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288 pages
Oct 2005
InterVarsity Press

The Dominance of Evangelicalism

by David W. Bebbington

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The Setting


This volume, like the others in the series, takes the evangelical movement of the English-speaking world for its subject. The members of this international network professed the Christian faith in broadly the form that it had assumed during the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century. The movement was by no means confined to a single denomination, for the revival had transformed many older Protestant bodies as well as creating new ones. Evangelicalism had injected a fresh expansive dynamic into the church. It had given rise to the modern missionary movement that carried the gospel to many lands where it had hitherto not taken root. Although some attention is paid here to the missionary impulse, the “English-speaking” limitation is designed to focus the series not on missions themselves but on those who sent out the missionaries—in this period, the peoples of the United Kingdom, the United States and the settler communities of the British Empire. The range of territories where the movement flourished will be discussed in chapter two, but here it will be useful to indicate the broad social and political context in which the movement operated. Despite their otherworldly preoccupation, evangelicals did not live a life apart. They numbered in their ranks many of the merchants and artisans, wives and children, politicians and voters, who acted and suffered in the day-to-day events of society at large. The dominant place of their faith in the culture of the times, a central theme of this book, ensured that evangelicals engaged particularly closely with the trends of the day. So a brief review of the framework of circumstances that molded their lives during the later nineteenth century can help set the scene for a closer examination of the evangelical movement.



The political state of Britain is a suitable place to begin. The “Year of Revolutions” in continental Europe, 1848, had largely passed the country by. The Chartists, a radical working-class grouping whose efforts at insurrection had disturbed the previous decade, alarmed the government by its plans in that year, but managed only a minor demonstration and afterward withered away. Subsequent years in Britain were marked by constitutional stability. Queen Victoria, who had come to the throne in 1837, ruled to the very end of the century, but the crown no longer played a publicly partisan role in politics. Instead the parties held effective power through commanding a majority in the House of Commons. The Liberals, led by broad-minded peers and gentry but drawing support from new industrialists and many lesser folk, favored moderate measures of change. They had been responsible for the Reform Act of 1832 that greatly enlarged the franchise without threatening the influence of the landowners. It was, however, the Conservatives under Benjamin Disraeli who passed a further measure of parliamentary reform in 1867 with the aim of attracting the new voters in the towns to their side. The Conservatives, who had previously been the party of upper-class traditionalists, the bulk of the professionals and the dependants of each, now mobilized a wider range of electors. Especially after a further round of reform in 1884-1885, the Conservatives attracted solid support from the middle classes. The Liberals under William Gladstone adopted increasingly radical measures, culminating in the proposal of Home Rule for Ireland in 1886. Nationalists in Ireland, often fired by memories of the devastating famine in their island of the 1840s, aspired to a separate state, and Gladstone believed that only the concession of a subordinate parliament in Dublin would keep the Irish within the United Kingdom. Home Rule, however, failed to pass, and the grumbling sore of the Irish question continued to afflict the body politic. In general, however, the people of the British mainland, the English, the Scots and the Welsh, were well content to live together in a secure and prospering United Kingdom.

Britain normally attempted to avoid continental entanglements during this period. There was widespread sympathy for Italians who were consolidating their land as a national unit, but Britain did not participate in the military side of the Risorgimento. Likewise Britain stood apart as Bismarck raised Prussia to a new eminence in Europe, sweeping aside the Austrians in a war in 1866, defeating the French in another war in 1870 and setting up the German Empire. By and large during the half century from 1850 onward Britain was at peace. In 1854-1856 the country joined France in an invasion of the Crimea in order to defend Turkey against Russia; and in 1899-1902 Britain fought a long and weary struggle against the two Dutch-speaking republics of southern Africa, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Otherwise, however, Britain confined itself to many small operations on the imperial frontiers. In November 1856, for instance, a campaign was launched against Persia and simultaneously the city of Canton in China was bombarded. Britain specialized in undertakings that could be accomplished by naval power, for the country exercised unchallenged authority at sea. The most prominent statesman of the middle years of the century, Lord Palmerston, declared in 1850 that, just as anyone in the ancient world could announce that he was a Roman citizen and the might of Rome’s empire would protect him, so Britain’s authority would shield all who could claim to be subjects of the crown wherever they might be. So high was the country’s standing that when, in 1863, the Greeks decided to found a new ruling dynasty, it was natural for them to invite (unsuccessfully) a son of Queen Victoria to assume their throne. Britain was at the height of its worldwide prestige.

The area of the British Empire steadily grew during the half century. There was little or no deliberate plan for the extension of empire, but territory was acquired piecemeal because of wishes to protect commercial interests, requests for aid from adjacent peoples and decisions by local commanders. India, the jewel of the empire, underwent the catharsis of revolt in 1857-1858, when the so-called Indian Mutiny, or First War of Independence, threatened British authority. The mutiny was followed by the transfer of responsibility for the subcontinent from a primarily commercial organization, the East India Company, to the British government, a process several times replicated elsewhere. Extensive conflict also marred British expansion in other parts of the world such as New Zealand, which was riven by repeated struggles against the original Maori inhabitants down to 1870. Around that year there was an acceleration of territorial ambitions as other European powers began to take a more serious interest in imperial aggrandizement. In the era of “new imperialism,” which lasted for the rest of the century, there was particular attention to Africa. In 1871 Britain annexed the diamond fields of Kimberley in South Africa; in 1873-1874 there was a war against the Ashanti people of West Africa; three years later the Transvaal was annexed; in 1879 there was a fierce struggle with the Zulus; in 1882 Britain occupied Egypt, ostensibly on a temporary basis; and the process continued in rivalry with other powers down to 1900 and beyond. There was the possibility of a similar carving up of China during the 1890s, but in that vast land the spheres of interest demarcated by the Great Powers never turned into swaths of empire. The strength of popular imperialism in the last few years of the century can be measured by the fact that the United States, born in revolt against empire, created its own version by the acquisition of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hawaii and the Philippines in the wake of the Spanish-American War of 1898. The period was an age of empire.

Nevertheless there was a sustained effort to loosen the ties between Britain and her possessions in other parts of the world. This enterprise was not a campaign to dissolve empire, but an effort to save money on imperial defense and encourage self-reliance in the dependent territories. The new powers of selfgovernment were not designed for peoples of other races, but were confined to areas of white settlement. Thus the Australian Colonies Government Act of 1850 granted large powers of legislative independence to New South Wales, South Australia, Van Diemen’s Land (shortly to be renamed Tasmania) and Victoria (a new colony to be organized in the following year); two years later New Zealand received a constitution providing for representative government; and the Cape Colony opened a parliament in 1854. In British North America the two provinces now known as Quebec and Ontario, which had been consolidated in 1840, had effectively received responsible government in 1848. There constitutional development took a major forward stride when, in 1867, the Dominion of Canada was established containing the four provinces of Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Subsequently other provinces joined, though Newfoundland was to remain separate long into the twentieth century. Similar federation was mooted for Australia, where Queensland and Western Australia were given responsible government in 1859 and 1890 respectively. It was not until 1901, however, that the Commonwealth of Australia was established to unite the former colonies, now called states, as a single nation. Except in Quebec, where the people were predominantly French-speaking, and the Cape, where many were of Dutch origin, the white population of each of these lands was drawn during this period overwhelmingly from the British Isles. Although some of the Irish-born were restive, most of the empire was well content to be British.

The United States, however, was proud of the independence it had won in the eighteenth century. The young republic had established a flourishing system of participatory democracy, electing a host of local officials, state and federal senators and congressmen, state governors and, every four years, a president. During the 1850s the pressing issue for politicians was how to accommodate competing sectional aspirations within the national framework. New territories acquired through the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican-American War were being organized to the west: were they to be allowed to adopt slavery, a cornerstone of the economic life of the South? Many Northerners, some of them believing slavery to be intrinsically abhorrent, were totally opposed to any conciliation of the South. When in 1860 Abraham Lincoln, a Northern Republican pledged to prohibit the expansion of slavery, was elected president, most of the slave-owning states seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy. The ensuing Civil War, won by the North after four hard-fought years, led to the emancipation of the slaves but also to the subjection of the South to enforced reconstruction. Southerners, with Irish immigrants and other outsider groups, were stalwart supporters of the Democratic Party that struggled for national power against the Republicans over subsequent decades, creating elaborate party machines. By the 1890s, however, many small farmers began to think that the two-party system was no longer representing their interests and so launched the People’s Party. Their champion, William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, actually captured the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency in 1896. Before the end of the century a further wave of reformist zeal created another third force, the Progressives, that was to make a significant impact in the following decade. But the dominance of politics by the two main parties of state, Republican and Democrat, was not to be overturned.


Although the political systems of Britain and America were different, some of the social developments in the two countries showed marked similarities. Rapid demographic growth was one of them, but because of immigration, America  greatly outstripped Britain. Between 1851 and 1901 the population of the United Kingdom rose from twenty-seven million to forty-one million; from 1850 to 1900 the U.S. population increased from twenty-three million to seventy-six million. The American figures had already surpassed the British by 1860. The various areas of white settlement in the British Empire, by contrast, were only thinly populated except in very limited areas. Even at the end of the century Canada still had only some five million white inhabitants, Australia nearly four million, South Africa just over one million and New Zealand less than one. Britain was the source of many of the migrants to the empire, though America was consistently the most favored destination. Between 1853 and 1900, 56 percent of the emigrants from England and Wales traveled to the United States. The flow of immigrants into the United States from Germany and other parts of Europe, however, meant that only 11 percent of the foreign born in the country in 1900 were from Britain, though fully another 16 percent, a much higher proportion, had arrived from Ireland. The period was notable for the gradual spread of the American population westward, establishing new states, keeping up the frontier spirit and squeezing the Native Americans off their ancestral lands. The last territory to be opened to settlement was Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory, in 1890. The half century witnessed a large-scale English-speaking diaspora.

It also saw the triumphant progress of industry. In 1851, the Great Exhibition was in London. The products of many nations were on display, but the overriding purpose was to celebrate the technical expertise of Britain, the first country to industrialize. The opening of the exhibition, said Queen Victoria, “was the greatest day in our history.” The subsequent advance of industrialism continued unabated. The record of cotton manufacturing, the cutting edge of earlier industrialization in Britain, speaks for itself. British cotton exports rose from 1,524 million yards in 1852 to 4,873 million yards forty years later. Likewise British coal production increased from 60 million tons in 1851 to 219 million tons fifty years later, much of it for export. The gradual removal of tariff barriers between nations had helped Britain establish its commercial dominance of the world, so that in the first year after the opening of the Suez Canal, 1870, 71 percent of the shipping passing through it flew the British flag. The strongest economic growth in Britain during the second half of the century was in the tertiary sector of trade, commerce and finance. It contributed 19 percent of the national income in 1851, but as much as 28 percent in 1907. The greatest success story of the later nineteenth century, however, was the industrial expansion of the United States. Though lagging behind Britain at the start of the period, America caught up at an astonishing pace. Between 1851 and 1901, for example, coal production in the United States mushroomed from 7 to 268 million tons. The statistics for iron production tell a similar story of the United States overtaking Britain as the greatest industrial power. The imposition of selected tariffs helped American industry profit from its vast natural resources and burgeoning internal market. Although, except for mining, industry remained marginal in the overwhelmingly agrarian lands of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, it became a significant force in the cities of Ontario and Quebec. For many in the Anglo-Saxon world it was an era of manufacturing and commerce.

Industrial and mercantile development brought prosperity in its wake. For the first time many families had money to spend over and above what had to go toward subsistence. People enjoyed better clothes, a more varied diet and altogether a higher quality of life. Increasingly they lived in the great cities, London having over three million inhabitants and New York over one million by 1881. In the wake of sanitary improvements, city life was no longer as lethal as in the earlier phase of industrialization. Between 1860 and 1900 the average real wage of urban workers in Britain rose by more than 60 percent. Overall figures, however, disguise the uneven distribution of the new wealth. Entrepreneurs such as John D. Rockefeller, the creator of Standard Oil in the United States, could accumulate vast fortunes. At a lower level, skilled workers could command much higher wage rates than their unskilled contemporaries. In 1900, when the average weekly income of an industrial worker in the United States was $8.37, the average for the unskilled was only $5.50. So amidst the newfound plenty there were festering grievances. The growth of leafy suburbs for the rich, away from the inner-city slums of the poor, only served to accentuate the sense of exclusion among the badly paid and the unemployed. It was an era of periodic strikes. The London Dock Strike of 1889 shut down the greatest port in the world. Other strikes fostered serious unrest. In 1877, the Pullman railroad stoppage in the United States led to riots, twenty-six deaths and a reputed five million dollars worth of damage to property in Pittsburgh. Organized labor both reflected and aggravated class resentments. By the opening of the twentieth century, trade union membership in America had reached two million and Britain was only just behind. In Britain, Canada and Australia, though not in the United States, independent political candidates began to stand in the name of labor, with some of them winning seats in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly as early as 1891. If affluence was widespread in society, working-class leaders were often deeply aware that their families did not enjoy a sufficient share of it.

One of the conditions of economic progress was the growth of the railways. In 1850 there were already over nine thousand miles in operation in the United States and nearly seven thousand in Britain. Forty years later the figures had risen to a remarkable one hundred and twenty-five thousand miles in the United States together with twenty thousand in Britain. A line was opened between Melbourne and Sydney in 1883 and two years later, after enormous political wrangling, the Canadian Pacific Railway linking British Colombia in the west to the rest of Canada was finally completed. The railways were arteries for the commercial lifeblood of the era, opening up new towns, taking food to the cities and carrying manufactured goods everywhere. Nor were the railways the only revolutionary change in communications. A transatlantic telegraph cable was laid, allowing messages to be exchanged between queen and president in 1858 and establishing a permanent link across the ocean eight years later. Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876 and four years later some fifty thousand private instruments were already in use in America. Steamships gradually replaced sailing vessels, greatly enhancing the speed and reliability of overseas trade and travel. The first Australian frozen meat, carried by sea in refrigerated storage, reached London in 1879. There were signs of future revolutions in the production of the earliest motor cars in the 1890s and the patenting of wireless telegraphy by Guglielmo Marconi in 1896. These inventions were to come into their own in the twentieth century, but already in the later nineteenth a great deal had been done to abolish distance. The various parts of the world were much more closely bound together in 1900 than in 1850.

It was also a time when people at large achieved higher standards of education. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 was a landmark for England and Wales. Whereas previously the training of the young had been left primarily to the churches and other forms of private initiative, now the state undertook to fill the gaps by providing schools for all children to attend. Although the earlier schools had been effective in promoting reading and writing skills, there were still social groups, especially miners and laborers, amongst whom illiteracy was common. Within fifteen years it had been almost eliminated. In 1870 only 57 percent of American children received any elementary education, but the proportion rose steadily afterward. The literacy level in the United States had reached 80 percent by 1876. In both lands, and also elsewhere in the Englishspeaking world, newspapers were widely read. From 1851 American weeklies could be mailed free to any address within the same county. In 1855 Britain abolished the stamp duty on newspapers and six years later the duty on paper, so the long resented “taxes on knowledge” were swept away. Hence news circulated freely in the period. Education, furthermore, was made available at a higher level than before. In Britain the so-called public schools catering to the middle classes grew or were founded during the period, and the government abolished most of the university tests that kept non-Anglicans out of positions at Oxford and Cambridge by 1871. Already by that date America possessed more colleges, medical schools and law schools than in the whole of Europe. Equivalent schools, newspapers and colleges were all to be found elsewhere in the English-speaking lands too. It was an era when the ideal of self-improvement, as classically set forth in Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859), beckoned industrious young men. Social convention was even relaxing sufficiently to allow some young women to be fired by similar aspirations. Learning, especially if it was useful, was widely respected.

Each of these characteristics of the age interacted with religion. In politics, for example, the place of Roman Catholicism in predominantly Protestant lands caused endless debate. The allegiance of some four-fifths of the Irish population at home and abroad to the Catholic Church ensured that interconfessional issues cropped up repeatedly. International affairs often had a Protestant- Catholic dimension, and how far imperial authorities should endorse Christian missions was another perennial question. Evangelicals strongly supported each side in the American Civil War, and the black slaves it emancipated, though continuing to suffer serious social restrictions, nonetheless used their freedom to build up their own denominations. Population growth meant more people to evangelize, while migration carried Christian allegiance from one continent to another. Those who prospered through industrialization often adopted a more cultivated taste and could afford to pay for its indulgence. Hence they built churches in a more elaborate style and expected more refined sermons from their preachers. The rising tide of respectability, in fact, was one of the forces that exercised the most influence over religion during the period. The plight of those who shared little in the new affluence, on the other hand, stirred the Christian conscience of those who turned to the social gospel at the end of the period. Better communications, together with widespread education, meant that the latest news and novel ideas spread rapidly. Evangelicals knew what was happening among their fellow believers on the other side of the globe and were often swayed by their opinions or inspired by their schemes. Hence there was a large-scale interchange between evangelicals in different lands. As we shall see, the movement possessed a high degree of unity across the world. Already during the later nineteenth century evangelicalism was contributing in a major way to globalization.