Review: A History of Evangelism in North America

A History of Evangelism in North America, Thomas P. Johnston, editor. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2021.

Summary: An account of the history of evangelism in North America through a compilation of articles on key figures, movements, and organizations from the colonial period to the present.

If one is to give a full account of American church history, it is difficult to do so without discussing the various evangelistic movements and significant evangelists and revivalists who birthed church and parachurch organizations and contributed to their expansion across the country. This work offers an account of those evangelists, those movements and organizations that fueled successive waves of growth and renewal in American Christianity.

This is not a comprehensive history of evangelism in North America compiled by a single author as the title might suggest but rather an edited volume of twenty-two articles covering key figures and movements from the 1700’s to the present. The work begins with Jonathan Edwards offering a much more extensive study of Edward’s preaching than we often get in truncated versions of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Subsequent chapters discuss other early figures: Brainerd’s efforts among native peoples, John Wesley and his use of preaching conferences to multiply his efforts, George Whitefield’s method for effective evangelizing and Francis Asbury and his organization of circuit riders that led to the explosive growth of American Methodism. We also learn about the important role of Bible societies in the spread of the scriptures that accompanied the gradual spread of American literacy.

The revivalist movement of the early 1800’s is represented by Shubal Stearns and the Sandy Creek Association, Cane Ridge as representative of the camp meeting movement, and the revival of 1800 centered around the lawless region of Logan County, Kentucky. The mid-19th century is covered with discussions of the methodical approach to evangelism of J. Wilbur Chapman including prayer, intentional evangelistic effort, outreach strategies, and systematic efforts to render hospitality and contact prospects. By contrast, John Mason Peck’s efforts focused around education of workers, epitomized in his Shurtleff College and Rock Creek Seminary.

The book then jumps to the post World War 1 era covering Henrietta Mears Sunday School movement and her influence on a generation of evangelical leaders including Bill Bright and Billy Graham, who are also subjects of individual chapters. Other chapters include a wonderful summary of the work of Dawson Trotman of the Navigators and Shadrach Meshach Lockridge, one of the foremost black evangelists who ministered at Calvary Baptist Church in San Diego.

The latter part of the twentieth century was marked by a revival among counter-culture youth in the early seventies, with Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel serving as an epicenter of a movement that spontaneously sprang up around the country. There are also chapters on D. James Kennedy and Evangelism Explosion, Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner on church growth, John Piper and evangelism among the “Young-Restless-and-Reformed”. The book concludes with Southern Baptist methodologies and a concluding chapter on Twenty-first century developments.

It was striking to me that there were no chapters either on Charles Finney or D. L. Moody, both of whose methods shaped the “crusade evangelism” of the twentieth century. Billy Sunday is only mentioned as an antecedent of Billy Graham. No women, such as Aimee Semple McPherson or Kathryn Kuhlman are mentioned. While various movements in different church traditions are covered, the flavor is contemporary Southern Baptist, which may account for some of these lacuna.

While this text is framed as a history, the writing and effort to draw practical lessons from different evangelists and movements, which suggests that this text might be used as part of an adult forum on evangelism or as a seminary text as part of a course on evangelism. There are recurring themes of the importance of prayer, confidence in the scriptures and clarity in the message, going out to reach the lost in intentional outreach, the work of the Holy Spirit in conviction, conversion, and empowering of the preacher, and the necessity of making disciples and not just converts.

In an age that prefers presence to proclamation and is squeamish about any of the cognates of “evangel,” this book reminds us that this was not always so, and that many have found faith and passed from death to life through evangelism movements of the past. It reminds us of the transforming power of the gospel. We may need new wineskins, but this book reminds us that the wine is good.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: A History of Evangelism in North America

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: November 2021 | Bob on Books

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