The American Evangelical Story
Douglas A. Sweeney. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005. 208 pages.
The numerical growth of Evangelical Christianity with its political and economic clout has prompted a number of recent publications, especially by Evangelical publishers. InterVarsity Press has published two volumes of a projected history of Evangelicalism. This current book on Evangelicalism is the third published by Baker Books this year. While other studies present a detailed history of evangelism or take an entirely different approach, this slim volume with a text of 185 pages presents a brief introductory history of the movement. Douglas Sweeney writes as an Evangelical and an insider. He is Associate Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.
In chapter one, “Evangelicalism: What’s in a Word?” Sweeney tackles the heart of the problem. He attempts to define Evangelicalism. In doing so he interacts with other attempts at definitions and with those who believe the term Evangelical has no legitimate meaning. Chapter two, “A Surprising Work of God,” focuses on the eighteenth century Transatlantic Great Awakening and its roots in Puritanism and Continental Pietism. Chapter three, “Crafting New Wineskins,” examines how the Evangelical faith became institutionalized in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the fourth chapter, “As Waters Cover the Sea,” Sweeney offers a sketch of early Protestant missionary activity.
Chapter five, “Crossing the Color Line Without Working to Erase It,” looks at the racial issue as it relates to Evangelicalism. In doing so, the author provides some perspective on why Black Christians, who are Evangelicals by most uses of the word, do not relate to the movement or call themselves Evangelicals. In chapter six, “In Search of a Higher Christian Life,” Sweeney focuses on the Holiness, Pentecostal, and Charismatic movements and their often-overlooked contributions to Evangelicalism. Chapter seven, “Standing on the Promises Through Howling Storms of Doubt,” looks at the development of Fundamentalism and its neoevangelical cousins. This chapter focuses largely on the leaders of these movements and their attempt to defend the orthodox faith. In the conclusion, Sweeney projects the future of Evangelicalism and what it needs to do to remain a viable and important segment of Christianity.
In The American Evangelical Story, Sweeney has achieved his objective of writing an introduction to the movement. This slim volume is well-suited for several purposes, e.g., as supplementary reading for classes on Evangelicalism and American religion, and to help the laity in churches obtain a brief sketch of the movement. Of considerable importance for such an introduction is the book’s devotion of entire chapters to areas many scholars ignore in their study of American evangelicalism, viz., foreign missions, Black Christianity, and the contributions made by the Holiness, Pentecostal, and Charismatic movements. The Evangelical movement has experienced great success—numerically, institutionally, and spirituality—but it also has its “warts.” Except for the chapter regarding Black Christianity and racism, Sweeney seldom mentions these problems.