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Book Review: The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

"[Revivals] undermined the established churches, led to the separation of church and state and created a marketplace of religious ideas in which new sects and denominations flourished." (Frances Fitzgerald in Chapter 1: The Great Awakenings and the Evangelical Empire)

book cover
book cover

Title: The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

Author: Frances FitzGerald

Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2017

Pages: 752

Genres: Church and State, American history, Christian Church History

Award: winner of the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award, Time magazine Top 10 Nonfiction Book of the Year

This detailed history shows the evolution of Christian Protestants and the development of its evangelical segment. It outlines the developments of Christians and how they thought and organized in America from the eighteenth century through to the present.

A Recurring Cycle of Division and Faith

What I found notable is the recurring cycle of Christians debating and acting on faith vs. works and ritual, the law vs. love. Protestant Reformers rebelled against the rituals, financial demands, and power structures of the Roman Catholic Church, and then cycled through their own debates of legalism vs. versus our conscience, the pendulum swinging between faith alone and faith shown by action.

In the early 1800s, Christians were divided over the Calvinist doctrine of the elect, which resulted in those who felt they were chosen not sharing the good news, while others felt unelected, unchosen, unloved and hopeless. Leaders in the Second Great Awakening spoke for religious freedom without interference from the government or church. Orthodox clergymen felt religious freedom was leading to multiplying heresies, dissident sects and religious anarchy (Chapter 1, subsection The Second Great Awakening). During the Second Great Awakening, Christians held revival meetings and preached that all might be saved, introducing the new idea of conversion as a sudden experience. There was a renewed interest in mission work and evangelism, and new Protestant denominations, including Black-run denominations, were formed based on their views that God could save all people.

Leading up to the Civil War 1861-65, Christians were divided over slavery, segregation, and racism. Some Christians felt that slavery was ordained by God while other churches would not allow church leaders to hold slaves and encouraged their members to free their slaves.

Several church denominations split apart based on their views on slavery and whether God treated all races as equal.

In the late 1800s, Christians were divided over the social gospel, a movement emphasizing Jesus's teachings about generosity and uplifting the weak. They addressed unemployment and poor labour practices and worked to bring God's kingdom to earth. Other Christians believed the church's mandate was to address man's greatest need: salvation and that the social gospel movement replaced the fundamentals of Christianity with a religion of good works. Church denominations organized Fundamentalist associations to defend against liberalism and social gospel activists.

When World War 1 broke out in 1914, the advocates of the social gospel were disheartened. They did not think there was a moral justification for going to war and felt the world was not making progress toward God's kingdom coming to earth. The Calvinists were encouraged since they had believed all along that humans have a depraved nature, without the capacity to do good, and that the war was a sign of the end times. When America joined the war in 1917, Christians started to believe God had called them to war, to defend justice and human rights. Christianity became entwined with patriotism and national isolation. The US refused to join the League of Nations and passed laws to limit immigration. Fundamentalist Christians began to say that Liberal Christians had abandoned the faith.

The first half of the book shows how sincere, Bible-believing Christians are repeatedly divided: about race and segregation, faith vs works, evangelism vs. social justice, and liberal vs fundamental. I did not read the second half of the book, since it is a bit technical to read, I was not as interested in the America-specific development of the Moral Majority, the Christian Right, and the Republican Party.

Pros: Very thorough, balanced, impersonal view of the evolution and movements of Christians and the evangelical movement.

Cons: Very long, referring to many unfamiliar technical terms and specific unfamiliar people.

My reflections:

I enjoyed reading the book, which affirmed to me that my questions and thoughts were discussed and debated by great theologians hundreds of years ago. I found that the belief in the doctrine of the elect is not universal, that many Christians through history believe that all humans have the capacity to make a good choice and may be saved through their faith. My view of faith as a journey, as opposed to a sudden conversion experience, was also affirmed. The current debate about the involvement of the church in social justice vs evangelism and salvation is the same as the historical debate.

Today's debates about how to interpret prophecies about the end times are similar to the historic debates. While many Evangelicals believe that in the end times Christians are taken up in the rapture while those left behind experience great tribulations the great battle of Armageddon when Christ returns in power; others believe we all experience tribulations and Christians are taken up in the rapture when Christ returns in power (Premillennialism). The Protestant social gospel advocates of the late 1800s theorized Satan would be gradually defeated as the kingdom of God expands, each person's heart is changed, and then Christ returns and reigns in a millennium of peace (Postmillennialism). Historically, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox have taught that the millennium of Christ's reign is figurative, happening now in heaven and that the prophecies refer to a spiritual conflict rather than a conflict on earth (Amillennialism). None of these views are contrary to true Christianity holding one view or another on the end times does not affect our salvation.

grape vines
Grape vines (author photo)

It is unfortunate that Christians have been so divided about how to live out our faith when the Bible calls us to unity. I do not see a conflict between faith and works. The Bible states we are saved by faith, and also that true faith will show in our thoughts, actions and behaviours. Once God saves us by grace, our hearts are transformed so that we can love one another. Our faith and actions work together; our actions make our faith complete. (James 2:18-22). Real faith expresses itself through love. (Luke 12:33-34, Galatians 5:6, 1 John 3:17). The law is summed up with Love your neighbour as yourself (Galatians 5:13-14, John 15:12). Jesus says that just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, people show their faith by their actions (Matthew 7:15-23, Matthew 25:40-45). Good work is the fruit of your salvation and demonstrates who reigns in your heart.

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