Geoffrey Treloar’s The Disruption of Evangelicalism: The Age of Torrey, Mott, McPherson and Hammond feels like the culmination of a very long project. Back in 2003, historian Mark Noll inaugurated InterVarsity Press’s five-volume series on the history of evangelicalism with The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys. He described the series as a whole, in the introduction to that book, as accessible to any reader, yet footnoted for scholars; global in scope, though grounded in the English-speaking world; and centered on “evangelical religion, as understood by the evangelicals themselves” while attending to historical context. Subsequent volumes appeared in chronological order, except for this one, which marks the end of the series but covers the penultimate time period, 1900–1940.
The early 20th century is generally considered the low point in the long sweep of evangelical history. Superstar evangelist Dwight L. Moody died in 1899, and his mantle would not be taken up by Billy Graham until after World War II. Key events, including World War I, the Great Depression, and the rise of fascism in Europe, offered little to cheer. The period also saw the infamous fundamentalist-modernist controversy, which split numerous denominations and religious institutions along lines of biblical interpretation, doctrine, openness to scientific inquiry, and posture toward the outside world.
In a move reminiscent of the “new academic hagiography” advocated by historian Rick Kennedy (see Chris Gehrz’s post at The Pietist Schoolman blog), Treloar seeks to rehabilitate this era, casting it as a time not of narrowness and rancor but of breadth and creativity. Instead of two hardened camps, fundamentalist and modernist, lobbing rhetorical shells between their respective seminaries, Treloar describes a wide spectrum of evangelicals with most of its vitality at the center. “Not all fundamentalists were the same; liberals varied in the degree of their liberality; and the centre was broad,” he writes. This perspective rescues little-known figures from obscurity, both expanding the roster of evangelicals and marking finer shades of differentiation among them.
A Wider Frame
The spectrum approach is a major strength and weakness for the book. On the positive side, Treloar is able to show how evangelicals accommodated differences of opinion on such matters as the role of the Holy Spirit and the need to balance evangelism with social service activities. Beneath the din of the strident voices that dominate other accounts of this period, Treloar argues, most evangelicals endeavored merely to live holy lives and make the world a little better for their neighbors, and they made good strides in both areas. At the level of leadership, rather than a cacophony of divisive, desperate attempts to make faith relevant in the modern era, Treloar sees a “flourishing of evangelical theology,” brimming with outstanding contributions from the center-left and center-right. Overall, Treloar deems early 20th-century evangelicals to have been enthusiastically ecumenical, a corrective to their portrayal as relentlessly fissiparous.