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.
But the spectrum approach also proves unruly. A dizzying array of figures populate these pages, with the individuals mentioned in the subtitle making only token appearances. (Thomas Chatterton Hammond, a little-known Irish-Australian clergyman, shows up on page 199, while the flamboyant Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson does not arrive until page 214.)
The right end of the spectrum comes into focus as fundamentalists separate themselves from evangelicalism—a development that Treloar insists took place after World War I, even though The Fundamentals were published between 1910 and 1915. But the left end remains vague, as Treloar stretches it to include men such as the progressive Woodrow Wilson, the socialist Sherwood Eddy, and the Federal Council of Churches architect Samuel McCrea Cavert. Considering that evangelicals defined themselves against the very things that these men stood for, it makes little sense to tuck them cozily under one big tent.
Treloar’s attention to the wider English-speaking world is also a strength and a weakness of the book. Of the five authors in the series, only one (Noll) was based in the United States, and this perspective means that readers familiar with only American evangelical history encounter much new material. Treloar, an Australian, taps archival sources not commonly used by American scholars and melds voices from around the British Commonwealth into the debates he covers. In this way, he makes good on the series’s promise to help explain how a movement once limited to the (impressive) ambit of George Whitefield’s travels came to circle the globe. This is not just an American, or even just a transatlantic, story.
Understandably, however, wide geographic focus comes at the expense of contextual specificity. It is not clear, for example, that all of the voices Treloar brings into his discussions thought of themselves as interlocutors or even knew of one another’s existence. He does not describe the circulation of the periodicals he uses as primary sources or map connections among the church and parachurch organizations to which people belonged. As a result, the first and last thirds of the book feel abstract, like a meeting of minds who likely never met. A sense of disembodiment is not uncommon in works of intellectual and theological history, but accounts of real-time arguments help to bring such works down to earth. Personality conflicts and ideological fisticuffs are in short supply here.
The middle third of the book is quite different. It focuses on World War I, an event that Treloar contends has been under-studied in religious history. (Philip Jenkins’s The Great and Holy War, which was published too recently to contribute more than a footnote to Treloar’s book, begins to fill this gap, but much more can and should be written.) This section is firmly, and often movingly, rooted in historical context, describing the ways men mobilized and ministered, doubted, and died.
The problem in this section is that the gradations of evangelical belief and practice that figure so prominently in other parts of the book start to disappear. Some of this blurring is warranted, historically, as the war made common cause among people who might otherwise disagree about the chronology of Genesis 1 or the role of indigenous leaders in global missions. Here, though, Treloar writes of “evangelicals” who are undifferentiated among themselves or from anyone else. Sample sentences, from the span of a few pages in chapter 6, read, “Evangelicals were well aware of the temptations that accompanied military life. … Evangelical ideals of womanhood readily adapted to the demands of war. … The norm among evangelicals was a measured acceptance of the war and the resolution to do what they could to secure victory on both the home and foreign fronts.” None of these sentences is footnoted to a source for greater elaboration. It is impossible to discern precisely who or what Treloar is describing.
The End of an Era
The Disruption of Evangelicalism not only marks the end of a five-book series but also suggests the end of an era in evangelical scholarship. In the acknowledgements for volume 1, Noll thanks the “network of historians connected by Wheaton College’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals,” an institute that Noll and fellow historian Nathan Hatch founded in 1982. The ISAE was one of several ventures (including conferences, fellowship programs, and the magazine Books & Culture) established in the 1980s and ’90s to study and further evangelicalism. These ventures drew funding from the Lilly Endowment, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Luce Foundation, and they involved an identifiable cohort of scholars, almost all of them white, male, theologically attuned, self-identified evangelicals. In scholarly circles, these men were sometimes jokingly called the “evangelical mafia.”
The ISAE shut down in 2014. Books & Culture followed in 2016. Noll and other members of the “evangelical mafia” have retired or moved into administrative positions. Books about evangelicals continue to appear steadily, but fewer and fewer of them reflect the sympathetic, theologically-centered insider perspective of the previous generation’s work. To cite just a few recent examples, Bethany Moreton, Timothy Gloege, Kevin Kruse, and Darren Grem have all examined the influence of American business cultures on evangelicalism. In addition to this “business turn,” gender and sexuality have become central concerns in studies of evangelicalism. Work on evangelical ideas, such as Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason, has become more pointed. The current bestselling book on the topic, Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, focuses on politics rather than on theology, is highly critical of evangelicalism, and is written by an East Coast journalist with numerous writing awards but no insider credentials. The field is changing, dramatically.
Treloar writes about one era of disruption in evangelicalism. His book appears at another. It remains to be seen whether polarization will rend the movement this time or if theological creativity and a robust, irenic center can emerge again to carry the day.
Elesha Coffman is assistant professor of history at Baylor University and author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (Oxford University Press).