Evangelical and evolution are not two words normally found in a single, complementary phrase. Indeed, one typically finds them fiercely opposed. But a careful reading of D.W. Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s will encourage the consideration of how the evangelical movement has shape-shifted over the centuries. Understanding that evangelicalism is not static but ever-changing is key to maintaining its vitality as a movement.
Bebbington’s comprehensive work itself is a fast-paced joyride through the ups and downs of this popular Protestant movement as it impacted and was impacted by British society since the Enlightenment. Generally, evangelicalism positions itself as an influencer of others, both of culture and of individuals, as a light on the hillside for the town. It takes a historian such as Bebbington to unveil how British evangelicalism also responded to culture to adapt to immediate realities. He states, “Changing socio-economic and political conditions affected Evangelicalism and its potential recruits in ways that dramatically moulded its size, self-image, strategy and teaching.”
Reviewers of this work also highlight his purpose in writing. Malcolm Greenshields of the University of Lethbridge asserts that “[Bebbington’s] book makes a valiant attempt to integrate the development of evangelicalism with broader movements in western culture. In his own words, “the crucial determinants of change in Evangelical religion have been the successive cultural waves that have broken over Western Civilization since the late seventeenth century” (p. 273).” Cultural waves such as the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Modernism all impact British Evangelicalism, both in how it expressed itself within society, and how it understood its own theological grounding.
Take the influence of Romanticism on British Evangelicalism, for example. The flowering of Romantic artistic expression occurred within the blight of the Industrial Revolution. As the cogs and wheels of impersonal machinery began to shape social expression, the Victorian Age responded with a desire to go back to the Garden. Evangelicalism was not exempt. To illustrate, hymnodist Folliott Sandford Pierpoint penned the hymn For the Beauty of the Earth in 1864:
For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
For the Love which from our birth
Over and around us lies:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our Sacrifice of Praise.
For the beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon and stars of light:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our Sacrifice of Praise.
These appeals to the beauty of creation in these and subsequent verses are standard hallmarks of Romanticism, and are seen here influencing the writing of a hymn. “Romanticism’s emphasis on the importance of feeling, intuition, imagination, and inspiration, its later pessimism about the human condition and desire for escape, can all be found in subsequent evangelical tendencies, and indeed are still of great importance according to Bebbington.”
Another example lies in social action. It is well known that as a politician, William Wilberforce in the late 18th century, motivated by his evangelical faith, invested his life into advocating against slavery. Bebbington demonstrates how evangelicals of this and subsequent generations did not shy away from social engagement – Hannah More and her tracts obligating action for the poor, John Wesley’s generosity toward those in need, education and literacy efforts by the National Society of the Church of England, and prison reform by Elizabeth Fry are only a few examples of how evangelicals impacted society. Interestingly, it is in the late Victorian Era with the advance of premillennialism and the correlated belief in verbal, plenary inerrancy of Scripture, and the reaction to the modernism of the 20th century, that one begins to see Evangelicals stray from social action and isolate themselves into understanding their work on earth as being primarily spiritual with an emphasis on conversion and individual morality in preparation for the Rapture. This unfortunate separation of body from soul is thankfully only an influence in evangelical ethos for a hundred years, give or take a few decades.
In my work in philanthropy, understanding the full spectrum of history around evangelical engagement in culture is essential, for more recently we have inherited a gospel that is truncated as I just mentioned. Interestingly at the beginning of my philanthropy career my colleagues generally were fixated on “reaching unreached people groups”, sponsoring massive evangelistic crusades, and training national leaders in evangelism. Saving souls was the end game, and a logical outcome of thinking that valued souls more than bodies. If we follow the money, we recognize that in the late 20th century we had divorced social engagement from the work of the church; we had become specialists in spiritual not social change. Since the 2000s, much seems to be changing. Evangelical philanthropy is experiencing a reintegration of social work as being part of the mosaic of Christian witness and missional living in the world. We now observe increasing numbers of agencies motivated by Christian faith. These offer microloans for poor entrepreneurs, provide counselling to those trapped by debt, advocate for the end of human trafficking, and sponsor refugees fleeing violence, and are only a few examples of the creative means with which people of faith reach out to our world with a wholistic gospel.
Reviewer Robert Clouse challenges our preconceived notions of evangelicalism which are stereotyped as being stuck and unchanging. “Despite statements to the contrary by Evangelicals, the movement does not reflect a world of eternal and unchanging truth. Rather, it has been bound to the flux of ideas and events within the general culture.” Evangelicalism is evolving, and God’s faithful work on earth through his church will continue.
 Matthew 5:13.
 Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. (London: Routledge, 2002), 272.
 Greenshields, Malcolm. “Reviews: Modern Britain.” Canadian Journal of History 25, no. 2 (August 1990): 267.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/For_the_Beauty_of_the_Earth, accessed January 11, 2018.
 http://www.hymnswithoutwords.com/hymns/For_the_beauty_of_the_earth, accessed January 11, 2018.
 Bebbington, 70.
 Ibid., 70.
 Ibid., 124.
 Ibid., 120.
 Clouse, Robert G. “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Book).” American Historical Review 96, no. 1 (February 1991): 165.
13 responses to “Evangelical evolution”
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First Mark, I just have to say that I am a fan of your writing! Really. So good. Just this phrase: “As the cogs and wheels of impersonal machinery began to shape social expression, the Victorian Age responded with a desire to go back to the Garden. Evangelicalism was not exempt.” Clear, full of imagery. Thanks. Your posts always raise the bar!
And thanks for explaining how changes in philanthropy have also reflected the evolution of evangelicalism. I’m wondering, from your perspective, whether you believe that changes in giving patterns are the cause of changes in mission focus, or is it the other way around?
I’m currently reading The Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser (great book, have you read it?) and he does a great job of explaining the difference between charity and social justice. He says, “Charity is about giving a hungry person some bread, while justice is about trying to change the system so that nobody has excess bread while some have none…” (p 169). I wonder where the Gospel fits in with these two, and how the three fit together (charity, justice, and evangelism) in terms of both Christian mission and Christian philanthropy. Your thoughts?
I think it’s much more typical for giving to follow the changes rather than be the source of the change. As much as philanthropists think they are changing the world, the work is done earlier in the mind/heart of ministry practitioners and the wallet follows.
Hey, thanks for citing Rolheiser – a fellow Canadian and Saskatchewan native. I’ve read that book (loved it), and heard him speak a year or so ago at a Henri Nouwen conference. I would adapt his quote to say that charity is about giving away a piece of bread, while philanthropy is trying to change the system that created the hunger. I think there is a definite role for both charity and philanthropy, and that both are essential qualities of a lived faith in Christ.
Wow, you took a risk on bringing “evolution” into it (grin). I think you did it with class and it should pay off for you.
I found myself thinking of your words on social action. I, too, think isolation away from the social issues is a real danger. I consider it important to stay engaged.
But honestly, what am I to do when some of my Biblical beliefs are increasingly unpopular in Christian circles, even among our own Cohort? Let me be completely transparent, I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman, based on anatomy, childrearing, and several OT and NT Scriptures. However, I may be in the minority at George Fox…and probably in the LGP8 Cohort.
Am I still allowed to share my voice even though I will be considered hateful, myogenic, etc?
Jay, I know you don’t really believe that popularity is the reason we hold our convictions!! 😉
We need to learn to love one another when we don’t all think the same way … it’s not often modeled these days. That’s one thing we are attempting with our cohort – to embrace and honour the diversity in our midst, to give each one a voice, to listen and learn.
Mark great job. I find a tension in where I stand with what your wrote. On the one hand I know that if their bellies are hungry they will never listen to someone preach. Feed them first, and then they will listen. You could replace “feed” in that last sentence with any of the solution to the needs you wrote in your paper.
On the flipside, if we become to focused on this we swing back toward the late 1800s/early 1900s fallacy of the social gospel and we will cheapen the Gospel. Many might have said this, but more recently Matt Chandler wrote in Explicit Gospel “Making people comfortable before an eternity in hell is wasteful.”
What do you mean by a wholistic gospel? Is the gospel not already wholistic?
By wholistic gospel I would go back to Jesus’ own mission statement as expressed in Luke 4:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, 19 and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”
My view is that this Good News would be good for body and soul, for individuals and societies. Yes, it would include evangelism, but also healing (medical and supernatural), liberation, enlightenment, education, reconciliation of relationships, reorganization of societal systems that enslave and perpetuate poverty, movement away from retributive justice to restorative justice, social work, counselling, the list can go on and on… It’s life as God intends it to be.
I don’t think we need to be dualistic about this – it’s not either social gospel or evangelism. It’s both and they are integrated.
Excellent post! You had me at “Evangelical philanthropy is experiencing a reintegration of social work as being part of the mosaic of Christian witness and missional living in the world.” I teach my students that Jesus was the first social worker. It is crucial that Christians return to this model – after all, churches were the beginning of the movement to care for the poor, orphaned, widows. At some point, churches became apathetic to that call and government had to step in. I really enjoy hearing about the programming Stronger Philanthropy is involved in. Are you funding programs such as the microloan?
Thanks Jean! Happy new year to you.
Stronger Philanthropy doesn’t fund anything, but we create pathways for our clients to give generously. One of our favourite charities is Opportunity International which specializes in microloans and microinsurance for the entrepreneurial poor in developing countries. I served on the Canadian board for 8 years in the 2000s and love their work. We were involved in launching a bank for the poor in Colombia.
I always enjoy your posts. I wish I was as good a writer as you are. I liked your focus on the changing of evangelicals from a holistic approach to one just centered on conversion. I believe this inward focus is the biggest problem with the church today. In fact, your statement “a logical outcome of thinking that valued souls more than bodies.” really hit home with me.
Thanks for the insight.
Great post Mark! I agree with your statement: “Evangelical philanthropy is experiencing a reintegration of social work as being part of the mosaic of Christian witness and missional living in the world. We now observe increasing numbers of agencies motivated by Christian faith.” I see the same thing, in fact I see secular companies interested in using the Enneagram, which has many spiritual elements. I’m curious how you see this next generation coming forward to advance the gospel spiritally and financially.
Thanks for your comment and question. Millennials won’t give like their parents, but I’m experimenting with ways to engage their philanthropy going forward.
I’ve developed a practical, hands-on, integrated experience for millennial givers to learn giving well in the Spark Initiative. This is our newest program we are just now launching. I’ve had a marvelous response from large donors whose millennial children are eager to participate. Link is here:
Not sure if I agree with you in calling the Bebbington text a ‘joy ride’, but I also found it interesting, well written, and helpful in clarifying aspects of my own faith tradition and heritage.
Ultimately, I believe that it is your recognition that Evangelicalism is anything but stuck and unchanging. Although it often appears to be reactionary and myopic this account we read this week demonstrates the diversity found within its ranks even from the beginning. Thus I believe it behooves us to celebrate the diversity found not only in contemporary Evangelicalism but within the breadth and depth of Christianity. I know all of us like to believe that we are living the most universally applicable brand of Christianity but I daresay that God might view things differently.