“To some men it is hard seeing a call of God through difficulties; when if it would but clothe itself with a few carnal advantages, how apparent it is to them! They can see it through a little cranny.” John Owen
Finished reading “The Most Famous Man in America,” the story of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and how he tried to weave his way through antebellum America with the intransigent issue of slavery immovable and promising to hurl America toward a conflagration that would destroy the Union. It was slavery and abolitionism 24/7 without rest, decade upon decade. Beecher was an abolition man and yet not a “barner,” one who threatened to burn the whole barn down. He somehow found a way to avoid the radicals with his own more evolutionary approach that was willing to wait until slavery was strangled to death on its own internal contradictions, even while giving John Brown a crown and a place within the parthenon of heroes. At every step he was playing with fire, moving very close to the modernist impulse with its baggage of liberalism that included laxer sexual morality codes, suffragism, etc. He was not trying to take America back to its Puritan New England roots and its primitivism. He was an “adjustment” man. He caught the wave of American optimism, the promise of riches unleashed by growing economic opportunity, the inclusion of wave upon wave of immigrants. He intuitively sensed that the times needed, as he saw it, a less dogmatic God, a tenderer Christ, and a love driven religious impulse without the fine tuning of theological small print. The public was done with precise religious creeds, moral obsessions, and authoritarianism in all its forms. They weren’t in the mood for it. And Beecher was their man. He is the prototype of the liberal Protestant, and even in the midst of Evangelical revivals did not give way to the “old time religion.”
In his personal life he was no doubt a sexual libertine, but he had an amazing capacity for slithering away from being considered so. Still the word was out that on any given Sunday he was preaching to 7 or 8 of his mistresses. Finally he ended up being sued by his best friend for “criminal conversation’ with his wife. The trial lasted six months. While it ended in a hung jury, there is no way one could read the transcripts without concluding that Beecher lived the life of a slippery fellow. He contained within himself the very stress fractures of America and its dalliance with modernism and all that meant for new forms of society. The hippies of the 60s had nothing on the new generation that Beecher represented and surely the one that followed.
Beecher is a reminder that while America can be spiritually renewed and reinvigorated, America doesn’t go back to old forms. Christian theological and moral orthodoxy will always be interactive with a fluid social matrix that can’t be fixed into a final form. I place myself within the great and conservative Evangelical mainstream. Orthodoxy, as I know it, orders my interior and exterior world. But I have never been insistent that this can only look one way when it comes to church life and church order. I quickly lose sympathy with those orthodox movements that seek a return to old forms as the only wineskin that can contain the new wine. This is always a losing proposition and a waste of energy. After seventy years of belonging and observing, my conviction is that this is a road that leads to the wilderness and social isolation. And Beecher will always stand as a morality tale of playing with fire and getting burned. Cultural winds are not moral compass points. They are cultural conditions which we must navigate, using winds that can help and managing winds that threaten to cast our ship on the rocks and ruin the faith of many.
After I retired from the ministry, I considered options for involvement. Decided to put some maximum effort into politics, encouraging and supporting an ordered civil society that arises from the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage, focusing on freedom, family, and faith. Bottom line – the West is worth saving. Its flourishing means less suffering, more prosperity and opportunity, dignity for the individual, and a religiously ordered liberty that is the only force that can protect and defend a Republic and maximizes nurturing the coming generations in a personal and well-founded faith.
I find my Evangelical brethren rather disinterested in this project. They are under the impression that if people are “saved,” then all else follows. This is wrong. It is true that Gospel salvation is job #1. But there are things that make job #1 more realizable and give it an environment that incubates religion rather than oppresses it. That matters, too. I have found in these five years of political activism a strong current, not just of conservatism, but also of active faith among fellow activists. I have not stepped out of the sacred into the secular at all. It has been faith actively engaging life and culture.
This is one of the reasons that on my business card I continue to refer to myself as Rev Don Bryant. I have not lost that identity or its mission.
Here is an article that touches on the topic.
Been thinking about the PAULA WHITE thing and politics. Also been reading the biography of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher who immersed himself in the ‘holy’ crusade to elect Abraham Lincoln. He was virulently hated in both the North and the South for pushing the terrible conflict into the faces of the people that could only lead to conflict. Beecher wanted that conflict. He wanted that war that he saw as necessary.
Of course, many Christians tried to use the Bible to tone him down. For one, they attacked his theology as heterodox. He had no right to speak for Christian values, they asserted. And he was suspect on that score, having eschewed hell and the wrath of God. Second, he was already known by some as a bit too flirtatious with women. As they said, on any given Sunday, he was preaching in his large church of over 3,000 (extraordinarily large for his time) to seven or eight of his mistresses. Third, Beecher was flamboyant and overwrought. His Sunday sermons were spectacles, and his church had been constructed to look like a theater. Beecher’s response: he raised money to send Bibles and guns to Kansas free staters to protect themselves from Missouri marauding gangs. The guns were called ‘Beecher Bibles.’
It was Beecher who was chosen by President Lincoln to speak at the ceremony at Ft. Sumter raising the Union flag. Without Beecher, he commented, there would have been no flag to raise. Paula White meets the criterion of American history as to who is allowed to speak for the President’s cause. Not my type of Evangelical, for sure. But neither was Beecher. And our country owes a great debt to Beecher for stoking the Emancipation conflict and keeping the North in the war until victory was won.
I well remember how many predicted the end of Evangelicalism after the Moral Majority years. Now the same people are predicting the end of Evangelicalism after helping elect Trump. They will once again be proven wrong. Evangelicalism is essentially conservative Protestantism, and conservative Protestantism isn’t going anywhere, polls or no polls. Center/Left self-professed Evangelicals are behind most of these predictions, hoping that somehow their version of Evangelicalism will rule the day. It does not, and it cannot. They are in the caboose of the Evangelical train and actually owe their careers to Evangelicalism. They can’t leave, because they have no place to go except to mainline liberal Protestantism, who would not accept them. And they cannot leave mainstream Evangelicalism because it is the cocoon which protects their place and status. They’re not going anywhere.
Evangelicalism is not an institution that can be led or hand-fed. It is a people movement. It will do what it wants to do, with no debts to pay or leaders to coddle. Those who attack it have nothing to strike. It’s like punching a cloud. It can be influenced, but only for a time. It bounces back and shape shifts as it works out of a historical/traditional Christian paradigm for doctrine and life. It has shown itself highly adjustable to time and place but never moving far from its compass points. It is capable of shucking institutions and coalitions and moving on.
Evangelicalism can be a three-ring circus at times, but it is all under the big tent. It has its crazy sideshows. But it has some sense of how big the loss would be if it spends too much energy policing boundaries as long as the center is clear.
Besides, Evangelicalism has no place to go to. To go anywhere is to no longer be itself. And that is not an option.
So, having been in the thick of it my whole life and driven mad by the craziness of it, I have never thought that better options were anywhere else. I will die an Evangelical.
“The temptation of the young is lust, of the middle-aged ambition, and of the elderly bitterness. Actually, all three drives are similar and related: ambition is a refined lust, bitterness a disappointed one.” Emil Brunner
“Deep down, we cling to the simplistic idea that if we are good, life will go well. Untrue.” Tim Keller