The American Evangelical Story

By Douglas A. Sweeney
Grand Rapids : Baker (2005). 208 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Larry Pettegrew
17.1 (Spring 2006) : 130-131

The number of books published in the last forty years on the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism is amazing. Not too many years ago, about the only book available was written by a theological liberal trying to disparage fundamentalism. But here is another fine, well-informed, well-written historical survey of evangelicalism.

Douglas Sweeney is associate professor of church history and the history of Christian thought, and director of the Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He begins his study with a survey of definitions of evangelicalism, including the rather well-known definition by David Bebbington that characterizes evangelicalism as a movement based on conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. Sweeney defines the movement as follows: “Evangelicals comprise 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” (24). Evangelicalism’s uniqueness, Sweeny says, is best defined by its adherence to “(1) beliefs most clearly stated during the Protestant Reformation and (2) practices shaped by the revivals of the so-called Great Awakening” (24).

Chapter two describes the eighteenth-century revivals, with the contributions of the Puritans, Pietists, and Moravians, as well as the key revivalists—John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards. Chapter three surveys the theological developments after the Great Awakening, including a brief look at the major parties (New Lights, Old Lights, Old Calvinists, and the New Divinity), the rise of the denominations, and the Second Great Awakening. Chapter four surveys the rise of evangelical missions.

Perhaps the most unusual chapter in the book describes the racial issues of evangelicalism. Sweeney writes, “The pages that follow offer a brief narrative history of the relationship between black and white evangelicals during the formative years of the evangelical movement, focusing closely on early white outreach to slaves and the subsequent rise of independent black denominations” (109).

Sweeney next surveys the rise of the Holiness, Pentecostals, and Charismatic movements, identifying the contributions of such people and organizations as Phoebe Palmer, Asa Mahan, the Keswick Convention, Charles Parham, the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship, Pat Robertson, the Calvary Chapel movement, and the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. A charismatic (apparently combined with neo-Pentecostals in the author’s understanding) is defined as “those who have taken Pentecostalism into the mainline as well as into the realm of nonaligned congregations” (149). Sweeney points out that the impact of the Charismatic movement on the evangelical movement has been huge. In the author’s words, “[D]ue to the success of Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard (among other, similar groups), Pentecostal worship practices have infiltrated the mainline. Wimber alone published scores of the popular ‘praise songs’ now used in corporate worship on nearly every part of the globe. Moreover, his California-style charismatic liturgy—with its pop music, open collars, and come as-you-are informality—has effected a massive change in the way most of us ‘do church’” (151).

Sweeney ends his study with a survey of the fundamentalist and neoevangelical movements. He insightfully says that the story that the rise of dispensationalism ended evangelicals’ interest in social action “is full of hyperbole.” Though kernels of truth in the story as it is usually told are present, and though the kernels heightened the fundamentalists’ differences with liberals, “many dispensationalists showed more love to the poor than social gospel partisans (who sometimes talked a better game than they actually played)” (164).

Of course, the interpretation of historical events can sometimes be debatable. In the split between the fundamentalists and the neoevangelicals in the middle of the twentieth century, for example, Sweeney seems to blame “right-wing fundamentalist leaders” in the South who turned their backs on Billy Graham for the “rift in the evangelical world” (177). One could certainly argue that it would seem to be more accurate to blame Billy Graham himself for this rift because of his decision in the 1950s to include theological liberals in the leadership of his crusades. Sweeney does at least mention that new approach of cooperative evangelism that Graham followed, beginning with the 1957 New York crusade.

Overall, this is fine survey of the history of the evangelical movement. It shows the big picture with clarity, and by its nature invites the reader to learn more about an interesting movement within Christianity.