David Bebbington, “The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody” (2005)

David Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody (InterVarsity, 2005)

Image: Charles Haddon Spurgeon preaching at the Music Hall in the Royal Surrey Gardens, 1856.

Bebbington delivers a very readable introduction to evangelicalism in the late nineteenth century. Aimed at a non-specialist audience, it would work well in an undergraduate survey of evangelicalism or in a graduate class on approaches to the study of evangelicalism. Most famously, this book presents a succinct definition of evangelicalism—one that has become standard in the field. Bebbington identifies four defining emphases of “evangelicalism”: 1) crucicentrism, emphasis on the centrality of Christ’s atoning work, 2) conversionism, emphasis on individual faith and conversion experience, 3) biblicism, emphasis on the Bible as the revealed Word of God, 4) activism, emphasis on spreading the gospel. Given its wide audience, the book focuses more on surveying the landscape than offering a controversial argument: Bebbington’s thesis claims that nineteenth century evangelicalism, carrying forward the “vigor” it inherited from the awakening of the eighteenth century, assumed a “dominant” role in the churches and cultures of the English-speaking world (see 252). Evangelicals stood at the vanguard of innovative church practice, set the trends in theology and in popular spirituality, and led all other churches in numerical growth. More than that, evangelicalism exerted major influence on cultural debates about sentimentalism, science, public education, sports/recreation, temperance, and women’s suffrage.

There’s much to praise about this book. Bebbington treats evangelicalism as a network that spanned the English-speaking world. Though most of the book’s action takes place in Great Britain and the United States, Bebbington traces evangelical connections around the globe—Canada, South Africa, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand play their parts. More importantly, he stresses that evangelicals themselves thought of their movement in global terms. That said, Bebbington is also careful enough to draw attention to the “diversity” of this global movement. While historians have tended to slice the evangelical pie nation by nation, Bebbington suggests that theological, social (esp. race and class), and denominational differences mattered more to evangelicals themselves. Canadian, American, Australian, and African Presbyterians probably shared more resources, styles of worship or devotion, and feelings of connection than most white American Presbyterians shared with black American Methodists. Despite such deep fissures, Bebbington insists that these were “internal contrasts… less important than the unity of the evangelical movement” (81, emphasis added).

As my regular readers will probably suspect (the few, the proud, the bored), I have some concerns with the centrality of “belief” in Bebbington’s definition. Though he calls them the evangelical movement’s “enduring priorities” (23), his crucicentrism, biblicism, conversionism, and activism are all abstract ideas to which individuals, or aggregates of like-minded individuals, can assent. They are “beliefs” of a very particular kind, though we hear nothing about their making. This set of intellectualized “priorities” floats through history like a ghost, manifesting and appearing in different expressions here, now there, now then. This ghost generates an “essence” of late nineteenth-century evangelicalism, one that gets embodied in Spurgeon and Moody (267). As far as I’m concerned, “belief” needs to remain under constant interrogation. We need to ask how “belief” gets assembled and reassembled in particular contexts. This certainly means examining the self-understandings of individuals if and when they assert them, but it also means attending to the objects, images, discourses, body disciplines, subjectivities, and social formations that constitute “belief” in a given case. The category of “belief” constantly gets made and remade, so whenever we invoke the category, we need to trace the associations that make it.

Review by A.T. Coates