Was Evangelicalism Created By The Enlightenment? -- By: Garry J. Williams

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 53:2 (NA 2002)
Article: Was Evangelicalism Created By The Enlightenment?
Author: Garry J. Williams

Was Evangelicalism Created
By The Enlightenment?

Garry J. Williams


David Bebbington has published a number of influential works arguing that Evangelicalism was created by the Enlightenment. He claims that the new and distinctively Evangelical activism of the 1730s was only possible because of a novel doctrine of assurance. This doctrine was in turn born of the dependence of John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards on Enlightenment epistemology. The following article questions this claim and thus seeks to re-open the case for the identity of Evangelicalism with the Reformation and Puritanism.

I. Introduction

The task of identifying the enduring essence of particular religious movements is one of the perennial challenges faced by the church historian. From time to time brave individuals propose definitions which claim to function sufficiently well to allow the discussion of a particular movement to continue, or even to take a significant step forward. With similar frequency, gainsayers protest that the movement in question is actually undefinable and should in fact no longer be thought of as a movement. The debate grinds on, the whole process resembling a war in the paralysis of attrition, while every so often someone sitting in safety far from the front-lines wins a prize for writing the best summary of the struggle so far. Notorious examples abound. In the Second Century it might be Gnosticism, in the Sixteenth, Radicalism; both have been defined and redefined, and both have been denied. Gnosticism, we are told, needs to be re-thought out of existence, the Radical Reformation scarcely deserves the title. Probably each century has its own example. In the Eighteenth Century, it is Evangelicalism.

II. The Definition Of Evangelicalism

One of the more successful of such historical definitions has been the account of Evangelicalism offered by David Bebbington in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (1989). This history of Evangelicalism was rightly hailed for its liveliness, breadth, and light touch in deploying an impressive range of detailed evidence from primary sources. Bebbington defines the four essential Evangelical characteristics as conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism.1 His definition has been widely accepted. It is almost true that wherever one turns in recent writing on Evangelicalism in its British forms these characteristics are employed. Writing in 1994, Derek Tidball notes that the fourfold definition ‘has quickly established itself as near to a consensus as we might ever expect to reach’.2 A recent transatlantic study notes th...

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