History is more complicated than you might think.

For many people, history is simply an account of what happened in the past. And while history as an academic discipline certainly includes a record of past events, names, dates, and places, history is never as simple as a naked recollection of facts. History is always an interpretive exercise. No historian can (or should try to) repeat every last detail from years gone by. Even fastidious historians must choose to include some information and leave out other information, and even the most even-handed histories will make a case for something from or about the past.

This does not mean we are doomed to historical nihilism. We can know things about the past. There is a history to be known, or at least various histories that can be accurately drawn from the evidence at our disposal. But it does mean that we must think hard not only about our past but also about how we tell the story from our past.

This is especially true for Christians. Our faith instructs us to draw lessons from the past and find inspiration from the past (1 Cor. 10:1-14, Heb. 11). And yet, our faith also teaches us to tell the truth (Ex. 20:16), especially about ourselves (1 John 1:8; Gal. 4:16). We must also remember that all our heroes, except for Jesus, were sinners (1 Kings 8:46).

Which is why history is more complicated than you might think. And why we should welcome the new book by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones (eds.), Making Evangelical History: Faith, Scholarship and the Evangelical Past (Routledge, 2019). [Full disclosure: A revision of my PhD dissertation is being published in this same Routledge series.] Yes, this is an academic book—and unfortunately it has the price point to match. But if you can get your hands on the book or borrow it from the library (they still exist!), there is much to learn from this volume, not merely about what happened in evangelical history—though that’s hugely important—but about how, as evangelicals, we have told our own history.

History of Evangelical Histories

Making Evangelical History begins with an introduction from Atherstone and Jones before moving into twelve chapters, each of which deals with the complicated story of how evangelicals have told their own history.

Here are the twelve chapters:

  1. John Gillies and the Evangelical Revivals (David Ceri Jones)
  2. Erasmus Middleton’s Biographia Evangelica (Darren Schmidt)
  3. Dissent and Religious Liberty in David Bogue and James Bennett’s History of Dissenters (Robert Strivens)
  4. J. C. Ryle and Evangelical Churchmanship (Andrew Atherstone)
  5. Luke Tyerman and the History of Early Methodism (Martin Wellings)
  6. Geraldine Guinness Taylor and the Histories of the China Inland Mission (Alvyn Austin)
  7. G. R. Balleine and the Evangelical Party (Andrew Atherstone)
  8. Arnold Dallimore: Whitefield’s Champion (Ian Hugh Clary)
  9. Iain H. Murray and the Rise and Fall of British Evangelicalism (David Ceri Jones)
  10. Ogbu Kalu and African Pentecostalism (Richard Burgess)
  11. Timothy L. Smith, George Marsden, David Bebbington, and Anglo-American Evangelicalism (Mark Noll)
  12. Andrew Walls, Brian Stanley, Dana Robert, Mark Noll, and Global Evangelicalism (David Bebbington)

If there is a theme that holds these chapters together it’s the tension between history that inspires the faithful and history that is faithful to the nuances, imperfections, and ambiguities of the past. I don’t believe the editors mean for Christians to choose between spiritual inspiration and intellectual rigor as mutually exclusive priorities, but they do mean to highlight how evangelical histories have typically aimed at the former more than the latter.

Or to put it another way: evangelical histories have often been written deliberately for, and to champion, evangelicalism and evangelical concerns.

Take John Gillies (1712-96), for example, the first biographer of the great preacher George Whitefield. Gillies wrote his history so that believers would be stirred toward revival and moved toward prayer (27). His was a teleological history, with the 18th century serving as an eschatological climax for God’s work in the world (32). No doubt, Gillies relayed an impressive amount of information about Whitefield, but he also had a certain kind of Whitefield he wanted to present. For Gillies, this meant saying little about Whitefield’s unhappy marriage, his Anglicanism, or his Calvinism. Whitefield was portrayed mainly as a revivalist preacher, the quintessential evangelical who had a simple doctrinal core—theologically orthodox but with little interest in confessional boundary markers—and whose life was marked by unceasing activity (40-41). It’s not hard to see how this early depiction of Whitefield helped shape evangelical self-identity in the years to follow.

The chapter on Hudson Taylor is another fascinating example of evangelical history that has sometimes bordered on hagiography. Geraldine Guinness Taylor (1865-1949) was married to Hudson Taylor’s second son, Dr. Howard Taylor, and wrote authoritative volumes on the China Inland Mission (CIM) and on its famous founder. Geraldine’s approach to history was unapologetically devotional. She prayed over every sentence she wrote and hoped for her books to be tools for spiritual edification (123). Her depiction of Hudson Taylor and of the mission were unrelentingly uplifting, to the point that later family members, while not disputing the many beautiful things recalled by Geraldine, questioned if everything was always as beautiful as she remembered it (123). Taylor himself wanted nothing detrimental to be written about the mission and ordered any potentially embarrassing documents to be destroyed (124). Even love letters from Taylor to his wife were edited by Geraldine so as not to offend Victorian sensibilities.

This is not to say that Geraldine’s story was false or made up, only that it was incomplete. Little was done to understand Taylor in his own context or as a man of his own time. Theological divisions and missionary squabbles were glossed over. No mention was made of Taylor’s self-baptism (or of his second baptism after that). The aim of Geraldine’s history was never history per se. Rather, she aimed to promote evangelical devotion, stir up missionary recruits, spur on surrender to Jesus, and stimulate financial support for CIM (143). It wasn’t until the pioneering work of Marsden, Bebbington, Noll, and others later in the 20th century that evangelical history moved away from strictly ecclesiastical aims and began to flourish as an academic discipline unto itself with an eye toward intellectual credibility and sophistication.

Two Approaches

Whether this new direction marks maturation or degradation is still a matter of debate within the evangelical movement. For my part, I agree with Atherstone’s insistence that evangelicals ought to embrace both the “confessional” and “professional” approaches to history (11).

On the one hand, evangelical historians—not to mention pastors, teachers, and lay leaders—should not be embarrassed to draw lessons of condemnation and commendation from history. After all, we see this approach in the Bible. The church needs heroes. The church needs inspiration. So the church needs history. The past belongs to God before it belongs to academic historians.

On the other hand, even inspirational history should be intellectually credible. As Christians, we should always aim to tell the truth, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to describe our fallen and redeemed heroes as honestly as we can. This means we want to understand the past on its own terms—with all of its glory, all of its failures, and all of its complexities—before we try to make history serve our own ends in the present.

There are strengths and weaknesses of confessional and professional history. Confessional history seeks to build up the church and encourage the cause of the gospel, but, at its worst, it can be overly confident in reading the tea leaves of divine providence and overly simplistic when it comes to contextual analysis. Professional history seeks to further the pursuit of historical knowledge and encourage the cause of intellectually responsible discovery, but, at its worst, it can be overly suspicious of supernatural explanations and overly concerned to play by the rules of dispassionate analysis. I believe both approaches have their place—certainly in separate spheres, but also, for the Christian, with each approach informing the other.

To this end, Making Evangelical History is a stimulating and worthwhile project. To be sure, it is squarely in the field of professional history, but many of the contributors have been open about their own Christian commitments. One doesn’t have to agree with every judgment on every page to conclude that the work as a whole is not only a great example of intellectual rigor but can meaningfully serve the church as well.

You’ll just need a book budget to see for yourself.