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Making Evangelical History: Faith, scholarship and the Evangelical past, by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones, editors

11 September 2020

Michael Wheeler on Evangelical history’s journey from propaganda to academic discipline

THE editors of this excellent collection of essays remind us that, in the late 19th century, Ranke described history as an account of “what really happened”: the facts were there, to be found in the archives. In 1961, however, E. H. Carr dismissed the “fetishising of facts” and argued that “history means interpretation.” Within the academic world, the comparatively recent growth of interest in the “history of histories” includes historical writing about Evangelicalism, as this fresh study illustrates. All but two of the contributors teach at universities. Given its price, this book is designed for those whose university libraries might acquire it rather than the “laity” outside the temple gates. A pity, as this is an important subject of general interest.

David Ceri Jones, Reader in Early Modern History at Aberystwyth, sets the agenda with a lucid account of John Gillies and the Evangelical revivals. Jones regards Gillies as the first master of the craft of Evangelical history, as a strong advocate of Evangelical religion, and as a “leading member of the popular party within the Church of Scotland, by the middle of the eighteenth century”.

Gillies managed the Scottish preaching tours of both John Wesley and George Whitefield, and became Whitefield’s official biographer and the custodian of his literary legacy. Only 40 of the 1000 pages in his Historical Collections examine “the Success of the Gospel” before the 16th-century Reformation, and he has little to say about Reformation theology, his focus being on those preachers who had success in converting others by their preaching and writings. As Jones comments, “this was history with a purpose.”

Several subsequent essays address two of Jones’s themes: Evangelical history as biography, and Wesley and Whitefield as the twin poles in the Evangelical universe, where Arminians and Calvinists struggled for supremacy in their multivolume accounts of past glories. Darren Schmidt places the Anglican Erasmus Middleton’s Biographia Evangelica (four volumes, 1779-86) in its historical context, and Robert Strivens, a Baptist pastor, discusses Dissent and religious liberty in David Bogue and James Bennett’s History of Dissenters (four volumes, 1808-12).

We enter the Victorian world in an essay by Jones’s co-editor, Andrew Atherstone, Latimer Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, the biographer of Archbishop Welby and editor of Bishop Ryle’s Autobiography. Focusing on J. C. Ryle and Evangelical churchmanship, Atherstone charts the revival of interest in the Bishop’s voluminous writings after the Second World War, when Iain Murray, for example, co-founder of the Banner of Truth Trust, read Christian Leaders while travelling by bus in Liverpool and stood on the pavement “in a daze” when he alighted. For a generation of Evangelicals, Five English Reformers became “a model of popular evangelical biography and historical method”.

Church TimesA Moody and Sankey revivalist meeting a the Agricultural Hall (Islington) in 1875, from a contemporary illustration

Another, less well-known Victorian is Luke Tyerman, author of eight volumes on early Methodism and the subject of Martin Wellings’s essay. Tyerman, “the Wesleyan historian”, thought that Whitefield’s Calvinism was “a confused sort of thing”. One of only two women to be discussed in Making Evangelical History (written wholly by men) is Geraldine Guinness Taylor, author of 20 books on the China Inland Mission and its worthies, who is described by Alvyn Austin as “the last of the great Victorian hagiographers”.

Post-19th-century Evangelical history is covered by Atherstone on G. R. Balleine, Ian Hugh Clary on Whitefield’s champion, Arnold Dallimore, David Ceri Jones on Iain H. Murray, Richard Burgess on Ogbu Kalu and African Pentecostalism, and two closing essays that form a kind of academic dialogue: Mark Noll on Timothy L. Smith, George Marsden and David Bebbington, and Anglo-American Evangelicalism; and David Bebbington, the modern master of the craft, on Andrew Walls, Brian Stanley, Dana Robert, and Mark Noll and global Evangelicalism. Yes, Evangelical history has not only gone academic: it has also gone global.


Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor of English at the University of Southampton.


Making Evangelical History: Faith, scholarship and the Evangelical past 
Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones, editors
Routledge £120
Church Times Bookshop £108

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