An unbeliever’s history of evangelicals in America

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America
By Frances Fitzgerald
Simon & Schuster, 2017, 740 pages

Several weeks ago I saw some reviews of this weighty tome and I finally ended up borrowing a copy from the library, even though I hesitated because of its length. However, because of the interesting subject material, especially the first half of the book, I breezed through it pretty quickly.

Unbeliever Fitzgerald examines the history of evangelical Protestantism, from the First Great Awakening in the 1730s to 2016. It’s fascinating stuff for history buffs. She begins with the revivals in Colonial America spearheaded by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, followed by the Second Great Awakening, which included Arminian revivalist, Charles Finney, and then proceeds to frontier revivalism, the polarization of the church over slavery, the rise of higher textual criticism and the social gospel, the splintering away of biblical fundamentalists, the rise of Billy Graham and the New Evangelicals, and the move into political activism and ecumenism.

The first 260 pages take the reader up to the 1960s. The remainder of the text, about 360 pages, deals with the rise of Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson and the intricate details of the Christian Right’s misguided efforts to mix nationalism with the Gospel and “reclaim America for Jesus.”

The heavy over-emphasis on the last fifty years of evangelical history is a drawback. I wasn’t altogether enthusiastic about the minutiae regarding the support for this and that congressional bill and for this and that presidential candidate, although I did enjoy learning more about the inspirations behind the political Christian Right, R.J. Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer. The author is at her best describing the broad sweeps of pre-1970s evangelicalism. Fitzgerald is not a believer and is often not complimentary of the Christians she writes about or their beliefs. I dismiss the scoffing for what it is but I wholeheartedly agree with her that Christians in America have not always done a good job of sticking to the Gospel and witnessing for Christ.

8 thoughts on “An unbeliever’s history of evangelicals in America

  1. Thanks for this overview. I thought your observation of the imbalance was a good point. I have read some secular critics in the past of the Christian right including theonomists and personally I’m always amazed at how the critics get the theology of Christians wrong, not just of Christianity in general but even those they are critiquing. Its either than or they get some of the basic information of these guys wrong. I remember one critique of Theonomists I read some years back for the publication “Parade” in which they misidentified relations of people such as Rushdoony’s family members. Or they inaccurately describe Schaeffer’s history or the teachings of Bahnsen. Did you see any of that in this book? I sometime prefer a Christian critic more than a secular critic though that is not to say a secular critic is without insights.

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    1. Thanks, Jim. She didn’t get into a lot of detail regarding Rushdoony and Schaeffer but pretty much outlined how the two influenced Falwell, Dobson, Robertson, and the Christian Right of the 80s and 90s, especially Schaeffer’s The Christian Manifesto. The author clearly does not respect Christians or their beliefs but I did appreciate seeing the various movements within evangelicalism from a high level. And many times Fitzgerald’s opinions matched mine (e.g., the SBC’s support of slavery and segregation). Are you aware of any broad histories of American evangelicalism written from a believer’s perspective?

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      1. Wow that is a good question. I don’t know if there’s any that I am really a big fan of but I think DG Hart is insightful but sometimes his high church Presbyterian snobbery and his hyper pro-Confessions denominationalism bugs me. There’s quite a lot of unecessary snub he has for fundamentalists and in the areas of philosophy, worldview and apologetics Hart is very unhelpful and self-contradictory.

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      2. Thanks! I did a quick search at Amazon and “That Old-Time Religion in Modern America: Evangelical Protestantism in the Twentieth Century,” “Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America,” and especially “Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham” appeal to me. Jim, why do you burden me with more books to read?!?!?! 🙂

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      3. Thanks, for this one too. I’ve always wanted to read his “Fundamentalism and American Culture” and “Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism” but I know he operates from an ecumenical slant. I assumed he has nothing good to say about fundys or conservative evangelicals.

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