Worship and Discipleship, Part 4: Historical Reflections on Finney, The Fix, and Practices
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
In part 3 of this series, I described how Charles Grandison Finney and the larger 19th century revivalist movements understood both the necessity and the role of their work in Christian discipleship. As they saw it, the congregations were not entirely irrelevant but rather impotent and incompetent when it came either to making new disciples or helping people to live the way of Jesus faithfully in their actual cultural setting. Worship and congregational life were more about trying to maintain some sort of status quo than either conversion or growth. Most people in them seemed to have little interest either in following Jesus in the first place or becoming more faithful in their discipleship to him over time. And the congregations seemed to be set up to "cater" to these "barely interested" folk rather than to be a "Petri dish" to culture, inculturate and then spread "real Christians" everywhere. Instead, they were culturing, inculturating and one might even say spreading a kind of "disinterested" or "lukewarm" or "culturally acceptable" Christianity everywhere, defending their practice on the basis of tradition.
Since this was "situation normal" in the congregations, about the only way to "wake up" or "stir up" at least some of these people or others not yet in the congregations into actual faith in Jesus or deeper discipleship to him was to create an environment (the revival, or protracted meeting) where both the theological and emotional stakes would be raised to a prominence rarely seen in the congregations, an environment where those attending would be compelled to respond, "What must I do to be saved?" or at least "How am I called to respond to this anxiety, this dis-ease I feel so strongly inside?" Assuming the congregations were going to continue to be but mildly reformed through these efforts, though perhaps more people in them may be more thoroughly reformed, there would be no clear end in sight for the necessity of the revivals, and within them, "the fix" as the necessary precondition to conversion and growth in holiness.
In this entry, I want to consider two historical questions about this revivalist understanding of how "real Christianity" works. First, was their assessment of the disinterest, impotence, and incompetence of the congregations to produce conversion and real growth fair or accurate in the first place? And was the necessity of innovating ever "new measures" to "get the public mind," the chief of which was "the fix," actually as historically rooted and prevalent as Finney and his fellow revivalists liked to claim?
Was the Assessment of General Congregational Incompetence/Impotence/Disinterest Accurate or Fair?
Accurate, yes, at least as far as Finney (a Presbyterian) could see from his vantage point. The evidence on this point is clear from all sides-- revivalists, "Old School" or "Old Light" folk, and actual statistics. There had been a real recession in religious involvement (church attendance) and practice (churches and Christians being involved actively, because of their faith, in what we Methodists might call acts of piety and acts of mercy, personally and in society at large) since the First Great Awakening. Part of this was generated by the massive mobility and changing demographics brought about by the opening of the Louisiana Territory and the rapid expansion of the Western frontier in the early 19th century. You've got all these people on the move, taking whatever little they reasonably can with them, but you don't have "established" (Old Light/Old School) churches in that mix in large part because you don't have "established" cultures or even towns that could support that model of church well. Methodists, some Baptists and emerging new groups (Disciples of Christ, early holiness groups, and others) could flourish in such a "fluxy" environment in part because they were all institutionally "less heavy" and less dependent on public and cultural institutional supports to do what they did. Finney actually regular applauded the Methodists for just such nimbleness and flexibility!
The "Old School" and other established congregations-- those who provided the bulk of the critique of the revivals-- were simply not set up to meet this challenge. Nor were they doing much to prepare themselves to do so. That fact didn't seem to faze the "Old School" folks all that much. Indeed, they continued to defend and promote their way of doing things, and a good number of them (including their seminaries-- again most notably among Presbyterians) argued that continuing to do what they had done, even in the face of declining "vitality," was a sign of their faithfulness, not a sign of any lack in faithfulness, while the "emotional extremes" promoted by revivalism were more likely to lead to confusion, dissension and excess than longer term faithfulness to God.
So accurate, yes.
But fair, maybe not.
Finney and the revivalists seemed to expect that the congregational form of Christianity should be generating new converts and promoting real growth in holiness in their participants all the time. Their vision of the "ideal" congregation was of a body of actively engaged believers, always pressing on toward holiness of heart and life, both personal life and that of the surrounding society.
Trouble is, congregations did not generally seem to share that set of expectations. Congregations tended to understand themselves as offering the public worship of God, decently and in good order (according to their denominational standards), teaching the doctrines of their confession, providing some means of caring for each other, and being respected institutional players as representatives of religion, intellectual and social life in their local communities. These were the four basic things congregations had been doing since Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire at the decree of Emperor Theodosius in 375, and these, and almost only these, had become the template for congregational life and work, as such (unless you lived on the fringes of the Empire, where conversion and intense spiritual formation were still on the radar screen) since at least the sixth century.
So congregations that were doing these four things with reasonable faithfulness in early 19th century North America had, by this point, perhaps as much as a 1300 year history behind them to ratify they were basically on the right track for what they were-- that is, congregations. What congregation needs to focus on conversions when everyone is a Christian, or at least shares Christian values, more or less? And who needs to provide much effort to help people live the Christian life, to practice its practices, beyond what might happen on Sunday morning (worship and perhaps some teaching opportunity) when the surrounding culture is also more or less Christian? The congregation in its worship and teaching provides what is necessary for salvation. That should be enough now, just as it had been for all these centuries up to now.
So given those assumptions, which one still finds strong resonances of in much contemporary congregational life, for folks like the revivalists to expect congregations to be or become competent in issues related to the conversion or real growth in holiness of most of their members is sort of like expecting a normal three-lead clover patch to produce mostly four-leaf varieties. It's an unrealistic expectation, and therefore it's unfair to criticize congregations for not producing many converts or a majority of their membership actively growing in the faith.
So accurate, yes. Fair, not so much.
But what about historical?
"The Fix" as Historically Essential to Christian Discipleship?
One of the major claims that Finney makes for "the fix" as being fundamental to Christian discipleship in his own day is that it had always been so. He would point to numerous examples of "sudden conversions" in the New Testament and the example of what he says is every reform movement across Christian history and conclude that, yes, the adoption of "new measures" that would excite the hearers of that day and move them to different action was the common denominator in every case. The practices, and more particularly the worship, evangelistic and discipleship practices of the congregations in all these cases (Judaism in the NT, Christianity across history) had always been insufficient, in every era, to generate and then sustain "real" discipleship. Only and always "the fix" had been the answer to "save the day."
Not so fast, Mr Finney. There is an element of the life of early Christian congregations that has been either overlooked or ignored in such an account of Christian history-- the catechumenate.
Without here trying to retrace the details of the history of the Christian catechumenate (for which one of the best resources is a volume Maxwell Johnson edited called Living Water, Sealing Spirit: Readings on Christian Initiation, and in particular Aidan Kavanaugh's opening essay), one thing that is very evident in the ministry of Jesus, in Acts, and in the first three centuries at least of the church is that there was a strong understanding that one had to learn how to follow Jesus in order to become his disciple, and that this took real time and lots of practice.
Discipleship to Jesus may begin with a defining decision, which may or may not be accompanied by "a fix," but the course of discipleship itself involves learning from the Master and his people what it means, practically speaking, to live the way of Jesus, bearing witness to the reign of God in this life. When Barnabas recruited Paul to help "teach" disciples in Antioch, he wasn't recruiting him to become a revivalist or a "fix artist," but in fact someone who could and would work with Barnabas over the period of the next year to help those believers in Antioch live the way of Christ in their context. That's what teachers did with disciples. It's no accident that Acts records it was these people, having undergone this intensive process of teaching with Barnabas and Paul, who were the first to be known as "Christianoi," "little Christs" (Acts 11:26).
We also see echoes of this in a number of Paul's letters to the churches, in many of which he barely mentions "conversions" as such at all, and is instead focused much more on the practical issues of what it means to live the way of Christ in their contexts. Perhaps most notably in this regard is Paul's own statement about his ministry in Corinth, where he says he's glad he baptized almost no one, but instead devoted himself to teaching them the way of Christ (See I Corinthians 1:12-17). Paul had essentially founded this Christian community and was there for nearly 18 months (Acts 18:1-11) and baptized almost no one? Right! He wanted them to be grounded in the way of Christ first and foremost. It wasn't that baptism and conversion didn't matter to him. It's that they did! And he understood that actual conversion wasn't just the result of a fix, a sudden new perspective, but also and more importantly it was about implications for everything one did and how one lived one's life-- personally, devotionally, with others in the community and beyond, and in worship. Apollos, who followed Paul there, could then baptize them, sealing their conversions.
We see a similar pattern in the first or early second century Syrian document called "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles" (Didache, ca. 65-115 AD). The first six "chapters" of this are a "catechetical manual"-- a description of how to live the "way of life" rather than the "way of destruction" in eminently practical terms. These chapters precede the instructions for baptism in a way that makes clear that those to be baptized had already received and begun to live out the teaching of the first six chapters before they entered the cold, flowing waters of baptism.
We see a similar pattern in Justin Martyr's First Apology (ca. 150). Here he writes that those who would be baptized had first been instructed how to pray, how to fast, and especially how to love their enemies, as well as what the other expectations of discipleship to Jesus with this community would be, because in his community, at least, they expected everyone to make a fully conscious decision to keep living this way before they were baptized.
The fullest early elaboration of this pattern is in Apostolic Tradition (ca 215). Here, the period of preparation is described as being normally about three years, and the "contents" of the preparatory work included attending daily prayer with the community, and, more in particular, in learning the habits and practices of Christians. (For infants and others unable to speak for themselves, it was expected they would gain this formation by being with their parents who would be accompanying others through the process-- so these could be, and often were, baptized as infants). This phase of preparation was followed by an intensive two weeks of teaching, prayer and daily exorcism. But these persons could not enter that phase until their sponsor could answer affirmatively three questions about their way of life: "Did they live soberly? Did they show mercy to widows and the elderly? Did they pursue all virtuous things?" None of these was doctrinal, per se, and none of these was something that could be answered by "a fix." All of them reflected a pattern of life, a way learned over time by practice.
Practical practices meddling with how one lives in this world so that one began to live as a disciple of Jesus-- and an ongoing expectation as these were being taught one was becoming increasingly proficient in them-- that's what the catechumenate, initial disciple formation, was all about. Or as Malcolm Gladwell might put it-- 10,000 hours to begin to master the way of Jesus so one could follow him and serve in his name with ever-growing competence and grace for a lifetime.
Early Christian congregations, then, were filled with people who had such intense practice both in coming to Jesus initially and in continuing to grow in faithful discipleship to him. For Christian communities like this, not to expect nearly everyone to have a lively and growing faith, "true religion" in Finney's terms, would have been a very odd thing.
Just as odd as expecting post-sixth century congregations, including most 19th (or 21st!) century congregations in America, where little or none of that practical formation had taken place, to be full of such people.
So is "the fix" historically the way that Christians are made and grow in holiness of heart and life? No. While it may have been one ingredient in the mix, here or there, for some, what had historically actually produced congregations full of Christians were communities dedicated to teaching people practically (including ritually) --and intensively-- how to live the way of Jesus in their context. In short, if you want lots of "real Christians," maybe there is some "fix," but mostly it's about practices-- lives changed not only in the emotions, but down to the bones, the blood, the lungs and the impulses.
So What Does a Presbyterian Revivalist Have to Do with 19th Century Methodism?
Watch for Part 5... coming soon!