Thursday, 15 October 2009

Protestantism from the Renaissance to Modernity: Stagnant, Growing or Declining?

Recently, I attended a conference at Baylor on Secularization and Revival. One of the best colloquial sessions there featured a discussion of Timothy Larsen's new book Crisis of Doubt. It was interesting to hear that in the nineteenth century many English-speaking Protestants were proclaiming that Christianity was on the decline and that the situation was much better in the previous century. What is interesting to me is that in the eighteenth century, the same argument was made - that evangelical piety was much more robust in the previous century and that it was the rise of Enlightenment thought that caused the decay of a vibrant Protestantism that was championed by the Puritans. I suspect that a sixteenth-century historian could propose that the Puritans believed that Protestantism was on the decline and looked back with admiration to the time of the Magisterial Reformers. My question then is this: Was Protestantism from the Renaissance to Modernity stagnant, growing or in decline?

Larsen is right when he pointed out in the session that many nineteenth-century ministers were preaching the real effects of secularization during their day while in reality there are plenty of examples of renewed piety among lukewarm Christians. The same jeremiad-style preaching existed in the eighteenth century. If a person read only the sermons of evangelical clergymen during the eighteenth century, he or she would walk away thinking that Christianity was marginal and on the brink of being overthrown by the advancing army of atheists and deists. In determining the true spiritual climate from the Renaissance to Modernity, there is the additional problem that secularization did in fact occur, at least in Britain. Today, Protestantism IS marginal in Britain. Anyone visiting Scotland or England will struggle to find multiple Christian congregations within a town that are thriving. Instead, a visitor will see boarded up churches, beautiful former church buildings that have been converted to apartments or condominiums and state church congregations that are dominated by the elderly. So, in the case of Britain, secularization did occur, but when? Are we to believe that Callum Brown is right in his "Death of Christian Britain" - that secularization occurred in the 1960s? Or, are other sociologists and historians correct in tracing the decline of Christianity at least in Britain to be a slow decay since the Enlightenment or during the "Crisis of Faith" in the nineteenth century?


Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Remarks on David Bebbington and his work by George Marsden

As many of you may know, David Bebbington’s 60th birthday was celebrated at a special dinner at Baylor University on 9 October 2009. Several scholars who gathered there to honor Professor Bebbington. Here is one of the tributes, by George Marsden, that were given on that occasion.

[Please note: this is a typescript prepared for presentation and not for publication, so it is not carefully proofread]

For some time now I have been greatly indebted to David Bebbington, not only for his excellent publications, but also for his friendliness and generosity whenever we have had occasion to meet. One of my best memories is from probably the early 1990s when we were together at a conference at Oxford and I was working on the project that became The Soul of the American University. David took Lucie and me on a lovely walk along the river in Oxford. England and explained to me how British universities worked, some of the factors in their secularization, and the difference in methods of punting in Oxford and Cambridge. The longer I have known David, the more I have come to realize that he seems to know almost everything about our field. That became especially apparent when twice in recent years he and I were featured at gatherings at St. Andrews University on comparative fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Whereas I did a lot of guessing as to facts and did a good bit of what would be called here “shooting from the hip” in offering interpretations, David made presentations which revealed in engaging ways that he had total mastery of all the relevant facts from which he drew wise and judicious conclusions.

But while we all know that David is a renowned scholar, there is one small piece of his scholarship that has in a way surpassed everything else—and I want to talk about that. In his 1989 book on Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, David provided what has become the definitive—even canonical characterization of evangelicalism—saying that evangelicals can be identified by four characteristic traits. These have become so widely known and used by those defining evangelicalism that they are now known simply as “the Bebbington quadrilateral.” This is, I can testify, a remarkable accomplishment. I myself tried for years to provide concise definitions of evangelicalism. So has Mark Noll. So has Donald Dayton. So have Randy Balmer and Grant Wacker. So have a host of sociologists. So has everyone who has studied the subject. But none of us has succeeded. Only David’s four-part characterization has stuck. I do not begrudge David this success. I just admire it.

Not wanting to make any mistakes when talking in the presence of someone who knows all the facts, I actually did some scientific research to confirm how widely Bebbington was known for the quadrilateral. So I googled David Bebbington and turned to the most authoritative source that I could find: Wikipedia. There, sure, enough it was: “He is widely known for his definition of evangelicalism, referred to as the Bebbington quadrilateral, [which was first provided in his 1989 classic study Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s]. Bebbington identifies four main qualities which are to be used in defining evangelical convictions and attitudes: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism.”

So impressed am I at the success and usefulness of this characterization, that I am convinced that David has stumbled on the formula for success in characterizing things. So I have decided to try to do as nearly the same things as possible in characterizing any topic that I encounter. So here is my first attempt. It is at classifying a certain type of historian, which I shall call a Bebbingtonian: This will be “The Bebbingtonian Quadrilateral:

First, while one trait of evangelicals is Biblicism, for the Bebbingtonian the corresponding trait is Biblioism.

A Bebbingtonian reads a lot of books—he even writes a lot of books. The Bebbingtonian is, on might even say, immersed in books--- the library is his veritable baptistry—he is an Anabaptist who gets re-immersed every day. A Bebbingtonian swims in books—when books go, so will the species of Bebbingtonian.

Christo/centric/ Baptocentric—A Bebbingtonian may, of course, be Christocentric personally, but qua historian he is clearly Baptocentric. Baptists—and not just of the biblioist sort-- are what he dreams about. When he came to Texas, as I understand it, he set out to count and classify all the Baptist churches in Texas. You will not be surprised to learn that he did the same thing after he got to Scotland. He edited a book, The Baptists in Scotland: A History. Since, however, there are several more Baptists in Texas than there are in Scotland—someone told me that there are towns in Texas where there are more Baptists than there are people-- it may take him longer to write the sequel. But I’m pretty sure he can already name every variety of Texas Baptist and tell you in what region each predominates.

Conversionism / Conserverism—Being a Conserverist must be distinguished from it near kin, being a conservative. Bebbingtonians, it must be admitted, do sometimes appear a wee bit conservative in their demeanor. They always speaks in a very proper English. They do not say you’ll. But, I digress, since my point is that despite some accidental similarities, a Bebbington is not necessarily a conservative and may surprise you sometimes. Rather to be a true Bebbington, one must be conserverist or one dedicated to conserving things. Historians are by nature conservers of the past and and Bebbington is a great historian. The intensity of his dedication to conserving is see when that trait is combined with the fourth and final one.

Activism/ Exactivism—An exactivist is a person who gets everything precisely right. Anyone who has worshipped with David will notice that he is not only participates in the worship, but he also keeps an exact record of it. He has a little notebook with notes in it like: time of silence after the sermon: 11:52:14 to 11:53:29- 75 seconds.. Hymn No 372, Like a River Glorious, 4 verses, 11:53:54 to 11:56:41, two minutes and forty-seven seconds. And so forth. So not only does the Bebbingtonian conserve all facts about the past that he can find, but he also conserves even more exact facts for historians of the future to work with.

So if you ever meet someone who has these four traits of the Bebbingtonian Quadrilateral: Biblioism, Baptocentricism, Conserverism, and Exactivism, then you have identified an impressive an rare bird, the Bebbingtonian—who is indeed rumored to migrate south to Texas every other year.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Reflections on David Bebbington Occasioned by his 60th Birthday

David Bebbington’s 60th birthday was celebrated at a special dinner at Baylor University on 9 October 2009. Scholars who gathered there to honor Professor Bebbington included George Marsden, Philip Jenkins, Timothy Larsen, Tommy Kidd, Paul Fiddes, and one of Exploring the Study of Religious History’s regular contributors, Jon Yeager. Here is one of the tributes, by Timothy Larsen, that were given on that occasion.

Reflections on David Bebbington Occasioned by his 60th Birthday

It is not for me to assess David Bebbington’s career, but rather for him to assess mine, but I can bear witness to things that I have seen and heard.

I first studied the history of Christianity as a Wheaton College student in the 1980s. We were aware of a dynamic trio that was conquering the wider academy – Marsden, Hatch, and Noll. If you listened more closely, one learned that there were other members of this cohort in America such as Harry Stout and Grant Wacker. But in the evangelical mafia of historians—as they were often referred to back then—there was only one made-man in Canada, George Rawlyk—and only one in Britain, David Bebbington.

In Britain, as far as I can tell, David had to make his way without any directly applicable role models or mentors. There was no contemporary academic evangelical historiography in a British context, and American attempts were in their initial handful of years. David therefore, while still in his twenties, set himself the opening task of working out a distinctly Christian philosophy of history. The result was his first book, Patterns in History. It is still in print and we should celebrate it now as well, as it was published exactly thirty years ago or, to put it in the light of the official prompt for this celebration, half a lifetime ago. Once again, it needs to be emphasized that David did not have evangelical conversation partners to help him formulate Patterns in History. Instead, he needed to grapple with a Marxist historiography that loomed large at that time in Britain.

Having been educated at Cambridge, David had taken a position in the History Department at the University of Stirling. Stirling was a very young and determinedly modern university. Theology was not to be taught there, and its history department certainly did not think it would be incomplete without an ecclesiastical historian. In other words, unlike Noll and others who were able to develop as scholars in a confessional academic environment that encouraged Christian approaches, David had to make his way by demonstrating that he was a good historian despite rather than because of his interest in Christianity. Even when I defended my PhD thesis in 1997, the member of the department who was considered to be closest to what I was doing, and therefore the best choice for the internal examiner on my committee, was a historian whose philosophy of history was most indebted to the Marxist approach. Part of David’s response to this situatedness has been to develop two careers simultaneously, establishing himself as a well-respected political historian as well as an eminent church historian. Most notably, he is one of the foremost historians of the prime minister W. E. Gladstone. While it might be an exaggeration in one sense to say that this is the British equivalent to being a leading expert on Abraham Lincoln—given Lincoln’s unique position in American political and cultural history—nevertheless it is pointing in the right direction and, moreover, it is unquestionably true that mastering the primary sources is a vastly larger challenge when it comes to Gladstone than Lincoln. And David rose to the top of the field of Gladstone studies in parallel with rising to the top in the discipline of religious history.

In 1989 came David’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. I have demonstrated the extraordinary achievement and impact of that book in print already, so I will not rehearse that here, other than to underline once again that, as a mere preliminary to a magisterial work which brilliantly and provocatively connected religious history to intellectual and cultural history across three centuries, he generated the definition of evangelicalism which still has a near monopoly position – Google is just one search engine among many compared to the Bebbington Quadrilateral among alternative definitions of evangelicalism.

I should say a few words on David as a PhD supervisor. Put simply, David has a premier ability to turn his research students into professional historians. One very welcome part of his secret in this area is an extraordinary generosity of time and spirit. As I said in explanation of my dedication of Crisis of Doubt to David: “I have never heard anyone speak of their doctoral supervisor in a way that made me jealous, and I would not trade my time with David Bebbington for the mentoring of any other scholar.” David mentors his research students in a thoroughgoing way from the minutest details—it took me several years, but he did not let up for an instance until I was able to spot a split infinitive on my own—to the broadest and most ambitious issues regarding making one’s way in the profession at conferences, in publications, and as a member of a faculty. David, on behalf of all of your research students past and present, I want to say thank you for the way that you so routinely and effectively go the extra mile for us.

Finally, I should like to observe rather impertinently that David is, to appropriate a snide comment of Mark Twain’s, a man with no redeeming vices. He does not drink or smoke. He is not a greedy eater. I don’t think he even drinks coffee but, if he does every now and then, I am quite confident that he does not do it in the heroic, American way of four or more cups at any given sitting. In other words, I fully expect that there will be another such occasion on David’s 90th birthday when the table will be abuzz with talk about a recent monograph of his. I just hope that I somehow manage to live to be there as well.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism Conference

The Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in Britain Project is hosting a one-day conference for scholars, ministers and the interested public at King’s College Chapel, London, on Tuesday,15 December 2009. The conference will consider the ways in which Evangelicalism andFundamentalism have expressed themselves in the social and historical conditions of Britain and engage such questions as:

• Who have traditionally been Evangelicals and Fundamentalists?

• What doctrines have they upheld?

• What attitudes have they maintained?

• Have Evangelicals displayed the anger often considered characteristic of Fundamentalists?

Featured speakers include Prof. Alister McGrath of King’s College, London, Dr Stephen Holmes of the University of St Andrews and Prof. David Bebbington of the University of Stirling