The Emergence of Evangelicalism

Posted on January 6, 2009

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The Emergence of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities (IVP, 2008; ed. Michael Haykin and Kenneth Stewart) is a large book (432 pp) devoted to questioning one claim of David Bebbington’s magisterial, and still standard, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (first published 1988), that of the relative novelty of Evangelical Christianity in the 1730s. The contributors are a somewhat mixed bag: some are serious historians (John Coffey, e.g.), some senior scholars better known for work in other disciplines (Paul Helm), some so-far relatively unknown in scholarly terms (Garry Williams). It is fair to say that the historical expertise, or otherwise, of the contributors shows in various ways. It is also fair to say that some of the contributors make it somewhat obvious that they have an ‘axe to grind’ on this issue, and a more generous scholarly tone would have improved the book in places. Nonetheless, it remains an interesting and worthwhile collection.

After some introductory material, the book has three major sections. The first is entitled ‘Regional Perspectives,’ with chapters on Scotland, Wales, England, New England, and the Netherlands. The second is called ‘Era Perspectives,’ and is a slightly odd collection: several pieces on pre-eighteenth century figures or movements (Luther, Cranmer, Puritanism); one on Edwards as a conservative figure; and one on nineteenth-century historiography of Evangelicalism. The final section, ‘Evangelical Doctrines,’ looks at the tradition of the conversion narrative (Bruce Hindmarsh; an excellent piece, but hardly on ‘doctrine’…), assurance (Garry Williams; a republication of his 2005 Tyndale lecture), eschatology (Crawford Gribben) and Scripture (Kenneth Stewart). The book ends with a ‘Response’ from David Bebbington himself, which is characteristically generous and careful.

Two issues are repeatedly raised by the various contributors: the claim that an account of immediate assurance of salvation was something new and distinctive in the movements that arose in the 1730s, and the suggestion that Evangelicalism was best understood as a product of ‘the Enlightenment’. Behind these, one gets the sense of a desire on the part of some contributors to claim a more direct line from the Reformers, through the Puritans, to contemporary Evangelicalism than Bebbington’s book perhaps allowed – and a desire to demonstrate that Wesley’s Arminian convictions are an aberration, and no part of the mainstream of the broader Evangelical tradition.

What struck me most in reading the book (and, indeed, David’s response) was the ingrained assumption that there is only one story to be told. Perhaps the most telling aspect of this was the uncritical use of the phrase ‘the Enlightenment’; since David’s book was published, the notion of a monolithic Enlightenment has essentially disappeared from the scholarly literature, to be replaced by a story of a number of national/cultural movements, sharing some characteristics and cross-fertilising, but actually very different. The French Enlightenment was something different from the Scottish Enlightenment, and both were different from the Jewish Enlightenment or the Russian Enlightenment. The relationship between the developing Christian traditions and ‘the Enlightenment’ was, therefore, different in different regions and cultures.

It seems to me that the same point can be made about the forms of Christianity that existed prior to the 1730s revivals. The Puritan tradition of (parts of) New England, and the Presbyterian tradition of Scotland, were more naturally hospitable to a Calvinistic Evangelicalism than the Anglican tradition of England, which however was the only place a new Arminian tradition had a chance of survival. I therefore think Andy McGowan is broadly right to assert a general continuity from Knox and Rutherford to Chalmers and Cunningham (and, let it be said, McLeod Campbell, Erskine of Linlathen, and Edward Irving), and Doug Sweeney and Brandon Withrow are right to see Edwards as a basically conservative figure, but it is wrong to draw from these data the idea that Evangelicalism, broadly considered, was not an innovation. It was just less of an innovation (in its Calvinistic form) in Scotland and Massachusetts than it was in England and Virginia.

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