[Pillar on the Rock is devoted to teaching roundly and thoroughly on the church. From time to time, we'll put up articles that address issues in academia because the academy is deeply involved in preparing future leaders for church ministry. We hope it is helpful and encouraging!]
What does it mean to be an evangelical?1 This question is the starting point for Douglas A. Sweeney, Ph.D., (Vanderbilt University) in his concise look at the movement in The American Evangelical Story.2 Although Sweeney does attempt to define the movement, his work focuses more on a brief history of evangelicalism. Sweeney paints a broad picture of the evangelical movement, and does so in accessible language, while providing a number of useful details. Sweeney succeeds in his goal of testifying to the breadth of evangelicalism, and the Church’s continued need for the movement today.
Sweeney notes that defining the evangelical movement is difficult, but attempts it nonetheless, suggesting that “evangelicals are a movement of orthodox Protestants with an eighteenth-century twist” (24). From there, he explains the eighteenth-century twist came in the form of the first and second Great Awakenings, because with them came immense changes in how Christianity was spread and practiced. Sweeney goes on to describe how, as evangelicalism was sweeping (and saturating) America, a breakout in foreign missions occurred, bringing about cross-cultural evangelization on an unprecedented scale. He proceeds to trace the movement forward through history.
The final chapters of the book, rather than being chronological in nature, each discuss a particular theme in the history of evangelicalism: the rise in missions (as mentioned above), the successes and failures of black and white race relations, the holiness and Pentecostal movements, and the evangelical sub-movements of fundamentalism and neoevangelicalism. These chapters effectively depict the full breadth of the evangelical landscape.
In his first chapter, Evangelical: What’s in a Word? Sweeney does a fine job of describing the difficulty of precisely defining the term evangelical. It was only in reflection upon that difficulty that I began to appreciate his definition.3 Indeed, his insight solidified in my mind when he described evangelical beliefs as being rooted in the Protestant Reformation, while evangelical practices are rooted in the Great Awakening. Likewise, I found it intriguing when Sweeney stated that evangelicalism is America’s folk religion. I would have appreciated his comments on the implications of this assertion, including the pervasive nature of evangelicalism across the US (especially historically) and the modern, secular view of evangelicals being stuck in bygone ways.
Within A Surprising Work of God: The Eighteenth-Century Revival, the second chapter, Sweeney begins to explore the historical beginnings of the evangelical movement. Although the Great Awakening is commonly known as a revival across the Western world, the side-effects of the first Awakening were its real legacy. By producing an interdenominational and pan-geographical movement, the revival gave evangelicalism the opportunity to become a lasting institution rather than a passing phase. Sweeney provides an excellent summary of the causes and events of the Great Awakening. His description of British Puritanism, Continental Pietism, and other precursors to the Awakening provided a succinct context for the movement. Furthermore, his focus on the major players of the Great Awakening (Whitefield, Wesley, and Edwards) aided in the flow of the chapter.
For the third chapter, Crafting New Wineskins: Institutionalizing the Movement, Sweeney turned to the second Great Awakening and the great revivalists (especially Charles Finney). Whatever his personal opinions, I appreciated that Sweeney even-handedly acknowledged the role and influence that women had in evangelicalism during this time. Similarly, I appreciated the author’s distinction that the first Awakening was largely Calvinistic while the second was largely Arminian. Given the nature of those two camps, I now more appreciate the practical differences between the two Awakenings. Of course, following both Awakenings (as with all revivals) was a decline in the faith. Of particular interest is Sweeney's note that the revive, decline cycle in evangelicalism has created a host of schismatic groups, each of which originally split in order to bring about enhanced growth. Indeed, it seems that evangelicalism still functions in that cyclical, schismatic manner.
Sweeney addresses one of my personal passions in his fourth chapter, As the Waters Cover the Sea: The Rise of Evangelical Missions. It was good to read about the history of missions as a stark reminder that we are not the first generation to care about cross-cultural evangelism and church planting. Sweeney's discussion of the preliminary work of the Moravians as well as the efforts of Jonathan Edwards and David Brainerd offered a broad, accurate picture of the early evangelical missions movement. However, the author was careful to remember the failings of evangelical missionary work, such as the exporting of American culture as part of Christianity. Worse still was the drive toward liberal missions, with its abandonment of the gospel in favor of social programs. Sweeney produced a helpful summary of the history of evangelical missions, while also describing the uniqueness of that movement within the universal Church.
Controversy is the word-of-the-day in Sweeney’s fifth chapter, Crossing the Color Line without Working to Erase It: Evangelical History in Black and White, in which the author shows an honest, striking view of race relations throughout American Christianity and the evangelical movement. It was saddening to be reminded of the realities of slavery and its effects on the evangelization of the slaves themselves. Many slaves were not permitted to hear evangelism because it might make them ‘uppity,’ and the slaves who were Christianized were not taught about the exile, and then exodus, of the Jews. The purging of blacks from the churches created an evangelical segregation that has never recovered. Indeed, one of Sweeney’s most striking pieces of information is that only 5.5% of today’s churches are interracial (128)! However, I am thankful for the work the author did in summarizing the black movement in Western Christianity and the great things that movement has done. With all the historical overtones of evangelical racism and segregation, it is easy to understand why most members of the Black Church would not call themselves evangelical, even though their movement is essentially evangelical in beliefs and practice.
The groups described in chapter 6, In Search of a Higher Christian Life: The Holiness, Pentecostal, and Charismatic Movements, are groups that I was not originally quick to identify as evangelicals. However, Sweeney made an excellent argument, rooted in history, that the Pentecostal and charismatic movements are actually sub-movements within the larger context of evangelicalism. Their predecessor, the holiness movement, has widely known beginnings with many evangelicals, including Wesley, Whitefield, and Finney. From this holiness movement came a charismatic movement, which was introduced to the world through the Azusa Street Revival. By the numbers, the charismatic movement is the largest in evangelicalism, far exceeding any other sub-group. Sweeney’s work has helped me to appreciate the scope and nature of the charismatic movement.
In his final chapter, Standing on the Promises through Howling Storms of Doubt: Fundamentalism and Neoevangelicalism, Sweeney primarily focused on the historical context of fundamentalism. I was shocked to discover that the fundamentalist movement was actually, at one time, a proper Christian movement with theological, rather than cultural, distinctives. The movement was not merely a cultural reaction to creeping evangelical liberalism, but was an assertion of historical, orthodox Christianity. Sadly, the movement we know of today as fundamentalism is a far cry from its founding vision, holding on to a distant, cultural idealism more than biblical truth. In fact, the neoevangelical movement actually was a schism from fundamentalism, because that group desired to maintain its orthodox values while re-engaging the culture and attacking the social ailments of the day. Billy Graham, Carl Henry, and Charles Fuller were all leaders of this new evangelical movement. Sweeney’s work in this chapter has helped me to realize that, personally, not only am I an evangelical, I am a neoevangelical.
In The American Evangelical Story, Douglas Sweeney has provided an approachable, even-handed account of the history of evangelicalism. Most importantly, the author does not dwell too heavily on any particular theme, but serves his readers well by summarizing the major groups of evangelicalism. To my great benefit, this book purposefully included the less well-known aspects of evangelicalism, such as the Black Church, the charismatic movement, and the fundamentalist movement. Reading Sweeney’s work has allowed me to expand my former definition of evangelicalism4 to include the entire movement, rather than only my niche. It is with great care that Sweeney offers this look at a history of the evangelical movement so that we can know where it has been, and, hopefully, where it is going.