Natasha’s Study: The American Evangelical Story

Today for “Natasha’s Study” I am reviewing the book, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement by Dr. Douglas A. Sweeney.

The American Evangelical Story

Why I picked up this book:

I haven’t read a lot of history since finishing seminary, but this was one of the books I have wanted to read for some time.

Who Should Read The American Evangelical Story:

There is a lot of debate and uncertainty right now, both inside and outside of the American church, regarding the word “evangelical.” People are struggling to determine what the term actually means. Some are discouraged by the way the word has been associated with politics, and the right-wing political leanings. Others are discouraged by the evangelical history, particularly concerning its marginalization of People of Color (anyone who doesn’t identify as white) and women.

If these are your concerns or questions, then I would invite you to read this book.

What’s in Store for You:

Not only does Dr. Sweeney have a grasp of the evangelical history, he also presents his knowledge in a digestible format and language for readers. The content is not boring, and he does not leave out those who are not white and male. In fact, Dr. Sweeney highlights the work and contributions of women throughout the book. He commits a whole chapter to the “Evangelical History in Black and White.” On the other hand, he doesn’t spend as much time discussing the contributions of other people groups, and I wonder if that is because the documentation or recorded history is simply not there. If that is the case, I hope we can agree that this is a problem, and I pray that someone does the hard work to bring the historical evangelical contributions of the Indigenous Peoples, Asian American, and Latino Americans to light.

 

Dr. Sweeney also commitments a chapter to “The Holiness, Pentecostal, and Charismatic Movements,” which are often overlooked in the evangelical conversation. As a matter-of-fact, academics and historians can isolate or marginalize people groups and their religious contributions simply by not labeling them “evangelical,” when in fact their fundamental understanding of the Christian faith might very much be in alignment with “evangelical” thought.

 

A basic understanding: What does evangelical mean? Who are these evangelical people?

 

“Evangelicals are gospel people…We are people of the Great Commission found in the Scripture text [of Matthew 28:18-20]…The English word evangelical comes from the Greek Word euangelion—meaning ‘gospel’ or, more literally ‘good news’ or ‘glad tidings’ (as in, ‘I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people’ [Luke 2:10]). As Timothy George defined us in Christianity Today, ‘Evangelicals are a worldwide family of Bible-believing Christians committed to sharing with everyone everywhere the transforming good news of new life in Jesus Christ, an utterly free gift that comes through faith alone in the crucified and risen Savior.”

 

The author understands evangelicalism in this way:

Evangelicals compromise a movement that is rooted in classical Christian orthodoxy, shaped by a largely Protestant understanding of the gospel, and distinguished from other such movements by an eighteenth-century twist. Put more simply (though less precisely), evangelicals are a movement of orthodox Protestants with an eighteenth-century twist. We are certainly not the only authentic Christians in the world, nor are we the only ones to whom the term evangelical applies. But we are unique in our commitment to gospel witness around the world. Our uniqueness is best defined by our adherence to: (1) beliefs most clearly stated during the Protestant Reformation and (2) practices shaped by the revivals of the so-called Great Awakening.  

Second, evangelicals are descendants of the Protestant Reformation with a commitment to the orthodoxy (i.e., right doctrine and right worship) expressed in the ancient Christian creeds and promoted further by Reformers such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin—especially with regard to the gospel message.

 

The author goes from defining evangelicalism to discussing the movement, beginning with the eighteenth-century revival known as The Great Awakening. He highlights the contributions of key leaders like George Whitefield and John Edwards, while also sharing a great bit of detail about lesser known leaders and contributors to the movement. He transitions from The Great Awakening to discuss the institutionalism of the movement, specifically discussing the conflicts of doctrine and denominations, while also featuring the transitions that took place during the Second Great Awakening. This period was followed by the rise of evangelical missions and missions agencies.

 

My personal take-aways?

Given the definition of evangelical and the understanding of evangelicalism as shared above, I am committed to maintaining the gospel-centric integrity and use of the word. It was encouraging to read and understand that we are not the only ones having these debates, there is a long history of Jesus-loving, Bible-believing, and well-intentioned Christians that have been on both sides of these varying debates throughout American history. We have struggled not only to define who we are, but also how we will work with each other in spite of our differences.

 

I appreciate that the author is honest in his telling of history, particularly regarding the evangelical movement and its sins of racial prejudice. This is why “most black Christians, though evangelical by many definitions, resist identifying closely with the evangelical movement…Though evangelicalism has always been an ecumenical movement, its racial sins have often precluded the involvement of black Christians in its leading institutions.”

 

I also appreciate that each chapter concludes with a list of suggestions for further reading.

 

Quotable:

“Evangelicals care about nothing more than evangelizing the world.  This has always been the case—ever since the Great Awakening.” – Douglas A. Sweeney

 

“The evangelical movement has suffered from the sins of racial prejudice ever since its first emerged from the eighteenth-century Great Awakening. While evangelicals did not invent the sins of racism or ethnocentrism, the slave trade, segregation, discrimination, or racial hate groups, literally millions of white evangelicals has either participated in or sanctioned one of more of these things, distorting their common witness to the gospel.”

 

“Evangelicalism is not fundamentalism and/or neoevangelicalism [or new evangelicals]. Rather, the evangelical movement dates from the early eighteenth century—preceding the rise of fundamentalism by almost two hundred years.”

 

Next Up on this Topic:

“Awakening the Evangelical Mind” by Owen Strachan

 

© Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2017

 

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