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The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of the Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys

9780830838912_p0_v1_s260x420[1]Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The age of the Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys, A History of Evangelicalism, People, Movements and Ideas in the English-Speaking World I (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2003).

This is a splendid book that I found to be very rewarding reading. It is well thought out and it is presented in a way that makes for easy reading, yet challenges the reader to think and reflect on how the era covered in the book relates to today’s challenges in evangelicalism. Noll is able to cover the first three hundred years of English-speaking evangelicalism by capturing landmark events in such a way that readers will feel as if they were present in the shaping of these events. The book is divided into nine chapters, which are well integrated so that the book flows from one important event and/or leader to another.

The world of evangelicalism is not easy to define. Noll begins his book with an over view of the “Landscapes: Political, Ecclesiastical, Spiritual” that shaped the evangelical movement. By the time the reader reaches the third chapter, “Revival, 1734-1738” and the fourth chapter, “Revival, Fragmentation, Consolidation, 1738-1745” the reader understands why the revival became the centerpiece of the movement. Noll writes, “The evangelical revivals were unusual, however, in their frequency, their publicity and their function as a replacement for discarded aspects of traditional religion. They never, however, charted a simple course.” Noll captures the greatest challenge of today’s evangelical movement; how to replace the discarded aspects of traditional religion (revival is rarely practiced in mainstream religion, but is now rarely practiced in evangelical circles), yet not become the very thing (institutionalized religion) which the movement is attempting to replace.

Noll makes the point that, “Over time it became clear that for evangelicalism to take root, the longing for revival was more important than revival itself.” Through out the book Noll underscores the importance of this point. The preaching featured in the awakenings, “was a preaching aimed directly at popular affections, expecting life-changing results, emphasizing the message of divine grace as the God-given remedy for sin and often (though not always) dispensing with elaborate ratiocination.” Leaders into today’s evangelical movement should pay particular attention to this point. Rather than becoming preoccupied with doctrines, rules, prohibitions, and developing a “closed mind,” the movement needs to seek to appeal to people’s affections and help draw closer to Christ. In helping to explain the growth of the movement; Noll observes that, “evangelical Christianity coexisted with the Enlightenment.” The movement did not agree with all aspects of the Enlightenment; however, it was able to effectively dialogue with it. Noll does not shy away from critical reflection of the movement and its leaders. He notes that John Wesley was in many ways a tyrant, yet Wesley helped the evangelical movement to grow by expanding the role of laymen and to some degree challenged the stratified social order.

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Category: Church History, Pneuma Review, Spring 2006

About the Author: John R. Belcher, MDiv (Lexington Theological Seminary), MSW (University of Kentucky), PhD (Ohio State University), has served as a pastor and a psychiatric social worker. He has been teaching at the University of Maryland for more than 25 years, he teaches part time at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in the Ecumenical Institute of Theology, and he also practices part time as a pastoral counselor. John and his family fellowship at a local United Methodist Church. www.ssw.umaryland.edu/faculty_and_research/bios/belcher/bios/belcher

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