How will American evangelicals respond to the storms without and the stress within?

The mid-eighteenth century was in many ways a high point of European cultural development. It was the age of absolutism in government: centralized, absolute monarchy held sway—usually more or less benevolently—in all of Europe’s great nations. It was the age of rationalism and enlightenment: the philosophers were confident that mankind was coming of age and could be freed from the arbitrary tutelage of revelation and church authority. The 1770s—the decade preceding the French Revolution—marked a kind of turning point. In the world of letters, everything was in ferment. In German literature, this is known as the period of Sturm und Drang—storm and stress. Two who would shortly become great figures, Goethe and Schiller, were already on the scene, but they had not yet developed the maturity and sense of direction that within a few years would enable them to exercise such a great influence upon the spirit of an entire nation.

The history of the church and the history of literature seldom run parallel, and it would be artificial to try to draw a close comparison. But perhaps as we view American Christendom in the 1970s, and particularly American evangelicalism, we can borrow the metaphor from German literature in the 1770s and describe it as our period of storm and stress. Storm comes through outside forces, forces that once were favorable or neutral, which have begun to buffet evangelicalism in this decade. The stress, we may say, is from within, as once mild tensions, too long unresolved, threaten to fragment evangelicals’ thinly-glued unity, and as new leaders, new institutions, and new movements seek to be heard in an arena where the stars have ...

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