The Rise of Evangelicalism The Rise of Evangelicalism
A History of Evangelicalism Vol. 1: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys

Mark A Noll
ISBN 1844740013 (9781844740017)
IVP, 2004

Category: Doctrine and Theology

USA Edition available from
UK Edition available from

Reading history is not my first (or second) love, despite the fact that I'm aware I always benefit from a good dose of it. So it was with a slight sense of duty mixed with expectation that I approached this book, the first in a projected five-volume series on the history of evangelicalism in the English-speaking world, co-edited by Mark A. Noll and David W. Bebbington.

Noll, a first-rate historian of American evangelicalism (evident here, not least in the full footnotes and lengthy bibliographies), provides the first installment up to the mid-1790s, in nine substantial chapters, topped and tailed with an introduction and afterword, moving through the period of revivals (1734-1738), fragmentation and consolidation (1738-1745), development (1745-1770), and diversification (1770-1795). Most of the coverage is devoted to Britain and the colonies that became the USA, and the account embraces well-known figures such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley, the Countess of Huntingdon, John Newton, William Wilberfoce, Hannah Moore, alongside a gallery of lesser-known characters.

Noll shows how eighteenth-century evangelicalism arose out of three earlier movements: the international Calvinist network, especially of English Puritanism, the pietist revival from central Europe, and a High Church Anglican tradition of rigorous spirituality and organisation in voluntary societies to promote personal piety and service to others. (This last one was a surprise to me since my own evangelical tradition taught me to be suspicious of high church activities!) Noll arguably places most significance on the second of the three - the pioneering place of the German-speaking Moravians - showing that the evangelical revival began in the heart of Europe, and that the similar series of movements that arose in England and elsewhere were following precedents set out seventy-five years previously.

In explaining why the revivals occurred, Noll is happy to affirm the movement of the Spirit before considering the nature of the human agents, the flow of history, and the shifting of societal structures, all combined in someone like George Whitefield, an earnest preacher of 'new birth', but also an 'expert marketer of the gospel in the new open spaces of British imperial commerce' (p.143), demonstrating the work of the Spirit through 'channels of influence from the domains of ordinary history' (p.144). This evangelical allowed himself an 'Amen'.

Through all this, Noll documents how evangelicals retained an interest in the affairs of the world (perhaps seen most notably in mobilisation against the slave trade), even if the strong pietist tradition tended to lead to inward focus rather that outward action. Edwards and John Wesley who were first-rate intellectuals (and whose massive legacy lives on today) nonetheless maintained that personal experience of God was vital; that emphasis on personal experience has been a feature of evangelicalism ever since.

All of this adds up to a stimulating and encouraging narrative overall. Those who know the terrain better than I will be able to point out the gaps in Noll's account. Gaps or not, this promises to be an important collection offering a way of getting to grips with the tradition and family tree which has been formative for our own identity as its children and heirs.


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Antony Billington, July 2004

Antony Billington teaches Hermeneutics (that's Biblical Interpretation to you & me) at London School of Theology. He's a frequent contributor to the School's monthly webzine, Eis, is heavily into film and contemporary culture and spends most of his wages in the LST Bookshop (enter at your own risk).

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