Book Review: Doug Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story

Posted: March 2, 2012 in book reviews, church and culture, evangelical history, next evangelicalism

Douglas Sweeney’s work presents a broad overview of American evangelical history. In the preface, Sweeney explains that the center of gravity for evangelicalism now resides outside of Europe and North America. This key observation shapes the book’s movement towards his statement “that though we have always been diverse . . . evangelicals share a heritage that is both rich and spiritually powerful – a legacy worth passing on to future generations.” (11) Various authors have attempted to define evangelicalism, with the concomitant action of narrowing its parameters. Donald Dayton and Robert Johnston lead the way in defying “neat and tidy categorization.” They suggest “that evangelicals resemble 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 precision.” (21).
The strength of Sweeney’s work rests in his ability to provide a larger picture of evangelical history that encompasses the story of pietists, Pentecostals, African-American Christians, and others, while maintaining coherence. Rather than describing evangelicalism with a doctrinal rigidity, Sweeney describes behavioral aspects such as revivalism, pietism, and missionary zeal. Sweeney’s approach reflects the desire of an insider to “refresh our shared, historical memory, [that it] may help us to regain our spiritual bearings” (185).
For most historians and theologians, the American evangelical story has been the story of white Americans. Because of this dominant narrative, there has been an exclusion of the story of non-white evangelicals. Sweeney’s broadening of the evangelical story to include African-American Christianity provides a significant contribution. With a growing diversity evident in both global Christianity and American evangelicalism, Sweeney strengthens the connection between evangelical history and evangelicalism’s future trajectory. Sweeney’s work provides an example of an attempt to encompass “the great wealth of evangelical diversity” (19).

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