Christianity Meets Modernity

New Worlds, New Challenges and New Churches

The nineteenth century gave no respite to a traditional Christianity still reeling from the social upheavals of the 1700s. After such seismic shocks as the Enlightenment, the French and American Revolutions, the rationalism of Leibniz (1646-1716) and Kant (1724-1804), and the first of the Great Awakenings, the traditional churches of Europe and America tumbled into the uncertainties of modernity1 off-balance, unsure and, for the most part, unprepared. All the consequences of the movements begun in the previous century would be visited upon the Church throughout the modern era. Change was definitely in the air and the social, political and spiritual landscapes of Europe and America would be altered forever.

Unsurprisingly, given the technological advances in naval and military might at this time, and the neo-colonial impetus they facilitated, the changes in Europe and North America ultimately impacted the entire globe. As we shall see below, new worldviews took hold and new worlds appeared—both in the literal sense of additional nations being founded and the figurative sense of evolving socio-cultural dynamics. These worldviews and worlds presented new social challenges and concerns to the old Christianity. To meet them, traditional churches were reformed and deformed, and many new churches were formed. Christianity itself would never be the same.

New Worlds

At the end of the eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and, according to Balling, became “the main reason for colonial expansion in the nineteenth century.”2 The new industrial paradigms and the “new economic aristocracy,”3 based on land ownership, rather than bloodlines,4 brought about an expansion of trade worldwide. A new “global economy [was] established, with much stronger mutual dependence [between nations] than hitherto seen.”5

In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain, “thanks to its naval superiority ... found itself in possession of several former French and Dutch colonies.”6 Thus was ushered in the age of British “necolonialism7—a system whereby a colonial power continues to exploit the colonies it holds, while giving them “a measure of political independence”8—and the era of “the so-called white-man’s burden: to take to the rest of the world the benefits of industrialization, capitalism, democracy, and Christianity.”9 This resulted in the birth of many new nations—such as Canada and New Zealand10—and the planting of the seeds of nationhood in many others. In short, the world map was being continually redrawn by British cartographers throughout the 1800s.

World Map published by Daniel Lizars, Scotland: 1814.

In the New World of North America, the fledgling United States lost no time in expanding to become a participant in the shouldering of the white-man’s burden. After the War of Independence in the late 1770s, and the removal of the detested British prohibition against further “white occupation of areas beyond the Appalachian Mountains,”11 thousands of “poor whites [and] speculators”12 headed west from the original thirteen eastern colonies to settle the immense Mississippi Valley.13 At the same time, these first thirteen states of the new nation saw “unprecedented waves of migration from Europe,”14 much of which would also ripple westward into the frontier. Thus a veritable exodus fled the wars, famines and economic dislocations in their ancient homelands to fill the vast, unspoiled Promised Land of the new American nation.

Meanwhile, the map of the world inhabited by the European churches was being redrawn by an exodus of its own. Over much of continental Europe and the United Kingdom, notes Balling, “[a]griculture has been replaced by capitalistically organized industry.”15 Many farms, towns and villages saw their populations depleted to fill the city factories and the myriad secondary industries that sprang up to service them.16 These migrating populations were self-perpetuating; the more people; the more people-producers. The reversal of the low urban-to-rural population ratio that had been fixed for millennia of human history had begun. Cities in the western world could now boast higher populations than their surrounding farms and villages.17

Within the intellectual world in which European Christianity dwelt, a change had also taken place. Since the Reformation, which had “established the right of private judgement regarding religion and the Bible, independent of priestly or churchly authority,”18 a more humanist philosophical milieu had developed within European intelligentsia. As evidenced by the rampant republicanism of the eighteenth century, this “rationalistic spirit”19 had seeped out from under the drawing-room doors of the thinking classes and onto the teeming city streets. Grounded in the Enlightenment and the burgeoning field of scientific enquiry, a miasma of criticism spread beneath “the surface of [all] the political and ecclesiastical events of the [nineteenth] century.”20

New Challenges

The appetites of the growing global economy of the 1800s spurred ever deeper exploration and colonization of non-western nations. At first, as in South America and Asia, the new economic empires of Europe simply wanted to open untapped markets; which they sought in the urban centres.21 But when “new industrial and technological developments”22 increased the demand for raw materials, there began a race to claim the agriculturally exploitable interiors of these continents.23 As Gonzalez notes, this resulted in “much foreign capital [being] invested in railroads, harbors, and processing plants.”24

In light of the tremendous wealth these investments returned, alliances were forged between the investors and the political powers of their respective nations, in order to secure the revenue stream with military might.25 In Asia especially, cultural and political suppression went hand-in-glove with economic exploitation where, in reaction to insufficient local leadership and threats from other imperial powers, regional governments were usurped by force.26 The most egregious form of economic exploitation at this time was, of course, the African slave trade. And although slavery was officially ended in Britain and the United States by 1809,27 it continued to benefit these nations for decades afterwards.

However, all this global activity caused the conditions under which vast multitudes of non-Christians lived to be brought to the attention of western Christians. What they saw were millions of souls in need of physical relief, cultural reformation and spiritual rescue; a whole new world “having no hope and without God” (Eph 2:12).

At this time, America too had its multitudes in need of spiritual rescue. Most of the new pioneers who had headed west were decidedly “unchurched.”28 If they reflected the population of the thirteen colonies at large, then fewer than five percent of them “professed any religious affiliation whatsoever.”29 Along with that, many who were faithful held a “rationalist ideology”30 that replaced “the dogmatic attitude of traditional Christianity”31 with “natural religion, or ... essential Christianity.”32 English-born theorist and revolutionary Thomas Paine (1737-1809), who Voltaire-like, “ridiculed revealed religion as full of superstition and bad faith,”33 was highly influential on the American religious philosophy of that day.

Back across the Atlantic, Christianity was dealing with the fall-out of the modern “developments in European economic, social, national, intellectual, and cultural life.”34 By the end of the 1700s, in the main, “Europe ... was a society gone awry [where] the rich got richer, while the poor starved.”35 This situation merely intensified in the early 1800s as the slums overflowed with members of what Marx and Engels would call, midway through the century, the “proletariat”. Displaced from their rural parishes, and their familiar economic support networks, most of the new urban poor shuffled out of reach of the traditional churches to swell the squalid ranks of dispossessed beggars, alcoholics and prostitutes.

It wasn’t only the indigent who abandoned their traditional religious affiliations. The new rationalist worldviews emptied Europe’s pews as inexorably as the factories emptied its countryside. In every sphere of European life, “the religious influence of the various churches waned, and the ranks of the faithful were dramatically thinned.”36 Of course, Christianity didn’t disappear altogether, but, as Noll notes, although it “lingered in formal ways ... the tide had turned.”37

New Churches

As Hill tells us, the nineteenth century “was the age of social action” when “large-scale efforts were made to reform and improve European society ... in line with Christian principles.”38 Significantly, “English-speaking countries, and ... evangelicals” were at the forefront of these reforms. This was due, in large part, to the utopian egalitarianism that could only develop within the more doctrinally flexible Protestant denominations. While the Roman Church tried to quash modernity “with ruthless efficiency by papal pronouncements ... and an ‘antimodernist oath,’”39 liberal Anglicans, evangelicals and non-conformists were busy spurning doctrinaire conservatism and fusing “social action [with] preaching the gospel.”40

The notion that people could—and therefore should—change the unpleasant conditions of the present, in order to bring about even better conditions in the future, was a unique Enlightenment-inspired, anti-fatalist worldview.41 Informed by the successful rebuttal to godless rationalism made by Neander (1789-1850), Thulock (circa 1770-1830) and especially Schleiermacher (1768–1834),42 this essentially humanistic worldview was incorporated into a Christian ethical framework; and upon this frame was hung all of the Christian social activism of the era.

It was this new worldview which drove William Wilberforce (1759-1833), and “the Clapham Sect, a group of Evangelicals ... active in public life,”43 to pursue the abolition of slavery with such self-certain determination. They were not merely convinced of the temporal humaneness of their cause, they were absolutely certain that, regardless of the Almighty’s reason for allowing the evils of slavery to exist, it was their solemn religious duty as Christians to take whatever human steps they could to eradicate that evil—up to and including establishing Sierra Leone, a country created for the purpose of resettling liberated slaves.44

The explosion of missionary societies and fellowships in the nineteenth century was similarly predicated on a belief in the rightness of Christian social involvement to alleviate the suffering of the “poor, barbarous, naked pagans”45 of the world, who were “utterly destitute of the knowledge of the gospel of Christ.”46 That latter condition was the primary social problem that compelled Christians to take to the mission field, but it must be noted that western missionaries of the day were also convinced that they brought the highest form of human civilisation possible along with the Gospel of God. Even the best of missionaries, like Scottish physician David Livingstone (1813-1873), who spent over 30 years “travel[ing] across southern Africa preaching the gospel [and] healing the sick,”47 was possessed of the enduring hope that “the horrors of the slave trade would be stopped by opening Africa to legitimate trade.”48 This unconscious ethnocentric evangelism is seen clearly in the prototypical words of William Carey (1761-1834), the “founder of foreign missions,”49 who wrote in 1792 that “pagans [were] as destitute of civilization, as they are of true religion.”50

The “true religion” in the thirteen colonies of the United States of 1790 was guarded by “the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians ... [the] side-effects of the English Reformation and its Puritan aftermath.”51 Yet, within sixty years, through a combination of immigration, the lack of an “established Protestant state church,”52 and the frontier evangelism following the “Cane Ridge Revival of 1801,”53 which converted the largely “unlettered as well as unchurched” western settlers in droves, the three most populous religious communions in America were the Baptists, the Methodists and the Roman Catholics;”54 with the former two far outnumbering the latter one, due to their “willing[ness] to present the message as simply as possible, and to use preachers with little or no education.”55 In the space of half a century, the new anthropocentric, post-Enlightenment worldview had again asserted itself, and the dour Calvinism of the Pilgrim Fathers was replaced by the dynamic Arminianism of Charles Finney (1792-1875).

The Methodists and Baptists were prominent in the provision of social relief in continental Europe, too. There the most effective response by far to the victims of the Industrial Revolution came from liberalised Protestants and the “free churches—that is, those to which one belongs by choice and supports by means of offerings.”56 In Britain, too, where the “Industrial Revolution ... had an impact ... much earlier and to an even greater degree,”57 the dissident churches were “where the most vitality was found during the nineteenth century.”58 They founded Sunday Schools, the YMCA, and “were important factors in ... labor unions, in prison reform, and in legislation regarding child labor.”59 The Salvation Army was established in Britain for the express purpose to “reach the impoverished and unchurched urban masses.”60 All these social outreach programmes produced multiple converts and captured the hearts of the growing middle-class, causing an “upsurge in the membership”61 of all of these churches.

William Booth (1829-1912) in Salvation Army uniform.


In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, an unprecedented expansion of industry, technology, philosophical inquiry, scientific investigation, and geographic exploration began in Europe and then fanned out across the globe. Likewise, massive relocations of people took place. In the older European nations, the populations moved from the countryside to the cities. In the newer nations, like America, they filled up the cities and then headed deeper into the heartlands. Every one of these expansions contributed, either directly or indirectly, to revealing or creating a host of social problems that challenged the Church in that era.

In order to meet these challenges, the church, too, had to expand; which it did in two monumental ways. The first way was a tectonic paradigm shift in worldview. Combining a humanist rationalism with an egalitarian gospel ethic, Christianity was able to look past the ivied walls of its staid ecclesiologies to see the beckoning mission fields at home and abroad. Moving to these mission fields, near and far, was the Church’s second expansion. Finally, at the end of the nineteenth century, and after 1800 years, it fulfilled the words of the Lord and took the gospel “to the ends of the earth.”


1. A term Jakob Balling uses as shorthand for "the civilization of modern Europe and America." Jakob Balling, The Story of Christianity: From Birth to Global Presence (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003), 237.

2. Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Volume II, The Reformation to the Present Day, Rev. and updated, (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 303.

3. Ibid., 301.

4. Ibid.

5. Balling, The Story of Christianity, 237.

6. González, The Story of Christianity, 302.

7. Ibid., 303.

8. Ibid.

9. Italics in original. González, The Story of Christianity, 418.

10. Also, according to González, "The nineteenth century brought the independence of most Spanish colonies in the New World." Ibid., 365.

11. González, The Story of Christianity, 319-320.

12. Ibid.

13. Paul A. Carter, "Religion at the Grass-Roots," in The Christian World, Barraclough, 276.

14. González, The Story of Christianity, 321.

15. Balling, The Story of Christianity, 237.

16. Owen Chadwick, "Christianity and industrial Society," in The Christian World: A Social and Cultural History, Geoffrey Barraclough, ed., (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1981), 249.

17. Balling, The Story of Christianity, 237.

18. Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1970), 139.

19. Ibid.

20. John Bowden, Margaret Lydamore, and Hugh Bowden, A Chronology of World Christianity (London ; New York: Continuum, 2007), 351.

21. González, The Story of Christianity, 303.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. A. Kenneth Curtis, J. Stephen Lang, and Randy Petersen, The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History, New pbk. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich: F.H. Revell, 1998), 143.

28. Carter, "Religion at the Grass-Roots," 276.

29. Ibid.

30. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 320.

31. Ibid.

32. Italics in original. Ibid.

33. Marshall D. Johnson, The Evolution of Christianity: Twelve Crises That Shaped the Church (New York: Continuum, 2005), 157.

34. Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2000), 258.

35. Curtis, The 100 Most Important Events, 142.

36. Noll, Turning Points, 258.

37. Ibid.

38. Jonathan Hill, The New Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2007), 347.

39. Noll, Turning Points, 262.

40 Ibid., 352.

41. Concept described by Martin Sutherland in Linda Flett, "Christianity Becomes a World Religion," History of Christianity: Reformation to Current Times (class lecture, Laidlaw College, Auckland, NZ, May 14, 2015).

42. “[W]ho has been rightly called ‘the greatest divine of the nineteenth century.’” Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church, 140.

43. J. D. Douglas, Earle E. Cairns, and James E. Ruark, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), 1046.

44. Curtis, The 100 Most Important Events, 143.

45. From William Carey, An Inquiry into the Obligations of Christians, To Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. In which the Religious State of the Different nations of the World, the Success of Former Undertakings, and the Practicability of Further Undertakings, Are Considered (Leicester, 1792), 62, provided by Linda Flett, “Christianity Becomes a World Religion.”

46. Ibid.

47. González, The Story of Christianity, 434.

48. My emphasis. Ibid.

49. Hurlbut, 143.

50. My emphasis. Carey, An Inquiry into the Obligation, 62.

51. Carter, “Religion at the Grass-Roots,” 273.

52. Ibid., 274.

53. González, The Story of Christianity, 327.

54. Carter, “Religion at the Grass-Roots,” 273.

55. Ibid., 327-328.

56. González, The Story of Christianity, 359.

57. Ibid., 359.

58 Ibid., 360.

59. Ibid., 360-361.

60. Ibid., 360.

61. Ibid.

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