Prior to reading Bebbington, I considered myself an Evangelical. Now following his reading, I better understand why. Having not been brought up in a religious home, I became born-again almost by ‘accident’ in my late teens, and was subsequently guided to a local Baptist Church. There I was given a Bible, which I was told to read, got baptised in the cold waters of that old Baptist Church, and began my journey with God. Having no former Bible knowledge whatsoever, I came to Scripture with a blank slate and took God’s Word not only to heart, but His promises literally. Christ died for my sins? Sure, I believe that. God heals miraculously. Yes, I accept that. God will meet all our needs? Yes, I can walk in that. No one taught me any different.
In the years and decades that followed, I was baptised with the Holy Spirit (well before the Toronto Blessing hit our UK shores and before I even heard or understood what the experience was), trained in a very Reformed Bible College, got ordained in a Baptist Church, and worked in a Presbyterian denomination in South Korea. Given the fact that my background happens to lack affiliation to one specific denomination (which, by the way, was never intentional), to therefore be able to say that I am Evangelical does provide a place to weigh my theological anchor.
Bebbington’s writing is both historically fascinating and elucidating. I love how he traces the influences of the changes within Evangelicalism over the last few centuries, especially the twentieth century in particular with the renewal of reformed religion, the rise of the charismatic movement, the establishment of the FIEC, EMW, IVF and BEC and so on. I also appreciate how he tries to avoid the danger of defining Evangelicalism too narrowly, and builds his definition on the hallmarks that persisted over time among those calling themselves Evangelicals. That is, what he terms the unchangeable characteristics of Evangelicalism, namely: conversionism, activism, Biblicism, and crucicentrism. [i]
However, through his reading, I can’t help but question his claim that Evangelicalism, as we know and appreciate it, existed only following the 1730s. Even though he acknowledges that evangelical teaching (with a lower case ‘e’) certainly did indeed exist in centuries prior to the eighteenth, one cannot help but wonder whether it existed in greater strength than he gives credit for. I mean, was it only from the 1730s that we really see the commencement of Evangelicalism?
One proponent who seems to think that strong evangelical convictions and teaching did indeed exist prior is Kenneth J. Stewart. In his article, Did Evangelicalism Predate the Eighteenth Century? An Examination of David Bebbington’s Thesis, [ii] he explains a number of key factors. He talks about Erasmus Middleton (1739-1805), best remembered as a translator of Luther’s Commentary on Galatians and as author of an interesting historical work, Biographica Evangelica (1769-1786). The latter provides a clear example of evangelical successionist understanding, which serves to affirm that evangelical teaching and influence existed well before the period Bebbington focuses on. Stewart writes,
“Middleton’s gallery of past evangelical heroes extended into his own century: George Whitefield (b.l714) is included… Nonconformists such as Philip Doddridge (b.l702), Isaac Watts (b. 1674) and Matthew Henry (b. 1662) are described, as are such Scots as Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine (b.l680 and 1685), Thomas Boston (b. 1676) and Thomas Halyburton (b. 1674). America is represented in David Brainerd (b.l718), Jonathan Edwards (b. 1703), and Cotton Mather (b.l663). But all these are Middleton’s near contemporaries! Here we will also find John Bunyan (b.l628), Puritans John Flavel, John Howe (b. 1630), and John Owen (b. l616). Episcopal bishops are here as well: William Beveridge of St. Asaph’s (b. 1638), Robert Leighton of Glasgow (b.l611), Joseph Hall of Norwich (b.l574), John Davenant of Salisbury (b. 1570) and George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury (b.l562) with his predecessor John Whitgift (b. 1530).”
Sounds like a rich evangelical heritage indeed (Stewart even goes on to list the foreign protestant and evangelical ‘heroes’). While there, no doubt, was an acceleration of evangelical unity and zeal following the revival of the 1730s, I believe it’s somewhat misleading to state that Evangelicalism started in that time period alone. Although Bebbington seems to insist that the term ‘Evangelical’ought to be reserved for movements of much more recent times, history reveals an army of notable, evangelical teachers and scholars whose teaching fits within Bebbington’s four characteristics, and who also positively influenced other evangelical ‘heroes’ in the years that followed.
To close, I’ll provide an example of one such individual who benefitted from earlier evangelical influence, Thomas Scott:
“Thomas Scott (1747-1821) … was certainly not a Christian in any Trinitarian sense of the word when be commenced his ministry in the Church of England in 1772. His initial belligerence toward his evangelical clerical neighbor, John Newton (1725-1807), ensured that he resisted the theological views and literature endorsed by his neighbor. But when Scott found searching descriptions of the office and work of the minister in the volume Pastoral Care of late Bishop Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715) and the archetypal evangelical doctrine of justification clearly taught in the writings of the Elizabethan Anglican divine, Thomas Hooker (1554-1600), he was disarmed. In sum, he concluded ‘that the very doctrine which I had hitherto despised as Methodistical, was indisputably the standard doctrine of the Established Church’. For Scott, shortly thereafter a convert of the Evangelical Revival, the movement which had engulfed him was accomplishing a restoration of earlier biblical teaching which had been swept aside.” [iii]