The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitfield, and the Wesleys

Article by   August 2005

One of the binding chapters of the Directory for Worship for my denomination instructs the minister presiding at the Lord's Table to "invite all those who profess the true religion, and are communicants in good standing in any evangelical church."

The question that faces the conscientious minister and Session is, "What is an evangelical church?" The term evangelical has had at least three incarnations. Its original meaning is rooted in the sixteenth century and is "a virtual synonym for Protestant" (Noll, p. 17). In this case evangelicalism defines Protestantism in contrast to Roman Catholicism by its asserting justification by faith alone, the sufficiency of Christ alone for salvation, and the Bible alone as the final authority, by insisting on the finality sacrifice of the cross (rather than the repeated sacrifice of the mass), and by teaching the priesthood of all believers (Noll, pp. 16, 17).

It's most recent (20th century) use is as a description of a movement that rejected the growing liberalism of the mainline denominations but also the hard edges and combativeness of fundamentalism. These "softer, gentler" conservatives chose "evangelical" as their own self-description to distinguish themselves from fundamentalists. Led by men such as Billy Graham, Harold John Ockenga, and Carl F. H. Henry, this neo-evangelical movement was committed to both the evangel and evangelism. (One historian has said one may judge what he thinks of modern evangelicalism by answering the question, "What do you think of Billy Graham?") Many have criticized this mid-twentieth century incarnation (e.g. Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and David Wells' No Place for Truth). But no one has gone further than D.G. Hart who argues in Deconstructing Evangelicalism the provocative proposition that this evangelicalism "does not exist" (p.16) but "is a construct developed over the last half of the twentieth century" (p.19).

However, in A History of Evangelism Noll is not talking about the sixteenth or twentieth centuries' uses of the term. In this first of a projected five volumes that will trace the history of evangelicalism, the historical starting point is the eighteenth-century (specifically 1740-95, p. 293); the geographical starting point is Great Britain; and the definitional starting point is that evangelicalism is "a set of convictions, practices, habits, and oppositions that resemble what Europeans describe as 'pietism'" (p. 17). What Noll sets out to do is to provide a history of "an ever-expanding, ever-diversifying, family tree with roots in the eighteenth century revivals" (p.19).

While Noll can be critical of this evangelicalism, he writes as a self-identified evangelical. He acknowledges that autobiographical accounts and interpretations of spiritual experience can be deceptive. Nevertheless: "An evangelical historian of evangelical history may be pardoned for his own conclusion that in many particulars they sound like the truth" (p. 290).

The core ingredients of this movement are (Noll quoting Bebbington with approval):

"1. conversion or 'the belief that lives need to be changed';

2. the Bible, or 'belief that all spiritual truth is found in its

pages';

3. activism, or the dedication of all believers, including lay-

people, to lives of service for God, especially as mani-

fested in evangelism...and mission...; and

4. crucicentrism, or the conviction that the death of Christ was

central in providing atonement for sin..."

Of course, the evangelicalism Noll sets out to chronicle did not arise in a vacuum. Its roots are in the sixteenth Reformation and especially seventeenth century Puritanism, but Noll sees something different in the eighteenth century and something more than the organic growth that one might expect from the Reformation. The difference and addition are attributed to the rise of the revivals which re-shaped the doctrine and, to a greater extent, the practice of a large segment of Protestantism, both Calvinian and Arminian, in Great Britain and America.

One must not forget that among these eighteenth century evangelicals there were significant differences, big enough to cause sharp debate and broken relationships among the primary figures. In "the age Edwards, Whitfield, and the Wesleys" two were Calvinists and two Arminian. But what stands out in Noll's story is that these doctrinal debates on matters such as divine sovereignty in salvation and the limits of human sanctification took place in the context of a number of commonalities. Space allows the mention of only three.

First, the evangelical revivalists saw religion advancing primarily through extraordinary rather than ordinary works of God. Jonathan Edwards contended that "from the fall of man to this day wherein we live the Work of Redemption in its effect has been mainly carried on by remarkable outpourings of the Spirit of God" (Noll, p.138). According to Noll this assessment became "standard" for evangelicalism. In other words, the ordinary ministry of the church making use of the ordinary means of grace had proved inadequate to maintain the vitality of the Church or to achieve the salvation of large numbers of sinners. Calvinists might pray revivals down while Arminians worked them up, but both believed extraordinary works of the Spirit were God's way of giving and restoring spiritual life to individuals and to the church.

Second, evangelicals were experiential. Their tendency was to look to a conversion experience as an indicator of the reality of a profession. The experience, often coming after a period of intense and prolonged struggle, could be described in different ways - a strange warming of the heart, a divine and supernatural light, a new sense of God's sweetness and one's delight in Him, an overwhelming conviction of the love of God for the particular sinner, the sense that one's sins are finally and fully forgiven. What these descriptions point to is something very close to a conscious sense of one being regenerated, or at least a consciousness of the first movements of the heart of the regenerated person. This was something more than professing a faith one believes, being a baptized and communing member, keeping the Sabbath, faithfully receiving the means of grace, living under the oversight of elders, and walking with the saints. One needs to know in his heart that he has had a distinct experience of "closing with Christ." This emphasis on experience is vividly portrayed in the experiences of Charles Wesley (though by no means is it unique to him) in 1738: "I waked without Christ; yet desirous of finding him (May 13)...I labored, waited, and prayed to feel 'who loved me, and gave himself for me.' After this assurance that he would come and not tarry, I slept in peace (May 17)...I found myself at peace with God, and rejoicing in hope of loving Christ" (May 21) (p.95). The question was not, "Do you sincerely believe?" but "Have you really experienced?" It was not, "Do you believe God loves you because He did not spare his Son for you?" but "Have you felt the love of God fill your heart?"

Third, the evangelical movement sat loose regarding the visible church with its structures and authority regarding such matters as worship, doctrine, and government of members and ministers. Whitfield and the Wesleys tried to maintain good faith connections with the Anglican Church. But, the momentum of their movement made it impossible. One could not make too much of ordination, since it was obvious that God was raising up and owning the ministries of men (and some women) who lacked it. One could not make too much of the church placing one in ministry and determining its sphere since these men themselves believed they were responding to and carrying out calls that came directly from God without the church as intermediary. If one believes that the world is his parish, he feels authorized to minister when and where he will. Then, one cannot make too much of the church and its worship services of Word and sacrament when the real vitality is to be found in special preaching services, open air meetings, and small groups initiated and organized by the evangelists. These societies had to have leadership, structure, and organization; this was provided by the evangelists themselves, anticipating the development of voluntary societies and para-church organizations standing outside the church but in many ways functioning as though they were the church. As Noll comments on Whitfield: "Whitfield combined an extraordinary disregard for inherited church traditions with a breathtaking entrepreneurial spirit...The willingness to innovate...promoted among later American evangelicals a similar disregard for Christian tradition" (p. 107).

Noll helps us who, despite Hart's misgivings, continue to call ourselves evangelicals. By taking us back to the beginnings of the second incarnation of the movement that has shaped us, Noll enables us better to know who we are and how we got to be this way. No doubt some of us will read the account as the record of the powerful work of the Spirit for which we long in our day, while others of us will see the roots of much that gives us misgivings about the church and Christian experience today. In either case, this book is on the "must read" list for those who would understand the evangelicalism of which, for better or worse, we are the 21st century heirs.

 

By Mark Noll - Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003
Review by William H. Smith




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