Nineteenth century America contained a bewildering array of Protestant sects and denominations, with different doctrines, practices, and organizational forms. But by the 1830s almost all of these bodies had a deep evangelical emphasis in common. Protestantism has always contained an important evangelical strain, but it was in the nineteenth century that a particular style of evangelicalism became the dominant form of spiritual expression. What above all else characterized this evangelicalism was its dynamism, the pervasive sense of activist energy it released. As Charles Grandison Finney, the leading evangelical of mid-nineteenth century America, put it: "religion is the work of man, it is something for man to do." This evangelical activism involved an important doctrinal shift away from the predominately Calvinist orientation that had characterized much of eighteenth-century American Christianity. Eighteenth-century Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield had stressed the sinful nature of humans and their utter incapacity to overcome this nature without the direct action of the grace of God working through the Holy Spirit. Salvation was purely in God's hands, something he dispensed as he saw fit for his own reasons. Nineteenth-century evangelicals like Finney, or Lyman Beecher, or Francis Asbury, were no less unrelenting in their emphasis on the terrible sinfulness of humans. But they focused on sin as human action. For all they preached hellfire and damnation, they nonetheless harbored an unshakable practical belief in the capacity of humans for moral action, in the ability of humans to turn away from sinful behavior and embrace moral action. Whatever their particular doctrinal stance, most nineteenth-century evangelicals preached a kind of practical Arminianism which emphasized the duty and ability of sinners to repent and desist from sin.
The core of nineteenth-century evangelicalism was the experience of conversion. Conversion was compelled by a set of clear ideas about the innate sinfulness of humans after Adam's fall, the omnipotence of God--his awful power and his mercy--and, finally, the promise of salvation for fallen humankind through Christ's death on the cross as the atonement for human sin. But what students need to understand is that conversion was an experience. It was not simply something that people believed--though belief or faith was essential to it--but something that happened to them, a real, intensely emotional event they went through and experienced as a profound psychological transformation left them with a fundamentally altered sense of self, an identity as a new kind of Christian. As they interpreted it, they had undergone spiritual rebirth, the death of an old self and the birth of a new one that fundamentally transformed their sense of their relationship to the world.
Conversion consisted of a sequence of clearly mapped-out steps, each of which was accompanied by a powerful emotion that led the penitent from the terror of eternal damnation through redemption to the promise of heavenly salvation. The process of conversion characteristically began in a state of "concern" about the state of one's soul and "inquiry" into what were called the doctrines of salvation propelled by the question "what can I do to be saved?" This led to a state of acute spiritual "anxiety," marked by deep fear over the prospect of eternal damnation, which in turn grew into an unmistakable sense of "conviction," the heartfelt realization that one stood justly condemned for one's sins and deserved eternal damnation. Conviction was the terrifying point of recognition that no matter how much one might desire it, there was absolutely nothing one could do to earn salvation. But there was something the penitent could do, indeed, was bound to do. That was to fully repent and surrender unconditionally to God's will to do with as he saw fit and to serve him fully. It was this act of...
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