Five Thoughts on Evangelical History

Five Thoughts on Evangelical History September 9, 2015

Nathan Finn (an occasional Anxious Bench guest blogger) recently published a review essay in Themelios on the state of “evangelical history after George Marsden.” In it, he introduces the Marsden generation of scholarship and then comments on recent books by Steven Miller, Matthew Sutton, and Molly Worthen.

My first thought when reading the essay is that “evangelical history” means many things. First, there’s history written by evangelicals. Second, there’s the history of American evangelicalism. Then, there’s the history of evangelicalism more broadly. By centering evangelical history on George Marsden in his title, Finn blends those first two categories, though the books he has chosen focus on “the history of American evangelicalism” as written by evangelicals and others.

My second thought is that evangelical history is barely in its post-Marsden era. George himself published a substantial book last year, and others from the same generation like Grant Wacker are still very active scholars. At the same time, I suppose once you have a Festschrift published in your honor, one’s era is ending.

For me, the thrill of discovering “my history” as explained by George, Grant, Mark Noll, Joel Carpenter, and many others has stuck with me. I didn’t read their books as an undergraduate in the early-to-mid-1990s. When I applied for graduate school in 1997, George mailed two of his books to me. I was in the Philippines at the time and considered it something of a miracle that they reached me. I was transfixed by reading Soul of the American University and especially The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. In a larger sense, reading about the history of evangelicalism (and its place within the larger fabric of American religion) helped me understand the conflicts within my Presbyterian denomination and the nature of the spirituality, theology, and politics I had encountered in the parachurch organizations that shaped my life in high school and college.

My third thought is that it is terribly difficult to begin to summarize the legion of books published about American evangelicalism in recent years. I don’t quibble with the value of the books chosen by Finn (more on them below), but Kate Bowler’s Blessed, Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, Carolyn Dupont’s Mississippi Praying, and the recent books by both Brantley Gasaway and our David Swartz on the evangelical Left are equally groundbreaking. Perhaps more to the point, it seems that in Finn’s essay, “evangelical” almost means post-1945 “new evangelical” or at least twentieth-century evangelical, as one would quickly accumulate a massive list of valuable studies of earlier time periods. Books by Catherine Brekus, Randall Stephens, Thomas Kidd, and Timothy Gloege quickly come to mind. Finn is undoubtedly correct that “the post-Marsden era may just turn out to be a golden age for historians of evangelicalism.” That is undoubtedly the case, and it’s worth noting that the above-named authors and books write in a manner designed for both academic and more general audiences. That is certainly the case with Miller, Sutton, and Worthen.

My fourth thought is that most contemporary historians of evangelicalism — regardless of their church / faith backgrounds — display less interest in the methodological concerns Marsden raised in the 1990s in his Soul of the American University and The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. They are more focused on writing good history than in writing distinctively Christian history (or even discussing what that means). There are many exceptions to this rule — see excellent contributions by John Fea, Eric Miller, and Jay Green, for instance. Those debates, however, seem to have lost some of their potency over the past twenty years.

My fifth thought is to ask readers: what are the best studies that connect the recent story of American evangelicalism with its international networks, connections, and influence? Brian Stanley’s The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism is a good place to start, as is our Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christendom. I’m so America-centric in my own research and writing that I need regular reminders to get out of that comfort zone. Surely this remains one of the frontiers of “evangelical history after George Marsden,” to make the history of evangelicalism — at least as written by American scholars — less of an American story.



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