I'm not usually a big fan of history books. I read a book or two ever week and only reach for a history once or twice a year. But I am so glad I picked up this The Rise of Evangelicalism by Mark Noll.
Noll takes on the tough task of finding an origin for a movement that is diverse, global and (in many cases) insular. Although he focuses on Edwards, Whitfield and the Wesley's, Noll includes research about women, slaves and evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic.
His prose is easy to read, running more like a narrative than a bald rehersal of historical data. He gets bogged down sometimes, but I'll accept a few muddled pages if that's the cost of telling a complex story.
Three things were of special interest to me in this reading:
1) Relationships played a huge role in the rise of evangelicalism. Whitfield and the Wesley's were friends. They read and re-published Edwards. Throw in Selena Hastings, the Moravians, McCulloch and the rest and you'll have a wild and tangled web of friends and frenemies who dramatically impacted the shape of modern Christianity.
2) Small Groups played a huge role in the rise of evangelicalism. Even though I've been deeply influenced by Methodist piety, I don't think I ever realized how passionate the Wesley brothers were to establish lay-led Small Groups. By the 1790's their Small Groups were scattered and multiplying all across Britain and the United States. Lay-led Small Groups, as much as anything else, marked early evangelicalism.
3) The rise of evangelicalism was not without hypocrisy. Whitfield owned slaves. Reformers and lay-leadership advocates started ordaining without permission from their denominational sponsors. Engagement with the world and political structures was inconsistent, confusing. That this hypocrisy is present in our present community is not some recent development, but, rather, is further proof that the fruit comes from the root.
I'd highly recommend The Rise of Evangelicalism and would be happy to share my copy if you're interested (and get to me first).