The American Evangelical Story, A History of the Movement

In the recent Equip for Ministry issues we have talked about open theism, denominationalism, and the emerging church movement, to name a few. Knowing something about church history is essential if we are to contend for the faith and its truth. So much of what is happening today is a result of either not knowing or ignoring the lessons from history.

Also, while we need to understand where we are today as far as Christianity is concerned, we will not be successful without starting with a good grasp of history and tradition. This is clearly illustrated in trying to understand evangelicalism in our North American culture. For example, of the two billion plus people in the world who profess to be Christians, over half a billion are evangelical Christians. But some statistics suggest that if Pentecostals and charismatics are counted as evangelicals, there are four-fifths of a billion evangelicals today. Those two groups account for 570 million while other evangelicals exceed 242 million. This is what Sweeney points out in his preface to set the stage for the overview that follows.

Sweeney first gives an overview and summary of the recent debates and scope of evangelicalism. Chapter one is merely a prelude to the good content that follows. Trying to define “evangelical” today is a bit slippery. For example: you have Alister McGrath’s six controlling convictions regarding evangelicalism. You also have David Bebbington’s definition that features four qualities of evangelicalism. Beyond those you can find John R.W.Stott’s three qualities and many broader definitions such as demonstrated by George Marsden, James Hunter and others. It is obvious that there is great diversity within evangelicalism and often unanimity as well.

Dayton and Johnston in their book, The Variety of American Evangelicalism wrote, “American evangelicalism resembles a large, extended family and should be described in only a general manner in terms of their ‘family resemblance’ rather than pigeonholed with excessive, propositional precisions” (page 21). Sweeney tries his hand at defining the term evangelical, “Evangelicals comprise a movement that is rooted in classical Christian orthodoxy, shaped by a largely Protestant understanding of the gospel and distinguished from other such movements by an eighteenth century twist. Or put more simply (though less precisely), evangelicals are a movement of orthodox Protestants with an eighteenth-century twist” (pages 23, 24).

This volume gives good summary of the “great awakenings” and their role on determining evangelicalism in America. He traces America’s great awakenings to those in Europe and Great Britain and then on the North American British colonies. Sweeney talks about the good things, as well as the challenges, that arose out of those awakenings. He reviews some of the people, like John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards who played significant roles in this development.

The book deals with some of the results and impact of the awakenings on the church and world. Although thousands joined the churches, religious controversy was also present and the revivals divided families, churches, and communities.

In the chapter “Crafting New Wineskins, Institutionalizing the Movement,” Sweeney opens up some avenues of understanding the tensions always present in evangelicalism, one being the role of institutions. He points out the truth that movements cannot survive without institutions and yet institutions have a way of squelching the Spirit, hence the need for revival. This was so clearly demonstrated in early America between the “Old Light” and “New Light” and “Old Side” and “New Side” schools of thought. The Old Light camp said we need institutions and tradition while the New Light camp maintained that all we need is the Bible. Sweeney demonstrates how both extremes fed liberalism in early New England.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of evangelicals is that they have always known how to market their faith. They knew how to capitalize on the free market concept. They knew how to advance the faith and did so with much fervor and enthusiasm. The circuit riders, the scholars, and the local churches all played significant roles in advancing the evangelical cause in America.

The book also contains a good summary of the development of the modern missionary movement. Sweeney points out how the early missionaries were able to contextualize their faith with much effectiveness, though there was a constant struggle to distinguish the Gospel from the culture “to become all things to all men so that by all means, they might be saved” (1 Cor. 9 18-22).

The history of black evangelicals contains important parts of the story. Much can be learned from studying the relationship among the races in church history. For example, Sweeney writes, “While evangelicals did not invent the sins of racism or ethnocentrism, the slave trade, segregation discrimination, or racial hate groups, literally millions of white evangelicals have either participated in or sanctioned one or more of these things, distorting their common witness to the gospel” (page 108). In the mid twentieth century this racial tension was demonstrated by both a white and black evangelical association-the white National Association of Evangelicals and the National Black Evangelical Association founded in 1963.

There is a good chapter entitled “In Search of a Higher Christian Life,” dealing with the holiness movement, along with Pentecostal and charismatic movements. This is an important chapter as we look at today’s churches embracing the evangelical framework. These are areas of great tension and controversy within the evangelical family. Today’s struggles and divisions are not new ones. Who were some of the people influential in this arena? What was their emphasis? How was it received? Sweeney uses key people to deal with those questions. People and movements such as: Charles Finney, Phoebe Palmer, Charles Fox Parham, John Wimber, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, the famous Azusa Street revivals of Los Angeles, the Assemblies of God and the charismatic movement.

The last major chapter focuses on the fundamentalism and neoevangelicalism that emerged in the late 1800s through the twentieth century, dealing with topics such as the “fundamentals” and their attempt to put down modernism. He also talks about men such as Carl F. H. Henry, J. Gresham Machen, Billy Graham and their role in the neoevangelical answer to both fundamentalism and liberalism. Of course Sweeney points out that we cannot overlook the role of the famous Scopes Trial in this mix. Then there was the decline of orthodoxy in the mainline churches with the influx of German higher criticism, thus undermining the authority and integrity of the Sciptures, and the need for Christians to be salt and light and make a cultural difference rather than withdrawing their cultural influence. He also accents the tensions between those who believed that the best theology had already been produced and those who believed in always reforming their theology according to the Word.

This book is readable, extremely interesting, and tremendously helpful in understanding why we are Presbyterians who are Reformed evangelicals following Presbyterian polity and government. This would be a good book for personal and group study. I recommend it with much enthusiasm.

Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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