The Rise of the Evangelicals
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.
There were some other individuals who became very important. John Wesley got back to England from Georgia in 1738 and almost immediately took a trip to Eastern Saxony to visit Zinzendorf's Moravian turf. When he was there, he spent most of his time recording the testimony of conversions of ordinary Moravian people, some who had become leaders but not learned academics, and these people had a terrific influence on John Wesley.
Shortly after getting back from that trip to Saxony, John and Charles Wesley broke with the Moravians for some fairly complex theological reasons. But there was very strong personal influence.
Second, the Moravians were the pioneers in what we would today know as evangelical hymnody. Hymnody in Britain and in America had been singing the Psalms until Isaac Watts. There was a beginning of a non-Psalm hymn-singing, but this was given a terrific impetus by the Moravians who were writing all sorts of Christ-centered, grace-centered, conversion-centered hymns. Of course, Charles Wesley and many other leaders of the evangelical movement became deeply committed to this hymn-writing enterprise. The hymns were the Christian instruction and the Christian language of ordinary people and had a tremendous impact, both as expressing and teaching the rudiments of the newfound evangelical faith.
The third was the small groups. The Moravians had been practicing a kind of small-group organization from the 1670s that developed in a couple of different forms, and they brought that to London for other German speakers. They had no real interest in making English converts. They were just in Britain briefly before they headed off to Ireland and Georgia and other places. But so impressive were these meetings, and leading Anglicans were so longing for spiritual renewal, that some of them attended and took heart. John Wesley's own experience of grace at Aldersgate is at a Moravian-type small-group meeting in the spring of 1738.
And the Moravians were the first to be very successful in preaching to the slaves.
That would be a fourth thing. The Moravians were the era's most committed and most successful Protestant missionaries. In some ways they were only doing what the Jesuits and other Catholics had done for 150 years. They were the pioneers in preaching with any positive results to Native Americans and to African Americans. They were more successful at first in the West Indies but eventually on the continent too. And that missionary spirit obviously would have a tremendous impact on Protestants. although when we get to real serious English language cross-cultural missionary work, it comes more out of the Puritan strand and the English Baptists that lead to William Carey, but that's actually in the 1790s. So even the dates are significant. Moravians are doing cross-cultural missionary work in the early 1730s in Greenland, West Indies, and eventually the American continent with Native Americans. It's not until 1791 or 1792 that you get to Carey and the mission to India.
It can be easy to forget that evangelicalism is a very English phenomenon.
London is the key city for the evangelical movement at least to the time of the American Revolution and probably we could argue into the mid-19th century. London was the clearinghouse of people, ideas, books, and so forth.
Jonathan Edward's tract A Faithful Narrative, which is the key early document that more or less outlined what a local revival is supposed to look like, doesn't really make an impact until it's published in London. And that was already two years or more after the events he described had taken place. But once it's published in London with the approval of, among others, Issac Watts, who's fairly elderly by this time, then everybody hears about it. People are reading it in England and Scotland, and then they read about it in South Carolina, Philadelphia, and then eventually also in New England.
The publishing of A Faithful Narrative came about because there was already this network of leaders communicating their efforts in seeking "true religion."
The Puritan English dissenting strand of the Great Awakening contributed this reading network through New England, England, English dissenting churches, Scottish Presbyterian churches, and Presbyterian churches in Northern Ireland. The network was in place; they'd been sustained by some spiritual literature. Everybody knew the works of Thomas Boston, for example. That network sprang immediately to life and then became a conduit for publicity.
That news-spreading network was instrumental in stirring people's hearts, because it was the news of conversions that spread revival.
Right. What struck me about the mid-to-late 1730s is the presence throughout the English-speaking world of more or less self-contained revival movements. In London, Oxford, some of the western cities of England, a little bit in Yorkshire, Wales, Scotland, there's longing for revival in Dublin, North Ireland, activities in New England, a little bit in New Jersey, but there's not much coordination. But once the news begins to spread, then there's a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Almost overnight you get local phenomena seeming to appear similar. I think they probably were similar, although I think the romantic histories of the revival make it sound a little too similar.
But, publicity drives it. And that too is a characteristic following the Moravians, because Moravians were great letter writers, great reporters on the work of God—not just Moravians, but the German pietists who stayed closer to the Lutheran church and did a tremendous amount of letter writing and reporting on spiritual conditions way back in the 1670s. That was of tremendous importance. The first significant religious periodicals in the English-speaking world are all these revival journals that are tracking what the Holy Spirit is doing in other places.
After the Revolutionary War, evangelicalism in America, because of its entrepreneurial and independent character, was in a prime position to succeed in a new marketplace of religion.
In general throughout the 18th and on to the 19th century, the whole of the English-speaking world is moving away from traditional religion defined by respect for authority, respect for the past, respect for the tradition, and moving toward a more individualistic, pragmatic, and practical practice of Christianity.
But that general process is speeded up tremendously in the United States partly because of the sparse population spread over a huge area, partly because of the American Revolution which added a kind of democratic/republican ideology to the American mix, and also because of the leadership of people like Francis Asbury among Methodists and local Baptist leaders who didn't wait for anybody to tell them what to do but just got to work.
Evangelical movements are expanding in Britain, too, but much more slowly and always in a complex connection with the Church of England. The Church of England has some strong evangelical emphases, but it's still the established church. It's still the church that Parliament takes care of and is concerned about. It would be the same thing with the Church of Scotland—very strong evangelical elements, but Scotland is still the place dominated by the Church of Scotland—part of which is evangelical.
But in America, you get rid of the Church of Scotland, you get rid of the Church of England, and what are you left with? Well you're left with nothing except people who, like Asbury, know how to put it together themselves. Which is one reason the small-group feature of the Methodists is so important in the U.S. It doesn't take a minister, and it doesn't take seminary education. It just takes five or six people willing to meet and read the Bible together and ask what's the Lord doing to convict you of your sin.
While that was one of the strengths of evangelicalism, one of its weaknesses is that historically it's primarily a reform movement.
You're right. Almost universally, what evangelicalism has been great at doing is bringing life back to cold religious form. But, evangelicalism is a parasitic movement. The great evangelical leaders are not theoreticians of institutions. Some of them are very good theologians on questions of personal salvation. They're not theologians of culture, they're not theologians of society. There are problems with the Christian outreach that is just the theology of society, but there are also problems when the individual attention is so strong that culture and society is lost sight of.
This article first appeared on www.ChristianityToday.com.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.