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The Rise of the Evangelicals
Evangelicalism was once a tiny reform movement, one that was amazingly successful, says Mark Noll.
Mark Noll's The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys recently won a 2005 Christianity Today book award. In it, Noll traces the early influences and the surprising growth of a movement of individuals seeking true religion. Noll is the McManis professor of Christian thought, and co-founder and director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, at Wheaton College. He spoke with Christianity Today online assistant editor Rob Moll.
What were some of the early influences on evangelicalism?
Evangelical Christianity in the 18th century represented something new but not in the sense of a creation out of nothing. There were very strong tributaries that led into early evangelicalism. Of those tributaries, three were most important. The Anglican background as a form of Reformation Protestantism was critical, particularly the four movements within Anglicanism that had stressed the value of small groups meeting together to encourage people in ethical living. These reforming societies were sponsored and defended quite strongly by John Wesley's father. It's that movement out of which the Wesleys themselves emerged.
The second strand is a more distinctly reformed or Calvinistic Protestantism in the Puritan movement and then more generally in the dissenting churches of Britain. This was a movement that broke with Anglicanism on questions of church order, but kept the sheer, broad, reformation Protestant inheritance that stressed more greatly the Calvinist distinctives of the sovereignty of God in salvation, the apprehension of Christian assurance through the work of the Holy Spirit, and other Calvinistic emphases from the Reformation. This was a strand that was very important with Jonathan Edwards in America and with George Whitefield in England.
A third strand, and in some ways the most important of all, though also the most distant from the Anglo world, was European pietism. It's been one of the great contributions of the work of Professor W. R. Ward, to show the extensive connections between the pietist movements of Germany and Holland and even France, and what we now know as evangelicalism in the English-speaking world. So, on any number of particulars, the European pietists pioneered what became distinctives as English and American evangelicals. These included field preaching, special teaching and preaching aimed at young people, the writing of innovative hymns, the singing of these hymns outside of church, and small groups (which date from the 1670s and were the prototype for the Wesleyan cell groups). Those Wesleyan classes under girded the evangelical movement in Britain and eventually played a very strong role in America as well.
You make a lot of connections to continental pietism, especially the Moravians, which were surprisingly strong.
The influences that came from continental pietism were very specific with the Wesley brothers. They were more general with some of the other leaders, and they were most diffuse, with the Americans and the Scots, who were furthest away. Those influences included some important individuals. The Moravian leader August Gottlieb Spangenberg was the individual who was on board a ship with the Wesleys when they traveled to Georgia in 1736, and he was able to talk with them readily. He shared with them a desire for true religion, a desire for heart religion, a desire for real Christianity, all of which they also were looking for. But he had a confidence in divine grace and a relaxation in accepting that grace, which was very strange for the Wesleys.
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