Encyclopedia Of Evangelicalism
Randall Balmer
Westminster John Knox, 664 pages, $29.95

To a deep-rooted evangelical, Randall Balmer's Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism reads like a family album. The brief, cross-referenced entries invite hunts after alma maters, favorite authors, personal heroes, and other close kin.

The encyclopedia might read like a family album to readers outside the evangelical tradition, too, but not in the best sense. Some of Balmer's portraits are sketchy, and some theological and institutional bloodlines are hard to trace. Readers must wonder what caused these flaws—the author's method, the scope of the project, or evangelicalism itself?

Evangelicals emerge in this book as a colorful and varied crew. Musician John Fischer appears next to flannelgraph, 18th-century Methodist John Fletcher, and Focus on the Family. Billy Graham receives a whole page—but so does Sam Bowers, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s. Balmer acknowledges that he has defined evangelicalism "rather broadly," possibly more broadly than many people featured in the book would prefer.

The bulk of the nearly 3,000 entries are individuals or institutions, though Balmer also throws in a few events (Great Awakening, prayer breakfasts), terms (born again, sanctification), and wild cards, like the entry on just—as in "Lord, we just wanna thank you."

Overall it is an impressive achievement for one scholar (most don't have the boldness to edit an encyclopedia, let alone write one). And naturally, the pool is deepest in the author's area of specialty: contemporary evangelical subculture. Every Christian pop band that made it onto any chart in the 1980s makes a showing in this book, as do Thomas Kinkade, W.W.J.D., and Kurt Warner.

Balmer, a professor of American religion at Columbia University (and a CT contributing editor), only uneasily claims this crew as his family. Evangelicalism is, as he notes in another book, his father's religion, and he sometimes struggles to love it. Still, he takes no particular glee in exposing family skeletons, and he skillfully uses terms and categories of thought that evangelicals themselves use.

An Encyclopedia's limits

Balmer's insider perspective should make this book palatable, even fun, for most evangelical readers. We remember sword drills and Amy Grant's "Baby, Baby" video. When Balmer points out that the Southern Baptist practice of scheduling revivals months in advance would make Jonathan Edwards spin in his grave, we know enough to chuckle.

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Some of the references that appeal to evangelical insiders might render the book confusing to others. Inherent challenges of the encyclopedia genre don't help. By nature, an encyclopedia offers snapshots rather than a coherent narrative. Also, by nature, an encyclopedia tends to be descriptive rather than prescriptive—more like a catalogue of wildflowers in a field than a list of plants for a formal garden. Furthermore, a single-author encyclopedia inevitably reflects the author's quirks.

This all contributes to a tangle that could trip up any reader in spots. Editorial quirkiness and subject sprawl do not unduly mar Balmer's evangelical family portrait—though some readers may chafe at the inclusion of Christians for Biblical Equality but exclusion of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, or wonder why the Newsboys merit an entry while the New International Version does not.

The greater flaw of this book is its vagueness regarding the structure of the evangelical family tree. Balmer's reluctance (or inability) to clearly define either the core or the boundaries of evangelicalism hampers the book's effectiveness, particularly if the reader is not an evangelical.

In his very brief preface, Balmer describes evangelicalism as a uniquely North American mix of Pietism, Presbyterianism, and Puritanism. His three-and-a-half-page evangelicalism entry glances at these three ancestral strains, then sketches a quick history from the First and Second Great Awakenings, to the Civil War, to the fundamentalist/modernist debate, and finally to the rise of Christian conservatism.

None of this explains where Pentecostals, who are very well represented in the book, fit in. Nor does it explain why a school like Calvin College, which identifies itself as Christian Reformed but not as evangelical, receives prominent mention.

Of course, most evangelicals don't need such explanations. They've seen enough Pentecostals and Calvin alumni around the family table to see the resemblance. But an outsider who merely catches Oral Roberts on TV might not get it.

Furthermore, the only evangelical beliefs noted in the evangelicalism entry are revivalism, biblical inerrancy, and dispensationalism. The much shorter evangelical entry highlights emphasis on conversion and a tendency to interpret the Bible literally, then shifts to a pronunciation lesson. (Balmer suggests that evangelicals usually use a short e in their name for themselves, while non-evangelicals usually use a long e.)

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Gaps in this definition of evangelicals correspond to gaps in Balmer's entries. Most significantly, Balmer slights evangelicals' passion for missions and evangelism. The book has no entry for missions, just two sentences on witnessing, and three sentences on evangelism. There is also no mention of such widespread evangelistic formulas as the Four Spiritual Laws, Evangelism Explosion, or Contagious Christianity.

Shortchanging the mind

Balmer also gives short shrift to evangelicals' recent attempts to forge a more intellectually rigorous worldview. He does list many institutions of Christian higher education and more than a few scholars, particularly in his own field (American religious history), but the organization of the book relegates them to the fringes.

Specifically, the half-page neo-evangelicalism entry points out the intellectual contributions of such people as Harold John Ockenga and Carl F. H. Henry, but neither of these individuals nor neo-evangelicalism as a whole is ever mentioned in the evangelicalism entry. And while evangelical pop culture permeates the book, evangelical thought culture barely appears. Creationism is in; Intelligent Design is out. Tyndale House Publishing, home of the Left Behind series, has an entry. Eerdmans, Baker, InterVarsity Press, and Zondervan do not.

This book gives readers a lot of undifferentiated fringe. It is unclear why some entries are in the book at all. TV nun Mother Angelica apparently made it in because she has appeared on The 700 Club. There is no obvious reason for including Edward Hine, a 19th-century propagandist who believed that the British were the ten lost tribes of Israel.

By contrast, Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, 18th-century founder of the renewed Moravian Church, certainly deserves his entry, but the way it is written hardly suggests why. The entry has no cross-references and fails to link Zinzendorf to John Wesley, whom he strongly influenced in the areas of inner piety and exuberant missions. Zinzendorf comes across as a fringe figure, largely because his contributions to the evangelical core are not mentioned.

In some ways it is appropriate that a sprawling, unstructured subject has spawned a sprawling, unstructured book. An encyclopedia too narrowly constructed to include Canadian fundamentalist prophet William Aberhart, Reformed missionary to Muslims Samuel M. Zwemer, and thousands of people in between might hang together nicely, but it would not encompass evangelicalism.

It is to Balmer's credit that he can write intelligently on so much of the family. It's just unfortunate that this family album lacks a family tree.

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Elesha Coffman, former managing editor of Christian History, is a doctoral student in American Christianity at Duke University.

Related Elsewhere

Randall Balmer's Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism in North America is available at Christianbook.com, as are his other books including Growing Pains, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, and Grant Us Courage.

Christianity Today Editor-at-large Randall Balmer has written several articles for CT including:

2012: A School Odyssey | Baylor strives to go where no Christian university has gone before—in ten years. (Nov. 22, 2002)
Fundamentalist With Flair | Cantankerous Carl McIntire protested against nearly every major expression of 20th-century Christianity, and always with a flourish. (May 17, 2002)
The Wireless Gospel | Sixty-two years ago, Back to the Bible joined the radio revolution; now it is finding new media for its old message. A case study in evangelicals' love affair with communications technology. (Feb. 22, 2001)
The Kinkade Crusade | "America's most collected artist" is a Christian who seeks to sabotage Modernism by painting beauty, sentiment, and the memory of Eden. (Dec. 8, 2000)
Hymns on MTV | Combining mainstream appeal with spiritual depth, Jars of Clay is shaking up Contemporary Christian Music. (Nov. 15, 1999)
Hollywood's Renegade Apostle | Unless films like The Apostle succeed, other worthy motion pictures stand little chance of being produced. (April 6, 1998)
Still Wrestling with the Devil | A visit with Jimmy Swaggart ten years after his fall. (March 2, 1998)

Columbia University offers a brief sketch of Balmer's professional life, as well as his full curriculum vitae.

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