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April 1974 · Vol. 3 No. 1 · pp. 185–86 

Book Review

The Great Reversal: Evangelism Versus Social Concern

David O. Moberg. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1972. 194 pages.

Reviewed by Katie Funk Wiebe

If some Christians seem slow to grasp the social implications of the Gospel, this failing is not going unnoticed. Within evangelicalism, voices are being raised in self-criticism over the gap between words and deeds, theory and practice. The division between traditional evangelism, which stresses preaching and personal evangelism, and social concern and action is unscriptural and the two must be brought together.

Moberg, writing as an evangelical social scientist, speaks to all Christians, but he raises his voice loudest when he addresses evangelicals. Erase the false dichotomy which has developed between the evangelical wing of the church and the social gospelers, he says, for it has led only to name calling and the denial of the other’s contribution. Recognize that Christ ministered to the whole man, not only to his soul or to his body.

“The Great Reversal,” a term coined by historian Timothy L. Smith, refers to the switchback evangelicals made in the early part of this century from evangelical social concern to individualism. The early church, both in England and America, was noted for its social involvement, establishing welfare societies such as the Salvation Army, schools for immigrants, homes for unwed mothers, city missions, and agencies to help the poor, the sick, prisoners, and other needy folk. The church supported legislation to bring about social justice. {186}

Then came the Great Reversal. The social gospel became linked with liberal theology, and evangelicals, anxious to separate themselves from this group, separated themselves from social action also in order to get “back to first principles.” The present controversy is in essence a continuation of the modernist-fundamentalist disagreement.

Great revivalist preachers like Moody and Sunday preached that social reform began with the individual, not with society. As the liberal wing dropped the responsibility of preaching the Gospel, the evangelicals felt a greater pressure to do so. The gap widened.

Other factors entered the picture, separating evangelicals from social concern. America has always been characterized by strong individualism, writes Moberg, and the individualistic approach to Christianity seemed to fit the major themes of American culture much better than working with social orders. It became easy to see Americanism as being synonymous with Christianity.

As conservative Christians became more closely conformed to American culture and its goals of prosperity and success, they found it harder to see evil as inherent in society and its systems, and as something which must be changed.

But, writes Moberg, evangelicals are waking up. A little late. It is hard for them to admit that social concern belongs with the Gospel, but by studying the Scriptures and present situations, they are acceding to this truth. The Great Reversal is being reversed.

Moberg’s approach to the problem is rational and cool-headed. The social gospelers can’t do the job without including Christ’s message of redemption. The evangelicals can’t do it by spiritual scalp hunting. Both need each other. Both should realize that welfare—helping the victims of social problems and corporate evil—is not the same as eliminating the source of the misery. It must be evangelism plus welfare plus working toward social justice.

A worthwhile chapter bringing new light to the current discussion is “Do Evangelicals Lack Social Concern?” (read compassion and love for social concern). Research tends to show that strong piety does not necessarily mean love for one’s neighbor. He includes a chapter on “Social Sin” with some support from Scripture to prove this neglected aspect of evangelical theology.

Because of the recent development of social work programs in Mennonite colleges, readers will find his discussion of social welfare and evangelism helpful.

The book carries a heavy load of footnotes and quoted material plus an index and critical bibliography, yet it remains very readable for the lay person.

Evangelicals began with social concern. Why did they stop? This book answers the questions and points the way back. The great Christian word is “and”—evangelism and social concern.

Katie Funk Wiebe,
Tabor College, Hillsboro

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