & Row comes through loud and clear as he moved to Hendrickson for the second edition. Delectable Dayton.
There are some great quotes: "[M]ost historical writing is implicitly a form of advocacy" (x). "Personal experience and cultural questions can open up true insights into Christian experience and the scriptures as well as obscure them" (x). "[M]ost books arise out of the author's personal history" (1).
His central point appears in the new Preface: "'[E]vangelicalism' is better understood as a specific wing of the nineteenth-century revivalist tradition that took shape before the emergence of fundamentalism and along different lines..." (xii). He thus disagrees with Marsden's sense of the purer race of evangelicals that is suspiciously Reformed and respectable. "[I]t's an interesting comment on evangelical historiography and on those who do the writing that such things as the ministry of women apparently really only begin to happen when they happen in the circles of those cultural elites who write most about such things!" (xi).
The Prologue tells of Dayton's experience at an evangelical college in the 1960s (Houghton, I think). Again, fun for those of us with similar background--peculiar to the mainstream. "[T]he contrast between the pettiness of the issues that troubled us and the magnitude of the issues that were being dealt with in society is frightening... prohibitions against drinking, smoking, dancing, card-playing, and theater-going. Our lives were largely bound up in testing the limits of these prohibitions" (2).
"We tended to be apolitical, but when political instincts did surface, they were conservative... Our great fear was communism, and we found signs of it everywhere" :-) He catalogs Christianity Today's embarrassing positions on social issues during the decade, what John Oliver later called "A Failure of Evangelical Conscience." He tells of his departure from his Wesleyan Methodist Church heritage (although he never names it) only in grad school to discover something about it he had never even known. Mind you, Don is the son of Wesleyan Methodist evangelical pillar, Asbury Seminary, Wesley Biblical patriarch Wilbur T. Dayton--extremely well connected!
"Though never helped to understand its history in college or in church life, I discovered much to my surprise that the denomination [The Wesleyan Methodist Church] was a product of the closest parallel to the civil rights movement in American history--the abolitionist protest against slavery in the pre-Civil War period" (4).
Chapter 1 then deals with the founder of Wheaton College, which was of course founded by Wesleyan Methodists in 1848 as Illinois Institute. The Wesleyans could not sustain it financially, however, so Congregationalists took over. Dayton's point in this chapter is to question the kind of evangelicalism Billy Graham represented in a comment on the Vietnam War in 1973: "God has called me to be a New Testament evangelist, not an Old Testament prophet! While some may interpret an evangelist to be primarily a social reformer or political activist, I do not! An evangelist is a proclaimer of the message of God's love and grace in Jesus Christ and of the necessity of repentance and faith" (8).
Dayton shows quite easily that the first president of Wheaton, Jonathan Blanchard, would have had no part in Graham's position. Blanchard was a fiery abolitionist. Now, mind you, I'm not sure of the prudence of Blanchard. His debate partner, N. L. Rice, at least as Dayton describes him, seemed wiser.
But Dayton makes his point. Activism was in the blood of the nineteenth century "evangelicals." I myself am ambivalent toward the label today. But Dayton will make a case that revivalism is where the heart of evangelicalism was in the 1800s.


Anonymous said...

Love the thought Ken, wondering how yours will differ from David McKenna's book written back in late 1990's maybe even 2000 entitled "What a Time to Be Wesleyan"

Ken Schenck said...

Yes, I dug up McKenna's book about a year ago to see exactly what he covered. As I recall, the content was quite different from what I have in mind. I am hoping to look at several strands of development while his was more general and monodirectional, as I recall. His subtitle, for example, was "Proclaiming the Holiness Message with Passion and Purpose."