by David Hempton
An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars
Declaring himself to be "an evangelical historian of evangelical history," Mark Noll has contributed a distinguished opening volume to InterVarsity Press's five-volume history of evangelicalism— which, when complete, will cover the period from the 1730s to the 1990s. Designed for the general reader, the series aims to treat evangelicalism as a transnational movement, and to present thoughtful interpretive frameworks based upon a wide command of primary and secondary literature. although intended primarily as a work of synthesis, Noll's volume is distinguished by the scope of its knowledge, the lucidity of its prose, the cleverness of its organizing principles, and the integrity of its judgments.
The working definition of evangelicalism employed by Noll is taken from David Bebbington's influential quadrilateral of conversionism, biblicism, activism, and crucicentrism, a useful definitional paradigm which leaves sufficient room for the classical evangelical emphases on individualism and religious experience. although Noll's volume concludes with some ringing endorsements of the centrality of evangelical religious experience in the lives of ordinary men and women, the central concern of his book is with the rise of a transnational religious movement rather than an exploration of how evangelical religion was lived and practiced by its adherents.
After supplying some helpful information about the social, political, and ecclesiastical landscape of the 18th century, the first major question addressed by the book is where evangelicalism came from. As anyone who has ever thought about it will testify, this deceptively simple question is uncommonly difficult to answer. Noll looks for the roots of evangelicalism among international networks of serious-minded Calvinists, continental European Pietists unhappy with Lutheran scholasticism, and English High Churchmen concerned about the spiritual mediocrity of their own established church. He shows how representatives of each tradition were brought into cathartic contact with one another, either personally or through print, in unlikely places in both the Old and the New World.
||Noll's description of Whitefield as embodying a curious mixture of egocentricity and pious diffidence is worthy of wider application among the early evangelical leaders.||
although this explanatory framework is helpful, the nagging question remains why the "religion of the heart" should have attracted such a diverse range of people from the Jansenists of Port Royal to the Old Believers in Russia, from Hasidic Jews to English-speaking evangelicals. How much of this can be explained by an appeal to the Zeitgeist, however that is to be formulated, and how much depends upon historical contingencies and demonstrable personal influences? One of the most intriguing suggestions made both by Mark Noll and Reg Ward in his earlier treatment of The Protestant Evangelical Awakening is the contribution made by children and young people to the rise of evangelicalism. although influenced by an older generation, it was the young who spread evangelicalism.
Whatever may be said about the roots of evangelicalism, Noll supplies a masterly chronological narrative of the crucial years from 1734 to 1738, from the revivals in Northampton, Massachusetts associated with Jonathan Edwards to John Wesley's heart-warming experience at Aldersgate Street in London. It is in this chapter that the dramatis personae of the Great Awakening are introduced—not only Edwards and Wesley, but George Whitefield, who spoke to more American colonists than any other person; the Moravian leaders, Peter Böhler and August Gottlieb Spangenberg; and the Welsh revivalists, Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland. Important to the story is the catalytic role of the Moravians, the centrality of London (an imperial capital) as the city of religious exchange, and the beginnings of a formidable evangelical publishing machine, which remains one of the most identifiable characteristics of the movement. No sooner was the evangelical movement launched than its main protagonists fought with one another over theology, strategy, and, one suspects, preeminence. Noll's description of Whitefield as embodying a curious mixture of egocentricity and pious diffidence is worthy of wider application among the early evangelical leaders, many of whom were still in their early twenties or thirties, and his delineation of the theological issues at stake in the manifold controversies between Calvinists and Arminians, Methodists and Moravians, and Churchmen and Dissenters is particularly insightful.
The second major question Noll addresses is why evangelicalism was able to gain such rapid traction in the 18th century, often against formidable opposition. Displaying an admirable talent for multiple explanatory frameworks without confusing the reader, Noll shows how evangelicalism was both a product and a beneficiary of wider intellectual, historical, and psychological trends. Without trivializing the religious explanations offered by the evangelicals, who clearly believed they were part of an extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit, Noll shows how evangelicals were able to adapt to "the flow of history." Lockean empiricism, the rise of empire, the growth of markets and consumerism, and the evident weaknesses of older forms of establishmentarian Protestantism all contributed to the success of the new movement. Noll is at pains to point out that evangelicals in the main did not self-consciously adapt to wider historical trends, some of which they scarcely understood, but rather followed their religious intuition. Quite how that worked in practice is not fully explored, but Noll is surely correct to suggest that evangelicalism benefited from a symbiotic relationship with other important 18th-century developments.
As evangelicalism grew, it inevitably became more diverse and fragmented. It is at this point that Noll's consummate skill as a synthesizer and organizer comes into full play. In a virtuoso display of comprehensiveness, he explores evangelicalism as a movement in, out of, alongside, after, against, and beyond the establishment, before investigating evangelicalism's political and social vision through the revealing categories of patrician, plebeian, and bourgeois. This bald and attenuated survey does scant justice to the sophistication of the analysis in this section of the book; so tight is the author's prose, and so compact the content, that the best advice one can give is to read it for oneself.
Noll closes with a chapter on the nature of evangelical religion, emphasizing its theological characteristics, its prolific hymnody, and its influence on ordinary lives. The section on gender in this chapter, even allowing for the preliminary state
of research on the lives of evangelical women, is not one of the book's highlights. Noll is no doubt correct to argue that 18th-century evangelicalism was a movement led primarily by men, but he is also right to conclude that a majority of its adherents were women. Their role in the movement merits a much fuller investigation.
One of the most engaging aspects of The Rise of Evangelicalism is Noll's shrewd identification of the roots of some of evangelicalism's most enduring features. These include the "revolutionary development" of a lasting evangelical presence among African Americans pioneered by Moravians, Baptists, and Methodists; the process of globalization facilitated by the formation of the great evangelical missionary societies at the end of the 18th century (once again Moravians were the trailblazers); and evangelicalism's emphasis on individual religious experience, often to the neglect of any coherent social or corporate vision.
although the tone of Noll's book is unashamedly sympathetic to the movement he claims as his own heritage, he does not shrink from exposing some of its most regrettable weaknesses. He regards it as a disturbing oddity, for example, that "the greatest intellectual in the whole history of evangelicalism was also its first great intellectual," Jonathan Edwards. What is it about the evangelical tradition that ostensibly believes in the transformation of the mind yet takes the life of the mind so casually? In addition to their intellectual mediocrity, Noll scolds evangelicals for their lack of depth in thinking about culture, their capacity for "self-centered, egotistic and narcissistic spirituality," their obsessive introspection to the extent that social evils are often ignored, their persistent and narrow-minded sectarianism, and their shoddy record over anti-Catholicism. Even their noble campaigns against human slavery led by Wilberforce, Wesley, and others capitulated eventually to economic self-interest and racism among evangelicals in the American South.
Noll's criticisms of the tradition are nevertheless measured and restrained, never rising to anything like the sustained venom of some Marxist and liberal historians who have regarded the whole movement as a disease of the human spirit. In contrast, according to Noll the glory of the evangelical tradition stems from the way it "communicated the beauty and the power of the Christian gospel in a wide variety of settings and through that gospel provided a wide range of individuals with purpose before God and meaning for this life," adding that "it did so for the long haul."
The Rise of Evangelicalism is the most accessible and reliable single-volume treatment of evangelicalism's first half century. Though he is himself most at home in the Reformed wing of the evangelical tradition, Noll supplies a genuinely multi-denominational, transnational, and
historically sophisticated account of a fluid and eclectic movement. He expertly supplies cultural contexts that shaped evangelicalism without diminishing the religious passion of its proponents. Noll's book should be required reading for all those involved in any kind of leadership within the evangelical tradition at whatever level, not only to become more aware of the breadth and grandeur of the tradition, but also to reckon with some of its besetting foibles and weaknesses.
David Hempton is University Professor and professor of church history at Boston University, where he received the 2004 University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award. His new book, An Empire of the Spirit: The Rise of Methodism in a New World Order, c. 1730-1880, is forthcoming from Yale University Press in 2005.
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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