From Jonathan Edwards to Billy Graham

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist Frances Fitzgerald has written a controversial history about The Evangelicals in American history. Critics have complained that it is not comprehensive, spends two-thirds of its text on the post-World War II period, contains no discussion of white gospel or Christian rock music, deliberately omits coverage of African-American churches because of their different traditions and gives scant space to the Roman Catholic church. In short, the book is an excellent history of the evolution of leadership in the white Protestant evangelical movement as it shaped the current political and religious landscape in the United States.

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The Evangelicalsby Frances Fitzgerald

Simon & Schuster. 752p, $35

My criticisms of the book are twofold. First, Fitzgerald makes a major mistake in her explanation of why she did not include African-American churches although “some denominations identify as evangelical, because of their history, their religious traditions are not the same as those of white evangelicals.” Oh, really! Show me an African-American church that is non-evangelical with a service that is primarily liturgical.

The author also questions whether pre-Civil War free African-American churches had wide influence in the abolitionist movement. But didn’t these churches include the 186,000 African-American troops who fought for the Union in the Civil War? A century later, Fitzgerald thinks the Southern white evangelical churches played a limited role in the civil rights movement. Clearly the African-American churches supplied the leadership, members and, most importantly, the meeting houses for the movement that destroyed legal segregation, the most important social issue of the 1960s.

A second criticism, which is more serious, concerns Fitzgerald’s framework. This book is old-fashioned, top-down history written about the white Protestant church leaders. There is an overwhelming amount of detail about the factional rifts and theological disputes among denominations and among leaders from Billy Graham to Rick Warren. But little is heard from the ordinary members of these churches.

Historians now favor social history written from the bottom up instead of the top down. The presidential synthesis used as a framework for American history and the comparable “bishops synthesis” for church history has been challenged by a focus on the lives of ordinary people. Another set of mantras that dominates (some say is too dominant) American historiography includes the three words of race, sex and class.

Let’s take the African-American churches. Did the free African-American churches play a major or minor role in the fight over slavery and the split between Northern and Southern Baptists? What role did the African-American churches play in the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s? Were white Evangelicals silent on the major issue of our time—segregation—or did some work with the movement?

On the role of women, some historians maintain that women were the majority of the members of the churches of the Second Great Awakening. Other questions arise as the socioeconomic analysis of the Moral Majority political organization the 700 Club and other media ventures, and the Christian Coalition and the intersection of the evangelical movements with the Republican Party.

Another area of neglect by Ms. Fitzgerald is the development of the Catholic evangelical movement. In the 1970s Jay P. Dolan reversed the historiography of the Roman Catholic Church from top-down to bottom-up history in his two books on The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics 1815-1865 and Catholic Revivalism: The American Experience 1830-1890. In these books Dolan argues that the revivals engineered by the Jesuits, Redemptorists and Paulists for the German and Irish working-class parishioners in New York City were more successful than their Protestant counterparts. Dolan even relates the Catholic Pentecostal movement of the 1970s to its pre-Civil War Catholic preachers.

Two final suggestions. One reviewer complained that Fitzgerald’s bibliography of 250 books and dissertations, along with 60 pages of detailed footnotes and a glossary of terms, lacked the latest scholarship. Maybe so. But given the author’s purpose in concentrating on the movement’s years since 1945, there is plenty of material for the serious student to pursue as a researcher in an undergraduate or graduate history or religious program.

We all wish we could write as well as Frances Fitzgerald. Though remarkably detailed, she wields a sharp pen. To make this book of 752 pages accessible to students of American history and religion, the publishers should seriously consider an abridged edition titled The Evangelicals: An Essential History for the Struggle to Shape America.

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