Takeaway: The strength and weakness of Evangelicalism as a movement is its attachment to culture and it flexibility around authority.
Evangelicalism is my tradition. I grew up Baptist, often going with a friend to an Evangelical Free Church youth group. I participated occasionally in Young Life. I went to Wheaton College and I now attend a non-denominational mega-church. I am solidly Evangelical.
Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism is a history of modern Evangelicalism. And like hearing about your family as an adult, you hear things you thought you knew about, but from a different perspective than what you thought you understood as a child.
Molly Worthen (professor at University of North Carolina) has written an excellent modern history of how Evangelicalism broke away from Fundamentalism and rose in power in the US.
The strongest feature of this history is that Worthen places the history in context. And in context it is clear that many of the features of and changes in American Evangelicalism were not unique or ‘God movements’ as much as responses to the broader culture of the United State (or at least not only God movements.)
As a small example, I have heard about Evangelicalism’s commitment to higher education and how in the 1950s and 1960s as Evangelicalism grew it established new colleges and universities or changed old bible schools into real institutions of higher education with properly trained PhDs as the main staff. But Worthen tempers that story by placing that growth (which did happen) as part of a broader professionalization and expansion of higher eduction that was primarily driven by the GI Bill and requirements that schools that were receiving money from the GI Bill be accredited and professional. And just as important, the professionalization of broader culture started expecting fully accredited degree programs and requiring degrees for jobs that previously had not required them including full time Christian jobs like missionary or pastor.
Worthen is not afraid to take on some of the saints of Evangelicalism. Francis Schaeffer is a particular target because he is a good example of Evangelicalism valuing a good story that matches the previously understood myth more than the historical reality. So Dr Schaeffer (who had an MDiv, but only an honorary Doctorate) wrote about art and history and culture and much of it was widely influential in encouraging Evangelicals to work in culturally important fields and be involved in intellectual pursuits. But within the actual narrative of his books was often shoddy history and not quite right philosophical arguments. And from Worthen’s story, Schaeffer did not respond well to those inside of academia that tried to offer corrections to his history and philosophy.
I was less engaged with the pre-history and early history of Evangelicalism in Worthen’s account. The periods from 1940 to 1960 was a fairly standard account of the rise of Billy Graham in post World War II America. The establishment of Christianity Today and the Evangelical Theological Society.
But starting at Part II of the book where Worthen starts talking about higher education, missions, ecumenical activity (mostly in context of the late 1950s and 1960s) and then in Part III where she talks about Evangelical Intellectualism, politics, social action (the late 1960s to the 1980s) the book really shines. Maybe this is because it talks about a history that is just outside my personal memory. Or one where I have met several of the characters and read a lot of books by those that I haven’t met. But this is recent history as it should be done.
I have not read another full account of the rise of Modern Evangelicalism. I know that there are other books out there and now I will seek some out. But Worthen is writing as a solidly academic historian. This book is published by Oxford Press not a standard Evangelical publisher, I expected more and received more.
If you are interested in Christian history and especially if you consider yourself part of the Evangelical tradition, this is a book well worth picking up.
A PDF copy of the book was provided by the publisher through NetGalley for purposes of review.