Book Review

Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism

Edited by Heath W. Carter and Laura Rominger Porter (Eerdmans, 2017)

Review by Suzanna Krivulskaya


In the midst of the race for the so-called “evangelical vote” in the 2016 presidential election, a National Public Radio headline posed two deliberately provocative questions: “Are You an Evangelical? Are You Sure?” The headline wittily identified an inherent problem with discussing a singular “evangelical” anything—much less something as complex as religiously motivated civic engagement. Scholars of religion have, of course, been saying this for decades. As Heath W. Carter and Laura Rominger Porter point out in their introduction to Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism, “this volume does not presume to identify a single, unified, comprehensive American ‘evangelicalism’ that transcend[s] historical contexts” (xvii). In the absence of ahistorical definitions, the volume conceives of “evangelicalism” as a “set of family resemblances that spring from a shared genealogy” (ibid.). Instead of definitional cohesion, the book is organized around turning points: transitional moments in evangelical history, a concept borrowed from Mark Noll’s 1997 book Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.

The echoes of Noll’s scholarship are not coincidental: the book is a tribute to the great historian of American religion. Noll’s intellectual influence is felt in the prose, citations, and arguments of each chapter. It is subtle enough, though, not to overshadow the larger collective project of the volume, namely, to highlight some of the key developments in the history of evangelicalism in the United States and beyond. Several chapters, for example, consider the complicated bidirectional exchanges with other global actors, including China, Canada, Latin America, and Western Europe. An emphasis on the global is not the only strength of the volume in terms of its breadth; for a book focused on evangelicalism, readers will come across mentions of a remarkable variety of other religious expressions, spanning from mainline Protestantism to Catholicism and from Native American religions to the Moorish Science Temple.

While not exhaustive in its coverage of evangelical history, Turning Points is well rounded in thematic scope and chronological range. The book begins with Harry S. Stout’s re-evaluation of what precisely was “great” about the Great Awakening. Catherine A. Brekus examines the contested relationship between evangelicalism and the Enlightenment and argues that despite the inherent contradictions between the two projects, the former borrowed significantly from the latter in terms of epistemology, religious authority, and humanitarian sympathies. Jon Butler moves the narrative to the formation of the American nation and examines the ongoing struggle over interpreting the First Amendment, which turned religious questions to the young democratic public “without stipulations and without even defining religion” (49). Richard Carwardine takes the story into the early 19th century and explains the social reform impulse that initially united and eventually ruptured ties between northern and southern evangelicals. Marguerite Van Die describes the rise of the evangelical “domestic ideal” in the United States and Canada, as the two nations adapted to changing cultural norms and economic realities of the 19th century. Luke E. Harlow picks up the thread of evangelical involvement in the coming and the aftermath of the Civil War and argues that emancipation paradoxically gave birth to a form of evangelical religion that was more conservative and less concerned with social justice.

Fast-forwarding into the 20th century, George M. Marsden provides a brief but thorough sketch of the rise of Christian fundamentalism. Edith L. Blumhofer takes the story into African American and immigrant communities of Chicago and explains how the city became one of the booming centers of Pentecostal religion. Dennis C. Dickerson continues with the theme of northern development and highlights the crucial role of religion in the Great Migration. Mark Hutchinson takes the readers outside the United States and discusses the contested theologies and strategies of religious NGOs like World Vision as they adapt to and learn from the local and global cultures they encounter in the field. Grant Wacker paints a portrait of the 20th-century evangelist, Billy Graham, and explains his rise to success using the case study of a single 1949 revival in Los Angeles. Finally, Darren Dochuk takes the volume back into the global arena in his discussion of the formative “Latin turn” in international evangelicalism.

A volume of this range and ambition will no doubt have its critics for, say, missing a particular “turning point” or focusing too much on the usual suspects. Notably absent in its treatment of the 20th century are chapters on the “culture wars” and the rise of the religious right. But these phenomena have been documented elsewhere, and the collection is to be commended for shifting the focus to the global in its last few chapters. With several notable exceptions, more could have been said about race, class, sexuality, and gender; but given the subject, the players, and the archives that survive to tell the story, it is difficult to fault contributors for being unable to assemble enough sources that would relegate white evangelical men to the background.

One point of anxiety expressed in some of the essays is whether the “turning points” metaphor is sufficient to frame a narrative of evangelicalism in America. After all, many of the developments that become the subject of each chapter were long-anticipated transitions, not singular “points” in time, and “turning” may just be too vague an indicator of the direction in which these developments took evangelicalism. With that caveat, the concept of “turning points” proves useful at least as one possible metaphor for discussing continuities and changes. In any case, the volume is self-consciously provisional with its definitions, and the strength of the collection rests on the insightful retelling of the stories we knew, or thought we did. A task like this—writing a history of evangelicalism while paying tribute to Mark Noll’s body of work and career of mentorship— is herculean, and Turning Points does an admirable job facing it with ingenuity, thoughtfulness, and grace.

Suzanna Krivulskaya is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame.