The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

By Frances FitzGerald. Simon & Schuster, 2017. 752 pages. $35/hardcover; $20/paperback; $14.99/eBook.

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Frances FitzGerald offers a spectacular sweep of the U.S. mainland’s iteration of the consuming “fire” of God in her book The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. I came to this book expecting to learn from the vast trove of yearnings and pangs of heart that are the history of “Israel”: struggling with God. In the introduction, however, FitzGerald makes a claim that seems to diminish any fruit which may have grown. She says of this book:

It purposely omits the history of African American churches because theirs is a different story, mainly one of resistance to slavery and segregation, but also of the creation of centers for self-help and community in a hostile world. Some African American denominations identify as evangelical, but because of their history, their religious traditions are not the same as those of white evangelicals.

This oddly ignores later evidence in the same text that “Pentecostalism had begun among the poor, black and white, in a Los Angeles mission in 1906.” That is to say, African Americans were an integral part of an entirely new manifestation of the evangelical movement. The argument that the “traditions of African Americans are not the same” has long been fostered by (white) Protestantism writ large. Quakers have similarly been misguided by the notion that persons of color are not among their membership because they are essentially “different,” as if people of color have a natural inclination that makes it impossible for them to sit still or worship in silence.

FitzGerald begins this text with an assertion about faith practice which would require that African Americans—who were barred by slaveholders from reading, holding worship, and baptism—somehow get hold of these materials, illegally teach themselves to read, and come to “evangelical” (read: European) notions of God irrespective of their material condition. FitzGerald’s mute testimony as to the presence of Native Americans—mentioned in exactly four sentences in a 700-plus-page book—gives further evidence to her leanings toward the carcass of creedal establishment rather than the persons who make up the living metabolism of the Body of Christ. The tie of FitzGerald to a white, European interpretation of history is even more pronounced in that women are hardly ever referenced as actors in these revivals.

When Quakers advocated for abolition, they did not mean to go so far as to voice equality between Blacks and whites, as noted in Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship by Vanessa Julye and Donna McDaniel, and in Abraham Lincoln, the Quakers, and the Civil War by William C. Kashatus. It is these misperceptions of the incapacities of African Americans (and other minorities) that loom heavily in the present-day scandal that people of color are an ultra-minority in all pacifist Protestant traditions (Mennonite, Amish, Brethren, and Quaker).

FitzGerald does well in the opening chapters of this book—once one moves beyond what reeks of redactive racism masquerading as historical fidelity—particularly in the discussion of the groundswell of bold, evangelical open-air preachers. One of the earliest evangelical preachers offers a tie to Quakers: rather than fidelity to the given social order “[Jonathan] Edwards, however, was preaching the evangelical message that individuals could have a direct relationship with Christ—and that Christ would save not just the apparently worthy, but all those who would receive His grace.” This may sound eerily familiar to Friends aware of seminal texts of our tradition.

In one of the most sober—and less densely obscured—portions of this tome, FitzGerald makes the following observation:

Beginning in the latter years of World War II a religious upwelling took place across the country. After the soldiers came home, had families, and the economy took off, Americans started going to church in record numbers. By the evidence of one survey, church membership in the decade 1945–55 rose from seventy to a hundred million people. The money put into church construction went from $409 million in 1950 to more than a billion dollars by the end of the decade.

The revival that actually occurred was not coerced by slick “hireling” preachers but rather sprang from an altered set of material conditions. She says of this massive upsurge of church membership after World War II, “If it was a revival at all, it was a sedate, orderly, and respectable affair.” This smells of a tightly wound, conservative attempt to pour the prophetic fire of the Spirit into ossified structures: within them, but never dissolving or moving beyond them. In effect, the author seems to hold the view that the arrival of the “Kingdom”—the focal point of inner conversion and the establishment of the “church”—does not actually mean a thorough social transformation.

Christians of a darker hue would be most obliged to offer a more eschatologically expectant reading of the seeking after the morsels of God. It seems, however, that our manner of practice is too expectant, too ecstatic, and our lack of “kosher” credentials consigns us to the dark, dingy pits of history—with our own kind—instead.

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