The Lesson of David Swing

Sean Lucas
While the internet has rocked with information about a prominent minister who has denied the reality of hell, being more historically minded, I couldn't help but think about David Swing.

Most people don't know who David Swing was--but in the 1870s and 1880s, David Swing was the most popular minister in Chicago: bigger than D. L. Moody, more significant than anyone else. As Swing's New York Times obit put it, at one point, he had the largest church and the largest salary of any minister in Chicago.

He was also heterodox. Swing, then minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church, was tried by his presbytery for heresy in 1874. Among his aberrant doctrines were his views on the Trinity (he veered toward unitarianism), salvation (he urged that people were saved by works that supplemented their faith), and hell (he suggested there was no such place). [See the NY Times report on his sermon, "Hell and a Revenging God."] One of Swing's more famous statements in his defense came during his trial in the Chicago Presbytery, when he looked around at his brethren and said, "Not one of you, my brethren, has preached the dark theology of Jonathan Edwards in your whole life. Nothing could induce you to preach it, and yet it is written down in your creed in dreadful plainness."

How could Swing get away with his theological deviations? Because there was a new mood about the relationship between religion and theology, faith and doctrine, in the postbellum era. As the religious historian William Hutchison noted, "The crux of Swing's deviation from orthodoxy lay in his insistence that all religious expressions are dependent upon the culture within which they were formulated...negatively, this meant that scriptures, doctrines, and creeds are of less than absolute validity, and that parts of all of them must be discounted." And so, what the Bible said on hell or Trinity or Jesus was simply the poetic expression of the religious experience of a given generation that may be contradicted by the experience of future generations.

One cannot help but wonder whether the theological epistemology of David Swing is back in force among younger evangelicals. After all, for a generation which has denigrated "propositional" truths, how else should we understand the privileging of the love of Jesus over his own statements over the reality of judgment and hell? If we've come to the day when Scripture, doctrines, and creeds are simply the expression of our best sentiments, then we've come to a day in which there is no doctrinal center that can hold evangelicals together and a day in which the Gospel might be lost to large segments of this generation.

But there is more to the lesson of David Swing. When he left the Presbyterian church, he founded Central Church, which became the largest church in Chicago with over 3,000 in its Sunday school. But the church doesn't exist today. Why? Because if truth is simply the best poetic expression of an experience of the divine, then Christianity doesn't tell us something that can't be had elsewhere. Surely the poets, musicians, and moviemakers of the world can tell us as much truth as preachers can, if Swing was and our modern-day Swings are right.

Without a truth-core that centers on the grand facts of divine holiness, love, grace, sin, judgment, hell, Christ, salvation, and heaven, there is no Gospel. And if there is no Gospel, then we are most to be pitied and ignored. No matter if you are David Swing or the contemporary rock star of evangelicalism.