Ecumenism After Charles Finney: A Free Church Liturgical Theology

Doctoral Dissertation


Twenty years ago, historian James White reported a startling lacuna in liturgical studies: nonliturgical evangelicalism åÐ the most prevalent worship tradition in American Protestantism åÐ lacked any recognized name or representation in liturgical scholarship. As a corrective, White introduced the term “Frontier Tradition” to liturgical studies and nominated Charles Finney as the most influential liturgical reformer in American history. Finney developed a three-part liturgical order that would eventually come to dominate the format of American Protestant worship: preliminary songs that softened up the audience, a fervent sermon, and an altar call for new converts.

White’s instinct that the explosive popularity of “seeker services” and the “church growth” movement of the 1980s had origins in nineteenth century American revivalism was prescient. However, this dissertation suggests that White’s analysis was more concerned with evangelicalism’s discontinuities from historic Christianity than its ecumenical contributions. In response, I reframe the evangelical-liturgical relationship through three different lenses: historical, theological, and practical.

Historically, I propose that George Whitefield, no less than Charles Finney, has contributed significantly to North American Free Church ecclesiology. By preaching the experience of “new birth,” Whitefield encouraged early evangelicals to identify themselves primarily with a large, interdenominational family, and only secondarily with a specific denomination. Positively speaking, Whitefield united evangelicals across denominational lines and helped to inaugurate a new ecumenical consciousness after the Thirty Years War. More problematically, these new evangelical alliances created internal denominational divisions.

Theologically, I nuance the terms of mainline-evangelical debates by placing the work of evangelical systematic theologians John Webster, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Miroslav Volf in conversation with the biblical-liturgical scholarship of Aidan Kavanagh, Louis Marie Chauvet, and Gordon Lathrop. I suggest that evangelicals make a distinctive ecumenical contribution to the problem of fundamentalism which emphasizes the Trinitarian nature of revelation and takes seriously the diversity of biblical genres.

Finally, on the practical front, this dissertation concludes with case studies of worship practice in two Free Church congregations. The songs, prayers, sermons, and theologies of these congregations demonstrate that the gulf between Free Churches and liturgical churches is not as great as James White’s original analysis suggests.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-07222010-101846

Author Melanie C. Ross
Advisor Nathan D. Mitchell
Contributor Nathan D. Mitchell, Committee Chair
Contributor Mark Noll, Committee Member
Contributor Maxwell E. Johnson, Committee Member
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Theology
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2010-07-09

Submission Date 2010-07-22
  • United States of America

  • evangelicalism

  • liturgy

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


Please Note: You may encounter a delay before a download begins. Large or infrequently accessed files can take several minutes to retrieve from our archival storage system.