Review of Sweeney's "The American Evangelical Story"

Sweeney, Douglas A. The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005. 200 pp. $20.00.

American Evangelical Christianity has had a relatively short, but fascinating history. It has become a force to be reckoned with. While there are several evangelical histories to read, most of them are either too technical or too long for the average reader and student. Douglas Sweeney has sought to fill that gap with this book. He is Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought at Trinity
Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is a renowned Jonathan Edwards scholar and serves as director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Trinity. Sweeney has published several volumes on Edwards. He has several degrees in history and brings his expertise to bear in this short volume. The book is offered as “an introduction to evangelicalism for Christians interested in the historical roots of its recent, massive growth” (10). It is written primarily with students in mind.       

This book’s aim is to tell the story of the history of American evangelicals. Rather than attempting to tell the story of the movement everywhere, Sweeney privileges America since he sees it as evangelicalism’s “most prodigious global center” (10). He is quick to point out, however, that non-Western places are exploding with growth and Africa, Asia, and Latin America are now the places where the cutting edge of scholarship in history is happening (9). While his expertise is America, he does not elevate her importance in the grand scheme of things. Sweeney notes that evangelicalism is diverse and has always been far from perfect; nevertheless, they share a rich heritage and God has been pleased to use this clay pot of a movement for great good since its inception.
In the first chapter, Sweeney begins with the thorny issue of defining evangelicalism. Essentially, evangelicals are “gospel people” or “people of the great commission.” While acknowledging the difficult reality of diversity, Sweeney does believe there is a definite and definable evangelicalism. He defines evangelicals as “a movement that is rooted in classical Christian orthodoxy, shaped by a largely Protestant understanding of the gospel, and distinguished from other such movements by an eighteenth-century twist” (23-24). It is this “eighteenth- century twist” that is the focus of chapter two. Here Sweeney highlights the key people and events of the eighteenth-century awakening. The author highlights the limitations of early Protestantism in order to make much of the importance of this century for American evangelicalism. He shows how division within the Protestant movement came early, but there were important breakthroughs – such as writing letters and publishing magazines – that helped the young movement gain a sense of being part of something larger. There was a new spirit of cooperation and missions-mindedness. Sweeney helpfully includes brief overviews of two earlier movements that were important for the movement: British Puritanism and Continental Pietism. The chapter concludes by introducing the importance of the Wesley’s, Whitefield, and Edwards.
Chapter three covers the need and process of the institutionalization of the evangelical movement. Though there has always been tension between Spirit and structure, organization is inevitable if a movement is to perpetuate. New England was the “regional center” (55) for this institutionalization. Sweeney covers the conflicts between new/old side Presbyterianism and new/old light congregationalism and how disestablishment opened many doors for evangelical success. He concludes by narrating the beginnings of American Methodism and the Second Great Awakening. Chapter four covers the beginnings of world missions, noting that the Moravian pietists were active before evangelicals were. Jonathan Edwards’ Life of David Brainerd was very influential in helping people be more aware of global missions. Sweeney briefly introduces the reader to William Carey, Andrew Fuller, and Adoniram Judson (among others) as catalysts to the modern missions movement.
Chapter 5 is a brutally honest assessment of race in evangelicalism. From its inception, the movement has struggled with racism. The author offers a short history black evangelical religion and the rise of independent black denominations. Chapter 6 covers the importance of the oft-neglected Holiness-Pentecostal tradition. This vibrant tradition now comprises the majority of evangelicals. The final chapter includes a look at the more recent modernism/fundamentalist controversy and the rise of neo-evangelicalism. In short span, Sweeney gives an overview of the Scopes trial, Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today, and Billy Graham. The author concludes the book with three lessons from history: the broader church needs the evangelical emphasis on orthodoxy and ecumenical outreach, evangelicalism functions as a renewal movement, and an acknowledgement of the need of deeper roots than evangelicalism.
Sweeney truly does tell the story in this book. One cannot but be impressed by the author’s ability to synthesize a vast amount of history, people, and literature in a brief amount of space. One senses the wisdom of a gifted and well-read scholar in how Sweeney has chosen to highlight what he considers to be the key leaders and events in American evangelicalism. I think he has been fair and accurate in his coverage.
The author is honest about the fact that there is little consensus today about what an evangelical is. He includes other theological and historical attempts at defining the movement and acknowledges that he is in the minority today in seeing a definite and definable evangelicalism. I would have liked to see him interact more with Dayton’s charge that “real” evangelicals hardly ever resemble those Calvinistic leaders such as Edwards, Hodge, and Henry (22). While I wish Dayton were wrong, I think he has some good points to be made in this regard.
Sweeney’s honesty about the lack of unity that has plagued the movement from its inception was refreshing as well. Early on Protestants developed their own confessions and encouraged members to think of themselves as Calvinist, Arminian, Lutheran, Baptist, New Light, Old Light, New Side, or Old Side. It would have been fruitful for Sweeney to explore this more, especially since in many circles this tribalism still plagues modern evangelicalism.
His inclusion of a chapter on race was extremely helpful and needed. This aspect of our movement cannot be swept under the rug and Sweeney does a great job exposing the sin and weaknesses of historic and current evangelicalism regarding race. Sweeney is also right to include the Holiness/Pentecostal/Charismatic movement. Though often neglected, it is necessary to include this vibrant tradition in our “family tree.” While some evangelicals may view this tradition as distant cousins, Sweeney does a good job of describing them as truly evangelical. Related to the point about our “tribalism” Sweeney could have included something about the controversial issue of gender in evangelicalism since there were many women leaders in the Holiness/Pentecostal/Charismatic wing of evangelicalism and this issue remains a point of division today.
On a more practical note, each chapter concludes with a very helpful annotated bibliography of key works regarding the topic of that particular chapter if one would like to go deeper than Sweeney’s brief overview. Finally, the reader can easily sense that Sweeney is not a neutral historian; he is a committed evangelical. He believes in the importance of the story he is telling. As noted above, Sweeney realizes the many shortcomings of the movement, but nevertheless believes God has been at work in and through the evangelical movement and will continue to be for years to come. In his words, he believes the movement shares “a heritage that is both rich and spiritually powerful – a legacy worth passing on to future generations” (11).
Although such brevity poses limits, I think the main success of Sweeney’s work is just that. By limiting himself to the most relevant material, Sweeney has served a much broader audience than a 500-600 page book would. I think many seminaries and Bible colleges will choose to assign this book as an introductory text. In this regard, Sweeney has both succeeded in his task and served the church. This is one of the few books that I can hand to curious Christians who are interested in learning more about what American evangelicalism is.