“The process of change can best be seen as a pattern of diffusion.”
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.”
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.” 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.
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. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
 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.
 Ibid,, p. 221
 ibid., p. 228
 See his book – Patterns in History: A Christian View, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1979)