In 1973, a group of 50 evangelical leaders spent the weekend after Thanksgiving at the YMCA hotel on South Wabash Avenue in Chicago. Just when Paul Henry, a political science professor from Calvin College, was urging the group to break evangelicals' silence on the social evils of the day, a shot rang out in the hotel corridors. The hotel was no luxury palace, and this was not your typical evangelical weekend conference.

The conferees gathered to commit to social justice. The conference's concern would not be so unusual today. Now evangelicals left, center, and right agree that social justice is one of the central callings of all Christians. Thirty years ago, only a frustrated minority—like those at the Chicago meeting—thought so. Today evangelicals may disagree about what policies will get us there, but they agree about the need to pursue "the righteousness that exalts a nation." Three decades ago, a lot of evangelicals would have called this political meddling, if not selling out the gospel.

The radical shift in modern evangelicalism began when these assembled delegates met amid the violence of inner city Chicago. They represented a wide array of traditions and viewpoints, and they found that they had to confront each other if they were to assure that the declaration they were crafting would be truly comprehensive and speak prophetically. Their manifesto had to address economic justice, peacemaking, racial reconciliation, and gender concerns within a biblical framework, and in ways that honored an evangelical passion for others' salvation in Jesus Christ.

The prevailing consensus of evangelicals regarding social justice suggests the delegates succeeded, perhaps beyond their wildest dreams. The Chicago Declaration remains fresh and relevant today, and its principal organizational child, Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), is still implementing it (with help from other like-minded evangelical organizations).

The historic moment was not lost on two journalists who covered the Chicago meeting and saw some "man bites dog" value to the story. Evangelical Protestants at the time tended to be seen as Richard Nixon's Silent Majority, the solid backers of the social status quo. But in Chicago they were speaking out against injustice. Marjorie Hyer of The Washington Post wrote at the time that the November weekend's discussions "could well change the face of both religion and politics in America." And Chicago Sun-Times religion writer Roy Larson wrote, "Someday American church historians may write that the most significant church-related event of 1973 took place last week at the YMCA hotel on S. Wabash."

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In fact, a number of very important things did happen.

Pangs of Social Responsibility

These delegates were not the first modern evangelicals to advocate social justice. Carl Henry, CHRISTIANITY TODAY's first editor and one of the leaders among postwar evangelical theologians, wrote the pioneering epistle for the recovery of an evangelical social mission, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, back in 1947. By the time of the Chicago Declaration, a growing number of evangelical intellectuals and ministry leaders were lamenting the divorce of evangelism and social justice. Yet there was plenty of resistance to their remarriage. Liberal Protestants who were trying to reduce evangelism to social advocacy opposed it, and so did conservative Protestants, who tended to think of ministering to human need as mostly a marketing tool for evangelism.

So why was there a breakthrough in the aftermath of the Chicago Declaration? Some of the credit must go to the ESA's abiding insistence that social justice was profoundly biblical, and its leaders' relentless efforts to put the very words of the Law, the Prophets, and our Savior before the evangelical public. Let Justice Roll Down, exclaimed John Perkins, quoting Amos. For God So Loved the Third World, declaimed Thomas Hanks, quoting scores of biblical texts. But non-ESA related organizations also advocated a renewed interest in social concerns: the conservative Moody Monthly carried some articles bearing the message of social justice.

Postwar evangelical leaders who sought to reform fundamentalism and bring evangelical Christianity back into the American mainstream were participating in a religious and political coalition rallying around the Eisenhower administration. Billy Graham was a personal friend of both Eisenhower and of his heir apparent, Richard Nixon. By late 1973, when the Chicago Declaration was framed, the evangelical establishment's trust in the Nixon Administration lay in shambles. The upheavals of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal had dashed the idea that evangelicals could focus on personal salvation and character formation and leave the right ordering of society to a trustworthy, pro-Christian government.

At the same time, evangelicals were achieving more salience in American society than they had for a century. Billy Graham was a household name, and he routinely mobilized vast urban campaigns. Evangelical parachurch ministries were gaining attention as well, most notably Campus Crusade for Christ, which teamed up with the Graham Association in 1972 and 1973 to promote revivals across the nation. Even in the midst of the Watergate Scandal, one of the White House conspirators, Charles Colson, announced his conversion to evangelical Christianity. Born-again Christianity's new visibility came with a growing sense of social responsibility. World-fleeing views of ministry, which seemed realistic when the movement was marginal, now seemed irresponsible when evangelicals were entering the mainstream of public life.

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With new social responsibility being thrust upon them, evangelicals drew from the resources at hand to develop it: their Bibles, their historical memory of the days when revivalism and social reform went hand in hand, and the witness of groups that, because of racist oppression or immigrant heritage, had stood apart from the great American evangelical divorce between evangelism and social action. Black evangelicals, peace-church Mennonites and Brethren, and Dutch-American Calvinists led the way in reasserting a whole-gospel witness. Representatives of these three groups were prominent in the Chicago Declaration meeting, in the early ESA, and in the ensuing movement.

The great surprise in this story came from two groups not known for their social action—fundamentalists and Pentecostals/charismatics. They too began to feel the pangs of social responsibility that came with growth, but the motif they chose to govern their return to the public arena was warfare against secularism, a renewal of sorts of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies. First mobilized by the Moral Majority led by Jerry Falwell, and then by the Christian Coalition founded by Pat Robertson, religious conservatives have become an important power base within the Republican Party.

But overall, the heirs of the Chicago Declaration have been those who want to say that evangelical does not equal conservative. As the evangelical movement has become larger, it also has become more diverse in its social, economic, and political views. In a Princeton University survey conducted three years ago, 45 percent of evangelicals said they were political moderates, and 19 percent self-identified as liberals.

Still, the heirs of the Declaration have tried to pursue justice in a way that moves beyond party strife. Inside the Washington Beltway, ideas often are reduced to labels and weapons in the culture wars, and the truth becomes whatever advances the cause of my side. ESA director Ron Sider, for one, has resisted this tendency. His instincts for dialogue, for listening and learning from opponents, for seeking and finding common ground, and for generously conceding points when persuaded of their truth, have been inspiring. These traits may be exasperating if one is trying to have a sharp debate with Sider, yet they make for a more diplomatic approach, one that is utterly refreshing in a realm filled with rancor, posturing, and incivility of all kinds.

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From Deliverance to Development

The Chicago Declaration has also played a pioneering role in encouraging evangelical organizations to welcome more women and racial minorities into their ranks. Evangelicals' neglect of these people and their concerns led to some of the more explosive conversations at the Thanksgiving workshop 30 years ago. Female and black delegates were frank with white leaders about evangelicalism's besetting sins of sexism and racism.

Regarding sexism, the Declaration said, "We acknowledge that we have encouraged men to prideful domination and women to irresponsible passivity. So we call both men and women to mutual submission and active discipleship." Through the years, conversations about gender have continued, and the ESA has in particular continued to pay attention to emerging evangelical feminist ministries. First the Evangelical Women's Caucus, and more recently Christians for Biblical Equality, have enjoyed the partnership of the ESA.

The Thanksgiving workshop was one of the first occasions when John Perkins and William Pannell had an extended dialogue with white evangelical leaders committed to racial justice. They had not seen any white evangelicals participating in the civil rights struggle. Even though these encounters of white and black evangelicals were occasions for some angry debates, Perkins remembers feeling deeply encouraged that he had found some whites of "like precious faith" who supported the cause. "We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the body of Christ along color lines," the Declaration pronounces. "Further, we have failed to condemn the exploitation of racism at home and abroad by our economic system."

Consequently, the heirs of the Chicago Declaration have been active in a number of ministries that invest in urban community development. Consider the social situation of the early 1970s. All over the country, urban coalitions of churches in the 1960s, led by African American congregations and pastors, drove the civil rights campaign. They won important legal victories, but poverty and injustice festered on, and riots erupted across the nation. Over the ensuing decades, urban community leaders concluded that if distressed communities were to flourish, it would be because citizens took charge of rebuilding their neighborhoods. It was time, said Samuel Proctor, the renowned pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, to "move from deliverance to development."

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Early holistic ministry leaders include Perkins, who had community ministries in Mendenhall, Mississippi; Ron and Wyn Potter of Voice of Calvary Ministries in Jackson, Mississippi; Bill Leslie, the white pastor of LaSalle Street Church in Chicago; and Clarence Hilliard, pastor of Chicago's interracial Circle Church. Such ministries fostered hundreds of programs that offered the poor housing, education, youth ministry, family counseling, legal aid, healthcare, thrift and food stores, shelter for the homeless, credit unions, banks, job training, and even manufacturing jobs.

Out of these networks arose the Christian Community Development Association, founded by Perkins and other urban ministry leaders in 1992, and currently serving more than 500 institutional members nationwide. Today there are thousands of neighborhood renewal ministries, enlisting millions of Americans. Community-based economic development and social renewal is one of those rare regions in public affairs where political conservatives, liberals, and radicals can find common ground, and both the Clinton and the Bush administrations have recognized its political value.

The causes of evangelicals' renewed passion for social justice are of course broader and more complex than outlined here. But it is clear that the weekend in Chicago 30 years ago, and the Declaration that came out of it, played no small role.

Joel A. Carpenter is provost and professor of history at Calvin College. To read the Chicago Declaration, go to

Related Elsewhere

A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.

Evangelicals for Social Action has more information on its web site.

Our Social Justice page for more on Evangelical compassion, including a recent story on slavery.

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