The Disruption of Evangelicalism: The Age of Torrey, Mott, McPherson, and Hammond. By Geoffrey R. Treloar. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017. 334 pp. Hardcover, $35.00.
The title of this book grabbed my attention. How was evangelicalism disrupted?
Treloar is Australian who teaches at the Australian College of Theology and who is a visiting fellow in history at the University of South Wales. He writes in this book about how evangelicalism changed in the English-speaking world in the early twentieth century (1900-c.1940). The subtitle suggests he does this by focusing on four famous evangelicals. But the chapters are not arranged in this way and the book does not emphasize these people. Possibly the publisher imposed the subtitle on the author.
The book is broken into three parts. Part one runs from 1900 to 1914: Fin de siècle, which means end of the century. The second part covers WW1, 1914-1918. Part three considers “Evangelicalism at the crossroads (1919-c.1940).”
If you’d never thought about how evangelicalism changes as a result of WW1, the Depression, and (to a lesser extent) WW2, Treloar will challenge your thinking.
His basic point seems to be that evangelicalism in the English-speaking world came to adjust its teachings and practices in the early twentieth century to make it come in line with modern thought. He shows how the more conservative evangelicals, which he calls “centre-right” (p. 210) or “anti-modern evangelicals” (p. 208), were grounded in Scripture and doctrine derived from Scripture (e.g., pp. 208-210). He says they “advocated a spirituality based on fidelity to received truth” (p. 208).
The “centrists and the left” (p. 191) were open to higher critical approaches to the Bible and felt that the absence of error was not essential to the Bible’s authority, uniqueness, or inspiration (p. 191). Treloar seems to be what he calls a centrist. Whenever he mentions higher criticism, he implies pleasure that it took root for most in evangelicalism (pp. 67-74, 74-78, 88, 131, 181, 233). For example, note this statement: “Increasingly in the 1930s they moved away from fundamentalism and sought the intellectual respectability necessary for influence in the modern world” (p. 201, emphasis added).
As one who is deeply concerned about a high view of Scripture and inerrancy, I was interested whenever Treloar dealt with these issues. He shows that the issues we face today in inerrancy and a high view of Scripture are not new. They have been around for over a hundred years in the English-speaking world. However, today the centrist to left view of inerrancy and inspiration has become the dominant position in evangelicalism, a position it arguably did not have a hundred years ago.
As someone who was born in Los Angeles and grew up a few miles from there, I was especially interested in his brief discussion of Aimee Semple McPherson (pp. 214-16). My aunt attended Angelus Temple for a time and identified herself as coming to faith in Christ under McPherson’s preaching, though my Serbian Orthodox maternal grandparents quickly talked her into dropped that affiliation.
Treloar also discusses Keswick theology, pre-millennialism, and the anti-Catholic thinking that most evangelicals had in the first four decades of the twentieth century.
I recommend this book for those interested in the history of evangelicalism in the early twentieth century.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society