Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Rise of Evangelicalism by Mark Noll (IVP)

The Rise of Evangelicalism by Mark Noll is the first volume in five-volume set that will consider the development of evangelicalism in the English-speaking world since the seventeenth century. The author, a well-known writer on American evangelicalism, is co-editor of the series with David Bebbington. This volume covers most of the eighteenth century, focussing in the main on the revivals associated with Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and John Wesley, and discussing some of their effects on British and early American society.

While the term ‘evangelical’ had been used almost as a synonym for Protestant in the century following the Reformation, Noll has chosen to use it as describing a movement that has minimised denominational distinctives and instead stressed the necessity of the new birth and holy living. This movement rose out of English Puritanism, European Pietism and Anglican spirituality, and it is not difficult to sense it was a reaction against a sterile form of Protestantism. George Whitefield stands out as the spokesperson for this movement and no doubt denominational distinctives were not a priority for him (others were not so ready to abandon their convictions on church polity, as was seen in the refusal of Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine to endorse Whitefield when he preached, with much success, in Church of Scotland congregations).

The second half of the seventeenth century was a time of significant change. Developments in international trade between Europe and America were utilised by the evangelicals to begin and maintain trans-Atlantic links that furthered their cause. They also became increasing involved in attempting to improve social conditions, with the best-known response being their opposition to the slave trade.

Noll has written an engaging and comprehensive account of a movement that can be observed from two different viewpoints. At one level, the large number of converts from the revivals that gave it much of its impetus was the work of the Holy Spirit, as were the spiritual practices that these converts engaged in. At the same time, the movement was a social force that contributed to the changing culture that was adjusting to the opinions of the Enlightenment. Noll manages to maintain both viewpoints in balance as he steers the reader through a complex story.

This volume is an excellent beginning to what should be a valuable collection.

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