Review: The Disruption of Evangelicalism

the disruption of evangelicalism

The Disruption of Evangelicalism (History of Evangelicalism Series, Volume 4) Geoffrey R. Treloar. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Countering the existing narrative of evangelicalism at its zenith before World War I followed by a great reversal, this work argues a more positive assessment of evangelical response to the disruptions of war.

The fourth volume in the series of the History of Evangelicalism Series covers the years of 1900 to 1940. The standard narrative is of evangelicalism reaching a pinnacle of influence at the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910, followed by the challenges of the Great War (World War I), and sent reeling into retreat by the forces of modernism and the post war boom and depression, resulting in a bunker-mentality fundamentalism. Geoffrey R. Treloar argues for a more positive assessment of evangelicalism throughout this period while noting the challenges, external and internal that it faced during this time.

Treloar understands Bebbington’s four marks of evangelicalism in terms of intersecting axes. One axis is the biblicist-crucicentrist axis focused upon doctrine and more inward looking and the other axis the conversionist-activist experiential axis. Broadly speaking, the first period between 1900 and 1914 focused around the more outward looking conversionist-activist axis. Two figures exemplified this period–the revivalist Reuben A.  Torrey and the missionary statesmen and ecumenist John R. Mott, who presided over the 1910 Edinburgh Missions Conference with its watchword, “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” Scholars like A. S. Peake were engaging modern biblical criticism, although the first signs of a conservative approach concerned with doctrinal integrity was evident in the publication and distribution of The Fundamentals to pastors.

The second period was the Great War of 1914-1918. Evangelicals rallied to support the war effort of the Allied Powers and an ethic of laying down one’s life shaped the zeal of many who fought. And many did, while others returned, some stronger in faith, but others shattered by the horrors of trench warfare. Evangelicals struggled with the tension between supposed “Christian nations” who did not act very Christianly at Versailles. The revival expected during and after the war did not occur. While church attendance did not fall off, neither was there the vibrancy of the pre-war period.

This leads to the third discernible period in Treloar’s survey. He explores the tensions within the diverse evangelical movement, responding to modernism. On the one hand is a more liberal evangelicalism that attempts to hang on to its core of faith while engaging modernist ideas and social involvement. On the other, there is the rise of a fundamentalism concerned with doctrinal integrity and maintaining the priority of evangelism. Two figures Treloar focuses on here is Aimee Semple McPherson, representing the growing pentecostal movement and the uses of the new technology of radio, and Thomas Chatterton (T. C.) Hammond, whose work, first with the Church of Ireland as an evangelist and pastor, where he honed skills in articulating a winsome and theologically acute Christian faith, and later with the newly formed Inter-Varsity Fellowship and the Anglican Church in Australia. He was most know for a manual of doctrine, In Understanding Be Men, used to equip non-theological students with a knowledge of evangelical doctrine. Meanwhile J. Edwin Orr continued to study and mobilize believers to pursue revival in the church, and Australian Lionel Fletcher widely evangelized, seeing as many as 250,000 conversions in his extensive travels. By the 1930’s, a vibrant missions movement had also revived.

Treloar’s point is that while the war represented a definite disruption in the trajectory of evangelicalism, and an unraveling of the various strands of the movement, after a nadir period in the 1920’s, this very diversity resulted in a renewal of both axes–the doctrinal biblicist-crucicentrist, and the conversionist-activist.

I do think Treloar offers a more nuanced rendering of this history. Yet I believe he ignores the critique Mark Noll makes in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll notes that both the activist, and conservative theological commitments led to a disengagement with modernist scholarship, and a retreat from serious influence in the academic world. Apart from the theological rigor of the IVF in Great Britain and related institutions like Tyndale House, I would contend that this period represented a serious retreat and reversal in the market place of ideas, if not in other aspects, a retreat reversed only with the rise of the post-World War II evangelicalism of Carl Henry and his like.

As a side note, I was fascinated by Treloar’s focus on T. C. Hammond. His In Understanding Be Men was still in print in the mid-1970’s and was the theological handbook I studied in my early years on InterVarsity/USA staff. I was saddened to learn that Hammond was associated with a “White Australia Policy” as were many American churchmen in the 1920’s with “100 Percent Americanism.” Ideas of white supremacy and racism, sadly have a long history in evangelicalism.

Treloar does a great service in chronicling this period of evangelical history, often relegated to a kind of evangelical “dark ages” far less illustrious that the eras that preceded and followed. He helps us see that far more was going on in both theological and missiological formation in the evangelical movement than is often credited.