Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage
A Tradition and Trajectory of Integrating Piety and Justice
Donald W. Payton with Douglas M. Strong
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014
The original book, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, of which this is a revised and updated diversion had its origins in a series of articles in Post American, now Sojourners (June-July 1974 to may 1975). This version adds 'Re' to the title as well as five chapter postscripts and a new introduction and conclusion. The heritage discovered was that evangelicalism had a strong commitment to social justice; personal piety didn't mean a neglect social reform and justice. He discovered a tradition of evangelical social activism that had been 'buried and largely forgotten'. Contemporary American evangelicalism is often portrayed as right wing and socially conservative, Payton through a series of case studies shows that this was not always the case. As Strong notes in his helpful and insightful introduction:
'Dayton's narrative of socially active Christians contradicted the negative reputation of revivalism as an other worldly enterprise concerned only with saving souls.'
What is surprising in this book is the evangelicals Dayton examines. They include: Jonathan Blanchard, Charles Finney, Theodore Weld, Arthur and Lewis Taipan, Orange Scott and Luther Lee. They are all from the Arminian end of the evangelical spectrum. If Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney can both be regarded as evangelicals - it raise the question as to how effective and/ or appropriate is the evangelical label? Is it too elastic a term to be useful?
In his final chapter Dayton examine some of the reasons why this social active heritage has been lost among North American evangelicals. He identifies a number of issues that prompted what elsewhere Moberg terms the 'great reversal’; including:
an institutionalisation of the movements diluted the reform impulse
complex social realities posed too much of a problem
a fatalistic, and often pessimistic, pre-millennialism replaced the optimistic post-millennialism
the growth in impact among evangelicals of the "Old School" of Presbyterianism, especially as it found expression in the "Princeton Theology" with its incarnation of conservative views.
Not all evangelicals accept Dayton's thesis - and not just those of a right wing fundamentalist persuasion, e.g. George Marsden. Nevertheless it provides a useful insight into American evangelicalism. Particularly helpful is the commentary by Strong - this helps place the book within its original context as well as updating the discussion.