TRADITIONS & How Christians often elevate to sacred status “novelties” that are “less than a hundred years old.”

Review of “Do Something: Evangelicals in the age of Spurgeon and Moody” by Timothy Larsen, 12/1/05.

Books & Culture, November/December 2005

David Bebbington, in his masterly survey, The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody, underlines the otherness of the past—even the past of fellow gospel believers. He reminds us that there was a time when an organ was a controversial and daring instrument to use in public worship. Eschewing the church year entirely, evangelicals once objected in principle even to Christmas services. In our day of gospel sermons illustrated with video clips, it is perhaps necessary to recall that there was a time when the theater was strictly forbidden among evangelicals. On the other hand, in the mid-19th century, when the Baptist pastors of London gathered together for official ministerial meetings, wine was served with dinner as a matter of course. Far from celebrating every evangelical who managed to get elected to high office, evangelicals who aspired to politics were once told by some of their own that such a career would “offend against their dispensation.” In the 19th century, daily family devotions were arguably “a badge of the movement.”

Baptists in America considered it a “heresy” to invite all sincere Christians in their midst (thereby including those baptized as infants) to receive the Lord’s Supper. Even an evangelical Anglican priest once argued that a host elevated in the high church manner was ipso facto “an idolatrous Communion” of which evangelicals could not partake. The Sabbath was kept so strictly in Scotland during the height of “the dominance of evangelicalism” that a visiting minister who had just emerged from Sunday morning worship was reprimanded by a policeman for whistling the tune of the hymn he had just sung!

If much of that is merely quaint, at his most bold Bebbington can assert that conservative evangelicals were often not defending historic fundamentals of the faith but rather “novelties” that were “less than a hundred years old.” These innovations mistaken for timeless truths run across cherished evangelical terrain from the meaning of a life of faith through the nature of holiness to the second advent of Christ.

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