During the early part of the nineteenth century, Christians across the spectrum of denominations participated in what has become known as America’s Second Great Awakening. In small local camp meetings and in large, week-long gatherings, thousands of believers responded to spirited music, fervent prayers and dynamic preaching by making profound new commitments to live dedicated Christian lives. In the electric atmosphere of these meetings, thousands of others became followers of Jesus for the first time. Whether they bore denominational labels of Methodist, Baptist, Congregationalist or Presbyterian, people caught up in the revival spirit became known as “Evangelicals.”

Today, we often hear about Evangelicals on TV news, but it’s not usually in an article about their vibrant Christian faith. More often it’s about their politics, which is usually predictably conservative. In fact, what is referred to as “The Evangelical Right” is seen as a powerful voting bloc that needs to be cultivated by conservative candidates running for election. It may be a surprise to learn that Evangelicals during the Second Great Awakening were more often seen as political liberals, even sometimes as dangerous radicals.

Take Charles G. Finney, for example. Finney (1792-1875) was one of the leading figures of the Second Great Awakening, a trailblazer in organizing what later became known as “mass evangelism.” Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899), Billy Sunday (1862-1935) and Billy Graham (1918–) all in more recent times have patterned their evangelistic techniques after Finney’s. His published Lectures on Revival of Religion became a classic textbook for evangelism.

Finney believed, as did many of the Awakening’s leaders, that salvation was not just personal, but also social. When individuals decided for Christ, this should result in dramatic moral change, not only in the way they live their personal life, but in the way they influence society around them. Finney spoke out against personal evils like drinking, lust, infidelity and lying. But he also took on slavery, speaking for its abolition thirty years before the Civil War. And he advocated for women’s equality with men, encouraging them to express themselves by leading in public prayer. To him, a truly converted person would affirm these moral positions socially and politically. Also, in harmony with other Second Awakening leaders, Finney believed that part of the evangelical agenda had to be support of programs to lift the lives of people in poverty.

In 1851, Finney became the second president of Oberlin College in Ohio. Under his leadership, Oberlin became a beacon of evangelical moral values. It was a stop on the “Underground Railroad,” through which escaped slaves could find help in their journey north to freedom. And Oberlin was a pioneer in admitting women and African-Americans to study and earn degrees, alongside its white male students.

This expression of what it means to be evangelical stands in striking contrast to twentieth century white evangelical leaders, who either actively opposed or grudgingly acquiesced at every stage of the Civil Rights movement. With regards to women as equal partners in spiritual leadership, evangelicals in recent years seem to have actually taken steps backward. Also, programs that would help bring better work opportunities, healthcare or education to poor people have been routinely decried from evangelical pulpits as “socialism.” Charles Finney would not recognize this as evangelical.

Just sayin’.

— Pastor George Van Alstine