[K:NWTS 23/1 (May 2008) 68-69]

Book Review

John Wolffe, The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007. 280 pp. Cloth. ISBN: 978-0-8308-2582-0. $23.00.

The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney by John Wolffe (2007) is one in a five volume series on the history of Evangelicalism being issued by Inter-Varsity Press (only the first three, to this point, have been published).

Although Wolffe’s is unabashedly a work of historical scholarship (voluminous footnotes and a select bibliography of no less than twenty-four pages), it is well within the reach of the average interested layman, and not without its charms: the striking or touching anecdote from diary or correspondence (in particular the several first-person accounts of conversion or spiritual struggle);  the humorous gloss (“In [1837] New South Wales Presbyterianism showed itself a true child of its Scottish parent by undergoing its first schism”) or felicitously-turned phrase (the piety of the Clapham Sect was “deep-seated but not austere”; among the early Methodists the deathbed was perceived as “the ultimate class meeting”). This is no scintillating page-turner for the casual reader, but for anyone wanting a well-researched and perceptive accounting, deftly rendered, of Evangelicalism during the period of its world-wide expansion (1790-1850), it is worth the effort.

“The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney” rather summarizes its scope, both chronologically and geographically: William Wilberforce, parliamentary father of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain in 1807 (he lived just long enough to see the repeal of the institution of slavery itself in the British colonies in 1833) and subject of the popular 2007 film Amazing Grace; Hannah More, influential poet, essayist, and activist evangelical woman, especially in the cause of education for girls; Thomas Chalmers, powerful preacher, writer, social planner, and leader in the Disruption (1843) in the Scottish church; Charles Grandison Finney, famous American revivalist of the 1820s and 30s, leader in “new measures” revivalism and arguably inventor of “planned and controlled” revivals, as well as early professor and president at Oberlin College.

The subtitle also fairly outlines the book’s primary themes: revivalism’s prominence in Evangelicalism; the movement’s spiritual life and worship; its view of men, women, and the family; its activism—tract societies, city missions, parochial schools (in Scotland), and dozens of organizations for the suppression of vice or keeping the Sabbath or ending slavery (in the United States as well as the British Empire); and what Wolffe calls “the evolving sense of global vision and aspiration for unity” among the disparate denominations—and non-denominations—that comprised it.

As for Calvinism:  the expansion of Evangelicalism may be interpreted as a softening or loosening—or, in its Arminian manifestations, a downright abandonment—of an earlier and stricter Calvinism. Evangelicalism’s revivalism, for a start, almost in the nature of the case, “acknowledged and advocated a positive role for human agency in the work of conversion and moral reform,” as was said of the Yale theologian Nathaniel Taylor. This Evangelicalism was also remarkably broad theologically, incorporating, within Presbyterianism itself, not only the “theological ironclad” William Cunningham, but the liberal evangelical Henry Drummond and the proto-charismatic Edward Irving; and, more widely still, not only Church of England High Churchmen, but Primitive Methodist Ranters and, in America, Freewill Baptists. But all of this is simply to illustrate the amazing inclusiveness (within very definite biblical and crucicentrist limits) of the cause.

Indeed, the wild variety of individuals and groups that feature in the story, from (to extend the fascinating list) Lord Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury to pioneer American Black female Methodist evangelist Zilpha Elaw; from establishment Anglicans to Magic Methodists in Cheshire and “Kirkgate Screamers” in Leeds; from (in the States) Northern to Southern Baptists, divided (as early as 1845) over the issue of slave-holding; and the doctrinal and other mutualities that held them together—or drove them apart—is perhaps the sub-plot of this engrossing, but not uncomplicated, tale, so pertinent not only to an understanding of the contemporary Christian Church but of the contemporary world.

—Richard A. Riesen