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Not always the bad guys

by
07 June 2013

Bernice Martin praises a book that restores balance

A Short History of Global Evangelicalism
Mark Hutchinson and John Wolffe
Cambridge University Press £60 (hbk); £19.99 (pbk)
(978-0-521-76945-7 hbk) (978-0-521-74605-2 pbk)
Church Times Bookshop £54; £18 (Use code CT856  )

MARK HUTCHINSON and John Wolffe have written an impressive account of Evangelicalism. They trace the movement's history from its appearance in the 18th century as an in- formal tendency in Northern European, not-ably British, and American Protestantism to its current reality as a diverse worldwide movement that has been notably successful in resisting secularising forces in the West, and flourishes mightily in the riotously religious Majority World, where the largest concentrations of Evangelicals are found today.

This may be A Short History, but it rests on formidably wide and deep scholarship. The drawback of the "short" formula is that very few historical events can be treated fully in the text, such as the story of Pandita Rambai's work in social reform and evangelism in India. The advantage of a "short history" is that the broad historical sweep of development can be made clear, in spite of the chronic contradictions between different parts of the movement on theological, organisational, political, regional, and even stylistic criteria.

The book begins with a lucid exposition of the competing definitions of "Evangelicalism", and ends with two valuable late chapters, one on the size and distribution of the movement today (usefully comparing the probably inflated figures of the World Christian Encyclopedia with other data), and a "Conclusion" that summarises what the authors see as most significant in this history.

The authors recount the progress of the movement from revival in Massachusetts in the 1730s and the emergence of Methodism in Britain, through Revivals, Awakenings, and institutional and extra-institutional initiatives, to the transnational global movement of the present day. They chart the evolution of volunteering, and the early missionary emphasis that carried Evangelicalism to the élites as well as the poor of the West, and into the imperial territories of the Western powers, particularly the British Empire.

They differentiate the strands of Evangelicalism that emphasise the experiential from those emphasising doctrinal formulae; and those that engaged in social-welfare work, and were decisive contributors, for example, to the anti-slavery movement and the emancipation of women, from those that privileged the spiritual goals of the Kingdom above social activism. They pay particular attention to the movement's indigenisation in the mission territories during the 19th century as the prelude to its further global spread, and trace the continuing distinctiveness of its local character and its transnational development as twin responses to the opportunities and challenges of global modernity.

Evangelicals are "at their best" as a minority "leavening the lump". When they become politically and socially dominant, in Victorian England or in the United States of the Bush presidencies, their influence tends to be fleeting, because their disparate visions pull in contrary directions.

The recent status of Evangelicals as the favourite "hated Other" of contemporary secularists comes from a skewed assessment of this rich and various movement. It has certainly had its obscurantist and anti-modern corners, but has also been responsible for widely admired developments, from pioneer education and welfare initiatives to a recent part in running NGOs that fill in the functions of failed African states. This text will make it harder to sustain one-dimensional anti-Evangelical prejudices in future.

Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at the University of London.

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