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The Changing Shape of English Nonconformity, 1825-1925
The Changing Shape of English Nonconformity, 1825-1925
Dale A. Johnson
Oxford University Press, 1998
272 pp., $100.00

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by Timothy Larsen


Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The Anglican question.

I seem to remember that a great prince of English Nonconformity, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, once said something like, "It is no good protesting, 'We are all evangelicals, we are all evangelicals,' but never defining what an evangelical is." Dale A. Johnson's world of 19th- and early 20th-century English Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Methodists is one in which almost everyone seems to be an evangelical, but the question of the meaning of the term is repeatedly elided. In his defense, Johnson is seeking to offer a corrective to an established narrative of decline in which all deviations from the doctrinal expressions and emphases of earlier evangelicals are viewed as, by definition, not evangelical.

The wider intellectual climate changed dramatically during the century 1825-1925. The older evangelicalism rested on the authority of ideas such as natural theology and the classic proofs for the existence of God, which were respected in the wider world of thought. It expounded its doctrines in an environment in which the modern discipline of biblical criticism had not yet yielded its harvest, and popular sensibilities were not yet greatly troubled by questions regarding the morality of eternal punishment and substitutionary atonement. In the face of these later winds of change, English Nonconformity produced some hard-working, reflective, spiritual leaders, who endeavored to keep faith with the evangelical tradition while reconstructing it to suit new conditions.

The Congregational theologian R. W. Dale is a noble example. He knew that the old evangelicalism of his ministerial predecessor, J. A. James, the author of The Anxious Enquirer after Salvation Directed and Encouraged, could not simply be parroted to a new generation which possessed an altered worldview. Nevertheless, in his own well-circulated volume, The Atonement, Dale fought for the substance of an evangelical witness on Christ's work, while adapting some of the language and imagery in response ...

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