Previous | Next

Fall 2006 · Vol. 35 No. 2 · pp. 320–22 

Book Review

The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody

David W. Bebbington. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005. 288 pages.

Reviewed by Richard Kyle

InterVarsity is publishing a five-volume series seeking to integrate the intellectual and social history of the diverse evangelical movement over the last three hundred years. This study represents volume 3 in the series. Volume 1, written by Mark Noll, dealt with the rise of evangelicalism. At the time of this writing, volume 2, which examines the early nineteenth century, had not yet been published. Volume 5 carries the movement into the late-twentieth century. This series focuses on evangelicalism as a global movement and does not limit it to the United States.

As indicated by the subtitle, volume 3 deals with the last half of the nineteenth century. A major theme is to place the evangelical movement in the culture of the times. Accordingly, chapter 1 is aptly called “The Evangelicals and the World.” Bebbington begins by defining evangelicalism. He employs the same criteria set forth in his earlier publication, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (Routledge, 1989): crucicentrism, conversionism, biblicism, and activism. These marks, by the way, have become a standard way of defining evangelicalism. In this same chapter, Bebbington goes on to talk about the two men who set the tone for evangelicalism during this period: Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Dwight L. Moody.

Chapter 2, “Varieties of Evangelicalism,” dispels the notion that evangelicalism is a homogeneous movement. Its adherents differed significantly in respect to theology, denominations, geographical location, and social characteristics. While evangelicalism had considerable diversity, its variety was reduced by adherence to the previously noted characteristics, cooperation between various groups, and a general upward social trend.

Evangelicals not only shared certain beliefs, but they had common practices which are described in chapter three, “The Practice of Faith.” Here Bebbington looks at evangelical spirituality, patterns of worship, methods of outreach, mission to the youth, revivals, and overseas missions. In chapters 4 and 5, the author examines how two intellectual trends—the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement—impacted evangelical theology. He points out that “the antagonism between evangelicalism and the Enlightenment has been overdrawn.” In general, most evangelicals viewed the advance of knowledge as in “harmony with the Christian faith.” In particular, evangelicals embraced commonsense philosophy. Yet there existed tensions between Calvinism and Arminianism, and while some attempted to embrace both, in general Calvinism decayed. Romanticism influenced evangelicals in two ways. On one hand, it alarmed them. They viewed it as undoing the Reformation and opening the door to liberalism. On the other, it permeated their beliefs regarding prophecy, missions, and sanctification in subtle ways.

These two intellectual trends did not go unchallenged by conservative evangelicals. Chapter 6 notes several conservative theological movements, especially the rise of premillennialism, holiness teachings, the Keswick movement, and the roots of Pentecostalism. In much of this, one can note the development of protofundamentalism.

Chapter 7 takes us to “Evangelicals and Society.” Here Bebbington emphasizes three issues: the relationship between the sexes, the relationship of the races, and the attitude of Christians toward leisure. What role did women have in light of the gospel? They could have an important job in the work of the church, but the leadership remained with men. In respect to race relations, evangelicals differed sharply, ranging from opposing discrimination to embracing segregation. Blacks, nevertheless, generally formed their own denominations. Should recreational activities be avoided or encouraged? Evangelicals gave a paradoxical response. They opposed certain activities such as theater attendance and gambling but Christianized sports and other forms of recreation. In the last chapter, the author demonstrates the dominance of evangelical practices and attitudes in both American and British society as a whole. He, nevertheless, points out that the “evangelical hegemony” on society was insecure.

Bebbington is a noted British scholar on evangelicalism and a coeditor of this series. The Dominance of Evangelicalism is a well-researched and well-written book describing late-nineteenth century evangelicalism worldwide but especially in Britain and the United States. Being British and having authored a previous book on British evangelicalism, Bebbington gives much weight to Britain and its colonies. On one hand, this is a needed corrective to focusing on evangelicalism as an American movement. On the other, even considering the strength of evangelicalism in Britain at this time, the author’s emphasis seems a bit surprising. Also, one could argue that evangelicalism’s dominance in America had already peaked by the late nineteenth century and was in more of a decline than the author notes.

Richard Kyle
Prof. of History and Religion
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

Previous | Next