Trumpism and U.K. evangelicalism

On Monday I did a post on Morgan Lee’s interview with Brazilian evangelical (currently pastoring an evangelical church in Rome) René Breuel. Breuel told Lee that he believes the American evangelical church has “lost part of its moral authority and spiritual leadership” because of its affiliation with Donald Trump and Trumpism.

Today I call your attention to Lee’s interview with Gavin Calver, the leader of the United Kingdom’s Evangelical Alliance. According to its website, the Evangelical Alliance “is made up of hundreds of organisations, thousands of churches and tends of thousands of individuals, joined together for the sake of the gospel. Representing our members since 1846, the Evangelical Alliance is the oldest and largest evangelical unity movement in the UK.”

Here is a taste of the interview at Christianity Today:

How did American evangelical support of Trump affect evangelicals’ reputation in the UK?

The problem was this word evangelical was connected to something that we had very little influence over and no control upon. In the media, they would talk about evangelical Christians doing X, Y, and Z as in the US. That by association made it look like we were the same people with the same ideology and the same everything.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We’re brothers and sisters. That’s important that we hold to that, but we’re a million miles away politically at times. It was a struggle to lead something here in the UK that was seen in the light of Trump. What Trump stood for by association the media caricatured us as standing for and, with the greatest respect, that often was not the case.

Would you say Trump’s presence and the American evangelical support for Trump tested this historically strong relationship between the two communities?

It created that awkward moment at a family dinner party where there’s something you can’t talk about because it’s just going to lead to a complete disagreement. I know that from my own experiences of visiting the US and having family there that it causes a tension in families that we don’t really understand here. Politics are important, but they’re not at any point some kind of demigods in our society here in the United Kingdom. The absolute wedding of politics and faith was not helpful when trying to have rational conversations.

Back in 2019, Franklin Graham planned a number of crusades in the UK. Multiple entertainment arenas canceled them after LGBT activists organized against his coming. How have you made sense of this situation?

The issue for us in the United Kingdom is the religious liberty issue of the “cancel culture,” that you’re not allowed to hold that kind of event in a venue. But the church was very much divided as to whether it supported or didn’t support Franklin coming. The pandemic led to an outcome in which he couldn’t come. But now it will be interesting to see what happens in some of the legal cases around freedom of religion that are going to be taking place with those venues that wouldn’t have them.

Franklin Graham’s relentless support of Trump certainly didn’t help in the UK lens. But once the venues were canceled and COVID stopped it from happening, the issue now is: What are the religious liberty consequences, if any, going forward here? That’s significant to every evangelist that wants to speak about Jesus in any public setting in the UK.

Read the entire interview here.

Was Phillis Wheatley an “Evangelical?”


(This is the third and final post in a series on the word “evangelical” in the eighteenth-century and today.  Read the first post here and the second post here).

So is it fair to call Phillis Wheatley an “evangelical?”  Despite what some people may believe, I really don’t have a stake in this debate apart from historical considerations.  As far as I know, Phillis Wheatley never called herself an “evangelical.” That is because virtually no one used the term as a noun in the 18th century.   Historian Ed Blum, who is back on Twitter and, according to his Twitter bio, claims he is no longer interested in “contemporary politics,” will be pleased that I admitted this:

But was Wheatley part of the network of 18th-century men and women who made up the evangelical movement I tried to define in the first post in this series?  I would answer yes.  So would Tommy Kidd.  So would John Turner.  But let’s not stop there. Here, for example, are some quotes from literary scholar Vincent Caretta’s definitive biography Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage:

p.34: “[George] Whitefield and [Selena Hastings, Countess of] Huntingdon linked Phillis Wheatley to the larger transatlantic network of evangelical Christians that had brought Margate to Georgia.  They consequently also connected her to the earliest authors of African descent.  Whitefield’s American preaching tours exposed several members of the first generation of black authors to Methodism.  They use of lay ministers by Methodists and other Dissenting sects gave black authors like Equiano, Briton Hammon, Jupiter Hammon, James Albert Ukasaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, George Leile, David George, and Boston King the opportunity and authority to exercise agency and influence in person and print.”

p.73: “In light of the catechetical “A Conversion between a New York Gentleman & Phillis” and the contemporaneous evangelical value placed on bearing witness to one’s faith, Wheatley’s emphasis on religious themes in her early poems is not surprising.  Evangelical Protestantism gave people of African descent, whether free or enslaved, access to literacy to enable them to read the Bible.   Short are the steps from reading the Bible to interpreting it for oneself, and from there to sharing interpretations with others in the forms of religious poems and spiritual narratives.  Wheatley began writing very soon after the first works by authors of African descent appeared in 1760s, inspired, authorized, and validated by the Great Awakening.  The works of the first such authors concern the faith shared between author and reader, rather than the complexion and social conditions that separated the black speaker and his or her overwhelmingly white audience.”

p.84: “Phillis Wheatley’s first published work, the poem “On Messrs. Hussy and Coffin,” appeared in the 14-21 December 1767 issue of the Newport Mercury, no doubt through the support and contacts of Susanna Wheatley.  The most likely contact was Sarah Haggar Wheaton Osborn (1714-96), a member of the First Congregational Church in Newport who was instrumental in the evangelical Newport revival of 1766-67.  She and Susanna Wheatley were acquainted with each other and shared a mutual correspondent in Rev. Occom.  The preaching of Whitefield and the Presbyterian evangelical Gilbert Tennent (1704-64) inspired Osborn to help create a female prayer society that met in her home weekly from the 1740s until her death.”

Caretta is also the editor of the Penguin edition of Wheatley’s complete writings.

Other Wheatley scholars agree with Caretta.  Wheatley was part of an 18th-century transatlantic evangelical movement.

Here is Phillip M. Richards in an essay titled “Phillis Wheatley: The Consensual Blackness of Early African American Writing,” in New Essays on Phillis Wheatley (University of Tennessee Press, 2011)

p.256: “Wheatley deploys this sentimental and aesthetic language vividly in her letters, which embody and enact a form of Christian friendship with her correspondents, moving in much the same way as does Osborn’s writing.  She thus writes her evangelical mentor, the British missionary John Thornton, referring to the Puritan convention of awakening on a sickbed: ‘O that my eyes were more open’d to see the real worth, and true excellence of the word of truth, my flinty heart Soften’d with the grateful dews of divine grace and the stubborn will, and affections, bent on God alone their proper object, and the vitiated palate may be corrected to relish heav’nly things….’ Wheatley’s observations not only describe her spiritual state but signal her shared sensibility of broken will, ambivalence toward the self, internalized authority, and benevolent love of God–all of which establish her membership in the company of saints constituted by Thornton’s missionary group….From her earliest poetry, Wheatley fashioned a literary persona based upon the language of evangelical conversion…”

Here is historian Catherine Brekus in Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America

p.185: “Perhaps the most remarkable female author in the eighteenth century was Phillis Wheatley, a slave who had been kidnapped from Africa as a child.  In order to gain acceptance in the republic of letters, Wheatley emphasized the depth of her Christian faith, and in 1770 she published an elegy lamenting the death of George Whitefield.  Because she was young, female, and a slave when she published her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, in 1773, the volume included a testimonial signed by eighteen of Boston’s leading gentlemen, including the governor, swearing that an ‘uncultivated Barbarian from Africa’ had indeed written her own poems.  No other female author in early America faced the same degree of skepticism or hostility.  Yet as Wheatley made clear in her poems, her authority to write came from her rebirth in Christ–on other words, from God himself.”

I could quote other scholars as well, but I think you get the idea.  Wheatley was an important voice in the 18th-century movement defined by a shared commitment to the new birth.  We can call that community “evangelical,” “New Light,” Whitefieldarian,” or something else, but in the end it was a spiritual fellowship of believers, certainly ensconced within 18th-century views on race, gender and social class, that came together around the shared experience of the new birth.

During the Kidd-Merritt debate, Merritt sought out a few religious studies scholars to bolster his view that it was “weird” to call Wheatley an evangelical.  Under fire from scholars and some of his Twitter followers, he needed to find a usable past quickly.  And he found a few scholars to help him:

It seems like this debate offers an excellent opportunity for historians to teach their students the importance of historical thinking.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez gets it:

Both Bass and Ingersoll assume that Kidd and me are trying to take 21st century evangelical religion and impose it on the 18th century and Wheatley.   We are accused of anachronistic thinking and “pasting” modern evangelicalism onto the 18th-century.  I can’t speak for Tommy Kidd, but I don’t think I was doing what I have been accused of doing.  As I have tried to show in the the posts in this series, there was an 18th-century evangelical movement and Wheatley was part of it.  That’s it.  No agenda except trying my best to interpret Wheatley’s life in its historical context.

Modern scholars of religion may not like the way white men and women used Wheatley, or may not like the fact that her membership in this community of the new birth does not offer them a usable past in their present-day battles against evangelicalism in America, but to suggest she was not an evangelical in the 18th century requires mounting a case against the best Wheatley scholarship and the best scholarship in early American history.

Defining Evangelicalism at the Conference on Faith and History: Part One

I spent a lot of time thinking about evangelicalism this weekend.  It was the focus of several high-powered panels at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  One of those panels was focused on David Bebbington’s “Quadilateral” of evangelical faith.  In his book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, Bebbington defined evangelicalism using four “isms”: conversionism, biblicism, activism, and crucicentrism.  After twenty-five years, three prominent interpreters of American evangelicalism–Mark Noll, Molly Worthen, and Darren Dochuk–sought to reflect on the continued usefulness of the Quadrilateral.  At first I found it a bit odd that three historians of American evangelicalism were called upon to critique a book about British evangelicalism, but after listening to the entire session I am willing to admit that the Quadrilateral is, at the very least, a transatlantic concept.

Since this session was so rich, I have decided to cover it in several posts.  So let’s begin with Darren Dochuk’s thoughts on the Bebbington quadrilateral.  Dochuk, the author of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, suggested that we expand the quadrilateral to include the eschatological system of premillenialism, the power of the Holy Spirit, and Christian community or fellowship.  (When I tweeted some of Dochuk’s remarks, someone on my feed mentioned that Thomas Kidd, during a session on Bebbington’s book at a recent meeting of the American Society of Church History, had also suggested adding the Holy Spirit to the Quadrilateral ).
While a concern with the last days, a reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit, and a commitment to community are all traits that have historically characterized evangelicals, Bebbington argued, contra Dochuk, that these traits do not characterize all evangelicals and thus should not be added to the Quadrilateral.
Bebbington argued that not all evangelicals have embraced a premillennialist or dispensationalist eschatology.  For example, many evangelicals have been postmillennialists.  Rather than waiting for Christ’s return to establish his earthly millennial kingdom, postmillennialists believe that we are living in the kingdom and need to work hard at spreading the gospel and solving social problems as a necessary prerequisite for Christ’s return. In other words, there will be no 1000 year earthly reign of Christ following his return.
I think Bebbington is right here.  In fact, the view that evangelicals were eschatologically diverse has been around since a slew of historians in the 1970s and 1980s, including Dochuk’s own dissertation adviser George Marsden, criticized Ernest Sandeen’s reductionist argument in The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millennarianism, 1800-1930.  If we are going to add premillennialism to the quadrilateral we need to exclude folks like Charles Finney T.T. Shields, J. Gresham Machen, and William Jennings Bryan from the evangelical fold.
Bebbington also suggested, contra Dochuk, that not all evangelicals were keen upon tapping into the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is a tricky one.  On one level Dochuk is right.  All evangelicals believe in the power of the Holy Spirit and its influence in their lives.  But, as Bebbington pointed out, not all evangelicals give it a prominent emphasis in their theology in the ways that Pentecostals or the adherents to the Holiness movement might.  
There are many evangelical groups–the twentieth-century dispensationalists who taught at Dallas Theological Seminary come immediately to mind–who have been cautious about embracing the full power of the Holy Spirit in their lives and congregations. Many evangelicals, including Jonathan Edwards and some of the early fundamentalists, were skeptical of spirit-empowered religious enthusiasm, speaking in tongues, or the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.”  Many evangelicals who wanted their hearts to be “strangely warmed” (to quote Wesley) got out of the spiritual kitchen when and if the Holy Spirit fire got too hot.
Finally, Bebbington suggested, contra Dochuk, that “community” or “fellowship” should not be considered a defining characteristic of evangelicalism.  Were evangelicals concerned with this kind of togetherness?  Of course.  But evangelicalism was also very personal and individualistic.  
I have argued elsewhere that evangelicals tend to be so interested in community today precisely because evangelicalism is such an individualistic approach to Christian faith.  We actually had a good discussion about this the other day in my History of American Evangelicalism class.  
 Stay tuned for more posts on this session.