Iain D. Campbell finds The Advent of Evangelicalism “A helpful contribution”


Just released in the USA under the title The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities (Broadman and Holman, October 2008), this collection of essays marks almost twenty years of reflection on David Bebbington’s groundbreaking work, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin, Hyman, 1989). 

Professor Bebbington’s work on the nature and rise of evangelicalism was a scholarly attempt to analyse the phenomenon in its historical and social contexts. No discussion of any aspect of the evangelical movement – particularly in the United Kingdom – could ignore his work thereafter. My own doctoral studies on George Adam Smith and the rise of liberal evangelicalism within the nineteenth century Scottish church interacted both with Bebbington’s definitions and his analysis of historical context. Professor Bebbington was also the external examiner for my PhD, and his gruelling two hour viva only enhanced my admiration of his scholarly approach to all aspects of this subject.

My admiration was not unqualified, of course. Even in my interaction with him, I realised the inadequacy of his quadrilateral definition of evangelicalism, in which he has famously highlighted the elements of Biblicism, activism, crucicentrism and conversionism as the fundamental principles of the evangelical movement. In The Emergence of Evangelicalism, Andrew McGowan rightly points out that these four elements are not of equal ultimacy, and suggests that activism is not nearly as important as conversionism (p64). One might also ask whether the topic of the church is fundamental to evangelicalism? Did evangelicalism ever exist without regard to the church? Bebbington’s own discussions of revivalism and nonconformity show that it did not; it is more than passing strange, therefore, that such a crucial element should have been missing from his definition. Perhaps, however, Oliver Barclay’s observation is more fundamental still: ‘What I think is chiefly missing in Bebbington’s description is something so fundamental that it is easy to take it for granted – though it must never be taken so. That is, the essentially Christ-centred nature of the evangelical position’.

The quadrilateral was, however, only one element in Bebbington’s thesis. The other main aspect of his approach was his view on the relationship between evangelicalism and the Enlightenment. For Bebbington, the rationalism of the Enlightenment was not a threat to evangelicalism, but actually provided its impetus: ‘when the Enlightenment impinged on Calvinism’, he writes, ‘the result was not necessarily a doctrinal downgrade. From the 1730s onwards it could generate the new light of the gospel’. In other words, it was the Enlightenment which acted as the catalyst for the Evangelical movement of the subsequent eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On top of this, Bebbington argued that the doctrine of assurance was a major catalyst also. The older Puritan doctrine, reflected in the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith that assurance of salvation may be lost on those who are saved, was hopelessly befuddled; it took a new Calvinism – an enlightened Calvinism – to recover the epistemological ground. So Evangelicalism arises in the period in which assurance ‘is the normal experience of the believer from the time of his conversion onwards’.

The contributors to The Emergence of Evangelicalism all engage with Bebbington’s argument on the relatively new character of eighteenth century evangelicalism, and few are willing to accept his thesis uncritically. The topics covered in the book range further than a debate on the genesis of the evangelical movement, but at their heart is an almost common conviction that the characteristic features of evangelicalism pre-dated the Enlightenment. 

Tim Larsen’s opening essays surveys the reception given to Bebbington’s work since its publication. It is not often that reviewers are themselves reviewed, and Larsen’s essay is as entertaining as it is enlightening (sic.), tracing not only the reviews that have appeared, but the abiding influence of the points and emphases Bebbington originally made. 

Michael Haykin then reassesses the general thesis of continuity between Enlightenment and Evangelical thought. He examines the evangelical view of reason, of the future and of social conscience, focussing then on the issue of assurance. For Bebbington the differing attitudes to assurance among the Puritans and then among the evangelicals was what allowed the Enlightenment to ‘create’ Evangelicalism. Haykin, however, is concerned to note the continuities between Puritans and Evangelicals, both in the areas of doctrine and of pragmatism, and questions whether Bebbington was right to drive such a wedge between them. 

Following these introductory essays, the book is then divided into ‘Regional Perspectives’, ‘Era Perspectives’ and ‘Evangelical Doctrines’. Under the first of these headings, there are contributions from Andrew McGowan on the Scottish dimension, Densil Morgan on the Welsh connection, David Ceri Jones on Calvinistic Methodism and the English dimension, Thomas Kidd on evangelicalism in New England, and Joel Beeke on evangelicalism in Holland. 

All are concerned to show that evangelicalism in these various geographical locations all predate the Enlightenment, at least to the extent that the defining elements of the movement were present earlier than the eighteenth century. Andrew McGowan argues that the Enlightenment served to drive a wedge between liberalism and evangelicalism, thus making the latter more distinctive (rather than ‘creating’ it). Densil Morgan is more sympathetic to Bebbington’s position, arguing that late eighteenth century Methodism did witness the creation of something novel: a revivalism which would ultimately prove revolutionary.

David Ceri Jones suggests that were Bebbington to write his book today, he would re-think the inclusion of English Evangelicalism, a feature which he considers lacking in the original volume (a view I do not share). Jones’ essay does have the merit of locating evangelicalism in England in a wider European context, and argues that the eighteenth century evangelical revivals drew on a twofold stream of Puritanism and antecedent Pietism. He also wishes to include within the catalysts for change not only the Enlightenment but the profound social changes which were taking place, not least in rise of the middle class and the effects of the Industrial Revolution. He does not disallow continuities with the past, but does want to speak of ‘a different religious configuration’ in the eighteenth century. 

Thomas Kidd’s essay also emphasises continuities, but highlights another element of New England religion: the expectation of revival. Kidd’s study of the Stoddardean and Edwardsean theologies is a tour de force of evangelical thought prior to the Great Awakening, and fitly argues that what was new in the eighteenth century had only been expected back into the seventeenth. 

Similarly, Joel Beeke’s study of Dutch evangelicalism charges Bebbington with too little emphasis on the continuity between the earlier Puritan tradition and the later evangelicalism of the Dutch Further Reformation (the Nadere Reformatie). Beeke has little sympathy for Bebbington’s position, accusing him of ‘regurgitating the historical inaccuracies of Kendall’. He also suggests that it would be more profitable (and accurate) to speak of Evangelicalisms, in the plural, rather than melt all the strands of eighteenth century Protestantism in the one pot.

The section on Era Perspectives contains some fine studies. Lutheran scholar Cameron MacKenzie’s essay on the evangelical character of Martin Luther’s faith demonstrates that the break with Medieval Catholicism was a catalyst in Luther’s time for the forging of an evangelical faith. Although there is little interaction with Bebbington in the essay, there is an emphasis on the overlap between Lutheran dogmatics and the quadrilateral of a later day. Paul Helm does much the same in his study of John Calvin and Augustus Toplady, although his argument explicitly refutes the idea that the four ‘isms’ of the quadrilateral can be argued historically – ‘the thesis’, argues Helm, becomes ‘more psychological, even psychoanalytic, than historical’ (p219).

Essays on Cranmer, Edwards and the Puritans further develop these areas of tension in the Bebbington thesis. Ian Shaw’s essay on nineteenth century perceptions is a salutary reminder that contemporaneous writers always assess things differently from later researchers!

The final section on evangelical doctrines Bruce Hindmarsh’s essay on spiritual autobiography makes the important point that Bebbington’s thesis runs the risk of over-periodisation. Hindmarsh argues that conversion narrative does appear as a new mark of evangelicalism, but in a period pre-dating the era under consideration. Gary Williams’ essay focuses on the relationship between Enlightenment epistemology and evangelical assurance, and argues that on Bebbington’s argument, evangelicalism is fathered by Edwards and Wesley, allowing much more room for Arminianism than Calvinism. It is an interesting observation that by seeing the roots of evangelicalism in an older Protestant tradition, ‘Reformed theology becomes the authentic evangelical mainstream of three centuries’ (p374). 

An essay by Crawford Gribben on eschatology is an interesting examination of the ‘Puritan hope’, although it engages little with Bebbington. Ken Stewarts study of the doctrine of Scripture from 1650-1850, on the other hand, demonstrates that evangelical formulations of verbal inerrancy and infallibility were ‘widespread by the mid-seventeenth century’ (p396), and that it was not the case, as Bebbington argues, that verbal inspiration came late in order to shore up inerrancy. 

Professor Bebbington’s response is a gracious, yet firm, rejoinder, in which he defends his quadrilateral, notwithstanding the ‘family likeness’ (p425) which finds elements of later evangelicalism in earlier Protestantism. His complaint that Methodism was not properly reflected in the volume is probably true, although the original plan did include a contribution from a Methodist scholar. Bebbington’s concession that ‘the contributions to this volume go a long way towards advancing our understanding of the relationship between the evangelicalism of the eighteenth century and its antecedents’ (p431) is as gracious a statement as one would wish to find in a volume that is by no means a unilateral stamp of approval on his original work. 

The appearance of this symposium is itself, of course, an indication of the influence of the position mapped out by Bebbington some twenty years ago. That is not to say that it stands merely as a tribute to the scholarship of Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (although it does no less than that). It is itself an indication that the historiography of both the period and the evangelical movement is still incomplete, and the data is still open to interpretation. Clearly the eighteenth century revivals saw the emergence of something new in the evangelical world, but the consensus of this volume is that evangelicalism itself was rooted in much earlier movements. 

That, necessarily, brings us back to the beginning: how is evangelicalism to be defined? Without consensus on that position, a definitive judgement on origins is impossible. It is arguable that Bebbington’s thesis of origins stands or falls on his fourfold definition of what it means to be evangelical. The exploratory essays that make up this important volume make a helpful contribution to our understanding of that all-important question.

Iain D. Campbell


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