Wednesday 14 August 2019

Mark A. Noll on the Rise of Evangelicalism

I’ve recently had reason to scan the five volumes of ‘A History of Evangelicalism’, published by IVP. I was reminded that I wrote a review of the first volume when it appeared back in 2004, which I have pasted below for any who might be interested.

Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, A History of Evangelicalism (Leicester: IVP, 2004).

An older, wiser Christian once encouraged me to keep a history or biography and a work of theology on the go alongside my regular Bible study. No prizes for guessing that I’ve not managed to follow that piece of advice much in the last twenty years. When I have managed to do so, however, the sense of ‘duty’ I’ve felt has been more than outweighed by the benefits I’ve received. It was with that mix of ‘here’s something I really must do’ alongside ‘this will really be for my better good’ that I approached this volume, once again grateful for the wisdom of my friend. Of course, those who actually enjoy reading history and biography won’t require any such encouragement.

I was particularly drawn to this book as it’s the first in a projected five-volume series on the history of evangelicalism in the English-speaking world, co-edited by Mark A. Noll and David W. Bebbington, with authors writing from the USA, Scotland, England, and Australia. Whilst recognising its Reformation pedigree, evangelicalism, according to the series, was constituted both by individuals and the network of relationships shared by those who were involved in eighteenth-century revivals, and also by certain convictions and attitudes which have been maintained since. Hence while evangelicalism is fluid, ‘cohesion has always been present, both from the common original commitment to revival and from the strength of shared convictions’ (18). The series promises to provide an orientation of sorts to ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, with the story told from the perspective of an evangelical commitment, and yet also as part of the cultural, political, and intellectual history of the times in which evangelicals have inevitably found themselves.

Noll, a first-rate historian of American evangelicalism, provides the first installment up to the mid-1790s. As such, the book could be usefully read in tandem with his American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), a collection of essays showing how evangelicalism has been quick to adapt to trends in culture, such as consumerism and individualism, or his more substantial America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), on the marriage of religion and politics. Even without those volumes, Noll’s research is evident here in the full footnotes and lengthy bibliographies.

The book itself contains nine substantial chapters, topped and tailed with an introduction and afterword, moving through the period of revivals (1734-1738), fragmentation and consolidation (1738-1745), development (1745-1770), and diversification (1770-1795). Most of the coverage is devoted to Britain and the colonies that became the USA, and the account embraces well-known figures such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley, the Countess of Huntingdon, John Newton, William Wilberforce, Hannah Moore, alongside a gallery of lesser-knowns.

Chapter 2 (‘Antecedents’) shows how eighteenth-century evangelicalism arose out of three earlier movements: the international Calvinist network, especially of English Puritanism; the pietist revival from central Europe; and a High Church Anglican tradition of rigorous spirituality and organisation in voluntary societies to promote personal piety and service to others. (This last one was a surprise to me since my own evangelical tradition taught me to be suspicious of high church activities!) Noll seems to place most significance on the second of the three – the pioneering place of the German-speaking Moravians – showing that the evangelical revival began in the heart of Europe, and that the similar series of movements that arose in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and the British colonies in North America were following precedents set out seventy-five years previously.

When it comes to offering ‘explanations’ for the revivals (ch. 5), Noll is happy to affirm the movement of the Spirit before considering the nature of the human agents, the flow of history, and the shifting of societal structures, all combined in someone like George Whitefield, an earnest preacher of ‘new birth’, but also an ‘expert marketer of the gospel in the new open spaces of British imperial commerce’ (143), demonstrating the work of the the Spirit through ‘channels of influence from the domains of ordinary history’ (144).

Through all this, evangelicals retained an interest in the affairs of the world, perhaps seen most notably in mobilisation against the slave trade (ch. 8). But the strong pietist tradition has tended to lead to inward focus rather that outward action (ch. 9). Emphasis on personal experience has been a feature of evangelicalism since the mid-18th century. Edwards and John Wesley who were first-rate intellectuals (and whose massive legacy lives on today) nonetheless maintained that personal experience of God was vital.

Noll includes a significant section on hymnody, which has been crucial to evangelicals from the days of the Wesleys onwards. Hymns fulfilled a teaching function, focusing mainly on human sin, resulting alienation from God, and the redemption provided through Jesus’ death. Hymns were revolutionary in terms of how they were sung, printed, memorised, and quoted. And they also had ecumenical appeal: Charles Wesley despised the Calvinism of Augustus Toplady, and Toplady had no love for Wesley’s Arminianism – but they sang each other’s hymns!

All of this adds up to a stimulating and encouraging narrative overall. Those who know the terrain better than I will be able to point out the gaps in Noll’s account; I, for one, was glad on this occasion to have taken the advice of my wise mentor all those years ago.

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