I am a sucker for footnotes. So much so that I find myself rather pessimistic about the veracity of someone’s claim if they don’t tell me where I can go and see some proof. Therefore, I loved Mark Noll’s The Rise of Evangelicalism. While by his own admission, this walk through much of the 18th century’s wrestlings with its religious direction is by necessity incomplete, Noll provides ample opportunities to follow up on the personalities, places, movements, and thoughts of the time.
And therein lies the problem with the book. How do I have the time to read all those other books I now want to read—feel I need to read to better understand where I came from as an evangelical? And where do I get the money to buy all those books?
Thankfully, Noll does a great job of detailing the main movements and moods of the time to paint a picture of a rapidly transforming society in terms of its religious understandings, especially in relation to the church/state issues of the day.
As the subtitle suggests, Noll spends a great deal of time tracing the impact on the rest of the Atlantic world of three men: Edwards, Whitefield, and Wesley. But the book does not avoid how these men were impacted by their environments and others, especially the Moravians impact on Wesley himself.
Noll deals with the early European and American environments that lead to the revivals of the 18th century and then how these revivals lead to both the unification and diversification of the evangelical movement. He also deals with how the new view of the self in relation to the church affected those on the margins of society, spending a good deal of time discussing evangelicals relations to slaves, the slave trade, and the issues of justice and the impact on society.
21st century Christians need to know where we come from, why we do what we do, and what the church looked like before our “style” of Christianity came into vogue. Noll does a fine job of painting this picture and helping the reader to see that church has not always been done the way we do it now. Hopefully, this can be helpful for us to see that our individualism and what’s-in-it-for-me mentality are relatively new phenomena that were birthed in the desire to reform the state church in the 18th century. For good or bad, we are left with this legacy that gathered steam and became known as evangelicalism.
I will refer to this book again as well as make use of his extensive bibliography in further study of this era of American history. For those who are interested in learning more about Edwards, Whitefield, or Wesley, this would be a fine primer.