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The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody

Book Review

Posted Tuesday, March 13, 2007 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: Culture and Theology  

This book by David Bebbington is the third installment in the five-volume “A History of Evangelicalism” series from IVP (at this date only the first and third are published). The book covers the years from about 1850-1900, but does not take a chronological approach, instead topically examining various aspects of the evangelical movement during these years. The book is a great read because it explains a lot of our current practices as well as showing us how some things never change. I felt like I was reading a modern evangelical history book with the names changed: the same issues are being debated today with different characters. There is much that we can learn from our ancestors. There are lots of good stories and observations I could give from the book, but here are a few.

            “A typical order of service among those Free Churches was reported by a Methodist in or about Adelaide in 1875: hymn (seven to ten minutes), prayer (fifteen minutes), choir anthem (long), two Bible readings, hymn, announcements (long), sermon (forty-five minutes), hymn, prayer” (89).

            At the beginning of the period churches often had an afternoon meeting. However, this meeting was gradually changed to the evening in order to reach those who did not usually go to church, such as the young and servants. The saint was the target in the morning and the sinner in the evening (89-90). Looking at the evening service today, who would have thought that it started as a Willow Creek type service?

            “The introduction of flowers into places of worship was a symbol of the process [advance of respectability]. Previously they had been excluded as a diversion from the spiritual, but in 1852 Henry Ward Beecher, a broad-minded Congregational minister in Brooklyn with a passionate Romantic love for nature, placed a vase of flowers beside him for the morning service. Despite denunciation, he insisted on their remaining and his genteel congregation soon came to love them” (90-91). Church fight over flowers, anyone?

            Music became much more lively in these years. Among Reformed circles, the practice had been to use the Psalter exclusively. But as hymns became more popular, these started to take over even the Reformed churches. Even more controversial was that very contemporary instrument, the organ. One church bought an organ and then was immediately required to remove it! But it did not take long for the organ to become a standard part of the evangelical church scene (93-96).

            The Enlightenment had a profound effect on the Evangelicals of the time. Some of the influences included an openness to new theological ideas, a high regard for rationality, a commonsense philosophy, and a “evidence” styled apologetics. Many evangelicals believed in some of form of evolutionary creation, such as day-age or a gap theory. The importance of certainty in one’s knowledge of his own salvation increased. The trend in theological circles was for Calvinism to decline while Arminianism grew stronger. An optimism gripped the churches, encouraging the rise of postmillennialism. “In 1854 the English General Baptist Magazine expected the millennium to achieve not only the universal triumph of the gospel but also the endings of war, famine, and the ‘oppressive weight of taxes that grind nations to the dust.’ Crime, drunkenness, ‘lewdness,’ slavery and all oppression would disappear. There would be family happiness in the place of a mixture of scandal, loose talk, false teaching, idols and the ‘damnable superstitions of popery and paganism.’ The author of the article calculated that this program of reform was so vast that it could not be achieved before the year 2016” (141).

            Romanticism also played a role among evangelicals of the time with an influence that looks very similar to postmodernism of today. There was a trend back towards the formality and ritual of  the high church, with such distinctives as an eastward facing Communion, specialized robes and mixing water with the wine to simulate the blood and water of the body of Jesus. The focus upon nature has already been noted. There was a more open-minded tendency towards other views.  Children were viewed as naturally innocent. God went from being a judge to being the father of all. The importance of the incarnation was increased. Hell was talked about less. Instead of logic being the key, imagination was essential. One Romantic preacher, when told that his sermon conflicted with his sermon of the previous week, said “Well, that was last week!” I feel like I am reading a modern day status report of evangelicalism with the names changed! Another result of romanticism was the faith principle. This resulted in such famous faith workers as Mueller. Some radicals even went so far as to remove the pew rent! 

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