January 25, 2023

American Church History in 5 Movements

Stephen Nichols
American Church History in 5 Movements

While history is composed of accounts about specific people and events, overarching themes also emerge when we look at the big picture. Today, Dr. Stephen Nichols divides American church history into five movements.


Welcome back to another episode of 5 Minutes in Church History. On 5 Minutes in Church History, we love going to the story of American Christianity. At least I do, and I hope you enjoy going along for the ride. I thought it'd be helpful to take a step back and provide a big picture, an overview of American church history. And since this is 5 Minutes in Church History, let's do it in five movements. So, here are the five movements. Are you ready?

First is puritanism. This takes us from 1620 to 1700. Next is the movement of awakening and decline. This spans all of the 1700s. Then, as we move into the 1800s, we have the movement of revivalism alongside of rationalism. As we move into the 1900s, we have the movement of fundamentalism against its counterpart liberalism. And then around 1940, we enter into the movement of evangelicalism; and perhaps the best way to get at its counterpart in American culture is simply to call it secularism.

Well, let's go back to puritanism. If you go from 1620 to 1700, that's two generations, that's two 40-year periods. And in that first generation, these puritans, they were rather serious folks, and they were committed to their puritanism. But as is the case, sadly, in the second generation, those commitments of the first generation were not as strong and were softened and weakened, and so we already begin to see decline. That decline moves us into the 1700s. I referred to this period, the 1700s as awakening and decline. Truthfully, it's a time of decline, then awakening, then decline. So let's look at it.

The decline is 1700 to 1740. It's typified in no better place than Jonathan Edwards' own congregation. Here he is in a puritan church, here he is a puritan minister, but his congregation has long shed its puritan sensibilities, and they simply wanted to move on. That was true not only of his church, but of much of New England and of much of the Atlantic Seaboard. And so in the 1740s, we have this wonderful moment in American church history of awakening, and the First Great Awakening. It spans for several decades. We can think of the multiple transatlantic trips of George Whitfield, and it gets us right up onto the heels of the Revolutionary War. But then following the Revolutionary War from 1780 to 1800, once again, we enter into this moment of decline. In fact, the decade in American history where church attendance was the lowest was the decade of the 1790s. In the 1790s, church attendance was in the single digits, percentage wise, in America. It was a time of decline.

Well, that gets us into the 1800s, and now it is a time of revival. Historians call this the time of the Second Great Awakening. It begins in those early years of 1800 on the frontier at Cane Ridge, Kentucky and it spans all through America, even into the great Atlantic Seaboard cities, even into the big city, New York City itself. Historians call this the Second Great Awakening. It was very different from the First Great Awakening. It was very much revivalism as opposed to an awakening. And maybe we need another episode of 5 Minutes to distinguish between those two things. But alongside of the revivalism was also rationalism. This was in the title of Tom Paine's book, The Age of Reason. And while many were embracing revivalism and pietism, many in American culture were ready to move on from all of that and become at best deists and embrace rationalism.

Well, this gets us to 1900, and then we have modernism coming into American culture, and we have those in the church who wanted to accommodate it—well, that's liberalism—and those who wanted to fight it—well, that's fundamentalism. And that takes us from 1900 to 1940, the story of the fundamentalists and the liberals. Well, what happened in 1940? These fundamentalists became evangelicals. And so we have the era of evangelicalism. From 1940 to 1980, it was quite a force. It elected presidents, it got attention, it was a significant moment in American culture.

What happened from 1980 to 2020? Well, I think we need to come back and tell that story on another day. So that's it, “American Church history in 5 Movements,” and I'm Stephen Nichols and thanks for joining us for 5 Minutes in Church History.