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April 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 2 · pp. 15–22 

A Practical Morality for the Church

Walter Unger

There seems to be a concerted move in some evangelical circles to reverse the “Great Reversal.” That term was coined by Timothy L. Smith to describe the shift in this century from the nineteenth century evangelical stance which combined evangelism with social concern to a one-sided emphasis on saving souls and an almost total neglect of social needs.

Recent literature demonstrates that the evangelical movement has made significant strides toward a more holistic understanding of the Gospel during the last decade. Carl F. H. Henry’s A Plea for Evangelical Demonstration was published in 1971 as was John Howard Yoder’s The Original Revolution. The next year Yoder’s finest work appeared, The Politics of Jesus. The book received wide acclaim and has certainly aided many evangelicals in accepting the normativeness of Jesus for social and political life.

Howard A. Snyder’s recent The Problem of Wine Skins received a wide reading in evangelical circles. The need for greater social involvement by the church is one of Snyder’s main themes. After recounting the social impact of the Wesleyan Revival, Snyder concludes, “There is no combination so potent in transforming society than biblical evangelism coupled with biblical social concern—the joining of the Old Testament prophet and the New Testament evangelist.” 1

The two most recent books highlighting the new evangelical awareness of the need for social concern and action are a revised edition of The Great Reversal: Evangelism and Social Concern by David O. Moberg (Holman, 1977) and Discovering an Evangelical Heritage by Donald W. Dayton (Harper, 1976). Walters certainly acknowledges the close connection between evangelical religion and the nineteenth century reform impulse, but he also points out that numerous reformers who received their initial impetus towards social {16} involvement from evangelical sources eventually became disenchanted by the sectarianism and sterile formalism of the churches and wandered off into heterodoxy (for instance, Theodore Weld, the famed Finney convert and noted abolitionist, became a Unitarian).

After the Civil War, evangelical Protestantism slowly moved from an optimistic postmillennialism to a pessimistic premillenialism which cut the nerve of social concern. The new stance, which has been called the lifeboat ethic, was typified by D. L. Moody’s statement: “I look on the world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said, ‘Save all you can’.” Rescue from a fallen world became the almost exclusive concern of the evangelical church, and the amelioration of earthly ills was neglected.

Dayton has done a splendid job of uncovering the radical social involvement of American evangelicalism during the middle years of the nineteenth century. Many conservative Christians would be surprised to learn that pioneers at the very heart of such nineteenth century reform movements as abolitionism, feminism, and social welfare came directly from the ranks of evangelical Christianity.


To illustrate this aspect of the evangelical heritage, no better example could be found than the noted nineteenth century revivalist Charles Grandison Finney. When this lawyer-turned-evangelist emerged on the revival scene in the 1820’s, he combined in his person and activities many of the tendencies which were to dominate America’s religious life for the next half century. Finney thrust himself with amazing vigor into revivalism and reform. He soon became the master revivalist of his time and a powerful force behind the great humanitarian movements of the middle of the nineteenth century.

The period from 1820 to 1860 was one of the most romantic in American history. It was the age of the common man, the era of progress, and perhaps the greatest period of benevolent activity in the past four hundred years of America’s history. 2

In a letter dated 1831 the noted liberal William Ellery Channing wrote

The present age is an age of great movements, of great perils, and still glorious prospects, and one in which there is a power of sympathy, as well as means of co-operation and extensive agency never known before. . . . Every age teaches its own lesson. The lesson of this age is that of sympathy with the suffering, and of devotion to the progress of the whole human race. 3

Charles Finney’s influence in fostering this spirit of “devotion to {17} the progress of the whole human race” cannot be minimized. Indeed, Finney was “a portent, one of the notable figures in the moral history of the nineteenth century, and one of the greatest of modern evangelists.” 4

Wherever he preached, the contagion spread to the countryside and to distant towns. At the turn of the decade, in 1830, the revival burst all bounds and spread over the whole nation, the greatest of all modern revivals. Tens of thousands turned from selfishness and chose “benevolence as a controlling preference of the mind.” Praising God, they resolved to “save the American church and nation from the judgments of heaven” by “a spirit of expansive benevolence.” To the new-born converts and their rejoicing brethren fresh from the ardor of revival, social ills seemed easily curable and dreams of reform were future realities. 5

Finney preached that no one could be neutral in face of the multitude of moral evils which confronted the Christian in society. By being silent, one automatically gave aid to the cause of unrighteousness. Pious men dare not stand idly by and let evil move unhindered and unchallenged across the land.

Regarding slavery, the crucial moral issue of his day, Finney said:

Facts are exhibited, and principles established, and light thrown in upon the minds of men, and this monster is dragged from his horrid den, and exhibited before the Church, and it is demanded of Christians: Is this sin? Their testimony must be given on this subject. They are God’s witnesses. . . . Two million of degraded heathen in our own land stretch their hands, all shackled and bleeding, and send forth to the Church of God the agonizing cry for help. And shall the Church, in her efforts to reclaim and save the world, deafen her ears to this voice of agony and despair? God forbid! 6

Not only the individual Christian, but the Church as a body, was to be in the vanguard in bringing about what Finney called “practical morality.” The Church was God’s witness to society. A decadent society was evidence that the Church had been derelict in her duty to be salt and light.

Finney went so far as to say that slavery was pre-eminently the sin of the Church. A full twenty-five years before the Civil War broke out, Finney said:

See now how this nation is, all at once, brought upon the brink of war. God brandishes his blazing sword over our heads. Will the Church repent? It is the Church that God chiefly has in view. How shall we avoid the curse of war? Only by a reformation in the Church. 7


Near the end of his life Finney confessed that on the slavery question the Church was too late in her testimony to avoid the war and certainly must bear blame. Thus Finney pled not only for a reformation of society, but also a reformation in the Church. He realized how vital this was to the well-being of society.

Perhaps the finest statement of the revivalist’s teaching on social reform is found in his Lectures on Systematic Theology. The following excerpts are representative:

Saints are interested in and sympathize with, every effort to reform mankind, and promote the interests of truth and righteousness in the earth.

The good of being is the end for which the saint really and truly lives. This is not merely held by him as a theory, as an opinion, as a theological or philosophical speculation. It is in his heart, and precisely for this reason he is a saint.

[Saints] are studying and devising ways and means to convert, sanctify, and reform mankind. Being in this state of mind, they are predisposed to lay hold on whatever gives promise of good to man . . . consequently they are ready to examine the claims of any proposed reform; candid and self-denying, and ready to be convinced, however much self-denial it may call them to.

Prophets, Christ, and his apostles, have left on the pages of inspiration no dubious testimony against every form of sin. The spirit of the whole Bible breathes from every page blasting and annihilation upon every unholy abomination, while it smiles upon everything of good report that promises blessings to man and glory to God. The Saint is not merely sometimes a reformer; he is always so. 8

Finney did much to underscore for his generation the evangelical concept of the Christian life as one of faith expressing itself in works. A. H. Strong says that Finney’s doctrines and methods are a permanent gain to the Church and have done much to close the chasm between religion and morality. They remind us that a formal and idle faith will not save. 9

Certainly Finney’s social views and their theological roots are not beyond criticism. Undoubtedly there were certain blind spots in the revivalist’s social conscience. Although he was strongly in favour of abolition and even refused to serve communion to slaveholders, Finney was not in favour of integration. He was blind to the evils of industrialism overtaking America and inordinately praised the virtues of the Protestant work ethic. However, Finney was truly prophetic in speaking to those issues in society which he did see as having moral {19} implications and we cannot accuse him of indifference or inactivity. “God loves both piety and humanity,” Finney asserted, adding, “How greatly then, must he abhor either when unnaturally divorced from the other.” 10


Finney is only one of a multitude of nineteenth century evangelicals who preached and demonstrated a “practical morality.” Cole, in his Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists 1826-1860, gives a comprehensive and critical overview of evangelical and social involvement. McLoughlin’s Modern Revivalism is helpful in discussing evangelical social involvement and many of his criticisms are valid. However, Dayton has brought evangelical scholarship its clearest and most forceful update on its evangelical heritage in social reform.

The founding president of Wheaton College, Jonathan Blanchard, was an ardent abolitionist who grounded his vision for the Christian college in the prophetic texts of Scripture. He drew inspiration from the schools of the prophets where the “ancient people of Jehovah sent up their youth to learn the pure principles and practical application of his law” and where the truth of God was explained to young prophets who were to see that this truth was “faithfully applied to correct the follies and the errors of the nation.” 11 Blanchard insisted that churches and individual Christians must radically identify with the oppressed and wished after his death to be remembered only as “one who having humbly striven in all things to follow his Lord, like Him, also has been faithful to His poor.” 12

The Wesleyan Methodist Connection was founded squarely on a social issue. This denomination was formed in the early 1840’s as a protest against Methodist compromise on the question of slavery. In the midst of a promising career as a presiding elder in the Methodist Episcopal Church, Orange Scott experienced a “crisis of conscience” regarding the slavery question and other social evils in American society. He set out to swing the large Methodist body toward abolitionism but was severely rebuffed. Orange and a group of likeminded Methodists then created the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, focusing not only on the abolition of slavery but on the whole issue of social reform. The new church did not, however, wish to substitute reform for piety, as is evident in Scott’s challenge to the group in 1845 that “deep Experience in the things of God is essential to the peace and usefulness of all Christians; but especially it is essential to any class of Christian Reformers.” 13

The Wesleyans believed in being very specific in their attacks on social evils. Scott insisted that “in opposing sin, the power of the Gospel must be brought to bear upon particular evils. Generalizing will {20} not answer. We must particularize.” 14 Luther Lee, successor to Scott as leader of the Wesleyan Methodists continued with Scott’s emphasis, seeing social reform as an integral part of the Gospel. He stated that “ministers, Christians, and churches lose their moral power when they fail to exemplify the whole gospel.” 15 Lee was a staunch abolitionist and also a leader in the feminist movement, supporting the right of women to preach the Gospel. He preached the ordination sermon for Antoinette Brown, apparently the first woman in history to be fully ordained to the Christian ministry. 16

The Free Methodist Church was founded in 1860. The word “free” stood for a number of things including abolitionism and the principle of “free pews.” A statement in an early Discipline of this group states:

All their churches are required to be as free as the grace they preach. They believe that their mission is two-fold—to maintain the Bible standard of Christianity—and to preach the Gospel to the poor. Hence they require that all seats in their houses of worship should be free. 17

The founder, B. T. Roberts, insisted that the church must follow in the footsteps of Jesus and preach the gospel to the poor. He argued for plain churches and plain dress so that plain people would not be afraid to attend church. He pushed Free Methodists to a radical discipleship that affirmed simple life-style, polemicized against the “modern, easy way of getting people converted, without repentance, without renouncing the world,” and insisted that renunciation of the world include such social sins as “slavery, driving hard business bargains, and oppressing the hireling in his wages.” 18


By the turn of the century evangelicals moved almost entirely out of the sphere of ministering to social needs, leaving these concerns to the “social gospellers” and “liberals”. Now, however, after many years of preaching a truncated gospel, the contemporary evangelical movement appears to be moving toward a more practical morality which unites active evangelism with compassionate social concern and involvement.

As a reaction to the lack of a strong social emphasis in Campus Crusade’s Explo ’72 in Dallas, a group of evangelicals pushed for an evangelical forum on social concerns. The forum materialized in 1973 when fifty evangelical leaders, including John Howard Yoder and Myron Augsburger, met in Chicago and developed a 473-word-social-action statement. This “Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern” stressed God’s requirement of justice. Among other things it acknowledged that: {21}

Although the Lord calls us to defend the social and economic rights of the poor and the oppressed, we have mostly remained silent. We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the body of Christ along color lines. Further, we have failed to condemn the exploitation of racism at home and abroad by our economic system.

(For the full text of the “Declaration” see Direction, January 1978, pp. 9-10.) Another forum met in Chicago, May 1-3, 1977, and issued another declaration broader in scope than the 1973 document (see Christianity Today, June 17, 1977). Howard Loewen was the only M.B. present at this meeting.

The December 26, 1977, Time essay on U.S. Evangelicalism draws attention to the lingering problem that “in concentrating on personal salvation, the convert tends to grow safe in his inner consolation, lapsing into passive acceptance of the evils of the outside world.” 19 The article points to other unhealthy trends: the show business approach to evangelism (“Christ’s circuses”) and the dangers posed by increased respectability and wealth. But the essay also acknowledges that there is a new emphasis in evangelical circles on giving help as a thing good in itself rather than just as bait to attract concerts. And it asserts that the number and variety of evangelical projects at home are broadening dramatically, as ministries bring “care as well as conversion” to the despairing and needy of America.

Numerous examples of evangelical “caring” ministries are cited by Time’s researchers. These examples range from Charles Colson’s prison ministry to church programs like that of the First Baptist Church in San Antonio. In the past ten years this church has grown from 7000 to 9000 members, 1000 of them Chicanos. Pastor Jimmy Allen combines Bible preaching with twenty ministries to meet a multitude of needs.

William Sloane Coffin is quoted as saying: “If you get an Evangelical with a social conscience you’ve got one of God’s true saints.” 20 This concept of saintly servanthood—servanthood in word and in deed—is not new in the Anabaptist tradition, yet certain aspects of our “deed witness” need strengthening. Mennonite Brethren need to hear again the conviction expressed by Menno Simons that faith not only makes one “active, confident and joyful in Christ Jesus,” but also “ works ceaselessly in love.” 21 {22}


  1. Howard A. Snyder, The Problem of Wine Skins (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), p. 172.
  2. For a listing and discussion of the multitude of philanthropic societies in this period see Emerson David, The Half Century; or, A History of Changes That Have Transpired, Chiefly in the United States, Between 1800 and 1850 (Boston: Tappan and Whittemore, 1851), chapters 3, 4, and 8. See also Charles C. Cole, Jr., The Social Ideas of the Northern Evangelists (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954), chapter 4.
  3. William Ellery Channing, Memoir (4th ed., Boston: Wm. Crosby and H. P. Nichols, 1850), III, 244.
  4. Gilbert Hobbs Barnes, The Anti-Slavery Impulse 1830-1844 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964), p. 9.
  5. Barnes, p. 16.
  6. Charles Finney, Revivals of Religion (Westwood: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.), pp. 326-27.
  7. Finney, p. 347.
  8. Charles Finney, Lectures on Systematic Theology (New York: George H. Doran, 1921), pp. 311-313.
  9. A. H. Strong, Christ in Creation and Ethical Monism (Philadelphia: Roger Williams Press, 1899), p. 382. See pp. 364-87, “Reminiscences of Charles G. Finney.” Both A. H. Strong and his father were converted in Finney’s Rochester revivals.
  10. Charles Finney, Sermons on Gospel Themes, ed. Henry Cowles (Oberlin: E. J. Goodrich, 1876), p. 356.
  11. As cited by Donald W. Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), p. 12.
  12. Dayton, p. 13.
  13. Dayton, p. 77.
  14. Dayton, p. 77.
  15. Dayton, p. 81.
  16. Dayton, p. 83. For a full discussion of femininism, see chapter 8, “The Evangelical Roots of Feminism.”
  17. As cited by Dayton, p. 102.
  18. Dayton, p. 112.
  19. Time, December 26, 1977, p. 37.
  20. Time, p. 42.
  21. The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, John C. Wenger, editor (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1956), p. 116.
Wally Unger, a Ph.D. candidate at Simon Fraser University, is Academic Dean of Columbia Bible Institute, Clearbrook, British Columbia.

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