Transgressing the Boundary Between History and Myth

Cover ArtThe American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement is, in fact, not a history. Douglas A. Sweeney’s rather liberal use of the term “history” in the subtitle ought to fool noone. It is, at a point approaching the critical mass of generosity, a historically themed apology the purpose of which is to offer a palatable rendering of evangelical history intended to make the term invoke a pleasant warming sensation rather than the rancor the politicization of “evangelical” now produces. In truth–insofar as the book is a narrative construction by evangelicals, for evangelicals, about evangelicals in an effort to define and order evangelicalism–Sweeney’s work is a myth, in the most neutral, academic sense of that term.

Part of my (hopefully obvious) disappointment with this offering is that it was recommended to me as a scholarly work for history, a fact which the title and the author’s own preface seemed to reenforce. Sweeney purports to present the reader with a serious but brief introduction to the history of evangelicalism which avoids “the sins of the worst scholarly texts” by writing in an accessible, narrative style. The deliberately nonacademic style, however, only serves to accentuate the nonacademic content of the work.

The first and personally the most grating, though by no means the most serious, flaw in Sweeney’s work presented as a history is the constant and undefended (because it is indefensible) presentation of God as an agent in history. The reader need not wait long before encountering, I hope with shock and incredulity, this explanation for the Great Awakening:

In a work of amazing grace and by the power of the Holy Spirit, untold numbers of Protestant leaders began to join hands across these [denominational] boundaries and to collaborate in the work of Gospel ministry.

I wonder if it ever occurred to Sweeney that non-Christians, non-evangelicals, or even evangelical historians with a firm grasp of academic standards might shy away from the belief that it was “amazing grace” and the intervention of the “Holy Spirit” which were the primary causes of the Great Awakening. That is, after all, the problem with appeals to the historical agency of God. As a Christian, I believe (and struggle with the reasoning of those who do not) that God is an active agent in the movements of history. The problem in an academic history arises in trying to lay claim to what events are the products of His machinations and which are not. That is why historians, even Christians historians, restrict themselves to historical agents who act within history rather than those (i.e. God) that act on history from without. Sweeney, not having received that memo, goes on to make various other historically untenable assertions: God elected George Whitefield, Charles Wesley, and John Wesley for a special purpose, God used George Whitefield’s fame to spread the Gospel, God provided an “amazing outpouring of the Holy Spirit” at Cane Ridge, and more.

Coupled with this minor hermeneutical faux pas of baptizing his particular history in special providence, Sweeney offers up several historical “imprecisions” (because “errors” would seem incendiary, which is clearly not my intention). For example, he mentions in passing that the Southern Baptist Convention was formed for the purpose of more effectively coordinating Baptist evangelism. He never seems bothered by the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention actually organized in reaction to the more racially egalitarian, anti-slavery position of northern Baptists. Again, he mentions that Jonathan Edwards split with his church over his revivalist tendencies, when in fact Edwards was forced out of his church because he took a much stricter view on formal membership than had Solomon Stoddard. The biggest issue with these types of inaccuracies is not that Sweeney could have avoided them with even a Wikipedia level education (though, one has to wonder about the fact that Sweeney is an Jonathan Edwards specialist), but that in each case they seem to be glossing over historical realities which do not accord with the author’s purpose.

In fact, the entire text reads like a hagiographical rendering of the Great Thinker model of history. One wonderful evangelical man (and token woman) after another is extolled for his virtue, evangelistic excellence, and furtherance of the movement as a whole. (I was particularly struck by the decidedly subjective and ahistoric pronouncement that Charles Wesley was the “greatest writer of hymns in all of history,” an honor I reserve for Fannie Mae Crosby.) Add to this the not-at-all-subtle, but duly disclaimed, suggestions that evangelicalism has been a champion of racial equality, women’s rights, global missions, and social reform. His bias and willingness to downplay features of history that do not accord with it are thinly veiled, if at all. He seems to have no qualms showing his marked preference for Pentecostalism (and its spiritual relatives)–which he prophesies “those who walk the privileged corridors of worldly power” will soon be forced to take note of–over against fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism, which he stops just short of depicting as a self-defeating drag on evangelicalism as a whole.

The worst feature, however, the most unforgivable sin (so to speak) is that Sweeney never accomplishes what he sets out to do. After outlining the contemporary debate over the scope of evangelicalism–one of the few bright points in the entire work–Sweeney offers his own definition of evangelicals as orthodox Protestants with an eighteenth century twist. The rest of the book, he promises, will be outlining what precisely that definition means. Only, the meaning of the “eighteenth century twist” proves to be as vacuous as its wording is flippant. The reader searching for a historically rooted, taxonomically sound understanding of evangelicalism (as I was) is left no better off than for having read the work. It ought to go without saying, but I cannot imagine any circumstance in which I think it would be prudent to recommend this book to anyone. In fact, my only recommendation is that scholars with any social conscience find this book at their local or university library and reshelve it in a dark and dusty corner where even the librarians never venture. That way, anyone who is looking for it will be saved the mental anguish of finding and reading it.

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