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What Do Evangelicals Believe About Social Justice?: A Brief History

Though dispensationalism had already been an important thread within the evangelical camp since the late 19th century, it eventually became a defining feature of most self-described fundamentalists. This was due in large part to the high-profile ministries of men like D.L. Moody, who embraced the theology and taught it through sermons, publications, and the founding of the Moody Bible Institute. 

Additionally, the increased emphasis on premillennialism among evangelicals may owe its growth in part to the fact that by the mid-20th century, evangelicals had lived through two world wars, the Holocaust, the birth of the atomic bomb, and were in the midst of an emerging Cold War—all of which curbed visions of bringing about the millennial reign of Christ through positive societal transformation. 

As a result, while many evangelicals were vocal about their opposition to communism, which was seen as an existential threat to Christianity, the movement had little to say about the racial and economic injustices that characterized America at the time. 

It was to this apathy that Carl F.H. Henry spoke in his famous 1947 book “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.” Henry, who was pivotal in the formation of Christianity Today, the National Association of Evangelicals, Fuller Theological Seminary, and the Evangelical Theological Society, prophetically spoke to these specific issues of social justice a decade or more before they were fully brought to bear on the American public. 

In his 2003 foreword to the book, Richard Mouw remarked that “Henry had already in the 1940s pointed to items that would later become key matters of social and political concern. In listing actual examples of evangelical failure,” Henry accused his “fellow evangelicals of being on the wrong side of such issues as war, race, class, and ‘imperialism.’”

Henry wrote, “There is a growing awareness in fundamentalist circles that, despite the orthodox insistence upon revelation and redemption, evangelical Christianity has become increasingly inarticulate about the social reference of the gospel.”

At the heart of Henry’s argument was that neither suspicion of theological liberals nor affirmation of rapture theology were valid excuses for being apathetic toward social justice. Henry argued, “The evangelical missionary message cannot be measured for success by the number of converts only. The Christian message has a salting effect upon the earth.” 

Some evangelicals, including those associated with the National Association of Evangelicals and the Lausanne world evangelization movement, heeded Henry’s words. Others did not. In fact, many ran in the exact opposite direction. 

1950s-1970s: White Evangelicals During the Civil Rights Movement

By the time the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum in America, many evangelical thought leaders had become convinced afresh that orthodox Christian teaching not only allowed for but necessitated advocacy for social justice. However, large swaths of the rank and file evangelicals who filled their churches had not. 

In his book “The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought To Preserve White Supremacy,” historian J. Russell Hawkins illustrates this phenomenon by examining the battles over racial integration that took place among Southern Baptist and Methodists in South Carolina during the Civil Rights era. 

In particular, following the 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which declared school segregation unconstitutional, pastors and denominational leaders who publicly supported the integration of schools, communities, or (God forbid) churches often quickly found themselves out of a job. 

Evangelicals who opposed integration saw the issue through a theological grid. As Hawkins notes, “Southern white Baptist and Methodists saw themselves endangered by heretics in their own denominations.”