Less Than Conquerors: How Evangelicals Entered the Twentieth Century by Douglas Frank explores and denounces the ways in which American evangelicals throughout the nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries sought to control their circumstances and their destinies. In an almost autobiographical dissection of his own religious background, Frank blends social, theological, and psychological history to advance the thesis that evangelicalism alloyed the pure Christian gospel of humility and dependence with triumphalist sociopolitical agendas. Along the way, he periodically incorporates reflections on Scripture, highlighting the disparity between Scriptural attitudes and those of his protagonists.
Frank’s narrative begins in the nineteenth century, an age of optimism prepared for by the abandonment of strict Calvinism and the apparent success of the Protestant work ethic (Frank relies heavily on Weber’s analysis). Having yoked social and spiritual goods, mid-century Americans predicted an era of unparalleled blessing and virtue — the kingdom of God. However, hyperbolic predictions dissolved into perplexed disappointment as a series of unforeseen events undercut millennial expectations. The adverse consequences of capitalism, which was also fueling the nation’s economic growth, became apparent. Prohibition failed, embarrassingly. Common Sense philosophy was unprepared to counter the naturalism invading biological science. By 1900, the evangelicals were no longer running the show, and the kingdom had receded from view.
The last half of the 19th century was a period of rapid social change; few at the turn of the century could comprehend, much less cope with, the new America. Evangelicals revealed anxiety about the future; morever, they were widely convinced that someone (not the good Christians, certainly) was to blame for the present crises. Frank examines two theological novelties – Dispensationalism and “Victorious Life” theology – that served as evangelical coping mechanisms and one preacher who epitomized the spirit of his age’s evangelicals.
On Frank’s reading, the sudden, ubiquitous shift to Dispensational theology indicates that evangelicals did not learn from the mistakes of postmillennialism. They were still reading the newspaper to determine their theology; since times were bad, a pessimistic theology was adopted in place of the “naively optomistic” theology of an earlier generation. Dispensationalism offered two psychological advantages. First, when another calamitous event occurred, Dispensationalists could calmly respond that they knew such a thing would happen in these last times. As such, Dispensationalism functioned to give evangelicals a measure of control over, at least in the form of knowledge, an uncertain future. Second, the pre-tribulational rapture assured evangelicals that, even should times get bad, they would escape the worst of it and watch the parties responsible for America’s resolution get hammered by God’s wrath.
Victorious ife (VL) theology was an approach to sanctification embraced by many groups (perhaps most notably the Keswick conference). The distinguishing feature of VL is its prescription for permanent spiritual power to overcome sin through a single act of surrender. Of course, it was possible to sin after surrendering, but VL advocates taught how to stay surrendered as well. VL represented an internalizing of evangelicals’ quest for social power: they may no longer be able to make laws, set the standards, and run the nation, but they could at least make sure they didn’t sin! Like Dispensationalism, VL represents an attempt to do something today to ensure a positive outcome in the future. The rhetoric of yielding and surrender masks a desire to control infallibly one’s spiritual future.
Billy Sunday is the whipping boy of Less than Conquerors. Frank’s unsparing criticism of this famous revivalist may actually drive some readers to sympathy, but it is clear that Frank is at least correct to identify Sunday as the embodiment of the evangelical spirit of his day. Sunday proudly proclaimed that his ministry was also a business, derided theology in favor of results, blamed America’s problems on groups outside his audience – the middle class – and encouraged attenders to embrace Jesus so as to become great manly men (like Sunday himself). Frank includes copious quotations from Sunday, the moralistic, self-congratulatory tone of which are likely to shock readers who know him simply as an evangelist. Although Frank does emphasize the worst in Sunday, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the bulk of Sunday’s religion was therapeutic moralism coupled with social activism, leaving scarce room for the historic Christian gospel.
Less than Conquerors is a solid works, but evidences some flaws. During the Scriptural reflections, the text takes on an obnoxious, sermonic tone. One can picture Frank grabbing the various historical figures by the shoulders, sitting them down, and delivering to them a good lecture. These sections take up entirely too much of the body of the work, which would have been spent better presenting more information and analysis to persuade readers. Frank rarely leaves the reader to draw any conclusions of his own. Furthermore, Frank’s arguments against certain theological proposals are themselves superficial. At one point, he contrasts certain “historically conditioned” ideas with the timeless gospel, implying that true theology is not susceptible to historical (or psychological) explanation. He ought to realize, however, that all theology is historically conditioned; all the great creeds and works of theology witness historical peculiarities. As Jaroslav Pelikan has noted, humans are finite creature enmeshed in history, incapable of grasping timeless truths in a timeless way.
Less than Conquerors is an extremely useful book for today’s evangelicals to gain insight into their past. It is both a stimulating interpretation of a historical period and a prophetic challenge to the contemporary church.