Gospel Witness Through the Ages
A History of Evangelism
- ISBN: 9780802877284
- Published By: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
- Published: February 2022
Church history can be interpreted as a narrative of conflict and dysfunction, and we would not be hard pressed to find evidence of that. But it can also be interpreted in light its mission to the world, as the story of evangelism. David M. Gustafson emphasizes the latter in his comprehensive history of evangelism: Gospel Witness Through the Ages: A History of Evangelism. “This book,” Gustafson writes, “examines persons, movements, and methods that have been used in the history of the church to communicate the gospel” (10).
Without denying ecclesial dysfunctions and conflicts, Gustafson gives primary attention to the church’s missional advancement in a fascinating tour of its history. “To reflect on the history of evangelism is to reflect on the church,” the author notes, “because evangelism is not accidental, coincidental, or additional, but essential to the church’s nature” (1-2).
Gustafson walks the reader through the centuries, from the early church to the modern age, introducing evangelistic heroes (and failures) along the way. In a well-written and engaging text, he demonstrates how the gospel theme has continued unbroken over the ages. This is accomplished through powerful, compelling narratives, which are the greatest strength of the book.
Gustafson uses colorful stories as he introduces an impressive parade of notable ministry leaders through inspiring biographical sketches such as St. Patrick’s labors to Christianize Ireland, the urban evangelistic endeavors of Salvation Army founders, William and Catherine Booth, and the courageous martyrdom of Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake for his beliefs. Reading this book feels like a stroll through the Evangelism Hall of Fame.
Contemporary implications can be easily drawn from Gustafson’s astute observations of historic evangelistic methodologies, which were continuously adapted to address contextual complexities and concerns. The utilization of innovative technology, for instance, has been a consistent mark of evangelistic effectiveness in every age (from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg). It is also noteworthy that seasons of persecution were often accompanied by exponential conversion growth. The chapter on evangelism in the early church echoes Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, reminding us of Tertullian’s observation, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of church.” Sadly, as the church became more institutionalized, it languished in complacency and evangelism became “a matter of convincing nominal Christians that they needed to be converted to Christ” (81). The final chapter, permeated with hope, discusses current missional endeavors that are being built on the foundations laid by earlier evangelists, and leaves the reader feeling that more is yet to come.
The sweeping scope of historic evangelism ensures that not every nook and cranny of the topic can be explored, but I do wish this book would have devoted more attention to the holiness movement associated with the Second Great Awakening, which bridged frontier evangelism and Pentecostalism. The evangelistic effectiveness of Charles Finney and D. L. Moody, rightfully noted in the text, would never have occurred apart from the spiritual atmosphere created by holiness revivalism. Gustafson touches briefly on this movement, but omits such great holiness evangelists as Phoebe Palmer, considered the mother of American holiness revivalism; John Inskip, the founder of the National Camp Meeting Association; and Hannah Whitehall Smith, who ministered to countless thousands in the late 19th century. Nevertheless, space limitations made it impossible to include everyone’s favorite evangelists, as Gustafson readily acknowledges, saying “this does not imply that they are unimportant or did not contribute to the practice of evangelism” (12).
One beautiful strength of this work is its intentional inclusiveness. While acknowledging obvious traditional giants such as Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley, Gustafson also highlights the evangelistic exploits of several female evangelists and a good number of non-White European ministers who have been less prominent (and often omitted) in other historic evangelism/revivalism accounts.
Thought provoking discussion questions are included at the end of each chapter, which can be used for group discussion or personal reflection. Gospel Witness Through the Ages will prove a valuable resource for seminary students, pastors, and other Christian leaders, providing assistance for preaching, teaching, and evangelizing with contextual awareness.
Mark O. Wilson is associate professor of Christian ministry and religion program coordinator at Southern Wesleyan University, South Carolina.Mark O. WilsonDate Of Review:March 28, 2023