The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement. By Douglas A. Sweeney. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005. Pp. 208. Paperback $17.99.
The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody. Vol. 3 of A History of Evangelicalism: People, Movements, and Ideas in the English-Speaking World. By David W. Bebbington. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2005. Pp. 288. $23.
What a Friend We Have in Jesus: The Evangelical Tradition. By Ian Randall. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2005. Pp. 230. Paperback $16.
Evangelicalism is a significant, growing global religious movement. Defining what evangelicalism is precisely, however, is difficult. Three recent books weigh in on the discussion, each in its own way seeking to shed light on the identity and direction of the movement. Of the three authors, Douglas A. Sweeney writes most selfconsciously as an evangelical from inside the movement. Perhaps as a result, he does the best job in exploring the difficulties with defining the term. Of the three he also locates his subject most specifically, confining his narrative to the U.S. evangelical story, which he says is the "most prodigious global center" of world evangelicalism today.
Sweeney's American Evangelical Story traces the movement to the twin roots of beliefs that were forged by the sixteenthcentury European Protestant Reformation, as mediated through English Puritanism and Continental European Pietism and through practices that emerged in the eighteenth century from the transatlantic revivalism of the Great Awakening. The movement took on institutional form early in the nineteenth century as it became the dominant U.S. cultural religion, even as it began to diversify through world missions and crossed the color line in the emergence of an African-American tradition. The late nineteenth century and the twentieth century brought a spate of radical holiness, Pentecostal, charismatic, fundamentalist, and neoevangelical expressions. The last two came to dominate evangelical history. Furthermore, while fundamentalists disengaged from culture, their neoevangelical successors reversed direction and once again moved to the center. From here Sweeney's narrative moves succinctly to its conclusion. "By the late 1950s, neoevangelical leaders had succeeded in their goal of reengaging American culture. ... Evangelicals had access once again to the levers of power" (p. 176). His purpose in the end is to call fellow evangelicals to responsible exercise of such power as they move back into a place of cultural dominance.
David Bebbington's book explores the theme of dominance as well, doing so, however, within the historical framework of the second half of the nineteenth century and in the broader English-speaking world. The Dominance of Evangelicalism is a well-researched, richly detailed historical work, drawing upon a broad range of primary and secondary sources and digging deeply into the culture of the tradition. Bebbington examines the four theological pillars that in an earlier work he argued define the movement-the Bible, the cross, conversion, and activismand he explores in greater nuances their various nineteenth-century articulations. He highlights the varieties of evangelicalism found in the English-speaking world, looking at the common practices of spirituality, worship, and missions. He argues that evangelicalism was deeply molded by the Enlightenment and its child, Romanticism, and pays careful attention to how these influences are worked out through the period. He concludes the book by observing that by the end of the nineteenth century evangelicalism achieved cultural and religious hegemony within the English-speaking world, the effects of which were felt worldwide.
This last assertion, I believe, is the most problematic in The Dominance of Evangelicalism. I recognize that the book is part of a series on evangelicalism in the English-speaking world. Nevertheless, …