Reading Evangelicalism in Modern Britain raised and answered quite a few questions regarding the overall impact Christianity has had on many global issues. Although Bebbington’s work focused primarily on the effect in Britain, there were references to America, which helped to situate the historical trajectory across the two continents. However, the most troubling question I will write about later is how many Christians, influenced by Evangelicalism or not, continue to allow a class system that perpetuates inequalities. This question includes salient aspects of Dr. Jason Clark’s work, Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship.
First, to understand Evangelicalism, it is necessary to summarize the key points from Bebbington’s book. According to the historian David Bebbington, little attention had been given to the impact Evangelicals had on Christianity in Britain. Bebbington’s book is a major contribution that helps to fill the gap regarding the history and beliefs of this movement within the Protestant churches from 1730 to the late twentieth century. From the beginning, Bebbington states that Evangelicalism helped to form much of British society in the mid-19th century.
To understand where and how Evangelicalism came to be an identifiable, concrete aspect of the gospel – Bebbington traces its roots to the churches birthed during the Reformation. It was during the 16th – 17th century, as the Protestant Reformation was taking hold in Britain and finding its way divorced from Catholicism, that Sir Thomas Moore referred to the advocates as ‘Evaungelicalles,’ meaning “of the gospel.”
Four key pillars undergird Evangelicalism, conversion, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. Over the last few centuries, there has been a notable ebb and flow in terms of which of the four pillars were stressed by Evangelicals.
The idea of conversion and social inequalities first may not appear congruent. To Evangelicals, conversion formed the basis of the saving gospel message that faith rather than works justify one. The doctrine of conversion was a radical departure from Catholicism during the Reformation. However, over the ensuing years in Britain, the doctrine of justification was met with more than its fair share of debate and contestability. On page 22, Bebbington writes, “Joseph Milner, a clergyman, and leading Evangelical historian, held the doctrine absolutely necessary to salvation…Wesley…supposed that those ignorant of the belief, or even hostile to it, might be saved.” Another reason the justification doctrine was hotly contested was the belief that it would upset the elite’s status quo. Heretofore, the monarch owned the Church and its subjects – who were by association saved. For the gentry, a primary reason to teach Christianity was to maintain good workers. Workers who would work hard, not drink and do well to care for their family and neighbors. Bebbington confirms that from a humanitarian point of view, Evangelical education became a handy tool to attempt social control. Due to the rapid growth in the population during the industrial revolution, the workers needed to be kept in their place. Evangelical teaching became the primary method.
Several points from other research sources will help shed light on the conversion experience and the gospel being used to benefit the status quo. The first is a major theological battle Martin Luther had with Desiderius Erasmus in 1517. It is documented in the Bondage of the Will. Erasmus, a humanist and leading Christian thinker who had the ear of the Pope, believed that to be a Christian was simply a matter of living morally. Christian doctrine was a mere afterthought. To Erasmus and many others, issues of theological doctrine were unimportant. To Martin Luther, the doctrine was everything. Luther writes the Christian Scripture is the revealed truth of God and “the Holy Spirit is no skeptic, and the things He has written on our hearts are not doubts or opinions, but assertions – surer and more certain than the sense of life itself.” From this discourse, I questioned whether or not the conversion many realized several hundred years later that Bebbington writes about was a full-fledged, spiritual conversion experience. Was there a possibility that the humanist thinking Erasmus espoused infiltrated the gospel message?
In his work, The Message of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann gives us further insight into the concept of faith used to benefit the status quo. Brueggemann lays a foundation to study the Psalms. He constructs three significant categories that help us understand critical theological messages. The first category is for “creation” psalms. These psalms reflect Jewish culture and a season when life is good, and there is no need for lament. On page 26, Brueggemann writes that “creation faith” psalms affirm that life is excellent and well-ordered….Such a satisfied and assured assertion of orderliness probably comes from the well-off, from the economically secure.” He goes on to assert that” we must be alert to the slippery ways in which creation faith quickly becomes social conservatism, which basks in its’ well-off ness…For we know persons and communities whose experience of injustice and disorder deeply contradicts this faith…They may also be used as a form of social control” if used with malignant intent.
Dr. Clark’s work and my question intersect on the aspect of conversion and status quo. First, let’s review a few key concepts from Dr. Clark. Dr. Clark writes that the doctrine of assurance component of Evangelicalism was upstaged by the anxieties that surfaced as the Protestant reformers moved toward personal salvation. “Assurance moves from its inner experience into the outward expression of self-creation by the external providence of the market manifested in the life of the believer.” Lastly, Dr. Clark writes that for Evangelicals, it was the “desire for the inner spiritual renewal of the self around an identity in Christ… Yet social imagination for the self eventually atrophies and becomes a market imagination within capitalism.”
A powerful statement from Dr. Clark’s work resonates with the core of my original question, and I will start my ending with this. “People located themselves in what they consumed.” To bridge Bebbington’s discourse on Evangelicalism in Britain, Dr. Clark’s work on Evangelicalism and Capitalism, and Christianity in America, I again turn to Walter Brueggemann. His book, Prophetic Imagination, provides the glue. According to Brueggemann, the American Church is so enculturated with the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or act. Enculturation is true of the Church (in America and globally) and us, both liberal and conservative. Enculturation in capitalism and consumerism is the crux of the issue surrounding the lack of action concerning the status quo regarding inequalities and how the social imagination was co-opted by capitalism and consumerism. “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” I believe that the prophetic voice of imagination caused the wind that undergirded the activism that drove Evangelicalism in Britain to speak out against slavery in 1807.
 D.W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism In Modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s, (New York: Unwin Hyman Ltd, 2002), v.
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 69.
 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will: Translated by J.J. Packer and O.R. Johnston, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1957), 44.
 Ibid., 66.
 Ibid., 74-75.
 Ibid., 67.
 Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018), 1.
 Ibid., 3.