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The Rise of Evangelicalism

Category Articles
Date July 3, 2004

The age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys

By Mark A. Noll (IVP. 316 pages. £16.99 ISBN 1 844740013)

This, the first of a series of five projected volumes entitled A History of Evangelicalism, covers the period from the 1730s to the 179Os. Two centuries earlier an ‘evangelical’ was the equivalent of ‘a gospeller’. But after the Reformation evangelicals in Britain moved in different directions on some issues and it needed the Evangelical Revival to begin a new unity across denominations and across the Atlantic divide.

Dr. Noll tells the story of how this happened, with a broad sweep from Moravians down to fringe men in North America. Portraits of the main leaders are all here and more sympathetically handled than is common among university historians. As a textbook for students this work is going to be valuable for years to come although we think the material is too densely compact and too kaleidoscopic to make enthralling reading. At times, it seems to us, Dr. Noll is attributing 19th-century patterns to the 18th (i.e. ‘revivalistic practices’, p.129). Occasionally we doubt the author’s familiarity with some of the original sources. For instance, it is said, ‘Erskine was no aristocrat’, but John Erskine was in the family line of Lord Cardross, owned the Cardross estates and both his mother and wife belonged to titled families. More important, it is odd to speak of ‘the negligible results’ of Brainerd’s work (p.212n) and then later to say ‘he reported surprising receptivity to the gospel message he preached’ (p. 218n).

If it is asked how Noll’s work carries forward an understanding of evangelicalism it might be said that it does so in the way it puts the gospel movement into the larger picture of structural change taking place in 18th-century society. He emphasises that there were non-spiritual causes that provided ‘a propitious moment for a new evangelical movement …. It presented internal, psychological resources to meet the external, social, challenge of the century’ (pp. 135-36). In other words, by studying the wider picture we can the better understand why revival occurred. Noll thinks that this viewpoint is consistent with evangelical convictions for surely God works through second causes (as the Pax Romana in the first century). But the New Testament itself never so interprets the success of the gospel, rather it tells us that the eloquence of a Paul or a Whitefield would be powerless in the presence of man in sin. There has to be the direct intervention of God.

The modern authors to whom Noll frequently directs us, such as Frank Lambert (Inventing the ‘Great Awakening’) and Harry Stout (The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism), far from asserting this, are men who see little need to resort to a supernatural explanation at all. Just how two standpoints collide can be seen in reference to the French Enlightenment – a movement characterised by its disbelief in divine revelation. Noll follows the modern school in thinking that the doubt created by the Enlightenment led to the strong evangelical concern for assurance of salvation (pp.140-1), whereas the 18th-century evangelicals themselves believed that it is only God convicting of sin that makes men anxious about their souls and afraid of his wrath.

There is much information here, but we regret the weakness in presenting the gospel message as the power that again turned the world upside down. The hostility of the natural man (and of ‘churchmen’) is also played down. In these respects the conciliatory and non-exclusive features of present day evangelicalism are being read back into history, but Whitefield’s words remain true, ‘To be a true Christian is really to become a scandal’.

Iain H. Murray

From ‘Evangelicals Now’, July 2004, with permission.

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