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Evangelicalism in Modern Britain

Written by: on January 18, 2017

“The process of change can best be seen as a pattern of diffusion.”[1]

Summary

In this book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s, historian D. W. Bebbington gives the history of evangelicalism in Britain from its beginnings in the early 18th century through the more ecumenical movement in the latter part of the 20th century. Dr. Bebbington covers the influence of the culture on evangelicalism as well as the influence evangelicalism has had on the culture.

The influences on evangelicalism have moved through various stages from Enlightenment to Romanticism to Modernism and finally to Restorationism.

Evangelicalism is a movement, not a denomination. It has changed outwardly over the years, but four main characteristics have remained throughout – conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism.

These four pillars of evangelicalism are seen in each period. In the early 1700’s, for example, Wesley, Whitefield, Edwards, and others preaching the Gospel was seen as paramount. Conversion was the desired outcome of preaching the Gospel. Faith should lead to activism. The authority of the Scriptures was upheld and Christ was the center of theology. The main influence during this period was the Enlightenment.

Then around 1830 there was a change in direction for evangelicalism – new attitudes were developing. Evangelicalism was the dominant force in Britain at this time. Christians were assured about their positions – now they could turn their attention to strategy. Other “isms” came into play including a renewed emphasis on premillennial eschatology, and later in this century – romanticism.

In the latter 19th century the holiness movement had a huge impact on evangelicals. Due to the influence of romanticism, a schism developed between “liberals” and “conservatives”. Bebbington notes that in the United States the schism was deep with both sides operating contemptuously towards each other. In Britain “acrimony was less widespread and less drastic in its consequences than in America.”[2]

This division came to a head in the early 20th century with the rise of Fundamentalism. It was not a simple division; there were many strands and a great variation in the beliefs of all of the denominations. The separation was a ”broadening continuum rather than a simple separation.”[3] Later in the the 20th century the charismatic renewal came to Britain. This movement cut across all denominations.

Evangelicals expressed a desire to become more ecumenical at the National Evangelical Anglican Congress at the University of Keele in 1967. Evangelicals remained fragmented, but new growth came and is expected to continue in the 21st century.

Observation

It is hard to know where to begin. Dr. Bebbington covered a lot of ground. He knows his history well (2,277 footnotes), the players as well all aspects of the play.

First of all, by way of comparison to the Anderson book, Imagined Communities, Dr. Bebbington’s historiography is different. Dr. Anderson was also a knowledgeable historian. I enjoyed reading the history of the rise of nationalism, but there were some disconnects for me because I don’t see history from a Marxist perspective. Dr. Bebbington on the other hand has a Christian perspective.[4] I read his book on historiography 30 years ago and it gives me a lens for looking at other history books. I knew I would enjoy this book on evangelicalism in modern Britain.

Interactions

  1. I had heard from other sources that early evangelicalism was influenced by the enlightenment, Locke in particular. I was skeptical and inclined to hope that Jonathan Edwards got most of his influence from the Bible and his reformed theology. I think Dr. Bebbington proves the case that we cannot help but be influenced by the common thinking of our day.
  2. Dr. Bebbington is a gentleman. I honestly think our Brit friends are less vituperative than their Yank counterparts. Bebbington presented so many different kinds of thinking in a very fair way, just stating the facts. He made his case (for me) in a non-judgmental, non-prejudiced way. (Amusing example – Ya’ll know I can’t help myself. Bebbington made 21 references to Robert Pearsall Smith, leader in the holiness movement. What Bebbington didn’t say – Smith’s ministry was cut short when it was found that he was having affairs with young female believers. Not surprisingly, Smith was not invited back to Britain to preach when he began teaching that Christians do not have to obey the law of God. Hmmm. Is there a connection between our theology and our lives?) It is a sad thing that, as Bebbington pointed out, the Pentecostal movement was often shunned by more conservative evangelicals because of some of the excesses.
  3. Another thread of interest is the movement from the hopeful postmillennial eschatology to the pessimistic premillennial eschatology. I would say that premillennialism is still the dominant view today. Modern pre-mills would describe themselves as hopeful however- hopeful to escape tribulation. The view has definitely shifted, as Bebbington points out, because of the prevailing emphasis on the individual’s personal salvation and away from an emphasis on society. This of course affected many things – missions, preaching, social gospel, and so on.
  4. Fundamentalism has been very divisive. I agree with Bebbington that the good part of fundamentalism was to insist on the integrity of the Scriptures. But the fundamentalists drove many people away. Can we discuss these issues without being so divisive?
  5. Finally, I believe that Dr. Bebbington has made the case that evangelicalism has shaped the thought world of English society, but at the same time there was some reciprocity and variation. Evangelicalism has been shaped by the culture, but it is also a vital force in Britain.

 

 

 

 

[1] Bebbington, D. W., Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A history from the 1730’s to the 1980’s. (London and New York: Routledge, 1989) P. 273.

[2] Ibid,, p. 221

[3] ibid., p. 228

[4] See his book – Patterns in History: A Christian View, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1979)

About the Author

Mary Walker

7 responses to “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain”

  1. Jim Sabella says:

    Mary, what a thoughtful and well-written post! Great word: “vituperative!” In reference to…

    “Later in the 20th century the charismatic renewal came to Britain. This movement cut across all denominations.”

    Even though my roots are in classic Pentecostalism, my family was involved in the Charasmatic movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. I am so grateful for that because it was during that time that I gained exposure to so many wonderful people from so many difference church backgrounds and faith expressions. The movement DID cut across all denominations. It was a fascinating and wonderful time of development for me because it allowed me—at a young age—to see and experience the bigger picture of what God was doing, not just in our local church but across denominations and the whole world! Thanks for a great post!

  2. Thank you, Mary, for your very informative post. I learn new concepts and new words every time I read your work. I enjoyed your summary of Bebbington’s points. Very interesting facts on Smith too. What a sad ending to his exceptional work and interesting that Bebbington didn’t point that out. I would have a hard time repeatedly referencing someone who made poor choices that were very countercultural to what they were teaching.

  3. Thank you for the incredibly thoughtful post, Mary. I love your comments about Smith. When I studied him in undergrad, I was at first indignant until I remembered how many of our leaders have had good theology but some really terrible practices. It sort of encourages me to remember that my theology and practice need to line up, but that my flaws don’t negate the theology.

    I particularly love your realization about culture. “I think Dr. Bebbington proves the case that we cannot help but be influenced by the common thinking of our day.” We like to assume that our faith can influence culture without having culture influencing our faith, but that’s not the way it works. If it was, we wouldn’t have the stories of Jesus and the wedding wine, the woman with the issue of blood, the paralytic being lowered through the ceiling, or the Syrophonecian woman. Jesus opened himself to influence and we do too.

    • Mary Walker says:

      Thanks, Kristin. You’re right, flaws don’t negate the theology; we’re just human after all. But it sure is too bad that the result of say adultery by a famous leader is often more derision for Christians from unbelievers. As you say we need to try and make our lives line up with what we say.

  4. Mary I just knew you would dive into this book and have a very informative and insightful post this week!

    “Fundamentalism has been very divisive. I agree with Bebbington that the good part of fundamentalism was to insist on the integrity of the Scriptures. But the fundamentalists drove many people away. Can we discuss these issues without being so divisive?”

    You pose a very good question. My response is that I think we can definitely discuss these issues without being divisive. I also believe we have to. As believers the Scripture is authoritative in our faith. If we cannot find a way to maintain the fundamental integrity of scripture then it will become the demise of the Church. It will take us actively engaging with the Holy Spirit as we discern how we speak to the issues. I hope and pray that we can allow the Word of God to unite us and not pit us against one another.

  5. Geoff Lee says:

    I always enjoy your insights and thoughts Mary. Of course we Brits are more polite and nuanced than our American cousins – who doubted it!? Just kidding.
    Divisiveness is interesting – we must divide and be incisive don’t you think? Jesus certainly was!!!

    • Mary Walker says:

      Yes, you’re right, Geoff. Jesus said the road was narrow.
      I guess I was only thinking of people that I’ve tried to witness to who came back with, “You Christians can’t even agree among yourselves. Why would I want that?”
      It’s a tough balance. Thanks for your response.

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