In 1957, young Harvard-bred historian Timothy Smith, of the Church of the Nazarene, knocked a lot of us budding ordinary historians – secular, “mainstream,” and whatnot – off our library stools with his book Revivalism and Social Reform. We had been trained to look for the roots of American social Christianity in the liberal Protestant Social Gospel (post-1907) and progressive Catholicism (post-1919). Smith back-dated such movements by a half-century, to revivals around 1857, which, he argued, added concern for morality and ethics in the social order to the private-and-personal moral agenda of older evangelicalism. Having fought against dueling, profanity, Sunday mails, et cetera, these revivalists found new ways to address slavery, poverty, and inequality. Imperfect, they did chart a course.
Smith died in 1997, but historians in his train often remind us of how things were back when evangelicals were evangelical and not Evangelical, as if a quasi-political party. These years their ancient cause – dated from the eighth century before Christ, among the Hebrew prophets – is revived on many fronts. This week we will sight one of them, Jim Wallis’s Sojourners, which we have been reading for two-score years. This is not a blurb for the magazine – Sightings sights, it does not blurb – but it is time we put into print (or online) some notice of the kind of concern it’s shown through the decades. Jim and a colleague dropped by the other for day a chat, in the week when he’d made a repeat visit to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and we made up a bit for lost time.