Sweeney American Evangelical Story cover

Since its very beginnings in the eighteenth century, the diversity of the evangelical movement—in denomination, in class, in geography—has made it prone to splinter, and even more remarkably, to overcome these differences and unite in mission to spread an orthodox Protestant gospel together.

A brief summary of Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005, ebook edition 2013.  This summary is drawn from the Kindle version.

We’ve chosen this book because it summarizes historical scholarship on American Evangelicalism in a more accessible and nuanced way.  The book is honest with the blindsides of the movement, as it is with the debates about the history of the movement.

It’s also assigned as a required text at various Evangelical institutions for their classes on Christianity (Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary), American Christianity (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), American Evangelicalism (Liberty University, Oral Roberts University), and on Evangelism generally (Wheaton College).

It’s meant to be an introduction, written mainly for evangelicals, by an American evangelical, a historian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  Sweeney summarizes his hopes in the book’s last paragraph.

“I pray that the burden of this book—to refresh our shared, historical memory—may help us to regain our spiritual bearings.  And I trust that a fresh appropriation of our common heritage, though surely limited severely by our own historical blinders can be used by God to bless the church for many years to come.”

We offer this brief summary with the same hopes and prayers.

chapter by chapter summary (coming soon)  • definitions of “evangelical” used in this book


Main point: Since its very beginnings in the eighteenth century, the diversity of the evangelical movement—in denomination, in class, in geography—has made it prone to splinter, and even more remarkably, to overcome these differences and unite in mission to spread an orthodox Protestant gospel together.


Chapter 1: Evangelical: What’s in a Word?

  • Perhaps most that can be said is that evangelicals are people of the Gospel
  • Difficult to define evangelicalism; existing definitions too broad or too narrow,  some feel the definitions have overly slanted evangelical history to be mainly by and about Reformed intellectuals.  Other main definitions of evangelicalism here
  • Sweeney offers his own definition: a “movement” of “orthodox Protestantism” with an “eighteenth century twist.”


Chapter 2: A Surprising Work of God: The Eighteenth-Century Revival

  • Before Great Awakening: Catholics and Protestants only co-existed because of state powers.
    After the Reformation, there was much in-fighting among Protestants.
  • Great Awakening (1730s-1740s): almost simultaneous trans-Atlantic revivals.
    • John Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed,” eventually founded Methodist movement.
    • George Whitefield: best known preacher of Great Awakening, a media sensation by 1740. Preached controversially outside in fields, in Britain and in America.
    • Jonathan Edwards: revivalist preacher, theologized about it.  Books:  Distinguishing Marks for a Work of the Spirit of God (1741), Some Thoughts Concerning Revival (1742), Religious Affectations (1746), Freedom of the Will (1754) helped Calvinist reconcile their views of election and predestination to share the gospel to others
  • While revivals were not new, but this was the first time Protestants had worked well together, interdenominationally and internationally, cooperating to spread the Gospel


Chapter 3: Crafting New Wineskins: Institutionalizing the Movement

  • Revivals split institutions and sparked new ones:
    • Revival split Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Calvinists into a “new” and “old” side.
    • New institutions:  Methodist Church (1784), “New” Calvinists known as “New Divinity” followers of Jonathan Edwards, form schools to train clergy, publishing houses to distribute their ideas, organized prayer, fasts and revivals.
  • Second Great Awakening (early 1800s)
    • The dominant storyline is an oversimplication, bent towards Calvinists: The first described in Calvinistic terms, is “a surprising work of God,” to borrow a book title from Jonathan Edwards.  The second Great Awakening becomes less about God and more about man, emphasizing a sinner’s role in choosing to repent and effect revival.  It is thus tragically Arminian.
    • Revival really in 3 areas, and so affected Protestantism that by 1830 revivalist evangelicalism practically equated to American Christianity
      • New England:  “New Divinity” revivals promoted and preached by Yale affiliates: Timothy Dwight, Lyman Beecher, Nathaniel Taylor, Asahel Nettleton.
      • North of the Erie Canal (New York) also known as “the burned-over district” for their quality and quantity of revivals.  Led mostly by Charles Grandison Finney, president of Oberlin College and author of Lectures on Revival (1835) and Lectures on Systematic Theology (1835).  While acknowledging the necessity of the Holy Spirit and God’s grace, taught that “‘religion is the work of man’ and that revival is ‘not a miracle but the result of the right use of the appropriate means.’”
      • Cumberland River Valley (central Kentucky and Tennessee): led by Armenian Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists. Best known event: Cane Ridge Revival (1801), also called “America’s Pentecost.”  Barton Stone led 10,000 -25,000 in the woods for 4-5 or more days of preaching and folk music.
  • “Righteous empire”: second Great Awakening led to even more conversions, and more institutions were created to share and live out the gospel.  Evangelical parachurch groups performed most services in US:  founded schools, publishing houses, and asylums; reformed health care, womans’ rights, abolition, labor hours; championed causes like temperance, foreign missions etc.


Chapter 4: As the Waters Cover the Sea: The Rise of Evangelical Missions

  • To early Protestant Reformers, missions was spreading confessional views.  When Jesuit Catholics began to go into the world on missions, Protestants felt the need to do the same.  Nineteenth century became known as great age of Christian expansion.
  • Great Awakenings ignited missions
    • Key books:  1749 Jonathan Edward’s Life of David Brainerd inspired people to become a missionary to “Indians.”  1792 William Carey’s Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens
    • Student mission recruits:
      • 1806 Haystack Prayer Meeting, Samuel J. Mills (1783-1818) and other Williams College students pray in an haystack committing themselves to foreign missions.
      • 1886 Mount Hermon One Hundred: those so pledged to become a foreign missionary at DL Moody’s Mount Hermon (MA) summer conference promoting, revival, premillennialism, holiness and missions.
      • 1888 Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) started by John R. Mott (1865-1955) recruited more than 20,000 students for missionary service.  Slogan: “the evangelicalization of the world in this generation!”  SVM eventually joined InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Its legacy is the Urbana Student Missions Convention (1946).
    • By the late nineteenth century, more women missionaries than men.  So much so that because denominational boards initially rejected single women to be missionaries, women’s missionary boards were set up just to send single women overseas.
  • 1920s-1930s Missionary movements criticized by mainline Protestants and foreign nationals who “complained that America’s missionaries employed imperialistic methods and promoted racist views in their evangelistic practice.”
    • Mainline Protestants increasingly stop vocalizing the gospel, keeping to their social works.  Evangelicals think about contextualizing the gospel
  • Missions still thrives: since 1960s, majority of North American missionaries are evangelical.
    • 1974 International Congress on World Evangelicalization, Lausanne, Switzerland
    • 1952, America sent more than 52% of the world’s missionaries (a little more than 18,000 people)  2004, Korea sends more full-time missionaries than the US.


Chapter 5: Crossing the Color Line without Working to Erase It: Evangelical History in Black and White

  • Most black Christians are evangelical according to many definitions, but resist being called so because of this history—only recently have some black leaders embraced this term like John Perkins (1930- ), Tom Skinner (1942-94), EV Hill (1933-2003), and the black National Evangelical Association (1963) thus creating ties to cooperate in the Gospel.
  • Slaves were not really reached out to until the Great Awakening
    • Slave masters frowned upon conversion: made slaves “‘uppity,’ independent and ungovernable”
    • Educational discrepancies: uneducated slaves found it difficult to follow a minister’s preaching
    • Gospel was shared with slaves.  Most outreach by Methodists and Baptists
  • Accommodation to slavery established patterns of prejudice to come
    • Some white evangelicals did criticize the slave trade, ill treatment, and many like John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards Jr and Samuel Hopkins championed abolition.
    • Great Awakening revival speakers like George Whitefield, Samuel Davies preached to racial mixed crowds despite their conflicting views and life choices about slavery
    • Second Great Awakening: many revivals segregated blacks and whites.   Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass:  “Of all the forms of negro hate in the world, save me from the one which clothes itself with the name of the loving Jesus…The negro can go to the circus, the theatre…but he cannot go into an evangelical Christian meeting.”
    • Billy Graham did not desegregate his revival Crusades until 1954.
  • Slave Religion is thus a miracle given the complicity of American evangelicalism
    • Most slaves forbidden to worship by masters or would be whipped.  Secret worship at night in the woods and swamps as they preached and sang to one another.
  • 7 black “historic” denominations: National Baptist Convention (1895), National Baptist Convention of America (1915), Progressive National Baptist Convention (1961), African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816), African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1821), Colored (later Christian) Methodist Episcopal Church (1870), Church of God in Christ (1895)


Chapter 6: In Search of a Higher Christian Life: The Holiness, Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements

  • Represent an even more evangelical desire for “higher spiritual ground for a more intense and fervent commitment to reformation and renewal”
    • Most evangelicals in the world are from Holiness, Pentecostal and charismatic congregations.
    • Pentecostalism and Holiness movements unusually interracial, crossing class and gender boundaries.
  • Holiness Movement:
    • Emerged out of Wesley’s doctrine of “perfect love”  (Matthew 5:48).  Early Methodists thought that entire sanctification, a consecrated life of holiness to God was possible through a supernatural second blessing from God.  You pray and wait for God to bless you with this.
    • 1843 Phoebe Palmer’s “altar theology” in The Way of Holiness.   Waiting is unnecessary if you put yourself on the altar before God, consider yourself dead to sin and give your whole self to God.  Then, God will touch you, consecrate you with this second blessing.
    • Charles Finney’s “Oberlin Perfectionism” made Holiness thinking palatable for Calvinists.  Saw no need for a second blessing, but like Reformed theology’s gradual model of sanctification, you can gradually consecrate yourself, as you continually put off sin towards a “higher Christian life” or an “overcoming life.”  God already gave us the natural ability to repent and follow his commands.
    • 1875 first Keswick Convention: Holiness ideas spread to UK and worldwide.  Entire consecration is now stressed as necessary to the fulfillment of the Great Commission.   Made Holiness accessible to mainstream evangelicals as perfectionist language de-emphasized, and called for a “victorious Christian life.”
  • Pentecostalism:
    • 1895 Charles Fox Parham begins to preach and believe in a possible “third blessing,” a baptism of the Holy Spirit, an “infilling” of the soul for an even more vibrant and vigorous Christian life.  Biblical proof of this baptism of the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues.  1901: his students begin to speak in tongues
    • 1906 Azuza Street Revival (aka “cradle of Pentecostalism”), Parham’s student, a former half-blind slave named William Seymour preaches and people speak in tongues.
    • Pentecostalism began to institutionalize; today there are thousands of Pentecostal denominations all over the world.  Most influential: Assemblies of God (1914), affirmed William Durham’s view that there is no need for a second blessing (mentioned by Wesley) or of instantaneous consecration (cf. Palmer), but “Christ’s atoning work or ‘the finished work of Calvary’ is available at conversion, and appropriated over the course of an ‘overcoming life.’”
  • Charismatic Movement:
    • Charismatics are those who have taken Pentecostal practices into non-Pentecostal circles.  Every major Christian tradition has Charismatic branches.
      • Mainline: 1960 St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Van Nuys, CA) parishioners begin to speak in tongues.  Soon after, every mainline Protestant denomination had a group experiencing charismatic renewal.  1951, Demos Shakarian’s Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International became a hub fo the charismatic movement
      • Catholicism:  1967 Catholic students at Duquesne and Notre Dame experienced charismatic revival.
    • Calvary Chapel and Vineyard Christian Fellowship bring charismatics closer to the center of evangelicalism.  1965 Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa welcomes “Jesus people” and becomes charismatic, forming communes and schools, Maranatha Music.  1982 Vineyard Churches started by John Wimber
  • Worship songs of the charismatic movement “represents a popularization, a moderation, even a gentrification of Pentecostal practice” in mainstream evangelical circles.


Chapter 7: Standing on the Promises through Howling Storms of Doubt: Fundamentalism and Neoevangelicalism

  • Fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals are those who stayed in Mainline institutions until the early 20th century
  • Late 19th century, early 20th century: Mainline Protestant churches began to favor “naturalism and modernism” over traditional, supernatural views of God.
    • Fundamentalists: tried to defend the chipping away of traditional doctrines
      • 1910-15 The Fundamentals: a Testimony to the Truth, twelve volumes of essays by well-known Christian intellectuals.
      • Fundamentalists lost the “battle:” lost control over North Baptist Convention, kicked out of Princeton, public humiliation in 1925 Scopes trial over the teaching of evolution
        • Some fundamentalists withdrew and became hostile to American society, formed own institutions and grew
        • Some worked to re-engage “America’s culture:” neo-Evangelicals
    • Neo-Evangelicals: called America back to it’s old time religion (orthodox Protestantism of the previous century)
      • 1947 Carl FH Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism called for re-engagement with public sphere
      • New institutions: 1941 National Association of Evangelicals, 1947 Fuller Seminary, 1956 Christianity Today
      • 1949 Billy Graham rises to national fame thanks to William Randolph Hearst; Neo-Evangelicals accepted by American mainstream as Graham becomes an adviser to US Presidents
      • Unravels: as Graham desegregates his Crusades and adds mainline Protestants on his Crusade platform as speakers.  Fundamentalists begin to oppose Graham and neo-evangelicalism publicly. Fuller softens stance on “biblical inerrrancy,” worship wars, women etc.


Conclusion: The Future of Evangelicalism

  • Will evangelicals unite together in a remarkably visible and public way again?

    “…[W]hen we are at our best, we agree to disagree about a wide range of secondary and tertiary matters, not because they are unimportant or unworthy of expression in our separate institutions (I, for one, believe they are crucial) but because they are less important than our corporate Christian mission: to proclaim the gospel together, showing the world the love of God and doing everything we can to help the needy. Most of our national ministry leaders have embraced this mission firmly, from Calvinists such as Whitefield to Arminians such as Palmer, from Pentecostals such as Seymour to dispensationalists such as Moody.”

  • Harder:  more numerous, more diverse and some history is difficult to overcome
  • Latinos and Asian American Evangelicals are the ones to watch.  

    “In fact, since the benchmark Immigration Act of 1965, Hispanic and Asian American immigrants have quietly contributed several million new adherents to the evangelical movement.  Anglo Americans are largely unaware of the massive scale of this development and have yet to offer much in the way of outreach to (or with) these brothers and sisters in the gospel…Nonetheless, theirs will likely be the next major chapter in the ongoing adventure of evangelicals in America, which has always been a multicultural nation of immigrants.”

  • May have lost mainline, but evangelical numbers significantly more than the one lost in the 1920s.
  • Main lessons of this history to Sweeney
    1. worldwide church needs evangelicals “because we offer orthodoxy and (at our best) ecumenical outreach;
    2. “evangelicalism has a renewal function in the larger church,
    3. “evangelicalism is not enough, and must stay even more rooted in Christian tradition because “we evangelicals have never had a theology to call our own.  Precisely because we committed ourselves to multicultural partnership, we have always had to rally around a sparse doctrinal platform.”



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