My examination of the rise of evangelicalism in America from the 1730s to the 1840s has revealed some alarming discoveries that had previously gone unnoticed. As I read through the assigned book this week for my course (The Expansion of Evangelicalism, John Wolffe), I noticed that whenever a disagreement arose between a minister (typically operating within a denominational framework) and his superior, the instinct was to break away from the parent structure and start something new. Page after page demonstrated how intuitively evangelical revivalists of the "Second Great Awakening" were willing to sever connections with their respective organizations over matters of operational or revival practices. Seemingly absent from the historic record were any times in which a revivalist might have disagreed with his superiors, but then submitted to their authority anyway. The rise and expansion of evangelicalism in the young republic seemed devoid of ministerial submission to those over them in their denominational structures. Disagreement simply occasioned opportunity to break off a new and more specialized denomination.
Concurrent with the rise of evangelicalism was the North American brand of political revolutionism. Unable to stomach abusive tyranny any longer, the colonies threw off their former bonds and carved out a New World for themselves. However, because the first "Great Awakening" predates the American Revolution, one cannot argue convincingly that revolutionism exerted influence on the evangelical churches of the 1730s and 1740s. But then again, the fracturing of American revivalist Protestantism didn't kick into high gear until after the Revolution (from the 1790s through the 1840s). What can be posited here though, is that the individualism fostered by evangelicalism in the first "Great Awakening" may very well have influenced the popular trend toward self-governace. Following that, Revolution reciprocated by turing around and influencing the further spread of evangelicalism as a movement.
For this reason, the splintering of the evangelical denominations in the post-revolution antebellum period can be viewed as a series of church "revolutions." Revivalists that found parent denominational protocols too restrictive could throw off those shackles as a foundationally American instinct. One could no more submit to a "tyrannical" church superior than the colonies had submitted to a tyrannical governmental superior. This is not to necessarily critique the American Revolution as regrettable, only to lament how uncritically its influence was accepted by evangelical clergy. Virtually eradicated was the instinct to submit one's self to superiors in an organizational structure. As an American, any restriction of new ideas that came to me was a godless attack on my liberty, necessitating a new direction and autonomous freedom to carry it out.
In many ways, the evangelical church in America still uncritically carries on this legacy. Consider that a Baptist distinctive is the "autonomy of the local church" valued on the short list of chief confessional doctrines. As my own ecclesiology has developed, I've become aware that the constant seeking of ministerial autonomy can veer into negative waters. Had my former church (affiliated with the Baptist Missionary Association) stayed open, I would have had to consider how to operate within that network in a manner that satisfied my conscience and developed my submission in ministry. As it is, I now serve with a church within a denomination. Gateway Fellowship has an organizational structure, in the middle of which I serve a post. There are those that submit themselves to the leaders of this church, and the church submits itself to leaders within its denominational network (to the degree it is required by the denomination; for most Baptist denominations its very minimal).
All of this is to observe that one crisis facing the Christian church in America is a crisis of submission. As Americans, we simply find it difficult to suspend our wants and agendas in favor of direction given us from above. While it is human nature around the world to resist authority, we have made it a virtue for over two hundred years, even championing "revolution" with religious zeal. While this need not detract from celebrating the 4th of July, in church we must remember that we've been conditioned outside the church that submission is un-American. Fortunately, our songs about our King, the Lord Jesus Christ, can remind us that church is not America. It is an embassy for the Kingdom of God, planted in a foreign country to represent the sending kingdom's interests. In the church, we have a King, a benevolent monarch who not only deserves out complete submission to his divine (and at times delegated) rule, but can at any time require it as well. In this way, while I am certainly an American, my exercises in submission show me to be more a Christian.