Bebbington Thesis

Bebbington’s thesis has not been without its critics. They have pointed out that there is far more continuity between the views of sixteenth-century Reformers and seventeenth-century Puritans on the one hand, and eighteenth-century evangelicals on the other, than Bebbington appears to allow.Continuity Reformers and Puritans also emphasised conversion, the Bible and the cross of Christ, and were active in propagating their convictions.The Enlightenment’s emphasis on experience, its ethos of progress and optimism for the future, its pragmatism and wide social embrace, can all be seen in different aspects of the evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century.

Space does not permit a full examination of the contents of The emergence of evangelicalism here.

I have selected just two contributions of particular significance.

Puritans were extremely active in promoting the gospel through writing, catechising, preaching and counselling.

An emphasis on subjective experience, optimism and desire for unity amongst Christians, all of which Bebbington attributes to Enlightenment influences, were evident in seventeenth-century Puritanism.

As assurance came more easily during the eighteenth century, Bebbington argued, so Christians became more confident and more active in the propagation of the faith.

They dared to engage in evangelistic and missionary enterprises that played little part in the life and thinking of seventeenth-century Puritans. In the first instance, if the thesis is correct, the movement to which evangelicals now belong must be characterised as something new, a movement which arose barely 300 years ago on the back of Enlightenment thought.

Thus Whitefield’s evangelicalism was ‘deeply rooted in the Reformation’.

Reformation roots But, Coffey argues, in fairness to Bebbington it needs to be recognised there were new features in eighteenth-century evangelicalism, particularly in the evangelicals’ language of ‘revival’ (they desired, experienced, and looked forward to more of it) and the use by some of them of innovative methods to promote the old religion.

Enlightenment thought Moreover, tied to this theory – particularly its ‘activism’ aspect – was the idea that under the influence of Enlightenment thought, the assurance of salvation given in the eighteenth-century revival had been something relatively easy to obtain.

This contrasted with the seventeenth century, when assurance was regarded as something attained only by a few and that after much inward struggle.


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