The noted Christian historian Mark Noll says that a revolution has taken place in our understanding of the history of American evangelicalism. Citing the scholarship of British historian W. R. Ward, who died recently, Noll says that the origins of American evangelicalism are now understood to lie not in Puritanism or frontier revivals but in 17th century German Pietism:
Never from within the Anglo-American community of historians working on the modern history of Christianity has there been such an encompassing challenge to received historiography, nor such a well-documented appeal to reorient evangelical history away from the narrow precincts of the North Atlantic to the broad plains of Central Europe. The challenge that Ward’s scholarship mounted for the rest of us very ordinary historians was extraordinary. Ward’s achievement provided what not even German scholars have attempted, which is a general interpretation of the history of evangelicalism from within the standpoint of German history and German historical scholarship.
The Central European roots of evangelical religion have changed perceptions of evangelical origins in at least five ways. First, by situating evangelical history against the backdrop of 17th-century European political history, Ward demonstrated that distinctly evangelical beliefs and practices emerged in response to political pressure from powerful states, such as those in the Habsburg empire, or powerful state-churches, both Protestant and Catholic. What he summarized as “the almost universal history of revival as resistance to assimilation” led Ward to Central European beginnings for such essential evangelical themes as the opposition of “true Christianity” to formulaic, systematic, or imposed orthodoxies; and to small-group enclaves as the necessary nurturing medium in which “true Christianity” could flourish. By showing how the political power of nation-states and state-churches played a defining role in the earliest evangelical movements, he showed all scholars the often covert political protests found in almost all evangelical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries, and probably later as well.
Second, Ward insisted on the foundational significance of 17th-century events and circumstances for evangelical history. By so doing he made a convincing case that accounts of Anglo-American evangelicalism are necessarily stunted if they do not include figures like Johann Arndt, Jakob Böhme, and Pierre Poiret (who are almost never mentioned) as well as those like Philip Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke (who occasionally appear as mere anticipations of what came later).
By insisting on the importance of 17th-century politics and 17th-century European religious history for all later evangelical history, Ward, thirdly, also showed how necessary it is to connect events in the 18th century back to the era of the Reformation and Catholic Reformation. Reformers like Spener returned to Luther for inspiration; in him Spener and like-minded Pietists discovered precedents that would come to mark all evangelicals. Even more, Ward showed that complex lines of influence continued to link mystically minded Catholics and pietistically inclined Protestants straight through the 17th and 18th centuries, and that those links can be best explained by common patterns of reaction to the orthodox state-church establishments that defined European religion after the Reformation.
Fourth, Ward insisted that reforming, revivalistic, anti-statist, and small-group Protestantism was always and everywhere a pan-European phenomenon governed minimally, if at all, by national and linguistic boundaries.