The Rise of Evangelicalism

By Mark A. Noll
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2003). 330 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Larry Pettegrew
16.1 (Spring 2005) : 171-173

This book is the first volume in a projected series entitled, “A History of Evangelicalism.” General editors for the series are David W. Bebbington and Mark Noll. Bebbington, who is to write the third volume in the series, previously published a defining volume focusing especially on British evangelicalism (Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730’s to the 1980’s). Noll, the author of this first volume is a well-known religious historian at Wheaton College. Projected volumes include “The Expansion of Evangelicalism” (The Age of More, Wilberforce, Chalmers, and Finney); “The Dominance of Evangelicalism” (The Age of Spurgeon and Moody); “The Disruption of Evangelicalism” (The Age of Mott, Machen, and McPherson); and “The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism” (The Age of Graham and Stott).

The Rise of Evangelicalismis a detailed chronological analysis of evangelicalism in the eighteenth century. Noll explains in his introduction that in this series the term “evangelical ” is to be understood in the sense that it arose in eighteenth-century Britain, not in the sense of Continental Protestantism where it means “protestant.” To describe the essence of evangelicalism, Noll recommends Bebbington’s four key ingredients: conversion, the Bible, activism (especially as demonstrated in evangelism), and crucicentrism (the centrality of the atonement). Noll also follows Bebbington’s thesis that evangelicalism is an eighteenth-century religious development from the Enlightenment. Emphasis in the series, writes Noll, is on “people and movements descended from the eighteenth-century British and North American revivals, but also on the Christian movements in the Englishspeaking world that . . . have embraced the historic evangelical principles” (19). Noll concludes his introduction by giving his purpose: “The major effort of this book is to provide a coherent, multinational narrative of the origin, development and rapid diffusion of evangelical movements in their first two generations” (24).

The first two chapters demonstrate the historical antecedents that led to evangelicalism. Basically these include political expansion, ecclesiastical expansion, and spiritual renewal among some religious groups. Chapter one of the book sets the stage for the study with a somewhat statistical analysis of the politics, populations, ecclesiastical geography, and religious situations of England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and the American colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Noll notes in passing that “evangelicalism would eventually flourish best in the kind of deregulated religious environment witnessed in the American middle colonies” (37). Chapter two develops what Noll considers to be the three main roots of evangelicalism: “an international Calvinist network in which English Puritanism occupied a central position, the pietist revival from the European continent and a High-Church Anglican tradition of rigorous spirituality and innovative organization” (50).

Chapters three through five survey the events leading to the emergence of evangelicalism. Chapters three and four explain the revivals in Britain and America from 1734-1745. Chapter five is Noll’s analysis of the evangelical revival and upsurge. He writes about the role of the Holy Spirit, the main revivalists, the flow of history, the rapid social and commercial expansion, and intellectual and psychological developments. Noll comments, “Awakeners were not cynical manipulators artificially crafting a new message for the sake of merely personal gain. They were rather adapters who themselves had found ‘true religion’ hidden within the older establishmentarian Protestantism, but who then displayed an almost intuitive ability to analyze the desires of others for whom the inherited ecclesiastical structures were proving irrelevant or inadequate. . . . . By setting aside earlier religious forms, the evangelicals did not think they were setting aside the faith once delivered, but rather adjusting it to the new social realities of the age” (149).

Chapters six through eight trace the dramatic growth of early evangelicalism. In chapter six, Noll explains the developments in evangelicalism from 1745- 1770 in several English countries and denominations. Noll rightfully points out the significance of John Wesley and George Whitefield. He says, “Never again would there be a single individual who, like Whitefield, enjoyed such full and beneficial connections with such a wide range of evangelicals” (191). Chapter seven describes the diversification of evangelicals, especially outside church boundaries. Chapter eight evaluates the approaches to social issues and the kind of social concerns (slavery, for example) to which evangelicals devoted themselves in the eighteenth century. Chapter nine, “True Religion,” points out some of the features and characteristics of eighteenth-century evangelicalism: gender, theology, hymns, and Christian experience.

The Rise of Evangelicalismis a good start to the five-volume series. Noll has researched hundreds of primary and secondary sources, and the footnotes are full of information on how to learn more about the particulars. He includes dozens of interesting tidbits— like the eleven most reprinted hymns of early evangelicalism (175). Or, though all students of church history have heard of the Aldersgate experience of John Wesley, probably most have not known that this experience did not necessarily settle Wesley’s doubts, but that “often in later life Wesley would return to doubt the conclusive character of his Aldersgate experience” (97). With this information comes a footnote referring the reader to a source, Aldersgate Reconsidered. In addition, the contributions of many early evangelicals—the famous and the not so famous—are clearly presented in the narrative with just enough detail to whet the reader’s appetite for more study. Only once does Noll return to his oft-repeated criticism of evangelicalism that “the remarkable effects from concentrating on Christian experience as depicted in Scripture were often matched by the deliberate devaluation of intellectual tradition” (261).

The weakness of the book is its broadness. By focusing on both British and American evangelicalism, the work occasionally becomes tedious, and reads like a textbook—which it probably is. Still, the afore-mentioned “interesting tidbits” preserve its vitality, at least to some degree. This book is recommended for those who are serious about learning their evangelical heritage.