Where Did The Power Go?

Less Than Conquerors: How Evangelicals Entered the Twentieth Century, by Douglas Frank (Eerdmans, x + 310 pp.; $14.95, paper). Reviewed by Tim Stafford.

Douglas Frank says that from 1850 to 1920 evangelicals lost control of America. At mid-century they stood at the head of an optimistic, self-confident nation. By 1920 they had become a somewhat baffled minority within a pluralist, secularist nation.

Industrial capitalism broke up the world of independent towns and brought purposeless upheaval. Evangelical pieties, honed on farms and villages, seemed increasingly irrelevant to a world in which distant, impersonal forces ruled. Additional pressures came from the acceptance of evolution, and the introduction of radical critiques of Scripture. Evangelicals felt, subliminally at least, that they were becoming insignificant figures in a landscape that had once belonged to them.

Frank’s fundamental assumption is that this loss of power was God-given. Our heroic forefathers, he says, by well-meaning industry, led us astray.

Frank has, it appears, accepted Barth’s assessment of religion as humanity’s greatest defense against God. Evangelicals have a considerable tradition of scoffing at religiosity, but seldom have we taken seriously the fact that we too are in the religion business. That is, in a way, Frank’s point: evangelicals have thought of themselves as purer than others, when under God’s judgment they are equally in need. In losing their power, evangelicals had a great opportunity to experience God’s grace as that which helps the helpless and blesses the poor in spirit. Instead, they managed to shore up and reassert their self-confidence. Frank analyzes three popular currents ...

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