Archive for the ‘evangelical history’ Category

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).

So every Friday, I’m going to offer up a book review. Just to keep fresh on various topics. Will also post good book reviews from students as I receive them. FIRST UP: Harry Stout’s classic work on George Whitefield: The Divine Drmatist.

Harry Stout presents a portrait of George Whitefield as “Anglo-America’s first religious celebrity, the symbol for a dawning modern age” (xvi).  Whitefield’s innovations related to revivals in the Anglo-American context (such as the incorporation of the theatrical in preaching, the para-church nature of his ministry, and the willingness to compete in the marketplace) reveals his ability to adapt to the emerging consumer culture (xvii).  This adaptability reflects a salient characteristic of modern evangelicalism. Evangelicalism has demonstrated the ability to adjust to cultural trends over the course of American history and Whitefield provides the example and prototype of evangelicalism’s intersection with contemporary culture.

Utilizing primary source material, Stout presents a compelling argument. The strength of Stout’s argument lies in its comprehensive nature and his ability to trace a consistent profile throughout the narrative.  One question that I would raise about the work, however, is the seeming ease with which Stout attributes negative motives to Whitefield. On numerous occasions, Stout questions the purity of Whitefield’s motives and seems to focus on his negative motives.[1] Is there more conjecture than is necessary by Stout? While one could argue the merits of dissecting Whitefield’s motives, would it be more helpful to focus on outcomes?  Or would that approach reflect the pragmatism of both 18th century and 21st century American evangelicalism?


[1] For example, Stout is quick to attribute pragmatic motivations for Whitefield. This perspective could easily disintegrate into a second-hand interpretation of a fame hungry demagogue desperately willing to resort to anything to accomplish his own goals. More could be said about the possibility of a purity in his motivation.