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An Unpredictable Gospel: American Evangelicals and World Christianity 1812-1920

Jay Riley Case
Published by Oxford University Press in 2012

Reviewed by Douglas Jacobsen, Church History and Theology, Messiah College

I will not keep you in suspense. This is a brilliant book that should be read by everyone who is interested in the global dynamics of contemporary Christianity. The Christian world has changed dramatically in the last two centuries and Jay Riley Case’s goal is to explore how these unpredicted and unpredictable developments came to be. Along the way, he explains the distinctive role that American Evangelicals played in this process.

The story of Christian change that has taken place since 1800 is incredibly complicated, but the big picture can be summarized relatively easily. During the last two centuries, the world Christian population has moved away from Europe, away from the global north, and toward the global south. In 1800, about 83% of the world Christian population lived in Europe, 10% lived in Latin America, 3% in Asia, 3% in North America, and about 1% in Africa. By 1900, those figures had changed significantly, but Europe clearly remained the global center of Christianity: the European percentage of the world’s Christians had dropped to 68%, North America had jumped to 14%, Asia claimed 5%, Africa had doubled to 2%, and Latin American had held its own with 11%. Then the world turned upside down. Today only 27% of the world’s Christians are found in Europe, 24% live in Latin America, 20% in Africa, 16% in Asia, and 13% in North America. While Christianity was once a predomi-nantly European religion, it is now a genuinely global faith without a neatly identifiable geographic center of gravity. Using the language of the economist Thomas Friedman, one could say that the Christian world has become flat.

But the shift that has taken place has not been merely geographic. Christianity itself has been transformed, becoming “complexified” in ways that transcend anything that has been seen in the history of Christianity since the early centuries of the movement. It is no longer possible to speak of any clear theological center or periphery of Christian faith. Older notions of heresy and orthodoxy have become largely dysfunctional, and new spiritual influences arise from many sources and locations. Today the Christian movement is differently embodied in different regions and cultures of the world, with each particular expression seeking to incarnate the gospel appropriately and responsibly in the contexts and continents where they are located. And given the ever-tighter inter-connectedness of our globalized world, these varied expressions of Christianity interact with each other in unprecedented and unpredictable ways. The phrase “world Christianity,” which Case uses in his subtitle, has become the now-standard label for this newly complex religious entity. Championed especially by Lamin Sanneh (who teaches at Yale University), “world Christianity” refers to the variety of indigenous responses to the gospel, not filtered through the Western Euro-American theological frame of reference, that now flourish and interact around the world. By contrast, the term “global Christianity” is now frequently employed to describe the old-style missionary goal of replicating Euro-American Christianity around the globe regardless of the place and socio-cultural location of any particular Christian community.

Case’s self-imposed task in An Unpredictable Gospel is to explain how American Evangelicals contributed to this “worlding” of modern Christianity. He defines “Evangelicalism” broadly using David Bebbington’s four-dimensional matrix of belief in the atonement, conversion, biblical authority, and evangelism, but he then makes an important distinction between what he calls formalist Evangelicals and antiformalist Evangelicals. Formalists, at least in the nineteenth century, tended to merge the gospel with western civilization and with a general sense of the need for ecclesiastical orderliness. For them, becoming a Christian involved social, cultural, intellectual, and theological maturation as measured by Euro-American standards of value. Antiformalist Evangelicals, by contrast, were (and are) defined by their zeal for conversion by whatever means necessary, and they allow no artificial social, cultural, or intellectual impediments to get in the way. In the nineneenth century, antiformalist Evangelicals were willing to let the Spirit blow wherever it would around the world and they were then content to stand back and watch (or even revel in) the creative spiritual chaos that followed. It is these nineteenth-century antiformalist Evangelicals – whether they were antiformalist by conviction or became so out of practical necessity – who helped pave the way for today’s “world Christianity,” and they are the heroes of Case’s book.

The point of the stories Case recounts in this volume is to illustrate the unpredictable twists and turns that pushed Christianity out of its Western box and encouraged the plethora of world Christianities that exist around the globe today. It is impossible to simplify these complex stories in a way that does justice to them, but I will try briefly and inadequately to describe the four main stories that form the core of the book.

The first story focuses on the “wild” Karen people of Burma and the Baptist missionaries who interacted with them. The earliest of these missionaries had no intention of dealing with the Karen at all. They had come to Burma to evangelize the majority Burmese people, who they deemed to be sufficiently civilized to understand the gospel. They had not come to try to convert the Karen or any of the other uncivilized people who lived in the hills. But as chance or the Holy Spirit would have it, the Karen had already discovered Christianity of a sort (through reading a wayward copy of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer) before the missionaries arrived, and that made their work much more complicated. At first the missionaries tried to ignore the Karen who repeatedly asked for their help, but eventually, because the Karen Christian population kept expanding, they had to pay attention. The question that then arose was whether the Karen possessed enough civilization or were spiritually mature enough or had sufficient human capacity to run their own churches. The debate that followed was, like everything else in Case’s book, complicated and unpredictable, involving theories of race and class as well as views of history, culture, and theology, but it had dramatic consequences for both the Karen people and American Evangelicals.

The second story Case tells focuses on Methodists, not Baptists, and the primary setting is in Africa rather than Asia. The two protagonists are Charles Pamla, a Mfengu Christian, and William Taylor, a globetrotting Methodist missionary who had learned at least part of his trade from the freewheeling American circuit-riding revivalist Peter Cartwright. The gist of the story is that working side by side in the 1860s, Taylor and Pamla proved to be an incredibly effective team at helping to unleash the Spirit of God among the Xhosa people of the western region of South Africa. Taylor’s subsequent career spread that message of Holy Ghost-centered revivalism throughout all of the Methodist circles in which he moved, and he also helped to invigorate holiness missions outside the organizational oversight of the Methodist Church – holiness missions that invariably allowed local Christians more control over their own ways of worship, prayer, rituals, and thinking than the Methodist Church itself could accept.

The third story weaves together the African-American Great Awakening – a revival among southern African Americans that took place in the decades after the Civil War – and the history of AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church missions in South Africa. Each of these narratives is fascinating in its own right, but what is particularly relevant in terms of world Christianity is how these two developments, and their interconnections, helped spawn the creation of a number of new independent denominations in Africa, which became precursors of the many independent African churches that would arise in the twentieth century. The fourth and final tale braids together several stories about influential holiness women, focusing in particular on the African-American missionary Amanda Smith and the indigenous Indian Christian leader Pandita Ramabai. In this last section of the book, Case traces the tendency of antiformalist Evangelicals to drift increasingly toward the experiential emphases of the holiness movement and later to become functionally Pentecostal, whether or not they self-consciously adopted that name for themselves. This development – this movement toward a more Pentecostalistic, antiformalistic understanding of the Holy Spirit and the church – has been a driving force in the pluralization of world Christianity ever since.

An Unpredictable Gospel ends with a very short epilogue – too short in my opinion for a book that is so complicated – but Case raises the right questions. This is a book about Evangelicals, and Case implicitly claims a great deal for Evangelicals (at least for antiformalist Evangelicals), saying that in essence they were necessary catalysts in the historic emergence of today’s world Christianity. But Case then asks whether American Evangelicals on their own could ever have birthed the kind of spiritual freedom and egalitarianism that now flourishes within the world Christian movement, and he essentially says “no.” Even given their antiformalist tendencies and their faith in the unscripted work of the Holy Spirit, most American Evangelical missionaries (and the churches that supported them) still had to be forced into relinquishing their perceptions of Western Christian superiority and of America’s custodial responsibility for Christianity worldwide. Some of these same dynamics remain today. Many contemporary American Evangelicals glory in the stories of Christianity that are now emanating from around the world, but many Evangelicals also run those stories through an ideological sieve that filters out anything that seriously questions either American ways of life and thought or American Evangelicalism’s own sense of spiritual superiority. Case has given Evangelicals a marvelous historical resource for seeing past that myopically American perspective.

Cite this article
Douglas Jacobsen, “An Unpredictable Gospel: American Evangelicals and World Christianity”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:2 , 79-82

Douglas Jacobsen

Messiah University
Douglas Jacobsen, founding co-director, is emeritus professor of church history and theology at Messiah College. He is a well-known scholar of American religion, Pentecostalism, and global Christianity.