The Advent of Evangelicalism “likely to garner widespread attention”


Debating the origins of evangelicalism

Two Canadian scholars presently teaching at theological schools in the United States are likely to garner widespread attention with the publication of The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities (B&H Academic, 2008).

Michael A.G. Haykin (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY) and Kenneth J. Stewart (Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, GA) co-edit a substantial undertaking. Over the course of seventeen penetrating essays, the expatriate tandem sets its sights on a highly-acclaimed 1989 opus initially hailed with such designations as classic, indispensable and magisterial. Haykin and Stewart, nonetheless, effectively plead “hold everything!” to a proposition that has single-handedly impacted the study of evangelicalism for nearly twenty years.

David W. Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s (Unwin Hyman, 1989) has elicited responses from a virtual “Who’s Who” of scholars both conversant with and, in many cases, personally committed to, an evangelical interpretation of Christianity.  Among the almost one hundred books that at least partially engage Bebbington’s thesis are works by Alister McGrath, John Stott, Pamela Walker, Donald A. Carson, Bruce Hindmarsh, Mark Noll, Douglas Sweeney, George Hunsinger and Linda Woodhead.

In registering several insightful caveats concerning the esteemed British academic’s perspectives, Haykin, Stewart and team take on both a scholar and a school of thought that have obtained something of iconic status in the field. The sparring is congenial yet vigorous.

Bebbington’s oft-reprinted work asserts: “Evangelical religion is a popular Protestant movement that has existed in Britain since the 1730s.” The author argues that four essential characteristics coalesced during the Whitefield-Wesley era to historically define evangelicalism: conversionism, activism, crucicentrism and Biblicism.

An impressive array of capable academicians from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom collaborate in The Advent of Evangelicalism to pose numerous perceptive challenges to Bebbington’s fundamental premises. Among the most provocative essays are the following.

Haykin questions the validity of Bebbington’s claims that evangelicalism was dependent on the Enlightenment and distinct from seventeenth-century Puritanism. Were the Puritans truly as negligent of the “activism” component of Bebbington’s four-part evangelicalism as he indicates?

Scottish theologian, A.T.B. McGowan, contends for an unbroken line of evangelicalism beginning at least with John Knox in the sixteenth century.

David Ceri Jones, a Welsh historian, protests that Bebbington’s thesis is a typical Anglocentric interpretation of British history. Another Welshman, Densil Morgan, states: “If conversionism, activism, Biblicism and crucicentrism form the defining attributes of Evangelical religion, such a religion was becoming widely accepted in Wales as embodying the essence of true Christianity.” Historian Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University underscores the presence of prominent evangelical sentiments in New England in the late 1600s. Reformed pastor, Joel R. Beeke, faults Bebbington’s dependency on a “largely discredited book” for the latter’s problematic understanding of the Puritan doctrine of assurance of faith.

“Martin Luther was an evangelical,” Cameron A. MacKenzie insists, arguing Whitefield and Edwards saw themselves in fundamental agreement with Luther and sixteenth-century Protestants. “And they were not wrong,” he adds.

In addition to Haykin, three other Canadians (Paul Helm, Bruce Hindmarsh, Stewart) contribute equally strong articles that evaluate Bebbington’s interpretations from the standpoint of John Calvin’s theology, the emergence of evangelical conversionism about a century before the 1730s, and the suggestion that interest in verbal inspiration was not as novel to the eighteenth-century revivals as Bebbington avers.

The irenic nature of the dialogue is affirmed in a response from Bebbington concluding the exchange. While graciously conceding weaknesses in some of his premises, Bebbington nevertheless boldly counters MacKenzie to maintain that most evangelicals will part ways with Luther’s view that infant baptism initiates conversion.

The reader thus comes away suspecting the final bell hasn’t yet sounded in this informative conversation.

A Calgary-area pastor, college instructor and writer, Tim Callaway is presently pursuing doctoral studies in Canadian church history.


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