I have a half-baked theory that evangelicalism was a much greater spiritual force about a hundred years ago. I’m not a historian or sociologist, and I don’t have a lot of interest in figuring out exactly what went wrong between our time and the golden age. It’s enough to know that sometime around the first quarter of the twentieth century, somebody obviously spent the family fortune, and later generations of evangelicals have been born poorer (in terms of spirituality, confidence, historical sense, academic heft, biblical literacy, ecumenical credibility, cultural impact, theological orientation, and clues). There are plenty of fine moments and good books from 20th century evangelicals, but if you just leap over the whole sorry century and land back at the end of the nineteenth, you come into contact with a stream of spiritual power that does not feel familiar — it feels better. Evangelical theology and spirituality one hundred years ago were palpably better.
Now and then I check my half-baked theory by opening the oven door and sticking a toothpick in it. Minus the tortured culinary metaphor, here’s how I actually do that. I read a few pages from The King’s Business, the monthly magazine that Biola published beginning in 1910. The first decade of the magazine is available online here. Help yourself!
Once you learn how to learn from these old founders of fundamentalism, almost any page will do. Here’s the trick: You’re not just looking for somebody who was writing in 1910; instead you’re trying to get a sense of the atmosphere they were living in, the things they were reading, and the things they took for granted as belonging to them.
Yesterday I checked the November 1910 issue, looking for something on Thanksgiving. No luck with that, but (skipping one great page) on the second interior page I was struck by the one-page article “Are We In The Succession,” by J. H. Jowett:
The Gospel of a broken heart demands the ministry of bleeding hearts. If that succession be broken, we lose our fellowship with the King. As soon as we cease to bleed we cease to bless.
… Do we ‘fill up’ our Lord’s sufferings with our own sufferings, or are we the unsympathetic ministers of a mighty passion? I am amazed how easily I become callous. I am ashamed how small and insensitive is the surface which I present to the needs and sorrows of the world.
… We can never heal the needs we do not feel. Tearless hearts can never be the heralds of the passion. We must pity if we would redeem. We must bleed if we would be the ministers of the saving blood. Are we in the succession?
Who is this Jowett, and how can he use this language without sounding shrill and histrionic as we would if we tried to use it today? Indeed, who do you know who can say things like this to you? God knows we need to hear this message, but who is writing today who can speak these words to us?
John Henry Jowett (1864 – 1923) was a popular preacher who pastored in New York City and London, England. He wrote several books, and his most famous one, The School of Calvary, happens to be on the same subject as the page from The King’s Business. Jowett spoke at the Moody-founded Northfield Conference in 1909, then published The School of Calvary in 1910, the same year as this editorial page. Apparently this message was on his mind during this time.
The School of Calvary is available online as well, here. It’s a quick read and a jolt to the system. Jowett starts on the first page with Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ.” It only takes him a few words to put the familiar passage into action in your mind:
THERE are three cardinal words in the passage: “me,” “live,” “Christ.” The middle term “live” is defined in the union of the two extremes. The two carbon electrodes of the arc lamp are brought into relationship, and the result is a light of brilliant intensity. And these two terms, “me” and “Christ,” are brought into relationship, and there is revealed “the light of life,” and I become “alive unto God.” The human finds life in union with the divine.
You and Christ are the carbon electrodes, and when you get close enough to him the spark of life jumps. But Jowett goes on to point out that although this spark only jumps when Christ is the other contact, our habit is to get close to some other contact and expect a spark of life to jump. “We take other extremes, and combine them, and we name the resultant, ‘life.'”
“For me to live is money.” Me — money! And we describe the union as “life.” We are using a gloriously spacious and wealthy term to label a petty and superficial gratification.
“For me to live is pleasure!” Me — pleasure! And we describe the union as “life.”
“For me to live is fame” Me — fame! And we describe the union as “life.”
And as he develops this theme in the first chapter of his book, Jowett casts about for witnesses he can call to testify that what he says is true. Easily within reach are the following: Blaise Pascal, John Wesley, John Tauler, General Charles Gordon, J. A. Bengel, Thomas Boston, and Francis De Sales. Give yourself a point for every one of those names you recognize, and then remember: Jowett expected his 1910 evangelical audience to know about all of them, and to care. Try using any of those names in a sermon or magazine these days (okay, except for Wesley), and see if you’re doing anything but estranging your audience.
The way he introduces Francis De Sales is interesting, though. Francis De Sales was a seventeenth-century Roman Catholic bishop of Geneva whose views on Protestantism were not exactly friendly. In fact, you might call De Sales a counter-Reforming anti-Protestant bigot, though you might forgive him for that since he had the hard task of being the Roman bishop of Geneva in the generations immediately after the Reformation. None of this bothers Jowett, who is confidently and consciously Protestant but has learned deeply from the writings of Francis De Sales, especially his most systematic work, the Treatise on the Love of God. Jowett is only concerned not to offend, so he slips in this troublesome witness thus:
I sometimes take down from my bookshelves a little book of devotion written by a great mystic 300 years ago. I turn to Chapter 10 of this book and read its quaint and engaging title: “Calvary is the true academy of love.”
The very title of Jowett’s book, The School of Calvary, is from a chapter in Francis De Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God (available online here). J. H. Jowett belonged to that age of evangelicalism which recognized that all things belonged to him —evangelical Paul or Catholic Apollos or whoever— because he belonged to Christ and Christ belongs to God.
When I think about John Wesley, I can’t imagine being him. Ditto John Calvin, Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine, or Ireneaus. But Jowett, or one of the evangelicals who read Jowett and heard him gladly one short century ago?
Those are my people. I think I can be one of them.