The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement

Douglas A. Sweeney Baker Academic, Grand Rapids August 1, 2005
Purchase

Sweeney, associate professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has written an excellent brief history of the evangelical movement in the United States. This is not an attempt to tell the history of evangelicalism by “chart[ing] evangelical history everywhere in the world but by focusing narrowly on what has been its prodigious global center” (p. 10). Sweeney’s outline of the book is clearly stated. “After providing a summary of recent debates concerning the scope of evangelicalism, I tell the story of its birth in the transatlantic Great Awakening and its development in the United States through many cultural changes and challenges. Along the way, I try to account for the broad range of individuals, institutions, issues, and doctrines that have made us who we are” (p. 10).

An opening chapter briefly discusses the problem of definition of such a diverse movement. Sweeney’s proposal is not the final word on the subject, but it does “set the stage for the story that follows: Evangelicals comprise a movement that is rooted in Christian orthodoxy, shaped by a largely Protestant understanding of the gospel, and distinguished from other such movements by an eighteenth century twist” (pp. 23–34). The “twist” is the impact of the Great Awakening—“a renewal movement that changed forever the course of history” (p. 25), particularly the history of Protestantism in North America.

In the second chapter Sweeney examines the eighteenth-century revival and argues that its lasting impact has been a “new sense of gospel urgency and a new spirit of cooperation” (p. 30). Although it does seem clear that the former remains characteristic of the evangelical movement, the latter is sometimes not so clearly seen. Of course Sweeney is aware of the degree to which evangelical history has been marked by disunity and conflict. His thesis, however, does seem accurate. Evangelicalism is a movement which includes a diversity of denominations, beliefs, practices, and traditions, and the Great Awakening played a major role in setting such a trajectory.

Sweeney’s treatment of the Second Great Awakening demonstrates the diversity within this period of revivals. From the Edwardsians in New England, to Charles Finney in New York, to the Arminians in the Cumberland River Valley in Kentucky and Tennessee, the revival was spread through a range of theological traditions. Although Sweeney sees Finney more positively than this reviewer does, it is agreed that Finney’s influence has been extensive.

Additional chapters treat the rise of evangelical missions, evangelicals and racial prejudice, and the impact of Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement. In a final chapter Sweeney discusses the impact on evangelicalism of both fundamentalism and the neoevangelical reform movement, thus again demonstrating the diversity within evangelicalism.

In summarizing the strengths and the major contribution of evangelicalism, Sweeney concludes that “evangelicalism functions as a renewal movement within the larger, universal church” (p. 184). Although “we have a tendency to be splitters, a trait that has aided our success in the modern economy of religion, . . . we also need to be joiners” (p. 184). In short, evangelicalism, a movement with a Reformation heritage and a Great Awakening “twist,” is marked by this inherent tension. When evangelicalism overemphasizes the Reformist tendency, it becomes schismatic and divisive. When it relaxes its revivalistic zeal, it becomes irrelevant.

The story of evangelicalism is just one chapter in the story of God’s amazing grace around the world. The author is an accomplished evangelical historian and theologian, and this work fulfills its purpose admirably. Experts and novices in evangelical historiography will benefit from reading this book. As an enjoyable and engaging history of evangelicalism this book is highly recommended. 

—Glenn R. Kreider

July 1, 2006
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2006 vol. 163 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

Subscribe Today