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When did Evangelicalism begin?

By admin | January 30, 2009

In 1988, Scottish Baptist historian David Bebbington published an important work, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. It is recognized as a central text in its field. In that book, Bebbington dates the beginning of Evangelicalism to the 1730s, the era of the commencement of the revival in Britain. Exploring the continuities and discontinuities present between the revival movement and its predecessors, he argues for greater discontinuity between, for example, the English Puritans and their successors in the revival. The cause for this is primarily, the currents of the Enlightenment swirling around the revivalists and their followers. In Michael Haykin’s words, “Bebbington has . . . synthesized previous scholarly research to produce a bold and audacious thesis: far from being intrinsically opposed to one another, eighteenth-century evangelicalism has close ties to the Enlightenment and should actually be considered its creation.” (See below for biblio info. This quote is from page 40).

Bebbington argues that the Evangelicalism that flowed out of the revival exhibited four general characteristics: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism.  The second of these, activism (by this he means primarily foreign missions movements, but expands the definition to include causes such as emancipation societies), is the most distinctive and innovative characteristic separating the revivalists from their puritan predecessors. His book has received wide recognition and has influenced nearly a generation of academic research.

He has not been without his critics, and several of these have come together to produce a very important new book (already cited above): The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities, edited by Michael A. G. Haykin and Kenneth Stewart (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008). An impressive list of scholars, including the editors, Paul Helm, (our own IRBS Fellow) Crawford Gribben and Joel Beeke contribute 17 substantial chapters examining various aspects of Bebbington’s thesis. The book is concluded by a gracious reply from Prof. Bebbington.

In many ways, these men are sympathetic to Bebbington’s concerns. Michael Haykin, for example, provides a very helpful summary of the continuities between the Evangelicals and the Enlightenment era in which they lived (pages 39-48). They do not seek to discredit his work, but rather to point out continuities between (especially) the English Puritans and their revivalist successors. For example, the subject of activism appears at several places. It is not true to say that Puritanism neglected missions. Certainly, their actions were not expressed in the same way as the missionary societies of the late 18th century, but they gave much time and effort to send preachers to spread the gospel. Bebbington himself acknowledges the fact that 20 years of further study have helped him to refine his thesis.

Several of the chapters have very keen insights: Michael Haykin’s (page 43) description of the popularity of ‘experimental religion’ and its relationship to the empiricist thrust of the day is a fascinating observation; Crawford Gribben’s survey of millennialism in its various forms, along with the trenchant warning that modern categories of eschatological thought do not fit historical realities is well stated (pages 378-79). In every case, the authors demonstrate the difficulties often associated with historical generalization, especially when discussing the 18th century.

Bebbington’s response, printed as the final chapter, is also of importance. He makes the proper concessions while at the same time pointing to issues not explored in Advent. He notes, for example, that Wesleyan Methodism does not receive much coverage in the Haykin/Stewart volume, and that it was in fact discontinuous with the puritan movement. This is a point well taken. In another case, he directs the reader’s attention to a few facts that struck me as I read chapters: there are clear differences between the Puritans and the Evangelicals. Two may be mentioned. First, Puritanism was taken up with the systematization of theology. It was the era of high orthodoxy, and produced several of the best comprehensive theological works ever written in the English language. The same cannot be said of the Evangelicals. They were far less interested in systematized theology than their predecessors–a point made by both Haykin (p. 45) and Bebbington (p. 430). Secondly, Puritanism was a churchly movement, while Evangelicalism was not, or at least was far less so.  By this I mean that the Puritans ministered in and through the church; too a large degree, the Evangelicals were far less concerned with matters ecclesiological and ecclesiastical. This caused several groups–Presbyterian, Congregational and Baptist in England, Scotland and the American Colonies–to remain aloof from the revival. These groups had imbibed the Puritan appreciation for the church as the place of God’s working, carrying forward the same emphasis in their own midst.

All in all, this is an important work. I appreciate the kind spirit manifested by the contributors, as well as the gracious response written by Prof. Bebbington. This volume is destined to become a standard in its own right. It is enlightening.

Topics: Baptist History, Church, Crawford Gribben, Means of Grace, Puritanism, Puritans | Comments Off on When did Evangelicalism begin?

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