CFH 2014: 25 Years of the Bebbington Quadrilateral

Not long after our panel on social media concluded, the Smothers Theater at Pepperdine University began to fill in, as Conference on Faith and History members gathered for what was clearly the most prominent (or, at least, most-tweeted) concurrent session of the meeting:

For ninety minutes we were treated to three leading historians of evangelicalism celebrating and critiquing the most famous definition of evangelicalism — David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral” of biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism — followed by a response from Bebbington himself. (The quadrilateral comes from Bebbington’s seminal Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, turning twenty-five this year.)

First up was Darren Dochuk (Washington University-St. Louis), whose own history of American evangelicals, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, received attention even from The Onion‘s A.V. Club. Dochuk didn’t want to discard the quadrilateral, but did suggest three other evangelical traits (a word soon to be dissected) that might deserve to enter the definition: (I’ll play around with the linearity of Twitter-time and add Bebbington’s responses following Dochuk’s proposals)

Dochuk also proposed that we think of evangelicalism as something other than a set of beliefs. His first alternative got particular attention from the more pietistic among us:

(It wasn’t the only time at CFH 2014 that I heard presenters draw on the language of “landscape,” “place,” “territory,” or “cartography” as metaphors for the historical study of the past… I wonder if I was hearing the CFH 2016 theme bubbling up…)

Meaning no offense to Dochuk, I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one there who perked up just a little bit when the second speaker took the podium:

Here, alas, I’m afraid that I was a less-than-helpful correspondent for the many people who seemed to be following along at a distance. The always-erudite Noll (Univ. of Notre Dame) opened with prolegomena and continued with historiography that betrayed just how much I was out of my depth:

But even I was able to track Noll’s thesis, which managed both to honor Bebbington’s work and question the value of the quadrilateral:

Bebbington’s response to Noll was equally gracious and erudite. I’ll just single out two especially well-received lines:

The third panelist, Molly Worthen (Univ. of North Carolina-Chapel Hill), may have provoked the most intense conversation on Twitter. She started with the question that had been rattling around my mind since the beginning of the session:

Drawing on her acclaimed book, Apostles of Reason, Worthen suggested that evangelicalism is defined not by beliefs or even traits but by “anxieties” — about the relationship between faith and reason (pointing towards the overarching anxiety: who or what has authority to settle such questions?), on how we know Jesus, and how Christians live publicly apart from Christendom:

Worthen then turned to the pressing question of whether Bebbington’s definition (or others centered on the experience of evangelicals in Europe and North America) remained adequate for a time in which the demographic center of evangelicalism, like other forms of Christianity, had migrated to the Global South.

But she left open a similar, older question that’s important for American religious historians — it had to wait for a brief response in Q&A:

Understandably buried amid all the discussion of evangelicalism beyond the Euro-American experience was my brief exchange with Brethren in Christ historian Devin Manzullo-Thomas, about Worthen’s attempt to bring Anabaptists into the evangelical conversation:

In any event, the session entirely lived up to expectations: a rare opportunity to hear two of the leading historians of evangelicalism — and two of that field’s fastest-rising stars — have a conversation that was wide-ranging and thoughtful. (And respectful without being unduly deferential.) I was glad to be there, and to help record some of it for those who couldn’t attend. At the same time, I’d echo what one Christianity Today editor expressed later:

<<Read the previous post in this series               Read the final recap in the series>>

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