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Monday, May 7, 2012

Evangelism, Social Action, and a Guy Named Mansfield French

I have begun a Doctor of Ministry program (projected graduation date 2015) in a track called Revival and Reform: Renewing Congregational Life. It is a unique program that educates ministers in the history of revival and social reform in America so that those ministers will be equipped to prepare for, recognize, and cooperate with God’s sovereign work of renewal in their own ministries.

For the next three years I’m going to be working on a thesis-project, which will be a book-length summation of historical research with an eye toward practical application today. I’d like to share my thesis-project proposal with you in the odd event that you might know of resources that pertain to the study I’m doing. I say “odd event” because the topic of my research is a man who, to my knowledge, has has only been written about for commercial or scholarly publication once in about 130 years. The proposal follows; if you come across anything that pertains to it, please let me know. Thanks!

Background: the problem

For at least 100 years, white American Protestants (and perhaps other Christians—I do not know) have not known how to conduct vigorously both what we call evangelism and what we call social action. This is especially true if evangelism is rigorously defined according to a classic evangelical model of spiritual regeneration of individuals (even if masses of individuals are in view) and if social action is defined as systemic transformation of unjust social structures (even including intervention at a more narrowly focused leverage point).

Some (classic fundamentalists and many other politically conservative evangelicals) reject social action entirely or define it entirely in “values” terms that ignore systemic injustices (especially economic) against whole groups of people. Others (classic liberals) reject evangelism or redefine it radically to eliminate regeneration/conversion and/or pragmatically to equate it with recruitment to the church.

Still others, however (the Center-Right and -Left), want to do both evangelism and social action but don’t know how. For example, some start by believing in evangelism, then they become attracted to social action, and eventually they embrace the latter and ignore the former. Others engage in one and talk a good game about the other, but they never actually engage in it. Still others begin engagement but eventually withdraw back to the area that is more comfortable for them personally or according to their congregation, denomination, and/or tradition. In any case, these people have a sense that evangelism and social action are both important, but they do not know how to do both devotedly and well.

One thing that white American Protestants lack—and have for some time—is a set of models for the integration of evangelism and social action as defined above. We lack theological models for integration (at least within wide currency). But we also lack personal models—individuals who have not only gotten famous doing the one while praising the other but who have actually done both. Such models from other times and/or cultures could yield principles that we could put into practice in our time and culture.

Background: Mansfield French

Mansfield French was born into an Episcopalian family in Vermont in 1810. As a student and young teacher in 1828-29 he was caught up in a revival that passed through New England and experienced conversion. Soon after he migrated to central Ohio, where he was a sometime student at Kenyon College while launching a series of educational institutions as owner and principal teacher, eventually joined in educational work by his wife Austa. In 1845 a revival swept through Ohio that led French to join the Methodists and serve as a successful revivalistic circuit rider. In 1850 French was debilitated by a mental and physical breakdown and then returned to educational work as part of the group that founded Wilberforce College for former slaves and free blacks. His prior experience had revealed his knack for fundraising, and he eventually became Wilberforce’s full-time fundraiser based in New York City. There French, who had become increasingly compelled by the abolitionist cause, associated with men with the same view.

By late 1861 U.S. forces controlled two beachheads along the Confederate Atlantic coast at Fortress Monroe (on the Virginia Peninsula) and Port Royal Sound (in South Carolina). In New York, French heard tales of the plight of refugee slaves who had escaped to Union lines or had been abandoned by their fleeing masters. These refugees had no legal status and no control of their destinies. Through his friend Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, French got permission to travel south to observe the blacks’ condition and reported both to President Lincoln and to his friends in New York. A coalition of anti-slavery societies sent French and a large contingent of teachers and aid workers south to care for and teach the escaped slaves. French received a commission as chaplain in the U.S. Army and split his time between educational ministry and preaching in Beaufort and Charleston, S.C. and lobbying Lincoln and Congress for emancipation and help for the newly free blacks. French continued in this work with the Freedmen’s Bureau through 1868 before returning to New York to resume pastoral ministry on Long Island until his death in 1876.

Subject of study

(a) I am studying Mansfield French (1810-76), particularly his thinking and practice of ministry to former slaves, (b) because I want to know how evangelism and social action related to each other in his ministry, (c) so that I can provide pastors and churches—especially those that combine evangelical theology with giftedness in serving their neighbors—with an example they can imitate and/or be cautioned by in order to do evangelism and social action well.


For Mansfield French, evangelism and social action were mutually reinforcing. Social action opened the door for effective evangelism while efficacious evangelism was a necessary component of social change—a virtuous cycle.

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