Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism

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Heath W. Carter, Laura Porter
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , March
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The first book on church history I ever read was Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, by Mark Noll (Baker 1997 [first edition]; 2012 [third edition]). The author’s name was unfamiliar to me as a freshman undergraduate student, but as fifteen years have passed and I have pursued further studies in American religious history, Mark Noll’s legacy in the field has become impossible (and unwise) to ignore. Noll’s scholarly output, his development of students, institutions, and publications, and his development of a subfield within American religious history (with the help of the other members of the Evangelical Mafia, as they are known) makes a festschrift on American Evangelicalism well-deserved.

Heath Carter and Laura Rominger Porter have cultivated a wide range of experience via the authors they selected for this work, including both distinguished religious historians like Martin Marty (who wrote the Afterword), Harry Stout, Grant Wacker, and Jon Butler, to younger historians like Luke Harlow and Darren Dochuk. Though the book focuses on American Evangelicalism, international perspectives are provided from Marguerite Van Die (Canada), Richard Carwardine (Britain), and Mark Hutchinson (Australia). This wide range of scholars allows for various perspectives on the concept of Evangelicalism—a term laden with overlapping (and conflicting) identifications. The editors note this: Rather than ascribing a narrow definition to the term, their desire is to use the book to present “a variety of historical approaches to a term that, when employed carefully and thoughtfully, points to a set of family resemblances that spring from a shared genealogy” (xvii).

The chapters cover “turning points” in the sense of transitional moments of American religious history, from Stout’s arguing for the Great Awakening as a time of religious innovation to Dochuk’s reflections on the 1974 Lausanne Conference and a concomitant Latin turn in American Evangelicalism. Along the way, political, racial, and theological conflicts affect the trajectory of the group. And Noll’s name shows up frequently, as his scholarship has influenced the authors of most every chapter in the text.

Noticeably absent in this collection is any focus on the religious right. Dochuk gestures in this direction, but seems determined to avoid any lengthy consideration of this political development in his essay; Marsden provides a paragraph on the move toward politics in his concluding perspective on fundamentalism from the early twentieth century to the present day. Francis Fitzgerald’s recent work The Evangelicals: the Struggle to Shape America (Simon and Schuster, 2017), in contrast, is also designed to provide a history of American Evangelicalism, but she spends almost two -thirds of the book discussing the Christian Right from the 1940s onward. Jerry Falwell is a central character in Fitzgerald’s book, but in Carter and Porter’s Turning Points, he is mentioned only once, as a marker of the 1980s. A reader otherwise unfamiliar with American Evangelicalism might consider this book and Fitzgerald’s to be on two separate topics. But perhaps that was the point: amidst cries of joy or consternation about the 81% of American Evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, Turning Points recognizes that the term Evangelical is primarily a religious and not a political designation.

The book also broadens typical perspectives on race and gender in American Evangelicalism. While the Public Religion Research Institute identifies Evangelicalism as a White phenomenon, and indeed Luke Harlow’s chapter describes the emergence of a White conservative American Evangelicalism in the decades following the Civil War, successive chapters by Edith Blumhoefer and Dennis Dickerson reveal the vibrancy of Black Evangelicalism in Pentecostal movements as well as historically black denominations, both of which transformed the demographic structure and liturgical form of American Evangelicalism in the twentieth century. Dochuk’s focus on a Latin turn reveals an undercurrent of Evangelicalism that continues to affect the movement. And yes, there are a lot of men discussed in this book. But Catherine Brekus eschews typical characters and uses Sarah Osborne to elucidate the Enlightenment’s encounter with Evangelicalism. Marguerite Van Die describes the vital role women played in the religious life of the family as a domestic ideal developed in antebellum America. And Aimee Semple McPherson is an important figure in both Marsden’s narrative on Fundamentalism and Blumhofer’s description of Pentecostalism in early twentieth century Chicago.

The authors of each chapter in this volume point to decisive periods in the history of American Evangelicalism, but fundamental disagreements over the description of what American Evangelicalism is should provoke further study in this field. For a book published to honor a man who spent his life bringing the study of Evangelicalism into the mainstream (mainline?) of American religious history, little more could be asked. Future undergraduate students would do well to be drawn into this festschrift as a starting point for their own historical inquiry, as Noll’s own work did for me.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Roeber is a doctoral candidate in American religious history at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
September 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Heath W. Carter is assistant professor of history at Valparaiso University and the author of Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago.

Laura Rominger Porter is an independent scholar based in Des Moines, Iowa.


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