Recalibrating the “Evangelical Paradigm”

This afternoon we’re happy to welcome back our friend Tim Gloege. Inspired by a recent collection of essays in tribute to Mark Noll, Tim suggests four ways in which historians could recalibrate the “evangelical paradigm.”

Twenty years ago, I sat in a Wheaton College classroom with a half-dozen other students, awaiting my first real history seminar. For a recent Bible School graduate, the book-a-week workload seemed daunting, but I was excited to be working with Mark Noll and committed to learning the craft. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

The seminar subject was Pentecostalism, a religious tradition of which I knew little. Yet I was eager to impress and dove headfirst into a conversation that turned almost immediately to doctrine. As the theological weeds grew deeper, we pressed forward, constructing intricate taxonomies of spirit baptism and genealogies of faith healing.

After about twenty minutes of this, Noll finally cut in with a simple question. “When did the Pentecostal movement begin?”

Silence enveloped the room, interrupted only by the sound of frantically flipping pages. Finally, someone offered a tentative response: “Around 1900?”

“Alright, that sounds fine. Now, someone tell me what else was going on.”


“Cultural trends? Social movements?”

More silence.

“Can someone tell me who was president?”

Uncomfortable fidgeting. Embarrassingly, this basic sort of historical contextualization hadn’t occurred to me (or, apparently, to anyone else at the table). Raised a conservative evangelical, these things just didn’t matter. Sure, theology may have developed, but it was directed by God, right?

I slouched lower in my seat.

Noll, Turning Points (3rd ed.)“Come on, you’ve got to know this. We’re doing history, not theology. The question we need to answer is why 1900? Why not 1870 or 1930? What changed and what caused that change?”

Such was my introduction to the idea of “turning points” in history. The motif would crop up again the following semester in Noll’s History of Christianity class—lectures that would form the backbone of his textbook by the same name. But this initial experience was my personal turning point: when my ahistorical view of the world was substantively challenged.

Of course, a “turning point” is only an approximation, but it can be a handy device. It brings the core questions of the historian to the fore. What changed? Why here and not there? Why now and not later… or earlier? Which ideas were exerting influence? What else was going on? Context matters.

I was reminded of all this when I recently picked up Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism, a great collection of essays, edited by Heath Carter and Laura Rominger Porter, celebrating the illustrious career of Mark Noll on his retirement.

Historians like to note historiographical turning points, perhaps even more than historical ones, and in this regard, it’s hard to exaggerate Noll’s importance. In addition to his prodigious pen, he trained many students at Wheaton College and Notre Dame, helped found the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicalism (ISAE) and the NYRB-style magazine Books and Culture. These became key institutional nodes in a network of historians sometimes referred to as the “evangelical mafia.” By the early 1990s, their scholarly project, christened the “evangelical paradigm” by Jon Butler, had come into its own. Indeed, it is difficult to find a mainstream history textbook today that does not discuss the central role evangelicalism played in the history of the United States. A once-scrappy network of academic outsiders spurred a new historiographical orthodoxy.

Carter & Porter (eds.), Turning Points in the History of EvangelicalismThere is much to commend in this volume, though I won’t do its contents full justice here. Contributors include leading historians of religion, both “mafia” members and not. Many essays recapitulate the now-standard narrative; others suggest new ways forward. (In that regard, I commend, especially, the chapters by Luke Harlow and Darren Dochuk, scholars of the next generation.) Combined, the collection makes a clear case for the continuing importance of the project that Noll helped foster.

But I want to use my space here to honor another intention of the editors: that it spur “further conversation” about evangelicalism and history (xvii). With turning points spanning from the Great Awakening to the 1974 Lausanne Conference, this collection provides the perfect bird’s eye view for such an assessment.

Given the success of the evangelical paradigm over the last thirty-odd years, what new questions and conundrums has it produced? Where do we go from here? What new historiographical turning points should be implemented?

I’ll suggest four areas where the evangelical paradigm could use recalibration, if, in the spirit of Noll, we want to do the history of evangelicalism (and not theology or something else). It may require that we relinquish long-held assumptions and incorporate new perspectives. But this will give new vitality to the enterprise.

What exactly do we mean by the term “evangelical”?

I’ve written about this before and won’t belabor the point. But the fact remains that even after three decades of work, we have no consensus on a rigorous historical definition of “evangelicalism”—either as a historically delimited network, a set of institutions, or a collection of doctrines—including Bebbington’s famous quadrilateral. But without this, our histories become practically incommensurate.

The solution, I think is to stop treating “evangelicalism” as a particular group, movement, identity, or thing. Instead, evangelicalism is most useful analytically when treated as a flexible orientation: one that takes conservative and liberal forms, abides in elite and non-elite contexts, and accommodates nearly every denominational tradition. As an orientation, it was taken up and discarded (in part or in whole) as it served the interests of the person or group.

What constitutes an evangelical orientation? Catherine Brekus’s excellent essay in this collection offers a perfectly serviceable starting point. She defines evangelical as a combination of a radically individualistic form of Protestantism and Enlightenment empiricism (specifically, its “language of assurance, certainty, experience, and proof”) (24). Defined this way, evangelicalism has a clear genealogy—a history—that began during the Great Awakening. It also allows us to define a non-evangelical in an unprejudicial way: those holding a communal “churchly” orientation who take the institutional church, tradition, creeds, theological systems, and the like as sources of religious authority. “Churchly” Protestants came before, but also existed alongside evangelicals. Whatever individualistic traits and Enlightenment assumptions they incorporated into everyday life, they simply did not believe that they should be applied to religion.

The problem with much of evangelical history today is that any rigorous criterion for “evangelical” tends to evaporate when we read studies on the nineteenth century. It is replaced by self-identification—whether a person claims to be evangelical. Because of this, these studies make it seem that the once-peripheral movement suddenly became hegemonic. But did it? If so, when was this turning point and what caused it?

Self-identification leads to confusion because it meant something fundamentally different to the nineteenth century Protestants who used the term (which nearly all did). “Evangelical” was a political term, not an analytic category. And because it was political—because it held social, cultural, and even economic power—it was contested. As far as I can tell, there was no coherent, agreed-upon, set of beliefs and practices associated with the word; rather its meaning approximated a vague combination of “respectable” and “orthodox.” (That combination, by the way, tells us something about the “myth of American religious freedom” and the strategies elite white Protestants used to circumvent formal disestablishment. Though Jon Butler’s essay touches on this, a deeper engagement is necessary.)

As historians, we know that political labels historical actors chose tell us little by themselves. We need to look beyond the labels, to the empirical evidence, words and actions, in order to grasp a person’s real orientation. Historians of evangelicalism are great at telling stories; but we also need to analyze our terms with more rigor. As Mark Hutchinson’s excellent essay on the global turn suggests, our “metaphorical containers” (205) and the other tools of our craft, influence the end product, and should be analyzed with care.

So, how evangelical was the nineteenth century… really?

Hatch, Democratization of American ChristianityHow prevalent was an evangelical orientation in the individualistic sense that Brekus uses the term? It existed, to be sure, and was spreading. The various sectarian groups in Nathan Hatch’s seminal study, the growth of early Methodist and Baptist congregations among non-elites on the frontier, the spectacular displays of enthusiasm documented by Ann Taves—all these demonstrate the vitality of an evangelical orientation in the United States. But all these things were controversial, suggesting that evangelicalism was not nearly as hegemonic as the current evangelical paradigm suggests.

A growing body of evidence points to a pitched battle between evangelical and churchly Protestants that we need to incorporate into our stories. It will help account for Amanda Porterfield’s important findings that American Protestantism had a deep authoritarian, and thus anti-democratic, streak. It explains James Bratt’s contention that many evangelicals—including the famed revivalist Charles Finney—exchanged an individualistic faith for something more churchly between 1835 and 1845. They could easily do this, remember, because evangelicalism is an orientation, not an identity.

Going forward, historians should reexamine the many organizations in the nineteenth century United States typically labeled “evangelical”: Bible and tract societies, Sunday Schools, home missionary organizations, even entire denominations. Let’s bring a more rigorous analysis to bear. Is their fundamental orientation toward the individualistic or the communal? Do they rely on individual conscience or corporate discipline? Is their primary concern environmental influence or individual choice? Do they assume individual Bible reading will generate sufficient authority or do they require educated, ordained clergy, tradition, creeds, and theological systems to superintend that reading? Is salvation all about a personal relationship with God or is the purpose of a personal conversion to be incorporated into a church, the “people of God?” By these criteria we can measure the evangelical temper of the times—or the lack thereof.

How do race, class, and gender intersect with an evangelical orientation?

Once we break apart the monolithic evangelical century, new patterns emerge that we can then trace to the Civil War and beyond. We can see an evangelical orientation predominate among non-elite, native-born whites, but also among some—but by no means all—working class African-Americans and Latinos/as. Elites and the rising middle classes, in contrast, tended toward churchly norms. Many European Protestants immigrated to America with a churchly orientation in tow. Knowing this, what were the ongoing class dynamics at play in the Fundamentalist movement and in Pentecostalism? In recent Latin American contributions to American evangelicalism recounted in Darren Dochuk’s essay?

We have new approaches to untangle the conundrums of evangelicalism and gender dynamics. How and why does an evangelical orientation that emboldened women to found and lead religious institutions also seem to have reinforced a toxic patriarchy? Are the gender dynamics in churchly contexts different?

We can, and must, move beyond the triumphalist narratives of white evangelical abolitionists. We must ask, with Luke Harlow, about the role of white supremacy in the formation of the fundamentalist movement. We similarly need to dismiss the idea that all African American Protestants are evangelical. Following the suggestions in Dennis Dickerson’s essay, we must note differences in class: working class storefront Pentecostal churches versus communally-oriented African American churches of the upper social strata. We need to examine the shift from interracial to segregated Pentecostalism, recounted in Edith Blumhofer’s essay. We need to ask deeper questions—incorporating the troubling insights of Sylvester Johnson about the larger role of American Protestantism in white supremacy. We need to wrestle with the fact that historically, white freedom has come at the expense of black bodies.

And combined, just maybe, we can explain that elephant in the room: that “turning point” in evangelical history that came after this book had gone to press—that is the unwavering support for Donald Trump by overwhelming majorities of those identifying as evangelical.

We need to open up evangelical history and the basic categories we use beyond the regular suspects.

Professionally, Mark Noll has been a historian first and foremost. That means understanding that our contexts, even as dispassionate historians, matter. Who we are provides vistas others may not have, but also affixes blinders that can obscure our vision. And the fact is that the field of evangelical history is dominated by folks like me: straight white men with some connection (past or present) to conservative evangelicalism.

If I recall correctly, there was only one woman at that seminar table at Wheaton. If I’m honest, I probably didn’t even notice it at the time. There’s more diversity among historians of evangelicalism today, but not by much. Yet, repeatedly, the insights most helpful to me have come from scholars who identify with a different gender, race, or sexual orientation than I. Many have no connection to evangelical networks or the baggage that can come with it.

The diversity problem simply has to be fixed… and fast. Noll has been deeply interested in connecting his American evangelical networks to other groups—around the world and outside the confines of evangelical institutions. It’s an impulse admirably reflected in this volume. But we can go even further and we must. But it’s not enough just to jam new ideas into existing frameworks; we need everyone at the table building new frameworks together. To that end, perhaps the shuttering of institutions like ISAE, sad as it was, will be a blessing in disguise. Perhaps the institutional hole it left will give space for new institutions to develop, with greater diversity from the planning stage forward.

So that’s my take on the field, but what’s yours? I encourage you to pick up this great collection yourself and join the conversation. What am I missing? What else needs fixing? What should be preserved? There’s plenty more to critique about the state of evangelical history, including the proposals I offer above. But on the whole, I’m optimistic about what we can accomplish in the future. Here’s hoping I’ll be in good company.

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