Dayton Explores Evangelical History

Donald Dayton: Discovering An Evangelical HeritageDonald W. Dayton. 2005.  Discovering An Evangelical Heritage (Orig. Pub. 1976). Peabody: Hendrickson.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

I heard Dayton speak in September 2006 at Wesley Theology Seminary here in Washington DC. Dayton was the guest speaker at chapel (something about a 30-year anniversary of the book and an award from the seminary). His address focused on the many faces of John Wesley—something new and interesting to me. His talk prompted me to buy the book, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, and another of his books, The Theological Roots of Pentecostalism.

The book is interested me because he dials back to the period of Charles Finney during the second Great Awakening. Finney was the Billy Graham of his day. Unlike Graham, Finney was both a great revivalist and a social reformer. Apparently, early evangelicals were at the forefront of the campaigns to abolish slavery, promote woman’s rights, and advocating temperance. While I knew some of the history of this reforms, I did not specifically associate these reforms with 19th-century evangelicals and the Second Great Awakening until reading Dayton.

Dayton’s historical review includes chapters on abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and temperance. Key personalities and financial supporters of these movements were discussed. The roles of Oberlin College and different seminaries (Princeton, Gordon-Conwell, and others) in social reforms (or not) of the 19th century were especially interesting to me.

So why did American Evangelicals come to focus on evangelism and less on social reform? Dayton explains the difference in evangelical attitudes about social reform to a number of things. Among these were disillusionment following the Civil War, a less optimistic view of the impact of sin, and a switch from post-millennial to pre-millennial eschatological views. According to Dayton, if you believe that Christians will be raptured the moment Christ returns rather than after a thousand years of Christ’s rule, then evangelism takes a higher priority and social reform goes down in priority.

I found Dayton’s analyses of these events credible, informative, and insightful—much like his talk. I can see why Wesley Theological Seminary presented him with an award.


Donald W. Dayton.  2004.  Theological Roots of Pentecostalism. Metuchen NJ:  Hendrickson Publishers (Review:

Dayton Explores Evangelical History

Also see:

Dayton: Remembering the Story of Pentecostalism

Tennant Highlights Five Gifts 

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