In Bebbington’s book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, he attempts to sketch with a broad stroke, the considerable influence that the evangelical movement has had in Britain from the 1730’s to the 1980’s. It is a comprehensive history, explaining the early beginnings and then demonstrating how the movement has diverged into so many different expressions of the faith. Along the way, he traces all the major offshoots and outgrowths, such as Romanticism, Wesleyanism, the Quakers, liberal theology, and the charismatic movement. I have read many volumes that cover this material but always from an American point of view; there are nuances that Bebbington brings out that are refreshing. For example, his discussion on how Evangelicalism positively influenced the many social ills of the day in nineteenth century Britain was informative. The movement had a tremendous impact on the poor, the homeless, widows, prison ministries, and alcoholism. Evangelicalism deserves a bright spotlight for its impact on these areas of society—British and American. It is hard to argue with the good it has done in all those areas. Bebbington also spends some considerable time tracing the global missionary outreach that increased because of the impulses of the movement.
Chapter eight was the most interesting and relevant to me because it concerns the time period closer to my experience, the later part of the twentieth century. Liberalism took center stage and infiltrated every university, seminary and church. The ‘higher criticism’ that came into fashion in the later nineteenth century and early twentieth century caused splitting of churches and educational institutions. Nothing was off limits when it came to questioning the validity of scripture and the person and nature of Christ. Bebbington does an insightful job explaining the causes and effects of all this. It made me recall what Augustine said in the City of God: “But it must not be supposed that folly is as powerful as truth, just because it can, if it likes, shout louder and longer than truth.” The theological battles persisted when Neo-orthodoxy made inroads at seminaries and universities. Bebbington states, “Neo-orthodoxy nevertheless provided a context in which conservative Evangelical opinions were not dismissed out of hand” (p.619). This time period was a highly contested time for the church on both sides of the Atlantic. Christians could agree on serving the poor and needy but not on exactly what it means to have an existential encounter with Christ.
Ecumenism was discussed with well-intentioned attitudes but making headway proved to be difficult. “One of the chief developments in the world church after the Second World War was the accelerating momentum of the unity movement” (p. 620). There is an emphasis on the Church of England which I appreciated since I did not know much of this history. I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition and I appreciated the time Bebbington spent on describing the influences of Vatican II. There was some new communication channels that opened up between Evangelicalism and Catholicism and that helped the spirit of cooperation—and the world took note.
Lastly, Bebbington does an insightful job explaining how the movement at times has affected the culture and at the same time, how the culture has affected the movement. There has been an interplay between the two and for an American looking from the outside in, he does a great job unraveling the riddle. He states about Evangelicalism: “Its outward expressions, such as its social composition and political attitudes, have frequently been transformed. Its inward principles, embracing teaching about Christian theology and behavior, have altered hardly less” (p. 636). It is a true statement and this can also be said about all of Christian history, going all the way back to Pentecost. The outward expression of the faith will look different from country to country and from generation to generation, but the essentials of the faith persist. God, creation, Jesus, the cross, repentance, faith, the Holy Spirit, fruit for the Kingdom, these things are eternal.