Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail" still jolts the church today. "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner," King wrote, "but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice. … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."

No doubt King targeted many good white Christians with his damning critique. Shared faith could not overcome social conventions like segregation. Ever since white Baptists faithfully preached the gospel among black slaves, spiritual unity has mostly eluded the races in America. Even those first efforts were often tainted. Many slave owners worried that spiritual liberation would encourage slaves to pursue economic freedom. To reassure the owners, some evangelists made an unfortunate promise: The gospel they preached would not promote social change. Yet while many 19th-century evangelicals condoned slavery, other evangelicals led the way in treating slaves as spiritual equals.

Douglas Sweeney, associate professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, hopes that a better understanding of history can cause today's mostly white evangelical movement to confront the sins of its past and soothe the divide between black and white evangelicals. Race relations is only one of many topics covered in his short primer to evangelical history, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement (Baker Academic, 2005). In addition to challenging his readers, he seeks to encourage them with stories of repentance, sacrifice, and courage. As he explains in his preface, "My hope and prayer for the chapters that follow is that they … might be a memorial, a compilation of stones selected from the riverbed of our history that testify to God's faithfulness among us."

From "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" to praise songs

Sweeney's first chapter takes a stab at defining evangelicalism and concludes, "Evangelicals are a movement of orthodox Protestants with an 18th-century twist." Sweeney then starts his story with that twist, which suits his expertise in colonial American history, particularly Jonathan Edwards. He explains how the Great Awakening paved the way for an evangelical movement: "This was certainly not the first time the church had seen revival, but it was the first time that Protestants worked so well together; transcending their narrower, ethnic, regional, and denominational interests for the sake of cooperation in mission."

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But when evangelicalism began reaching out from its American context, Sweeney argues that the movement lost some of its integrity in translation: "Many patriotic Christians who loved the American way of life—and who prided themselves on the blessings of their nation's 'righteous empire'—often neglected the crucial task of distinguishing biblical Christianity from the rest of American culture."

No matter the era, evangelicalism has always imbibed some of American culture. Sweeney extends his survey to the contemporary era, where he explains trends that include the "mainstreaming" of charismatics and Pentecostals. He touches on groups like Calvary Chapel and Vineyard and shows how casual dressing and pop music eventually claimed a significant following among noncharismatic evangelicals.

Of course, no survey of evangelical history would be complete without a strong dose of the fundamentalist/modernist debates of the early 20th century. But Sweeney believes that evangelicals can no longer achieve unity by defining themselves against the extremes of fundamentalism or theological liberalism, as the neoevangelicals did. "In our own day, when most evangelical scientists support a form of theistic evolution and most evangelical Bible scholars practice higher criticism," Sweeney writes, "it may be difficult to imagine the fears of those who bucked these trends."

Looking ahead

Sweeney clearly aims The American Evangelical Story toward college and seminary students who need a quick primer in evangelical history. Knowing theology outpaces history at most seminaries, Sweeney assumes some doctrinal fluency on the part of his readers, such as a basic knowledge of competing eschatological viewpoints.

The suggestions for further reading direct interested students toward other valuable resources. In one such note Sweeney calls Mark Noll's American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction the "best scholarly survey of American evangelical history" and praises Noll's attention to politics, science, and culture. Perhaps this is why Sweeney reserves only one footnote for significant political developments from the last 25 years.

As a proud evangelical worried that the movement will fragment along secondary theological lines, Sweeney writes not only to inform readers about the past but also to speak to today's historical moment. He scolds some Calvinists for caring more about their own theological distinctives than evangelical cooperation. He chides evangelicals for not building enduring institutions and for neglecting black and Pentecostal believers.

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"Many despair over the likelihood of bringing evangelicals together, projecting a bear market for evangelical futures," he concludes. "Some analysts are calling for a major disinvestment. And the founding neoevangelical leaders are passing away. The question remains whether others will arise to take their place, finding a way to choreograph this massive, motley Christian movement without requiring its members (futilely) to march in single file." According to Sweeney, confronting the sins of our past and rejoicing in God's faithfulness over time can grant us incalculable wisdom and courage to face the next challenges.

Collin Hansen is an associate editor of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere:

More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine Christian History & Biography are also available.

The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement is available from and other book retailers.

Baker Academic has more information about the book.

Christianity Today's interview with Mark Noll on his The Rise of Evangelicalism is also available on our site. Books & Culture reviewed the book.

Previous Christian History Corners include:

Erasmus's Revolutionary 'Study Bible' | The spiritual father of so many English Reformers died at the hands of the church he refused to leave. (Jan. 13, 2006)
Campus Ministry Cambridge Style | The roots of InterVarsity and other evangelical college clubs (Jan. 6, 2006)
Dorothy Sayers: "The Dogma Is the Drama" | An interview with Barbara Reynolds. (Dec. 16, 2005)
Sharing Stories from the Heart | The lessons of history are fair game for use today. (Dec. 9, 2005)
Eat, Drink, and Relax | Think the Pilgrims would frown on today's football-tossing, turkey-gobbling Thanksgiving festivities? Maybe not. (Nov. 18, 2005)
Is It Wrong-Headed to Translate the Gospel for Culture? | Christian History Corner takes on the Christ and culture debate. (Oct. 28, 2005)
Old Words, Vibrant Faith | Christian pop/rock band Jars of Clay explains why the church needs more Redemption Songs. (Oct. 21, 2005)
J.S. Bach: For the Glory of God | Such humility is exceedingly rare among those who have gained worldwide fame (Oct. 14, 2005)
Bringing Peace to Paradise | The wave of the future needs the wisdom of the past (Oct. 7, 2005)
Emergents, Meet Saints! | The wave of the future needs the wisdom of the past (Sept. 30, 2005)
From Mutual Aid to Global Action | How the Anabaptist emphasis on practical acts of love led a tightly knit enclave to reach out to the world. (Sept. 23, 2005)