Review: Transforming the World?

Following my notes on David Smith’s address at the Reaching the Unreached conference on evangelicalism and social class, I thought I would post a review I wrote of his book, Transforming the World? The Social Impact of British Evangelicalism purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US. The review was originally published in Themelios, Vol. 25, No. 3 (June 2000), 130-131.

At the risk of gaudy dramatization, this book carefully sticks dynamite under a number of evangelical myths and then lites the fuse.

I have always thought ‘The Rise and Fall of the Non-Conformist Conscience’ would make a great title for book. In truth, if I was going to be the author, it was always going to be a title in search of a book. Now I think the book has been found.

In the heart of the busy Broadmeads shopping centre in Bristol is the first purpose built Methodist chapel. Sitting in the pews, imagining what it must have been like as people gathered, one is struck by the social impact of the eighteenth century revival. The working people who gathered to hear the gospel were leaving the Church of their masters, rulers and employers and organising themselves in alternative social bodies. It must has felt subversive to all sides.

Smith sets out to argue that the evangelicalism that arose from the Great Awakening of the 18th century was, what he calls, ‘world-transformative Christianity’. This was because so many of the movements leaders including those like John Wesley who rejected other aspects of Calvinism, traced their roots to the Reformation via Puritanism.

He describes how evangelicalism fragmented in the nineteenth century and the world transforming tradition was largely eclipsed, though with significant, if often neglected, dissenting voices.

The eighteenth century revival was largely movement among working people, usually despised by the privileged classes. Victorian evangelicalism, and especially the Clapham sect, sought to extend its appeal to the privileged classes. Simeon made it acceptable within the ecclesiological establishment while Wilberforce made it acceptable with the political establishment. Wilberforce, for all his social reform, argued against any change in the structure of British society. The Clapham Sect ‘were not just concerned to ensure that the form of the message would not be offensive, its content should assure the rich and privileged that they might attain personal salvation in Christ without the slightest hint of a threat to their ‘station’ in life.’ (17) In extending its appeal to the ruling classes evangelicals lost it world transforming vision. An elite do not welcome challenges to the status quo. While it thrived among the poor, evangelicalism, perhaps against its better judgment, was world transforming. When it sort acceptance among the powerful, it lost this vision.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in the form it took at Clapham, evangelicalism came perilously close to being a religious ideology in the Marxist sense of that term. If this conclusion is correct it has serious implications in relation to secularisation: in its Wilberforcian form evangelicalism may have achieved the success it sought in renewing the Establishment, but a high price was paid for this if, by identifying the Gospel with an élite culture and a deeply conservative approach to domestic politics, it alienated the growing numbers of people who were now challenging the patriarchal structures of British society and calling for radical social reforms. Without intending it, the movement associated with the Clapham Sect may have been a significant factor in the long-term decline of religion in the United Kingdom. (19)

The second generation leaders of Methodism fare not better in Smith’s hands. Despite Wesley’s political conservatism, Methodism had a profound impact on the social order. Gospel freedom led to calls of political freedom. But after Wesley’s death, the revival and moves for social change and were, demonstrates Smith, ruthlessly suppressed by the movement’s leaders in order to gain respectability. They boasted not only of their loyalty, but that Methodism made the poor content with their lot.

There were other voices. Evangelicalism had a profound impact on political dissent. (It is interesting to read the same story, as it were, from the other side in E P Thompson’s A History of the English Working Class.) But these voices did not prevail or were subsumed in frustration into the secular labour movement.

The best history is often polemic and Smith is no mere chronicler of the past. What he perceives as the growing crisis of Western culture offers evangelicalism a great opportunity for the renewal of mission but only if it can regain world-transformative vision. The Lausanne Congress of 1974 was a watershed, but evangelicalism faces other temptations: to retreat into an irrelevant fundamentalism or the easy triumphalism which mistakes numerical growth for genuine discipleship.

As we grapple with the challenges of postmodernity there are those who suggest that evangelicalism is inescapably a modernist expression of Christianity. What Smith shows is that, while much of evangelicalism has been high-jacked by the modernist relegation of religion to the private sphere, evangelicalism’s authentic voice offers a challenge to modernism and a biblical alternative to the vagaries of postmodernity.

If there is a disappointment in the book it is tha Smith asserts rather than proves his claim that the evangelicalism of the Great Awakening was world-transforming. He is good on its emphasis on personal experience. He demonstrates, although the books size prevents a satisfactory treatment, that early evangelicalism had profound social impact. But he fails to show the intentionality of this. Indeed he concedes John Wesley’s deep political conservative and oppostion to democracy. Indeed Wesley’s opposition to Calvinism, argues Smith, was motivated by his suspicion of the social transformative to which its all-embracing view of life led.

The work is enlivened by some lovely gems. Smith tells how a number of people left Charles Simeon’s congregation to join that of a brilliant, but poor, dissenting preacher named John Stittle. Simeon’s response was to personally give Stittle an allowance ‘for shepherding my stray sheep’. Or the Baptist writer John Foster’s description in 1802 of royalty ‘and all its gaudy paraphernalia as a sad satire on human nature’.
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3 thoughts on “Review: Transforming the World?

  1. ‘He demonstrates, although the books size prevents a satisfactory treatment, that early evangelicalism had profound social impact. But he fails to show the intentiality of this.’

    May be there was no intentionality from within the church … Wilberforce was not a minister, and did Wesley set up any big social ministries – maybe it was just a by product ?

    If the second generation of methodist leaders shut off the social radicalism – is that not just the socially conservative example of caring about what people think (as opposed the left wing example exhibited by those today who think people will listen to us if we impress with our social progs and progressive social attitudes)?

    When we look at history there have been times when there has been a more positive Christian influence on society and times when there hasn’t … I’m not sure our job is in some ways to worry to much about that. It seems to me the early church just got on with it, without being considering how they were perceived outside of the church. So as long as we preach the word and live out the gospel (as you so helpfully show us in Total Church) … what everyone else does is under God’s sovereignty.

    When we start becoming intentional, and worrying about our social impact (or appearing too radical – in the case of the second generation methodists), is that when things start to head off target ?

    I do though like the point about the Clapham Sect’s emphasis on elite culture and it’s possible long term negative impact on evangelicalism.
    I have recently finished Philip Jenkins ‘The lost history of Christianity’ where he compares the North African church (where Augustine et al were) and the Egyption / Coptic church. He makes the point that the North African Church has disappeared centuries ago in part because it was based on elites in cities, and never had the sympathies of the wider populations in cities and in the rural areas. This was the opposite to the Egyption / Coptic church which is still around today (and I know there isn’t much gospel in it – if any), which spread more widely socially and across city and rural divides.

    Colin

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