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“The American Evangelical Story” by Douglas A. Sweeney Book Review


While on a global scale there is a clear inverse relationship between the level of economic development of a society and the level of its religiosity, the USA is a pronounced exception to this rule. The country is a developed post-industrial society; however, the overwhelming majority of the population believes in God, which makes the United States one of the most religious countries in the world. Waves of religious revival and the emergence of American Protestantism were the result of the very spirit of Protestantism. This is evangelism with its emphasis on freedom of choice in matters of salvation, and the emergence of new interpretations of Christianity. Here one should mention the spread of liberal Christianity, the social gospel, Protestant modernism, and other religious innovations -. Douglas A. Sweeney, in his book The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement, traces all the key milestones of American evangelicalism, allowing for a better understanding of its current concepts, ideology, and prospects in today’s world.

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Brief Summary

Sweeney, in a comprehensive and detailed manner, talks about the origins of evangelicalism in the USA, its historical background, and prerequisites, starting from the very term “evangelical.” To some extent, the writer is engaging in fiction, novels style. This is emphasized also by Rhys Bezzant in his review of Sweeney’s book (Bezzant 2018). In the New World, Protestantism finally abandoned all the atavisms of the traditional religion of Europe, modernizing, showing exceptional innovation, and actively fighting for the salvation of the souls of immigrants. This important idea of “living faith” runs through the entire content of the book. The author delves so deeply into the issue under consideration that he uses the theme of racial differences in evangelical movements – White and African Americans. He talks about the institutionalization of the evangelical movement, the emergence and activity of missions, and orientation towards spiritual search. The role of the Great Awakening in the development of evangelicalism is examined in detail.

A very interesting chapter is devoted to fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism, which have significant distinctive features. This is a struggle against moral relativism in any of its manifestations, a rigorous adherence to strict moral principles of “Christian ethics.” In turn, it is understood as literal adherence to the canons and traditions of the evangelical churches of the 20th century, as well as high socio-political activity, directed, as a rule, against the most striking manifestations of violation of the above. The book also examines the post-Protestant evangelical church in the United States as a form of adapting Protestantism to modern society, as a way of church service in the 21st century.

Critical Interaction

Sweeney attempts to convey to the reader that the essence of evangelism, both at its inception and afterward, was not to proclaim a new doctrine and church. It was an interdenominational phenomenon that tried to appeal to all Christians. Abstract dogma and even the sacraments were also not in the first place for the author. First of all, it was necessary to reach out to the hearts of the believers, causing an inner revolution in them.

It was also about making them feel their own sinfulness, the greatness of the Calvary sacrifice, and the action of “saving grace” so that it would shake their entire being. According to the author, “part of the challenge that anyone faces in trying to define the movement more narrowly has to do with the great wealth of evangelical diversity” (Sweeney 2005, 8). One can say that the author unconsciously applies a kind of system approach to the field of consideration. “Along the way, I try to account for the broad range of individuals, institutions, issues, and doctrines that have made us who we are” – Sweeney writes (2005, 10). Through engaging examples and consistent narratives, he shows not only differences but, more importantly, general concepts of ministry and approaches to understanding the gospel.

The author believes that the differences are beneficial to the modern American evangelical Church, although overall, in his opinion, there should be unity (Sweeney 2005). Such statements characterize the book as more scientific-historical than theological. The apostle Paul says: “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval” (1 Corinthians 11:19). In the Epistle of the Apostle, disagreements are called useful only in order to reveal heresies. At the same time, Sweeney clearly sees in them only many facets of Christian ministry and, one might say, the body of the Church. This clearly reveals the positive doctrine of evangelism – the accommodation of Protestantism to a post-secular society through the formation of a positive “Word.” The image of God as a punishing, almighty, God-judge in the teaching of traditional Protestantism changes for God-friend, the helper. It also includes an optimistic attitude toward a person, an emphasis on the positive nature of a human, faith in his potential, and success. It implies transformation, rejection of sin, punishment, repentance, and hell in favor of a sermon that calls on an individual to reach self-realization.


The text of the book clearly shows that, along with the historical description and some elements of analysis, the author makes attempt to convey his personal beliefs as a representative of evangelism to the reader. The goals of the book are achieved in full, but not with the necessary depth. It is rather a review for historians, social and political scientists, and those who are interested in studying Christianity as a phenomenon or religion, but not a book for believers. Nevertheless, it is of importance for pastors, as a historical understanding of their Churches’ anthropological paradigm and societal missions is important both for themselves and church members.

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Bezzant, Rhys S. 2017. “The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement.” Themelios 32 (2). Web.

Sweeney, Douglas A. 2005. The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement. Ada, MI: Baker Academic.

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