Making Evangelical History

Faith, Scholarship and the Evangelical Past

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Andrew Atherstone, David Ceri Jones
Routledge Studies in Evangelicalism
  • New York, NY: 
    , March
     310 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Making Evangelical History, British scholars Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones have assembled a dozen essays describing the work of historians of evangelicalism reaching back to the 18th-century revivals. The book is thus a celebration of a field that has come into its own only in the last generation, as this book’s own essays make clear.

The writers are all scholarly, from fairly junior to the most senior (the stellar Mark Noll and David Bebbington complete the volume), while the historians profiled in each chapter range from the decidedly amateur to, well, Noll and Bebbington themselves. Thus, the book begins with John Gillies’s official biography of George Whitefield at the heart of the early transatlantic revivals and concludes with the work of Andrew Walls, Brian Stanley, Dana Robert, and Mark Noll, all of whom paint the history of evangelicalism on a global canvas.

Along the way, we meet a motley group indeed, from the evangelical statesman J. C. Ryle, Anglican bishop of Liverpool, to missionary Geraldine Guinness Taylor (a member of both the famous brewing family and the China Inland Mission family), to small-town Canadian pastor Arnold Dallimore, who devoted much of his life to a massive biography of George Whitefield.

Biography is, indeed, the main genre in this tradition, and edifying biography in particular. Erasmus Middleton’s four-volume Biographia Evangelica, published in the late 18th century, sets a formidable standard, while Iain Murray’s many 20th-century biographies remain in print to inspire and instruct the faithful to this day.

Not surprisingly, Anglo-Americans get almost all the attention until the last essay on historians of the recent worldwide efflorescence of evangelicalism. The shining exception is Richard Burgess’s study of West African Ogbu Kalu, at once a leader in and student of Pentecostalism in that region burgeoning with indigenous evangelical movements.

The main historiographical controversy at the heart of this tradition is providentialism: the extent to which the (believing) historian ought to trace the hand of God in events not interpreted with divine authority by prophets, as in the Bible. Historians from Gillies to Murray stoutly maintain that the Bible furnishes enough knowledge about God’s ways to guide the historian to discern the work of the Holy Spirit in genuine revival. The recent generation of scholars who have done so much to bring evangelicalism into the mainstream of historical work—from Timothy Smith to W. R. Ward to George Marsden to Bebbington and Noll—eschew providentialism and instead seek to account for what is “discussable” within the scholarly guild, to the consternation of their providentialist counterparts. (One of the flashpoints in this controversy has been, indeed, the career of Whitefield, with Dallimore’s traditional biography representing the good old ways and Harry Stout’s The Divine Dramatist [Eerdmans, 1991] offering the clear alternative.)

The other issue that emerges from time to time is that of edification. Historical accounts of evangelicalism traditionally have focused on educating and exhorting their audiences to seek a fresh revival of evangelical fervor, right up to Murray’s work in our own time. The contemporary scholarly leaders are willing to engage Christians in edifying reflection on history (Marsden and Noll in particular have written journalistic articles, book chapters, and entire books that offer lessons from history for receptive believers), but they also, like the eminent Christian historian Herbert Butterfield of a previous generation, select the appropriate rhetoric for their intended audiences: sometimes the general scholarly world, other times their fellow Christians.

Alas, these themes do not receive anything like sustained treatment in this volume. Despite the efforts of the editors to highlight them in the introduction, the essays themselves are quite discrete case studies that treat their subjects nicely on their own terms but fail to contribute explicitly to any thematic conversation among them. As such, this book is very much “inside baseball,” as the Americans say. Serious practitioners of the art described herein will have to question the essays carefully for grist for these larger mills, but such an interrogation will doubtless be rewarding.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University, Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.

Date of Review: 
August 6, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Atherstone is Latimer Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, University of Oxford. He is co-editor of Evangelicalism and the Church of England in the Twentieth Century (2014) and The Routledge Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism (2018).

David Ceri Jones is Reader in Early Modern History at Aberystwyth University. He is Co-Editor of George Whitefield: Life, Context, and Legacy (2016), and The Routledge Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism (2018).


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