The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement: Book Review

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        The American Evangelical Story examines the role American evangelicalism played in the scope of evangelical history and demonstrates how evangelicals have continued to change the world. Douglas A. Sweeney, professor of church history and chair of the department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School[1] offers this work as an introduction to evangelicalism for Christians interested in the historical roots of evangelicalism’s recent, massive growth. Sweeney first, “provides a summary of recent debates concerning the scope of evangelicalism, he then tells the story of its birth in the transatlantic Great Awakening, and its development in the United States through many cultural changes and challenges. [Lastly, he] accounts for the broad range of individuals, institutions, issues, and doctrines that have made us who we are.”[2]

Brief Summary

       Sweeney sets the tone for the reader, by offering a prayer to demonstrate his underlining purpose: “I pray that the burden of this book – to refresh our shared, historical memory – may help us to regain our spiritual bearings. And I trust that a fresh appropriation of our common heritage, though surely limited by our own historical blinders, can be used by God to bless the church for many years to come.”[3] Sweeney begins by explaining evangelicals are gospel people, but quickly demonstrates the difficulty in defining evangelicalism, claiming there is no clear consensus among scholars. Sweeney then shows, “at the center of the movement lies a firm commitment to the good news (euangelion) that ‘a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law’[4] [demonstrating] evangelicals’ doctrine clung to the gospel message as spelled out in the Bible (sola Scriptura).”[5] Other defining convictions include: the majesty of Jesus Christ, the lordship of the Holy Spirit, the need for personal conversion, the priority of evangelism, and the importance of the Christian community for spiritual nourishment, fellowship, and growth.[6] Sweeney also connects the emergence of evangelicalism to the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, crediting missions and evangelism as the catalysts. Sweeney concludes: “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 – the impact of the Great Awakening.”[7] This renewal movement forever changed the course of history of Protestantism in North America and the rest of the world.

Critical Interaction

       It is obvious Sweeney comes from an evangelical heritage he is proud of.[8] His narrative style, his attention to chronological detail, and his personal insights provide the reader with an unbiased view of history. Leading up to the Great Awakening, Sweeney correctly shows the conflict, which existed between Catholics, and Protestants and how the Reformation led to the Transatlantic Great Awakening pioneered by John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement, George Whitfield, who actually convinced John Wesley to take up field preaching,[9] and Jonathan Edwards, who helped Calvinists come to terms on predestination and election. This era marked the first time Protestants worked together to spread the gospel internationally. Sweeney makes it clear the goals of this movement were made with the best intentions, but he also demonstrates when human nature is involved; there will always be division. “No sooner did the Great Awakening hit America’s shores than it led to some major realignments and rivals.”[10]

       Sweeney explains, “Despite the gains of the Great Awakening, by the end of the eighteenth century, many evangelical leaders had grown concerned about the spiritual life on the new United States,”[11] giving rise to the Second Great Awakening. This era shows immense diversity as some revivals split and new ones were formed. Sweeney illustrates, “the first major theater was New England, where Edwardsian evangelists prevailed, and the second stretched along the Erie Canal in Upstate New York, dominated by Presbyterians and Congregationalists, and the third was Cumberland River Valley, led by the Armenian Methodists.”[12] Sweeney highlights, “the best known event in this third theater was the Cane Ridge Revival (1801), often called ‘America’s Pentecost’ for the amazing outpouring of the Holy Spirit there.”[13] Charles Finney is portrayed as the most important leader of the revivals in New York as he had immense influence teaching, “religion is the work of man and that revival is not a miracle, but the result of the right use of appropriate means. As a supernaturalist, he acknowledged that neither revival nor conversion ever occurs without the help of the Holy Spirit, but as an experienced revivalist, he claimed these things do not occur without human effort either.”[14] The second Great Awakening seemed to be more about man than about God, as it emphasized the role of a sinner needing to choose to repent. Regardless, it still led to more conversions, and it also formed more institutions, which helped the spread of the gospel. Overall, Sweeney accomplishes a comprehensive overview of evangelical missions, by detailing even the racial prejudice, which was rampant, and the birth of the Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement. Racism remains a sore spot in the history of the church and “while evangelicals did not invent the sins of racism… millions of white evangelicals have participated in or sanctioned one or more of these things, leading to four million slaves in America by 1860… and evangelicals are still untangling themselves from this sordid legacy.”[15] A. Derwin illustrates, “less than five percent of evangelical churches are multi-ethnic… [making the] evangelical church one of the most segregated people in America on Sunday morning. The gross smell of racism still lingers in our churches like a bad odor that will not dissipate.”[16]  Sweeney rightly emphasizes, “the importance of never forgetting the utter enormity of this evil or the extent to which evangelicals condoned it.”[17] The lines of color must be crossed and perhaps one of the best examples is the Azusa Street Revival. This Pentecostalism was interracial and as Frank Bartleman noted, “The ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.”[18] Paige Patterson best sums up the viewpoint of evangelicals, “If God has spoken, then one must heed what He says. For evangelical believers, the authority of the Bible must remain unassailable and un-debatable. We must applaud those who make other kinds of telling arguments against racism and join the chorus in at least a thirty-fold “Amen.” But, the time has come for evangelicals to bring the mother load, if you will forgive the pun. If we believe the Book, let us appeal to its lucid position on race and say to all of the tribes of the earth, “Eve is the mother of all living.” That, in effect, settles the issue!”[19]

Conclusion

       Sweeney makes a strong case, “the church needs evangelicals, evangelicalism functions as a renewal movement within the larger, universal church, and evangelicalism is not enough.”[20] Sweeney provides a well-balanced and clear history of American evangelicalism, while also demonstrating the major shift, which is currently taking place. No more is America or Europe the front-runners in evangelicalism; instead the shift is in Africa and Asia. While America and Europe used to be the nations sending missionaries to these countries, now those countries are sending missionaries to America and Europe. The future of evangelicalism rests on solely on whether denominations and ministry leaders can set aside minor differences and unify one another by embracing the Great Commission[21] and the Great Commandment.[22] The church is made up of many parts, and when those parts are working together, God will do mighty things as the world will come to know the love of Christ.

The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement. By Douglas A. Sweeney. Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2005, 208 pp. $22.00 (Paperback).

Bibliography

Baker Publishing Group Website, http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com/authors/douglas-a-sweeney/344 (accessed August 11, 2016).

Bartleman, Frank. How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles: As It Was in the Beginning, in Witness to Pentecost: The Life of Frank Bartleman. Ed. Donald W. Dayton. New York, NY: Garland, 1985.

Derwin, A. “The Emergence Of The Emerging Church,” Christian Apologetics Journal 07, no. 1 (Spring), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 35.

Patterson, Paige. “The SBJT Forum: Racism, Scripture, and History.” – Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 08, no. 2 (Summer), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 82.

Sweeney, Douglas A. The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2005.


[1] Baker Publishing Group Website, http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com/authors/douglas-a-sweeney/344 (accessed August 11, 2016).

[2] Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2005), 10.

[3]  Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story, 185.

[4] Romans 3:28

[5] Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story, 25.

[6] Ibid., 18.

[7] Ibid., 23-24.

[8] Ibid., 5.

[9] Ibid., 41.

[10] Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story, 55.

[11] Ibid., 66.

[12] Ibid., 66-69.

[13] Ibid., 70.

[14] Ibid., 68.

[15] Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story, 108.

[16] A. Derwin, “The Emergence Of The Emerging Church,” Christian Apologetics Journal 07, no. 1 (Spring), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 35.

[17] Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story, 108.

[18] Frank Bartleman, How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles: As It Was in the Beginning, in Witness to Pentecost: The Life of Frank Bartleman, ed. Donald W. Dayton, (New York, NY: Garland, 1985), 54.

[19] Paige Patterson, “The SBJT Forum: Racism, Scripture, and History,” – Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 08, no. 2 (Summer), WORDsearch CROSS e-book: 82.

[20] Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story, 184.

[21] Matthew 28:16-20

[22] Matthew 22:36-40

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