Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be

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Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington, George M. Marsden
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    , November
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Regardless of his impact on American politics, the unchurched, rule-breaking, and divisive President Donald J. Trump has been a boon for the academic study of an important group of his supporters, evangelical Christians. Editor Mark A. Noll makes this point quite clear in his introduction to Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be. Practically all of the eighteen scholars who contributed to this thoughtfully organized and well-written anthology, edited by Noll, David W. Bebbington, and George M. Marsden, are Trump opponents. Less than a third of contributors make their stance explicit (probably because some of the contributions are not original and have been published before), but it is not hard for an alert reader to determine where the others stand. The figure 81 percent, the proportion of the white evangelical 2016 electorate who cast a ballot for the boastful, ultrarich, and twice-divorced adulterer, pops up in nearly half the essays.

For all of this, however, this collection is almost entirely concerned with digging deeply into the scholarship surrounding modern evangelicalism. Its editors, the three most influential evangelical historians now researching and writing, each have more than one essay. As academics, not political commentators, many contributors are wont to root the movement as far back as they can, at least to the 16th century; they also seek to make clear that evangelicalism is not limited, as some may think, to the New World. Perhaps the most influential of the contributors is Bebbington, of the University of Stirling in Scotland, whose 1989 definition of evangelicalism is widely accepted: namely, biblicism (that the Bible contains all the religious truths one needs), crucicentrism (that Christ’s death on the cross is required for an individual’s salvation), conversionism (that a sinner’s conversion is central to becoming a Christian), and activism (that action toward winning others to the faith is required).

So widely accepted are these four components of evangelicalism that they are referred to in the scholarly evangelical world as the Bebbington quadrilateral, but for some their multisyllabic and Latinate wording underscores that some of the essays in the book edge over the line from history to an abstract and sometimes off-putting theology. But this work’s value is not compromised if readers skip a sentence or paragraph or two—though not when reading Bebbington’s essay “The Nature of Evangelical Religion,” in which he carefully and clearly describes his quadrilateral. Likewise, Beeson Divinity School Dean Douglas Sweeney’s essay on historical writings about evangelicalism proves that historians even from seminary settings do not have to lay aside their facility with plain language as they seek to clarify where research has taken scholars; it is one of the finest pieces in this collection.

A number of intramural struggles among evangelicals surface, one of the main ones involving the question of whether Pentecostals ought to be included in the fold. That one is not anywhere near as settled as whether to embrace Bebbington’s quadrilateral, and there is still a good bit of debate about how instantaneous one’s conversion has to be to be authentic. Rather quickly, readers might find themselves in the never-never theological land of how many angels can dance on head of a pin.

All that being said, this collection of essays should easily become the starting point for future generations of scholars, journalists, and commentators who now blithely toss off easy-sounding comments about evangelicals but need to know the background whereof they speak. That is probably too much to expect, given how the same folk just as easily ignore or overlook the religious context of people in the public eye. Trump may have been the catalyst for the publisher and editors of the book, but he is certainly not its subject; that effort, and his actual connection to evangelicalism, if any, remains to be explored in depth in another book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

H. Larry Ingle is emeritus professor of history at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

Date of Review: 
March 5, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark A. Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame.

David W. Bebbington has taught at the University of Stirling since 1976.

George M. Marsden is Francis A. McAnaney Profess Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame.



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