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[Please note: this is a typescript prepared for presentation and not for publication, so it is not carefully proofread]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

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