How should local churches engage with their communities? From his series A Survey of Church History, W. Robert Godfrey examines the thinking of Carl Henry, a prominent Protestant leader in 1940s America.
In the late 1940s, a prominent Protestant leader began to argue that we really ought to revive the word “evangelical.” That leader was Carl Henry, a man who would have a very profound impact on conservative American Protestantism for a number of decades. He wrote in 1947 a book called The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Notice he still is using the phrase “fundamentalist” to describe himself. He is not embarrassed, but he says in this book, “I recognize now that the word ‘fundamentalist’ has taken on so negative connotations and maybe some of that negativity is deserved.” He said, “It seems to me that we as fundamentalists have become too withdrawn from the nation, from the general cultural development of the period in which we live. We need to be more engaged.” Secondly, he said, “I think we have become too individualistic in our approach to Christianity. We have so stressed the importance of individual conversion that we haven’t really thought enough about the church and about the community of Christians.” Thirdly, he said, “We have almost entirely backed away from concern about social issues and just talked about private morality.” We talked in the previous series about how many social issues were addressed in rather progressive ways by conservative Protestants in the 19th century. As we come into the 20th century, there continued to be social concern early in the century. The last great battle was for prohibition; that was the great conservative Protestant cause. “If we can only get rid of demon rum, we will remake the country.” It didn’t work out so well, as it turned out, but that was a great moral crusade. It was a moral crusade not just in the name of individual piety, but it was a crusade in the name of social improvement for the poor who were spending too much on alcohol and so forth. Henry is saying we need to recapture some of that social vision as well as a church vision and engage with the world around us.