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Mark Noll and Bruce Hindmarsh


Rewriting the History of Evangelicalism

W. R. Ward, 1925-2010

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The British historian William Reginald (Reg) Ward, who died on October 2 of last year, accomplished more in his retirement than most scholars accomplish in their entire careers. We shared in a special session at the American Society of Church History in Washington, D.C., in January 2008, honoring him as one of the most distinguished religious historians of the past half century. It was one of his last appearances at an academic conference, and at 82 years of age he was still in good form. Ward's responses to the panelists displayed his characteristically droll sense of humor, his pleasure in defending controversial positions, his vast erudition and delight in the arcane, and, always, his unparalleled command of early modern European history. It was a great occasion.

That was a meeting of specialists, though, and it may be a little while yet before the insights of Ward's scholarship make their way into the textbooks. His scholarship is dense, and his writing does not suffer fools gladly. (Mark once offered Bruce $10,000 to translate Reg from English into English.) Above all, what readers of Books & Culture will want to know is that Reg Ward decisively changed the way historians understand the origins of evangelicalism. No longer can the history of modern evangelicalism be told as an Anglo-American story, beginning with, say, John Wesley's strangely warmed heart in London in 1738, or the phenomenon of revival in Northampton, Massachusetts, under Jonathan Edwards, a few years earlier. There is an Anglo-German axis that is every bit as important as the Anglo-American; once those Central European roots of evangelical religion are understood, the entire tradition takes on a fresh appearance.

It is difficult to find strong enough adjectives of commendation for the body of work in which W. R. Ward developed this fresh, creative, and deeply researched rendering of evangelical history. Essays from the 1970s and 1980s, many of which were gathered in his 1993 collection Faith and Faction, anticipated the key arguments. They were then given full airing in three magisterial books: The Protestant Evangelical Awakening (1992); Christianity under the Ancien Régime, 1648-1789 (1999); and Early Evangelicalism: A Global Intellectual History, 1670-1789 (2006). Ward's pan-European reconstruction of early evangelical history also informs, to a less obvious degree, the massively learned and often deliciously humorous annotations that he provided for seven volumes of the new critical edition of John Wesley's Works.[1] The books and editions we've just mentioned (along with others) were all published in less than two decades, and all after Ward had "retired" from his longtime post in the history department at the University of Durham.

Never from within the Anglo-American community of historians working on the modern history of Christianity has there been such an encompassing challenge to received historiography, nor such a well-documented appeal to reorient evangelical history away from the narrow precincts of the North Atlantic to the broad plains of Central Europe. The challenge that Ward's scholarship mounted for the rest of us very ordinary historians was extraordinary. Ward's achievement provided what not even German scholars have attempted, which is a general interpretation of the history of evangelicalism from within the standpoint of German history and German historical scholarship.

The Central European roots of evangelical religion have changed perceptions of evangelical origins in at least five ways. First, by situating evangelical history against the backdrop of 17th-century European political history, Ward demonstrated that distinctly evangelical beliefs and practices emerged in response to political pressure from powerful states, such as those in the Habsburg empire, or powerful state-churches, both Protestant and Catholic. What he summarized as "the almost universal history of revival as resistance to assimilation" led Ward to Central European beginnings for such essential evangelical themes as the opposition of "true Christianity" to formulaic, systematic, or imposed orthodoxies; and to small-group enclaves as the necessary nurturing medium in which "true Christianity" could flourish. By showing how the political power of nation-states and state-churches played a defining role in the earliest evangelical movements, he showed all scholars the often covert political protests found in almost all evangelical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries, and probably later as well.

Second, Ward insisted on the foundational significance of 17th-century events and circumstances for evangelical history. By so doing he made a convincing case that accounts of Anglo-American evangelicalism are necessarily stunted if they do not include figures like Johann Arndt, Jakob Böhme, and Pierre Poiret (who are almost never mentioned) as well as those like Philip Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke (who occasionally appear as mere anticipations of what came later).

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