The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys by Mark Noll

The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys by Mark NollTakeaway: Evangelicalism seems to keep having the same battles while trying to achieve the same successes.

I try to read pretty much anything that Mark Noll writes that I come across.  So when Intervarsity Press re-released this series in paperback and offered me a copy to review I picked it up.  The Rise of Evangelicalism is the first of a four book series by various authors.

The early history of Evangelicalism is not unknown to me.  I have read a number of accounts (primarily through biographies or brief retellings as part of other arguments.)  But reading all of in together focused on telling the whole story several things rise to the top.

First, the initial revivalism that gave rise to the movement of Evangelicalism was led by very young men (primarily it was men that were the preachers and leaders, but the movement used the religious power of women to influence families and communities to a great extent.)  Whitefield, Edwards and the Wesleys were all 30 or less when they were getting started (except for John who was a little older, but still single.)  Whitefield traveled throughout the US on a ten month revival tour when he was just 26.  Edwards was about the same age when revival broke out in his church.

Second, there is always a tension in Evangelicalism between being bound by our culture, adapting the gospel presentation to culture, a commitment to scripture and a following of the Holy Spirit.  These four realities (which are not edges that are pushed against as much as situations where Evangelicalism thrives.)

So Evangelicalism works within culture while pushing cultural issues that it can see.  But there are many culturally bound issues that in the moment, are invisible.  Some Evangelicals can see slavery and see sin, but many just see slavery as the way things are.  Similarly with racism, sexism, economic issues, colonialism, and a host of other things that presumably we still do not see because we are still bound by culture.  Part of my frustration with Worldview training is that we cannot train people to perceive what we cannot see.  As fish cannot perceive water, we cannot perceive culture in a full sense.  We may notice things here and there, often because we have a sense of history or scripture or literature from a different age that allows us to see alternative ways of understanding.

Scripture is always the primary vehicle in Evangelicalism that allows us to see and judge culture.  But we are still bound by the culture we are in when we read it.  So as Noll has amply demonstrated in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis our ability to use ‘the plain reading of scripture’ often just confirms cultural biases instead of allowing us to move past cultural biases.  It is often ‘thick’ reading of scripture that is both ridiculed by other Evangelicals and transforming enough to perceive culture in a way that allows us to deal with it.

The personal reading and interpretation of scripture is Evangelicalism’s greatest strength and weakness (as was the theme of Mark Noll’s Protestantism, A Very Short Introduction).  Luckily there is an ongoing tension between innovation and tradition in Evangelicalism.  The fights of Wesley’s and Edwards’ agre are almost incomprehensible to us now, but that is because they won.  We no longer have to fight about whether open air preaching is appropriate or if traveling evangelists should be allowed into a community that already has a church.  Evangelicalism has always been wary of tradition, but it has often been tradition that has kept the more radical elements in check.  And that same tradition that often split denominations and churches when innovation was the right choice.

Innovation is also a part of Evangelicalism.  Evangelicals have been on the forefront of technological changes especially around communication methods.  And most of the time, Evangelicalism has felt that it has been directly following the leading of the Holy Spirit.  So Wesley was theologically opposed to women’s ordination, but eventually relented because he interpreted the success of many woman preachers as the blessing of the Holy Spirit.  (Within a few year’s of his death most Methodists no longer allowed women as preachers.)  This is similar to the understanding of revival that Edwards’ had.  He was not completely comfortable with what was happening, but felt that it was the work of the Holy Spirit.

The strength and weakness of The Rise of Evangelicalism is that it attempts to paint a broad brush view of the whole English speaking world.  So it is both too detailed in some area for some readers, and to brief for some other readers.  It is a good introduction and it includes enough that readers that it is more than just the superficial story that we tell ourselves.  Not all that happened was good and Noll does include critique as well as praise.

As I usually feel with Noll, I want him to do more to directly apply the history to our current situation.  But because Noll is a good historian, he does not.  Many others do not have this compunction, and unfortunately, most also do not have Noll’s historical chops and so tell the story wrong.

The older I get the more I think we need history to help us avoid problems in the modern world.  Evangelicals are not historically minded for the most part.  But we should be.  We believe that God often does a new work, but tend to forget that sometimes God withdraws from an area as well.  And we forget that all new work has growing pains and is always corrupted by the previously mentioned sin.

The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys Purchase Links: Paperback


A paperback copy of the book was provided by Intervarsity Press for purposes of review.  I have given away the paperback.

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