Book Review - The Advent of Evangelicalism

Image of The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities
by Michael A. G. Haykin, Kenneth J. Stewart
B&H Academic 2008
Paperback 432
The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities is a compendium of essays written in response to David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989). A key tenet of Bebbington’s work is that the evangelical movement was a product of the Enlightenment, beginning in the 1730s with the revivals of John Wesley and George Whitefield. Because of its roots in Enlightenment thought, the movement is rather to be understood as distinct from the Reformers and Puritans than as a continuation of long-held tradition. The contributors to The Advent of Evangelicalism argue that Bebbington trivializes the truly evangelical character of many Puritans and Reformers, thus seeing more discontinuity in the evangelicals of the 1730s than those evangelicals would have acknowledged.

Bebbington’s work has dominated the historiography of the evangelical movement since its publication in 1989, and is perhaps best known for introducing the “Bebbington quadrilateral”—four marks (conversionism, activism, Biblicism, and crucicentrism) which characterize the evangelical spirit throughout history. The genius of these four characteristics is that they describe the remarkably diverse evangelicals who appear since the 1730s—individuals such as John Wesley, George Whitefield, J. C. Ryle, Howel Harris, John Newton, Charles Finney, Fanny Crosby, J. N. Darby, Iain Murray, J. I. Packer, and Luis Palau. Bebbington’s four marks have been so universally accepted by historians of evangelicalism that editor Stewart writes in his chapter that “Bebbington’s definition is now receiving the ultimate compliment of being cited without acknowledgment, as if it is not one scholar’s opinion but simply the truth we all know” (p. 29).

Summary

The Advent of Evangelicalism continues the discussion initiated by Bebbington’s volume, raising a question fundamental to evangelical self-identity. The implications of this discussion are important for all those whose heritage runs back to the revivals of Wesley and Whitefield. If Bebbington is correct that the evangelical movement sprang up as a new thing, a product of the Enlightenment, than evangelicals must explain themselves as a movement that is fundamentally independent from the Puritans and the continental Reformers.

The work is divided into five parts. Part 1, written by the editors, introduces Bebbington’s work and the topic under question. The bulk of the work evaluates Bebbington’s thesis against a variety of backdrops. Part 2 presents regional perspectives on the evangelical revival, with chapters focusing on Scotland, Wales, English Calvinistic Methodism, New England, and the Dutch Further Reformation. Part 3 assesses the Bebbington thesis from various “era perspectives,” or chapters that focus on specific individuals who appear to transcend Bebbington’s sharp distinction between eras. Although the chapters in this section are perhaps hardest to describe as a cohesive unit (with chapters on Luther’s evangelical character, Thomas Cranmer, and Jonathan Edwards), each chapter presents insightful research on the interconnections of the evangelical movement with the past. Part 4 focuses on the ideological connections between the evangelical movement and earlier periods by explaining the historical development of key evangelical doctrines, such as the various ways in which Christians describe their own conversions, Puritan eschatology, and the doctrine of Scripture from 1650-1850. Part 5 gives Bebbington’s response to the book in a single chapter.

The doctrine of assurance

One topic that surfaces in a number of essays is the relationship between the Enlightenment and the doctrine of assurance. This is important because, as Garry Williams argues in his essay on the topic (“Enlightenment Epistemology and Eighteenth-Century Evangelical Doctrines of Assurance”, pp. 345-374), Bebbington bases his idea of activism on a new view of assurance that was built by eighteenth century evangelicals using the values of the Enlightenment. According to Bebbington, the evangelicals of the 1730s were so influenced by Enlightenment empiricists (such as John Locke) that they advocated an “understanding of faith in terms of self-validating sense impressions” which inevitably leads to a “remoulding of the doctrine of assurance according to empiricist canons” (Bebbington quoted in Williams, p. 349). Williams argues from a close reading of John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and John Newton that this thesis actually misrepresents the way in which these men explained this doctrine. Further, Williams argues that Bebbington’s definition of activism is too specific, serving his argument for a discontinuity with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries rather than objectively representing the historical data. In fairness, Bebbington readily admits that Williams unearthed overstatements in Bebbington’s early analysis of the Enlightenment (p. 422).

Evaluation

This book is valuable for a number of reasons. First, it provides an important counterpoint in an ongoing debate over evangelical origins and identity. A particular strength of the book is the way that it emphasizes the importance of particulars, weighing arguments in specific rather than general terms. By examining the connections between the evangelical revival and its Reformation prehistory, the contributors to this volume do an admirable job of clarifying and improving upon Bebbington’s thesis. A second value of this book is that as each author engages the details of the historical data, the book exposes anecdotes of early evangelicals who truly loved God in fervent warmth. Particularly heartwarming accounts include the conversions of Thomas Bilney and Katherine Parr (pp. 241-246), the Welsh revival (pp. 84-102), and the more familiar conversions of Whitefield and Wesley (pp. 110-111).

Despite its value, the book is not for everyone. This book is a collection of scholarly essays rather than a popular survey. It is written by experts for an expert audience, although amateurs can certainly benefit by listening in on the debate. This expert-level emphasis is evident on page 148 which is filled entirely with the text of two (helpful) footnotes, interrupting the body of the main essay found on pages 147 and 149. One minor (yet aggravating) omission further minimizes the utility of the book–it lacks any sort of index. As a result, the book is less accessible to readers who wish to trace an idea or person throughout the entire body of essays. Perhaps this decision was made to force readers to engage with the arguments of each writer rather than attempt to inaccurately link them together, but one would hope that perhaps a future printing would include a basic index of names and subjects.

Related reading

  • Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. Routledge, 1989.
  • ———. The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody. A History of Evangelicalism: People, Movements and Ideas in the English-Speaking World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005.
  • Hoskinson, Matthew. Assurance of Salvation: Implications of a New Testament Theology of Hope. Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 2010.
  • Noll, Mark. The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys. A History of Evangelicalism: People, Movements and Ideas in the English-Speaking World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
  • Wolffe, John. The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney. A History of Evangelicalism: People, Movements and Ideas in the English-Speaking World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.

Michael A. G. Haykin is professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Kenneth J. Stewart is professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

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There are 2 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

I appreciate the review. Sounds interesting and certainly relates to fundamentalism. I think the modern trends toward Reformed theology [sometimes with a de-emphasis on conversionism ] on the part of SOME fundamentalists (who would have us believe MOST) is further clouding the waters and should confuse future analysis.

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Ken Stewart's picture

DT:
Thank you for your interest in this book. There is evidence, gradually, that its cautionary approach to the Bebbington thesis is being heeded. It has found its way into many theological libraries across the English-speaking world.

As for the contributors, some were rather more sympathetic to Bebbington's approach than others. This is especially evident in the chapters 1,4 & 5. At the other end of the spectrum, some contributors tended towards a kind of angular opposition to Bebbington and his views. The bulk of contributors were united mostly by the view that the Bebbington thesis left out too much contrary evidence of continuity of evangelical movements before and after the age of awakening. This central group of contributors, with the highly sympathetic first group, were united in the conviction that the Bebbington thesis _does_ correctly highlight the interdenominational aspect of evangelical Christianity which seems to date from Great Awakening times. The question remains, however, whether evangelicalism can only be said to have existed once cross-denominational relationships flourished.

You are not the first person to lament the lack of an index. But that decision was made for us by the original publisher, IVP-UK. The book had turned out to be somewhat larger than planned and the publisher did not want the bulk of the book added to or the price escalated. It is gratifying to see that the book has not been remaindered after 3.5 years and is still for sale in many outlets

Again, thanks for your interest!

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