This article examines the rise of antirevivalism among a certain strain of American evangelicals in the first years of the twentieth century. It argues that, influenced by the new discipline of psychology of religion and growing fear of the chaotic environment of the early twentieth-century city, these evangelicals found revivalist evangelicalism to be psychologically damaging and destructive of the process of Christian conversion. Instead, they conceived of a form of evangelicalism they called “liberal evangelicalism,” which repudiated the emotional and cathartic revivalist style of worship and, instead, insisted that evangelicalism could be rational, moderate, and targeted toward the cultivation of socially acceptable virtues. The venue they chose to pursue this form of evangelicalism was the Sunday school. Throughout the nineteenth century, liberal evangelicals feared, the Sunday school had emerged as a revival in miniature, one in which teachers were encouraged to exhort their students to come to cathartic, emotional conversion experiences—a strategy that had found its apotheosis in the “Decision Day,” a regular event in which students were subjected to emotional preaching and encouraged to confess their faith in Christ. Though the Decision Day was itself an evangelical attempt to deal with the transient nature of the city, liberal evangelicals began, in the early twentieth century, to redefine it in ways that would better facilitate the sort of gradual and developmental form of conversion in which they placed their faith. Leading the effort was George Albert Coe, a professor and Sunday school organizer who used his school to experiment with such reforms.
- © 2013 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture