The 20th century saw the American religious landscape change dramatically. The country went from having well established religious groups such as Catholics and main-line denominations to what seemed like a religious free-for-all. When the dust settled the denominations were still there, but in decline. New groups emerged and older groups split apart. The evangelical movement appeared and flourished.
Joel Carpenter describes these changes in American religion with clarity and insight in Revive Us Again. He goes back into history and ferrets out the roots of the evangelical movement. From those roots, he finds the ones that would eventually grow into the fundamentalist movement. These roots he takes hold of and describes in a way that today’s reader can appreciate the intricacies of the movement.
The early fundamentalist movement was marked by controversy. This controversy was necessitated by the affiliation of many of the movement’s members with the older and more main-line churches. Could those people be considered true fundamentalists? What about Ockenga, the pastor of one of the oldest protestant churches in the country? He could hardly be said to be on the ‘cutting-edge’ of the religious movement. Questions like these forced both fundamentalists and evangelicals to try and define their movements. As they tried to sort out who was included and who was not invited, they went through strife and controversial times. These are the time that Carpenter recounts for his readers.
Through these trials and subsequent evolution, the fundamentalists morphed from a group banished from the parks, air-waves, and relevancy into a group commanding front-page coverage in the Boston Globe. It was appropriate that Carpenter began his book explaining how the fundamentalists were not allowed on the radio, and concluded it with descriptions of the waves of Graham mania sweeping the nation. This ‘success’ did not come with out a price, Carpenter reminds us, as aspects of the movement were compromised. His juxtaposition of Ockenga’s elation with the success of Graham’s revival and the dismay of the professors at Fuller with their newly elated president (229) was one of the most poignant passages of the book.
The theme that unites the 12 chapters is the longing for revival. At the beginning of the evangelical movement, those involved badly longed for a revival in this country similar to what Whitfield and Edwards experienced. Their attempts frustrated, this generation eventually gave way to Ockenga’s students as well as Graham. Carpenter goes beyond a simplistic or trite rendering of these changes. Instead, he shows how the frustrations and failures of the earlier generation paved the way for the accomplishments of Fuller and Graham.
The author’s purpose was to describe the longing for revival found as the fundamentalist movement developed. He did this very well. His research was through, and he organized the massive amount of material that was gathered into a readable and useful format.
However, this is not to say that the book was without weaknesses. While Carpenter went in depth with the lives of a few people, such as Orr and Fuller, for the most part the characters involved were given a brief treatment. This is obviously necessary in a work of this magnitude; however the evangelical reader should beware of the way that some people’s lives and ministries are summed up and dismissed. It stuck me as condescending in parts to see the motives, effects and extent of a person’s ministry condensed and discarded with the air of final authority. But alas, that seems to be the nature of a historical summary.
There is one other area where evangelical readers may stumble. Carpenter seems to make the visions and goals of the characters a product of the church and the movement, rather than of God. It seems that the goals and desires of these fundamentalists are viewed as the logical sociological implications of their surroundings, and are described only after being striped of any supernatural flavor. It is not that Carpenter rejects the possibility that revival is a sovereign move of the Spirit. Instead it is apparent that the possibility never even occurred to him. In my naïveté I cling to the idea that God protects his church through all generations by raising up men to fight for it. Carpenter wisely noted the changes as new generations appeared on the scene, but it seems to have slipped below the radar that these changes have occurred continually, ever since Paul and Timothy.
Carpenter desires to look at the rise of evangelicalism through “the historian’s perspective,” but that is little more than a euphemism for “the natural man’s perspective.” Examining God’s preservation of his church is different in some ways (at least) then examining the development of suburbia or of the Democratic Party. Stripped of the supernatural, and then refurbished with sociology and statistics, this is a fairly accurate view of the development of the church in the United States in the last century.
Also, the presentation of the “revival/rapture” fallacy was less than convincing. Carpenter referred repeatedly to his idea that the belief in a rapture and the desire for revival as contradictory. It seems that he thinks that if the world is getting so bad that judgment and the rapture are imminent, they why would fundamentalists also desire a revival? How can the fundamentalist teachers say that there is no hope for the world and at the same time say that revival is on the horizon? Rather than seeing the desire for a revival as the logical result of a due sense of the wrath to come combined with recognition of the worth of a soul, Carpenter instead presents revival as somehow logically at ends with a descriptive eschatology. But he misunderstands the motive for desiring revival. Wrath is coming, and the result of realizing this is a desire for repentance and salvation. In fact, it cold be said that the desire for revival is the necessary result of a belief in judgment. It is no more contradictory in modern day believers as it was in the Apostle Peter.
This is not to say that Carpenter is not helpful. Indeed, he offers sharp insight into some of the motives and nuances that were developing in early evangelicalism. For example, his observations from the Southern Baptist refusal to enter the NAE are very helpful. When he pointed out that the NAE was perceived merely as an organization that offers something, rather than an expression of Christian unity, I was immediately reminded of Les Lufquist from the IFCA. His chapel sermon this year was an impassioned appeal to join his organization as an expression of Christian unity, yet most students won’t join simply because they don’t perceive the organization as having anything to offer. Lufquist is fighting a loosing battle, and it is one that has been played-out for him already in the pages of Carpenter’s book.
Moreover, his description of the behind the scenes work between Ockenga and Graham, and Ockenga and Fuller was very helpful. It was a very good description of how the fundamentalists developed from disgruntled Presbyterians and Methodists into the founders of Fuller and the lime-light of the press. Carpenter described the motives of people and even their secret desires. While it is probably true that his description of why Ockenga went from opposing Graham to supporting him is a little simplistic, it was nevertheless illustrative of the changes happening in fundamentalism. Carpenter’s description of Ockenga curled up in prayer, weeping for the lost will be forever etched in my mind (210).
This book is a useful summary of the emergence of fundamentalism. It describes the internal conflicts and external obstacles clearly. It is a fair treatment of the main players, and a good summary of the rest. It is pricey, but if this is an era of history that is fascinating for you, I’d encourage you to read this book. It covers the same ground as Evangelicalism Divided, but through a broader lens.