How to Teach about American Evangelicalism

How to Teach about American Evangelicalism May 10, 2012

This coming fall, I’m teaching a dedicated course on evangelicalism in the United States for the first time. I’ve spent a large portion of my career researching and writing about evangelical Christianity, so this should be an easy task. But I’m having a great deal of difficulty deciding how to structure the course and choose readings. Plus, I’m a bit out of touch with the “pulse” of American evangelicalism, having spent the last several years mostly thinking about the history of Mormonism in the nineteenth-century United States. Thus, I’m looking for advice. My basic model of teaching in upper-level courses is to try to assign good books, which then serve as the basis for class discussions and essays.

It’s also going to be my first semester teaching in a Religious Studies department, so I’m debating the extent to which the course should focus on the history of evangelicalism as opposed to its contemporary (or recent) manifestations within American culture. I presume that I will have some evangelical students in the class, and I also presume that most non-evangelical students will have negative preconceptions about evangelicalism. One of my goals is to help all students come to understand that American evangelicalism is and has always been more complex and diverse than they imagine.

I’ll probably begin with the very thorny definition of how to define evangelicalism, taking David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral” as a starting point (conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism). This is also a good time to raise other sorts of foundational questions. Does “evangelical” in the United  States mean “white evangelical,” or can we look across racial boundaries to shared theologies and missions?

I’m considering using either Randall Balmer’s brief The Making of Evangelicalism or Barry Hankins’s American Evangelicals as a textbook for the course.

Then I’ll get to pick perhaps four books, and with them, four topics for the semester. If I’m going to include any historical topic as a focus, I think it will be the awakenings of the mid-eighteenth century. I’m a great admirer of our Thomas Kidd’s The Great Awakening, primarily because it would quickly inform students that none of the diverse group of evangelicals in his book closely resemble American evangelicals today. As an alternative starting point, I like Jon Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival. Its context is the Dutch Caribbean and Continental Europe, which is a bit of a problem given the geographic presumptions of the course. However, the racial diversity and tensions within Moravian pietism/evangelicalism Sensbach explores correlate rather well to the experiences of white and black evangelicalism in what became the United  States.

Beyond one of those as a starting point, I’ve been very indecisive. Some of the books under consideration (there are many, many books on American evangelicalism that I admire and have enjoyed reading that I’m not considering for reasons of length, complexity, etc.):

– James Ault, Spirit and Flesh

– Edward Larson, Summer for the Gods

– Matthew Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson

– Jon Shields, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right

– Anthea Butler, Women in the Church of God in Christ

– T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back

I’ve also considered using novels, such as Shirley Nelson’s The Last Year of the War (loved it when I read it in graduate school). I wouldn’t mind assigning an evangelical bestseller such as Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, but I’m not exactly certain how to adapt it for classroom use.

Finally, I want to think about other ways for students to “experience” American evangelicalism. They should listen to some Larry Norman (being an extremely unhip professor, I just discovered Norman by way of Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt), which is also a good way to introduce evangelical apocalypticism. If I could identify a good venue for it in northern Virginia, I’d like to have the class attend an evangelical worship service, with perhaps a heavy dose of Joel Osteen for those disinclined to attend in person.

I would be grateful for any suggestions. What books on evangelicalism do you think would be helpful for my students? Any creative pedagogical ideas? What do you think students should come away knowing about American evangelicalism?

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  • John,

    I’m teaching a similar course for the first time next spring. I teach at a seminary, so my context calls for a more than “merely historical” approach to the subject. One recent book I plan to use to highlight the growing ethnic diversity among American evangelicals is Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (IVP Academic, 2009). Rah argues that evangelicalism is thriving among first and second generation immigrants, even though this is largely missed by historians, pollsters, etc. It’s a helpful book that should prove fairly provocative in my context. As for other books, I’ll probably use the Hankins book as well, but I’m still thinking through other materials.


  • John Haas

    If I were doing it, I wouldn’t structure it around books. I’d try to determine what figures or events were most illuminating, and then find readings–seconday AND primary–that fit those. By going for readings IN books, I would avoid non-essentials (ie, non-essential to what I wanted to get across).

  • Can I enroll? It does not surprise me at all that many of the books you list are ones I would teach too (or have taught several times). My only question would be, is it possible to approach ‘evangelicalism’ not only as a body of people who we can identify using Bebbington’s definition, but also as a category of identity that is created and shifts over. Michael Emerson’s _Divided By Faith_ is a key text, in this regard, I think. He studies people who self identified as “evangelical” which meant he only had white people. This led to a particular view of issues of race, racial segregation, and church life. If he had included all Americans who fit Bebbington’s definition, his findings would have been quite different. So … is it possible to problematize the category by drawing attention to who and how it gets defined over time?

  • Paul Matzko


    Have you thought about walking your students through the relationship of fundamentalism to evangelicalism? I wouldn’t be surprised if some of your non-evangelical students will come into the course assuming that the two labels are synonymous.

    The standard text, George Marsden’s “Fundamentalism and American Culture,” might be too long for your purposes, but something like Barry Hankins’s “God’s Rascal: J. Frank Norris and the Beginnings of Southern Fundamentalism” might fit (and the pistol-packing preacher is just fun to read about!).


  • Bill

    By all means let your students have some fun. Either begin or end with Kevin Roose’s “The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University,” a hilarious, but also insightful and sympathetic account of the author’s undercover semester at Falwell’s college. It will introduce the culture of evangelicalism in an extremely winning way. My Catholic students love it. For Pentecostalism, let them read “Salvation on Sand Mountain,” then visit a snake-handling church. Must be some down your way …

  • A good course would probably have more Pentecostalism than you currently have scheduled. That might help bridge the gap with the African American experience, since most black Christians would not identify with the term “evangelical” but would have been profoundly impacted by Pentecostalism.

    Major current trends are Calvinist resurgence and Emergent/Liberal evangelicalism, with Charismatics continuing to be a pervasive influence.

  • johnturner

    Nathan: Thanks. Good suggestion. I have also considered Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christendom to place things in a more international context. But although I haven’t read Soong-Chan Rah’s book, it would work well for providing a corrective to the standard image of American evangelicalism. Maybe the class could travel to watch Jeremy Lin play come NBA season (if he resigns in NY).

    Paul: I’ll look at the Norris (article?). George’s book on Fuller Seminary is even more helpful for that transition, I think, but both of those are probably too detailed for my undergraduates.

    John: point well taken. There are several reasons I’ve mostly assigned books. Among others, in recent years I’ve found that arranging conversations (via phone or Skype) with the authors has provided pedagogical high points each semester, and it’s nice to have assigned the books in those cases. But you’re correct about the problem of non-essentials.

  • johnturner

    Roose’s is a good suggestion. There are a few of those “undercover” books out there — in fact, I think there is more than one on Liberty. Thanks for the thought.

    Salvation on Sand Mountain. I like it, but definitely no field trip. Serious problems with liability (and instructor cowardice).

  • johnturner

    Can you co-teach?

    You’re quite correct about shifting identities over time. In terms of defining “evangelical,” I think the question of race is critical. I’ve looked at Emerson’s book, but it’s been a long time! Thanks for the reminder.

  • johnturner

    You’re correct about the need for the inclusion of Pentecostalism / Holiness. I’ve used Randall Stephens’s book on the Holiness Movement before. In terms of Pentecostalism, I’ll probably try either Sutton on McPherson or Anthea Butler’s book on women and COGIC.

  • Roose is a real treat, and such a generous approach. This is one that at least you know most students would read!

  • Larry Eskridge

    Lotta good suggestions already and tons o’ possibilities out there as the available literature is huge. I just finished up teaching a 2-hour reading seminar on Postwar Evangelicalism and found Doug Sweeney’s little survey of evangelicalism “The American Evangelical Story” a nice manageable background and overview for the course. We used Marsden’s “Reforming Fundamentalism” and Balmer’s “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”; even though it’s a little dated now, it made for a broad overview of a lot of different aspects of evee culture.

    One idea that I tried which seemed to actually work real well was to commandeer a Saturday–bring in coffee and feed the students lunch–and have an evangelical film fest. It seemed to do a nice job of providing a glimpse into the subculture and how it has been both influenced by, and reacted against, the larger culture over the years. I showed an old Moody Science film from the ’50s, “The Gospel Blimp” from the mid-’60s, “A Thief in the Night,” some kids’ videos (“Bibleman” and “Veggie Tales”), showed a couple of music videos, the documentary “Frisbee: Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher” and one of the recent Sherwood Pictures films from the church down in GA (I picked “Facing the Giants”). We were there from 9 to 5 that day, but the students loved it. Granted, I was dealing with a class full of evee kids, but seems like it might be even more effective in introducing non-evangelical students to the “interior” life of the subculture. Of course there are a lot other films out there from which you could choose.

    Good luck!

  • matt b

    John – McLean Bible Church, perhaps ten minutes’ drive from GMU, is one of the major megachurches in the country. I’ve sent students there before, and they’ve universally had interesting experiences to recount.

  • johnturner

    Thanks, Larry, for the wealth of great suggestions.

  • Frank

    As a grad student, I enjoyed two books from Gerardo Marti, one on Mosaic and the other on Oasis, both case studies, both in California.

  • Richard Kauffman

    John, I’d love to see your syllabus when it’s completed. Sounds like a lot of fun. One question: what about having the students read some original source material?

  • Jonathan Yeager

    There is a helpful syllabus on “Varieties of American Evangelicalism” by Robert Brown that is made available by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at
    Supplementing some of the newer books on evangelicalism with the resources listed on this syllabus (dated 2004) should provide a good bibliography for your course.

  • johnturner

    Matt B — thanks for the church suggestion. My only fear (for myself, not the students) is excessively loud music. My ears are still ringing from a visit to Andy Stanley’s North Point Community church several years ago. I can understand adapting to contemporary culture, but how about some attempt to preserve congregants’ hearing. Of course, I could always bring the bright orange ear muffs I wear while using my lawnmower. I figure they let the neighbors know that I don’t even attempt to look remotely cool.

    Richard — any suggestions for source material? I often give students Jerry Falwell’s 1965 speech “Ministers and Marches,” and I use a late-1940s sermon from Billy Graham.

  • Andrea Turpin

    What a fun class! I strongly second using Ault’s Spirit and Flesh. I used it in an American women’s history class this past year to help students who were not sympathetic with complementarian evangelical gender culture understand where those women might be coming from. Students reported it was one of the most enjoyable books we read, and we read some fun ones (one on changing dating culture, for instance). From your book list, it seems like you might already be doing this, but I’d consider gender as one of your organizing themes, especially because diversity within evangelicalism is one of the things you want to communicate. There’s a lot you can do with contemporary egalitarian/complementarian debates as well as historic gender roles.

  • John, the class sounds like so much fun. Everyone has already named every book that immediately came to my mind, but I do have one pedagogical suggestion. I think it would be great to pair up music with the various periods and evangelicals you discuss. Have students read hymns from the Awakenings and the early Holiness/Pentecostal movement. Show YouTube clips of singing from the film The Holy Ghost People. Pair up not just Larry Norman but also DC Talk, Carmen, Amy Grant, and other contemporary Christian musicians with late twentieth century readings. Make them listen to bookstore worship music for the first three minutes of class. My point is that music has always been an important part of evangelical Chrisitian culture and when brought into the classroom it gives students another touchstone for the material and takes a lot less time than readings or even movies. And maybe you and your class can figure out why all my 30 something evangelical friends love U2 and Mumford & Sons.

  • May I be so bold as to suggest my Latino Pentecostal Identity (CUP 2003) Since Pentecostalism and Latino/as are normally marginalized in classes that focus on “American” evangelicalism-often coded as meaning white evangelicals-which may be demographically relevant-but certainly does not do justice to the ethnic diversity of the movement

  • Amy DeRogatis

    I’ve taught the course 3 times (once as a seminar, twice at the 300-level) in a Religious Studies Dept. I’ve used many of the same readings (or course not “When God Talks Back,” yet) and a few others not listed. I am happy to share/exchange the syllabus. I’m interested to see how you design the course.

  • I want to take your class, John. If you’re worried about Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival not working because of its geographical focus, why not assign his earlier (and, IMO, much better) A Separate Canaan? It gives you all of the benefits you suggest Rebecca’s Revival provides (“racial diversity and tensions within Moravian pietism/evangelicalism”) but focuses on North Carolina.

  • Dear John, This sounds like a great course, and a great opportunity for you. Here are some suggestions from a couple History courses I teach in this area.
    American Christianity and Culture Since 1945 focuses on Neo-Evangelicalism, and has a bit of a religious studies feel–or at least a contemporary study by the end of the semester. For texts, I have used: The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism by Garth Rosell; The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll; With God On Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America by William Martin; Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite by D. Michael Lindsay; and God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission by R. Marie Griffith. We read Rosell, then Noll, Martin, Griffith, and Lindsay. The Griffith book was a very important part of the course, for its examination of women and Pentecostalism, both themes that are often sidestepped in portrayals of American Evangelicals. Rosell was a nice starting point and brought Ockenga and Henry into the story. Noll’s study made for a nice touchstone through the remainder of the course, and allowed Lindsay’s work to report back on some of the critiques Noll brought to the class. I also used Alan Wolfe’s Transformation of American Religion, which my Christian students wrestled with a great deal. Wolfe’s observations are both indicting and very accurate.
    For earlier study of American Christianity, I have used Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837;
    Randall Stephens, The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South; and
    D. G. Hart, That Old Time Religion in Modern America: Evangelical Protestantism in the Twentieth Century. Hart’s critique is very important and is a nice balance to the Emergent Church movement. This brings a nice forum for debate in the classroom, even for students who have “”no dog in the fight.” I also have them study websites and current materials from churches and parachurch ministries. I have taught these courses at a faith-based university, yet I found that many students were very unfamiliar with the themes that we studied.
    In addition to the good suggestions on music and film, I would also suggest studying the visual arts and the role of “production” in contemporary worship services. McLean Bible Church is a good suggestion for Northern Virginia, and I think another innovative case study in the DC metro area would be National Community Church ( With so many political themes in the 20th century story, proximity to DC will be an asset. You would probably be able to get an audience with some of the evangelical groups who work in politics if you wished.
    Best wishes with your course–it sounds terrific.

  • johnturner

    What is “bookstore worship music?”

    Great ideas. I agree that music is a great way to get a sense of culture, theology, and the way such things have changed over time.

  • johnturner

    Arlene, that’s a very good suggestion. You are quite correct. As you could glean from my above thoughts on the course, Latino evangelicalism / Pentecostalism is something I need to learn more about. What better way to go about it than to attempt to teach a unit on it!

  • Edward Blum

    When I teach Sutton’s book, I always use video clips from Sister Aimee and the students just love analyzing them:

  • Stuff like this:

    All of that Hillsong style stuff, really. I don’t know if “bookstore worship music” is the best name for it or not. I’m not as up on my contemporary evangelical culture as I should be.

  • johnturner

    Thanks, Michael. Great thoughts.

  • Barton Price

    I scanned the comments with an eager eye for a bibliography. All good suggestions. I wonder where McDannel’s Material Christrianity or Candy Gunther Brown’s Word in the World fit. Both offer a an important glimpse into the evangelical encounter with the secular.

    Kevin Roose’s book is a gem. It might be paired well with the movie Saved! starring Mandy Moore.

  • Barton Price

    Oh, and Bebbington is a good start. And I would situate Mormonism within that matrix.

    Also, Donald Dayton’s Discovering an Evangelical Heritage is a great book. He laments the decline of social activism in the evangelical tradition. Good fodder for discussion. Perhaps situate with Johnson’s Shopkeeper. The book may be out of print, though.

    Finally, and I’ll shut up then, you may want to use Albanese’s or McCutcheon’s quadrilaterals for defining religion as an approach from a religious studies angle.