Too Earthly Minded to be any Heavenly Good – Part 4b (influential personalities)

A Brief (and extremely incomplete) History of Major American Evangelism Influencers:

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758):

Although the 20th century influences on Evangelism are the primary focus of this section, one cannot avoid the American Great Awakenings as fundamental influences in the development of American Evangelical evangelistic praxis.

The Mathers, the Williams, and the Stoddards are just a few of the names among the influential families and preachers in pre-revolution America, and in a variety of ways they were all involved in the First Great Awakening, but Jonathan Edwards is the largest name on the theater marquis of 18th century American Evangelicalism. It is not so much that he was an innovator in evangelism, nor that he held the largest audiences captivated (that prize would go to George Whitfield), but simply that he is now looked back on as the biggest star in the 18th century revivalist drama. Many of these others had gone before him with similar approaches to conversion, and concerns about the marks “true religion”, but Jonathan Edwards has come to be seen as the benchmark of early American Evangelical attitudes and practices. 

Conversion was not simply an intellectual assent to doctrinal truths for Jonathan Edwards and the preachers of the “New Light”. The truly converted soul was emotionally and volitionally moved in her/his desire for God. This combination of emotion and volition was referred to by Edwards as the “affections”, and his sermons are examples of this voluntarist focus. Although he was considered a first-class philosopher/theologian in his day, his sermons were written with the goal of evoking the fear of God and/or a sense of awe and wonder in God’s glory. For Edwards, the affections were nearly inseparable from the human will, and the properly moved affections were evidence (albeit, not incontrovertible evidence) of saving grace.[1] He spent a good amount of time attempting to bring balance to the excesses of emotion during the Awakening, but he never moved from the belief that the evidence of salvation was seen in the affections, and then resultantly in the actions, of the true believer.

This volitional movement toward God’s grace is something the individual worked out with God. Upon hearing the message of the gospel, the individual would personally struggle to find peace and forgiveness with God, and thereby, salvation. This struggle for discovery of grace would continue into the 20th century when the Baptism of the Holy Spirit was sought by Pentecostal believers through individual seeking at the altar. Interestingly, Edwards’ strong Calvinist theology focused upon the fact that God drew sinners to himself by granting them repentance as a gift, but Edwards’ focus on the affections and regular calls to repentance were a challenge to the emotions and volition of each individual. 

Because Edwards believed that the affections must be moved to experience saving grace, he also believed that the first goal of preaching was to touch the affections.[2] The most valuable affection for evidence of salvation was the fear of a holy God. Consequently, Jonathan Edwards is most known for his sermons on judgment and hell. His most famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God highlights this focus.[3] To this day, Evangelicalism is seen as the religion of Hellfire and Brimstone preachers, and this passionately emotional state of American Evangelical Christianity is traceable back to the preachers of the Great Awakenings like Jonathan Edwards.

Like Cotton Mather and many of the other early American preachers before him, Edwards saw New England as the center of God’s worldwide movement to bring salvation to the earth through revival that would sweep the nations in preparation for the second coming of Christ. Within the first three generations of landing upon these shores, American evangelism and eschatology were already married, and news reports became part of the corpus of evidence that the end was near.

Like many of the Puritans around him, Edwards fervently defended the Calvinist faith against the onslaught of Arminian influence. In Edward’s day, this influence was primarily Anglican, and John Wesley’s revivalist activities in England were part of this influence. Edwards, with the other notable American preachers tended to be a contentious lot, and defending their faith against this onslaught of false doctrine was a primary concern.

While Jonathan Edwards may not be an initiator of any innovation in Evangelism, he is the most eloquent voice representing the early structural framework of American evangelistic practice: It was revival focused, it was emotional and based in the fear of God with a particular emphasis on preaching about Hell and Judgment, it was concerned with doctrinal purity as fundamental to salvation, and it was intimately connected to eschatology. It was also passionately rhetorical and focused on results in the hearer’s affections and character. 

The American personality has been described as intensely individualistic. From the beginning, Evangelical evangelism in America has focused almost solely upon the experience of the individual with God. Edwards is just one in a long line of preachers to emphasize this.

Bishop Francis Asbury (1745-1816):

American Methodism did not have clergy assigned to individual churches in the second half of the 18th century. Instead, the Methodist ministers would travel from church to church in a route called a “circuit”. This practice was heavily influenced by one of the early (and certainly the most influential) Bishops of the American Methodist church, Francis Asbury.

Francis Asbury was sent to America by John Wesley in 1771. Throughout the years of his service, Wesley requested that he return to England a number of times, but he never saw the land of his birth again. During his 45 years in America, he led the Methodist Church as a Bishop for 32 years. During his years in America, the church grew from approximately 300 members[4] to almost 250,000 only a few years after his death.[5]

Asbury never married, never owned a home, lived in voluntary poverty, and was famously generous with the poor. He had no office, no secretary, and it is guesstimated that he rode anywhere from 130,000 to 225,000 miles on horseback over his 45 years of service to America during its formative years as a nation, and the beginning of its expansion westward.[6] He ordained between 2,000 and 3,000 preachers, and it was said that he was the most recognizable person during the post-Revolutionary years in America­­––even above George Washington, [7] and his ordinations included both black preachers, and (in line with John Wesley) women preachers. [8]

Although Asbury was a simple man from a simple working background, he had an astute understanding of human character, and was a brilliant organizer. He preferred that his circuit-riding preachers remained single like himself, understanding that maintaining a family while being a traveling preacher was extremely difficult, and more expensive. In the 1770s his own salary was £24/year, whereas the Anglican priests were making over £150, and were able to live like gentlemen, but Asbury expected that the Methodist preachers live sacrificially, and they did. Shortly after Asbury died, the Methodist church would be the largest denomination in America through the mid-1800s. The pattern of sending circuit riders to the churches allowed the church to follow the westward expansion, and reach small developing communities as people moved westward.

The Wesleyan-Armenian doctrine of the Methodists would become the standard for the fastest growing Holiness, and Pentecostal traditions of Evangelicalism. These would become the most wildly expanding churches through the 19th and 20thcenturies. The Altar Call, which was not wholly a Methodist invention, would also be slowly developed by the influence of the Methodist circuit riders.

Asbury would never receive full credit in the history books for his foundational influence on American Evangelicalism. He would be shadowed by the towering intellect of Jonathan Edwards, the dramatic preaching of George Whitfield, and the relentless dark charisma of Charles Grandison Finney. Those who wrote about him shortly after his death were split between detractors and supporters. He was decried as impatient and fond of power, of which the former is far more likely to be true than the latter. The fact that he tended to make decisions alone or with a few people he trusted did not sit well with others. Yet even his detractors acknowledged his devotion to holiness, his impossible work ethic, and unrivaled concern for the basic concern of Evangelicalism––saving souls.[9] In my humble opinion, Francis Asbury ranks among the luminaries of America’s Evangelicalism during its founding years. He may well deserve the top billing on the the marquee of faith.

Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875):

In 1821, at the age of 29, Charles Grandison Finney felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit. He went off into the woods near his place of work, where he had been recently employed as a lawyer, and prayed for God’s mercy in a clearing in Adams, NY. He experienced both the forgiveness of God, and what he called “a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost.”[10] This event would mark his confidence in Christ, and it would become defining for his theology. In similar manner to the experiential salvific moment described as crucial to salvation in Edwardian theology, Charles Finney would see this personal interaction with God as necessary for every true follower of Christ.

It was only a matter of days after conversion that he gave up his new occupation as a lawyer for the work of ministry. Charles Grandison Finney’s work would become a model for the fastest growing segments of Evangelicalism in the following century.

Although, the “anxious bench”, as it was later called, was used by Finney to identify those who were concerned for the condition of their souls, it was by no means his invention. The development of the “Altar Call” as a standard practice, as described above, had been in process since the end of the 18th century. Yet, it appears that Finney, in some manner, helped to popularize its use.

In his Revival Lectures, Finney devotes a chapter to the defense of what he describes as the “anxious meeting”, the “anxious seat”, These were devices, similar to the Altar Call, for identifying people that felt some inward conviction to surrender to God. A separate meeting would often be held, specifically for those who felt the anxiety of their personal guilt and wanted to find God’s forgiveness and comfort, and the anxious seat was used in his “protracted meetings”. Because Finney believed in the importance of immediately pressing people toward salvation, general meetings also had anxious seats set aside, but these practices did not come to regular use in his revivals until the 1830s.[11]

Perhaps more than any previous American preacher, Charles Finney highlighted the necessity of prayer as critical to the success of revival and the salvation of souls. For many years, he did not travel to speak in a town unless his prayer partners, ­­“Father” Daniel Nash and Abel Clary preceded him.

Although these things stand out to most students of Finney’s revival lectures, there are other elements of his ministry, which appear to be even more critical as long-lasting effects in American Evangelicalism.

Charles Finney viewed the subject of revival as a science, more than any preacher before, and perhaps since. His Revival Lectures merged religion with psychology, and in them he sought to identify the cognitive and volitional mechanisms of repentance and conversion. By attaching conversion to the affections, Finney simultaneously sought to describe the process, while acknowledging the unpredictable nature of it.[12] In this sense, Finney was continuing, and in fact expanding upon, Jonathan Edwards’ focus on the affections, and similarly to Edwards, sought to suppress over-emotional manifestations through his focus on the transformation of the will. Unlike Edwards, Finney stressed the immediacy of choosing to follow Christ, and this is likely a primary influence in promoting preaching practices that attempt to lead the sinner to repentance on the spot. This immediacy is connected to Finney’s dislike of the Calvinistic belief that salvation is the complete work of God, and that the individual had no power on their own to choose to follow Jesus. Finney’s influence around the freewill of the convert, and the necessity of immediate action is key to the development of both the Altar Call and the Sinner’s Prayer, although he personally did not use either of these techniques as we know them today. 

Finney had a rather remarkable tendency toward exaggeration. In his autobiography, one is treated to regular statements declaring that the events of his revivals were like few things he had ever experienced. This self-promotional declaration of God following in the wake of his ministry is a particularly unique mark of the excitation now evident in Evangelical culture. In line with this, Finney and his prayer partners occasionally prophesied about the coming of revivals. This too, continues as a practice in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles, and in my experience, today’s expression of revival prophecies is common (and unfortunately, highly inaccurate). In San Diego County in the 1980s, and in Salem, MA in the late 90s through the early 2000s, I heard regular prophetic announcements that God was bringing great revival that would start locally and then continue throughout the world. Dates were given, and when those dates passed, the prophecies would be rehashed for the following year(s). The season of Donald Trump’s presidency has also been marked with so-called prophets making such declarations.[13]

Finney would go on to promote the abolition of the slavery, and become a force in the movement. Charles Finney would likely have never understood the separation and disagreements between the social justice and the evangelistic branches of the church. 

D.L. Moody (1837-1899):

Dwight Lyman Moody was a headstrong young man. He left home at 17 to chase after his fortune. Eventually moving to Chicago, his success as a shoe salesman brought him toward this goal until he was interrupted by the call of God. D.L. Moody then set himself out to serve the children of Little Hell, a notorious slum of Chicago. His quickly growing youth class was so successful that it caught interest of the well-known people of his day, including the newly elected President Abraham Lincoln who visited his class in November 1860, just prior to taking office.[14]

The same passion he showed for making money as a shoe salesman followed him into soul winning. He is quoted as saying, “It doesn’t matter how you get a man to God as long as you get him there.”[15] Moody was creative and cared little for the decorum in the religious world of his day. If he could find a way to interest a person in coming to hear the gospel, he would work his salesman’s magic.

His preaching was common and plain, but humorous and filled with stories from daily life. D.L. Moody did not attend seminary and spoke as a layman to layman. In the 1867, Moody met a young man in Dublin who shortly thereafter visited him in Chicago, and when Moody heard the young Henry Morehouse preach, he felt almost as if he had never preached the gospel. “There was a time when I preached that God hated the sinner, and that God was after every poor sinner with a double-edged sword.”[16] But now, the message of God’s love for people became his trademark. This transition from the emphasis on repentance, sin, and judgment to love also marked the beginning of a slow but powerful transition in the focus of American evangelical preaching that remains with us today. Moody described his personal transition years later:

I could not keep back the tears. I didn’t know God thought so much of me. It was wonderful to hear the way he brought out Scripture. He went from Genesis to Revelation, and preached that in all ages, God loved the sinner.[17]

Following the great Chicago fire in 1871, Moody turned his attention to traveling, preaching in large revival campaigns, and raising money for the work. Dr. David Maas describes Moody’s influence on Christian event organization: 

During these crusades he pioneered many techniques of evangelism: a house-to-house canvass of residents prior to a crusade; an ecumenical approach enlisting cooperation from all local churches and evangelical lay leaders regardless of denominational affiliations; philanthropic support by the business community; the rental of a large, central building; the showcasing of a gospel soloist; and the use of an inquiry room.[18]

Determining which of these elements were creative and organizational components originally developed by Moody, and which were copied and perfected by him would require greater research. Certainly, some of these items were already found in the work of Finney and Asbury, but Moody appears to have pulled them together into a model that would go on to be imitated by others: 

Doubtless few preachers today consciously model themselves on Moody, yet Moody’s influence on twentieth-century evangelicalism goes far beyond his role in the development of fundamentalism. The professional way he organized his revivals informed all subsequent revivalists from Billy Sunday to Billy Graham, and his businesslike approach to evangelism continues in the practices of modern megachurches.[19]

Perhaps critically, Fitzgerald describes one of the most enduring influences of Moody’s ministry, “Christianity, as Moody described it, seemed to be a matter of establishing a close personal relationship with this sentimentalized Savior.”[20]

Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944):

Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy was born in Salford, Ontario, Canada on October 19, 1890. Matthew Avery Sutton writes an entertaining and compelling history of the female Evangelist, who was as popular and controversial as the biggest Hollywood names of the 20s and 30s. Aimee’s combination of theatrics, and her use of modern media set the stage for the coming of the multimedia Evangelicalism/Pentecostalism of the 20th-21st century. 

There were not many categories of evangelistic trends in the 20th century she did not put her hand to. The platform at Angelus Temple was like a Hollywood stage set, and the church had a team of dedicated set builders who helped create a new spectacle each week. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, many people thought Sister Aimee’s act each weekend was a better show than the burgeoning new movie industry down the road. She may well have been the first woman to preach on the radio, and the church owned it’s own radio station.[21] Angelus Temple had social programs for the feeding the poor, and caring for unwed mothers that often outstripped anything offered by the city of Los Angeles. They refused to send people away due to race or citizenship status, even when the city was requiring proof of identity. 

As a woman leader of a newly forming denomination, she broke gender expectations and became a favorite celebrity among the young flappers of the 20s who were driving women’s rights issues. On the other hand, Sister Aimee, crossed denominational barriers by identifying with the anti-Pentecostal Fundamentalist movement in the push against the teaching of evolution in schools. During the 1930s, she was identified as the second most influential woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt. In Aimee Semple McPherson the emphasis on healing and miracles, the social gospel of caring for the poor, a dramatic and flamboyant presentation of the gospel, the use of new technologies to spread the Word, and political engagement with an emphasis on America as God’s nation were all wrapped up in one relentlessly productive 5’3″ Canadian born redhead. Of course, like the rest of American Christianity she was not without controversy and scandalous gossip.[22]

Although Americans at the dawn of the twentieth century expected conservative Protestantism to fade away, it is clear a hundred years later that evangelicalism is here to stay. What made this possible? In large part it was the work of Aimee Semple McPherson, whose integration of the old-time faith with a compelling sense of drama, the newest technologies, and a commitment to traditional Americanism sparked a tremendous evangelical resurgence that continues to flourish. Emerging from an obscure new sect on the margins of Protestantism, McPherson became a superstar who, though dogged by scandal, was adored by her followers, large segments of the press, and the increasingly secular American public. And religion in the United States reaped the benefit of her popularity.[23]

Henrietta Mears (1890-1963): 

It was the fall of 1890, and across the frigid waters of the Great Lakes and wind frozen Great Plains in Fargo, North Dakota, Henrietta Mears was born just two weeks after another future female powerhouse of Evangelicalism, Aimee Semple McPherson (née Kennedy). That same year would bring debilitating winter and the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

Henrietta struggled with health problems and was expected to lose her eyesight by early adulthood, but she attributed prayer and divine intervention to what would become a long productive life. After studying education, she began teaching school in Minneapolis. Soon she was hired to run the Sunday School department at First Baptist Church in Minneapolis. She taught Sunday School, trained teachers, and applied educational teaching standards to the First Baptist Sunday School for a little over a decade. In 1928, Henrietta moved to Hollywood, CA to oversee Christian education at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. Over the next 35 years, Henrietta Cornelia Mears built the Sunday School (from children through young adults) from an attendance of 400 to 6500.

“Teacher”, as she was called, would help establish Forest Home retreat center, and Gospel Light Publishing. In a time when women were not viewed as true church leaders, Miss Mears would influence thousands of people to dedicate their lives to the Gospel. Bill Bright, Dawson Trotman and Billy Graham would count her as a critical influence in their own lives.

During the years of the growth of Fundamentalism in American Christianity, Mears’ influence is described as interdenominational by historian Arlin Migliazzo,

…a winsome engagement with secular culture and thoughtful bridge building across denominational lines that made Henrietta Mears a leading figure in the evangelical transformation of twentieth-century Protestantism. For while she came to maturity in the cockpit of fundamentalism as a member of Riley’s Minneapolis church and a teacher in his Bible school, her family heritage, educational training, and personal experience of faith led her in a direction that veered off the paths taken by more reactionary iconoclasts toward a gentler but no less orthodox expression of Christianity.[24]

During her 45 years as a teacher and leader of the Sunday School movement and a trainer of other leaders, Henrietta Mears became one of the most respected Christian leaders in America, and she would help steer upcoming Christian leaders away from the divisive tendencies within Fundamentalism.

Her aptitude for stepping across longstanding spiritual boundaries with skill and grace created new prospects for American Protestant Christians. In so doing, she invented modern evangelicalism and modeled it decades before the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. Her innovative practices provided a template readily emulated by a corps of leaders that came into its own under her tutelage by example, resulting in the pervasive influence of postwar theologically conservative, transdenominational, evangelical Protestantism.[25]

Dawson Trotman (1906-1956):

In 1933 a young man by the name of Dawson Trotman started the Navigators. Trotman emphasized one-on-one mentoring, and the importance of creating believers who were “producers”. Beginning with young sailors in the US Navy, he mentored one young man who mentored another, and slowly but surely the number of disciples who were discipling others grew until 125 sailors aboard the USS West Virginia were Navigators, and discipling work was happening on 50 ships in the US fleet when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941.[26]

Later, a frustrated Billy Graham asked Dawson for help. Graham recognized the impotence of calling people to salvation without having some kind of follow up for the people who came forward and said a prayer of salvation, and the Navigators pattern became a resource for the Billy Graham crusades. 

Trotman created an illustration of the productive Christian as a stool with three legs. Prayer, and reading the Word were combined with witnessing about one’s faith to create the stable and productive Christian. Over a number of years this illustration was given a fourth leg of fellowship. By the 1980s, it was common to find gospel tracts referencing these four elements as the components of living the Christian life: Read the bible, pray, find a church to fellowship with other Christians, and witness to others about your faith. 

Dawson died in 1956 during a boating accident, while saving a young woman who was drowning. It has been said that Dawson was the primary influence for the idea of seeing the word “disciple” as a verb rather than a noun.

Billy Graham (1918-2018):

Billy Graham is biggest name in the history of world evangelism. He preached the gospel to more people than any person in history. Despite his success and fame, he cannot necessarily be identified as an innovator in many categories of evangelism. Nearly everything he did was already modeled by others: Charles Finney, D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Dawson Trotman. Yet, his influence stirred trends both in the church and in culture as a whole. Billy Graham brought the term “Born Again” into the public domain of everyday conversation, perhaps more than any person in history, and his ability to move across denominational lines was more effective than any Evangelical preacher before him.

It was Billy Graham who initiated the Lausanne Conference in 1974, and helped kick off a concerted and well-networked worldwide effort to share the gospel to every culture and subculture. As his ministry grew, his influence exceeded Evangelicalism, and his impact upon evangelism touched the whole of Christendom.

[1] Jonathan Edwards A Life, George M. Marsden, pgs. 281-282

[2] Jonathan Edwards A Life, George M. Marsden, pgs. 282

[3] (5/6/2021)

[4] (June 16, 2021)

[5] American Saint, John Wiggins, Pg. 402

[6] (June 16, 2021)

[7] American Saint, Pg. 3

[8] (June 16, 2021)

[9] American Saint, epilogue, pg. 401

[10] The Autobiography of Charles G. Finney, Charles G. Finney, Pg. 33

[11] The Altar Call, Bennett, pg. 112

[12] Justified: The Pragmaticization of American Evangelicalism from Jonathan Edwards to the Social Gospel, Shawn Welch, doctoral paper, University of Michigan, 2020.

[13] God’s Man in the Whitehouse: Donald Trump in modern Christian Prophecy by James A. Beverley is filled with these kinds of revivalist prophecies.

[14] Belmonte, Kevin. D. L. Moody (Christian Encounters Series) Prologue. Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

[15] The Evangelicals, Francis Fitzgerald, page 254

[16] Belmonte, Kevin. D. L. Moody (Christian Encounters Series) (p. 55). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

[17] ibid (p. 56-57)

[18] (accessed Aug 5, 2021) 

[19] The Evangelicals, Francis Fitzgerald, page 255-256

[20] ibid


[22] This information has been drawn from a combination of the Foursquare denomination website, and Matthew Avery Sutton’s book, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America.

[23] Sutton pg. 277

[24] Migliazzo, Arlin C.. Mother of Modern Evangelicalism: The Life and Legacy of Henrietta Mears (Library of Religious Biography (LRB)) (pp. 22-23). Eerdmans. Kindle Edition.

[25] ibid. p. 23

[26] (5/6/2021)

2 thoughts on “Too Earthly Minded to be any Heavenly Good – Part 4b (influential personalities)

  1. There needs to be a “family tree” of evangelicalism – maybe it would show the developing influences and how they merged/diverged into and out of evangelicalism over time.

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