Our Evangelical Heritage
The idea of Christians being involved in social concerns is hardly new. In fact, we have a long history of working for social and economic justice. One historian (J. Wesley Bready) notes how prior to the Evangelical Revival in the 19th Century, England was sliding headlong towards chaos and anarchy. Life-expectancy was low. Alcoholism was high. Gambling was prevalent. Abuses against women and children were atrocious. Bear-bating. Bribery. Corruption. He writes, "Such manifestations suggest that the British people were then perhaps as deeply degraded and debauched as any people in Christendom."
But then something happened. Things began to change. Slavery was abolished. The prison system was reformed. Working conditions improved. Education became available for poor kids. Bready continues:
Whence, then, this pronounced humanity? -- this passion for social justice, and sensitivity to human wrongs? there is but one answer commensurate with stubborn historical truth. It derived from a new social conscience. And if that social conscience, admittedly, was the offspring of more than one progenitor, it nonetheless was mothered and nurtured by the Evangelical Revival of vital, practical Christianity -- a revival which illumined the central postulates of the New Testament ethic, which made real the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of men, which pointed the priority of personality over property, and which directed heart, soul and mind, towards the establishment of the Kingdom of Righteousness on earth (J. Wesley Bready, England Before and After Wesley: The Evangelical Revival and Social Reform).
In other words, what kept England from devolving into a bloody revolution like France? The social conscience provided by orthodox Christianity. What activated activists like William Wilberforce and Elizabeth Fry? They were not simply content to engage in evangelism, leaving those evangelized to sort things out on their own. They worked tirelessly to overturn corrupt systems and promote social justice and political and economic reform.
They didn't do these things in spite of their Christianity. They did these things precisely because of their Christianity.
If John Wesley was the leading figure of such revival in England, similar things came in the wake of the American revivals led by Charles Finney. Though he was known as a fiery evangelist, Finney's background was as a lawyer and his concern was as much for reform as it was for revival. In fact, he believed that the lack of cultural engagement on the part of Christians grieved the Holy Spirit and kept revival from coming in many places.
It's no wonder that a small army of abolitionists and missionaries arose out of those tents where Finney preached. They took medicine and education to the remotest corners of the world -- not as evangelistic tools but as expressions of their newfound love and compassion for all people.
Today is the 40th Anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Is there a better example in the 20th Century of a man whose Christian beliefs led him to engage the culture around him? He was not content to simply preach the gospel; he was compelled to live the gospel -- even if such a life would lead to his ultimate death.
Christian revival has always led to social and cultural engagement. That's a matter of historical record in both America and England.
Now the question is: Where are the Wesleys and Finneys of today? Are there any Wilberforces or Frys and Kings out there?
Another question: Have you ever felt your Christian beliefs pushing you to get involved in something outside of the four walls of your local church?