As Douglas Sweeney clearly articulates the American Evangelical movement is not only difficult to define but is also nearly impossible to gain a firm grasp on. However, Sweeney puts forth an exemplary effort in his attempt to track the history of Evangelicalism from its roots in the 18th- Century through the 20th Century. The following review of Sweeney’s work, The American Evangelical Story, will summarize the works content, provide an analysis on its major strengths and shortcomings, and finally will conclude with a recommendation concerning who this work will best serve.
The American Evangelical Story is an attempt to define, identify, and walk through the over two-hundred-year history of Evangelicalism in the United States. This work is broken into seven chapters that include defining the movement, walking through its inception, how the movement became an institution, the rise of missions, race and the movement, the birth of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, and concluding with the rise of Fundamentalism and Neoevangelicalism in the 20th century.
Sweeney opens the book by asking the question, “What’s in a Word?” This opening chapter sets the tone and trajectory for the book by laying the foundation of defining “Evangelical.” Furthermore, on top of defining the movement the opening chapter also clearly lays out the core values of Evangelicalism. What is worth noting is how Evangelicalism is primarily a movement defined by shared convictions rooted in the Protestant Reformation but is not a denomination.
Throughout the subsequent chapters, Sweeney takes the reader through the major phases in the life of the movement. There is clearly an attempt at finding balance through each chapter through sharing both successes and failures on the movement. From start to finish Sweeney is able to create an analysis that is equal parts scholarly work as well as honest and succinct overview concerning the highs and lows of Evangelicalism.
Douglas A. Sweeney unquestionably takes on a massive project in his attempt to cover over 200 years of history in 185 pages. As mentioned in the summary above Sweeney’s greatest strength is that he seeks to tell the story of Evangelicalism through objective eyes. Colin Hansen, in discussing Sweeney’s willingness to speak on the shortcomings of Evangelicals explains, “He prods some Calvinists for caring more about their theological distinctives than about evangelical cooperation. He chides evangelicals for not building enduring institutions, and for neglecting black and Pentecostal believers.”(Hansen, Colin MAS Ultra – School Edition, EBSCOhost) Sweeney’s desire in sharing the Evangelical story with all of its flaws is in the hopes of demonstrating God’s faithfulness to a people over and above the movements ability to advance the Kingdom of God on its own efforts. In making this point abundantly clear Sweeney goes so far as to say, “Let me be perfectly clear. America’s evangelicals are not the Lord’s New Israel-God’s chosen people or favored nation-despite the arrogant claims of some of our founding fathers. But we have proved just as wayward as ancient Israel tended to be, and yet God has managed to spread the gospel through our movement.”(p. 11)
The other major strength of the book is Sweeney’s ability to marry exemplary research with outstanding analysis in a way that allows the reader to process and digest what is being said with relative ease. For example, in chapter 3, “Crafting New Wineskins,” Evangelicalism’s transition from a grass roots movement to its institutionalization is discussed in detail. One of the main contributors in this transition was the focus on revivals breathing new life into the movement, which drove it from being a unified movement to becoming splintered into various factions. In summarizing the role revivals played in this rift Sweeney shared, “Ironically, this cycle of revival and decline has created countless evangelical institutions, each one needed to resurrect the life of its predecessors. These institutions, furthermore, have contributed to the development of a schismatic party spirit, the very thing that Whitefield prayed against at the height of the Great Awakening.”(p. 25)
The most glaring shortcoming of The American Evangelical Story is its inability in 185 pages to treat any part of Evangelicalism exhaustively. Out of necessity the book is restricted to hitting the high and low points within each chapter. This leads to Sweeney’s prophetic voice becoming watered down due to a lack of details surrounding an issue. Where this is most noticeable is in chapter 5, “Crossing the Color Line Without Working to Erase It.” Arguably the biggest stain on Evangelicalism in America is with regard to the issue of race. From slavery, to Reconstruction, Jim Crow Laws, and the Civil Rights movement history has shown time and again Evangelicals have been amiss when it comes to the issue or race. Throughout this chapter the severity and complexity of the issue is quit underemphasized.
Finally, the other shortcoming of this book is Sweeney’s over optimism about the future of Evangelicalism. Miles Mullins says, “In my opinion, he underestimates the increasing cultural fragmentation of the United States and the larger world into smaller and smaller subunits, undeniably leaving an indelible mark on an increasingly fragmented evangelicalism.”(Mullin, Miles S.,III. http://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/docview/229939830?accountid=12085)
This book is ideal as an introductory work on the history of Evangelicalism. With its easy to understand flow and the author’s own opinions throughout the book serving as a great foundation in understanding the broad strokes of Evangelicals and their movement. For those who desire a more in-depth and academically rigorous work “The American Evangelical Story” will disappoint. What makes this book so easy to follow and understand is also what taints it from being a much-needed detailed account of the history of the Evangelical movement.
Douglas A. Sweeney and “The American Evangelical Story” have served this reader well in helping define the evangelical movement as well as to concisely articulate the movements core values. Furthermore, this book has provided a new appreciation for this movement and a deeper trust in the Creator God who clearly uses what is foolish in this world to shame the wise. May the future of Evangelicals be a continuing testimony of God’s goodness and sovereignty despite man’s brokenness.
Hansen, Collin. “THE AMERICAN EVANGELICAL STORY: A History of the Movement.” Christianity Today 50, no. 5 (May 2006): 68. MAS Ultra – School Edition, EBSCOhost(accessed May 7, 2017).
Mullin, Miles S.,II. (2006). The American evangelical story: A history of the movement. Fides Et Historia, 37/38(2), 277-279. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/docview/229939830?accountid=12085, (accessed May 7, 2017).