The story of 20th-century evangelicalism–book note

The following appeared in Religious Studies Review a little while back:

The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism. By Garth M. Rosell. Grand Rapids, MI, 2008. Pp. 268; plates. Paper, $19.99, ISBN 978-0-8010-3570-8.

To understand a past still so near that some of those involved are still alive, the best we may hope for is an “insider historian” who lived through the events, knew the players personally, and breathed in the mentalité—and also has the technical mastery and interpretive prudence to tell the story in a thorough, evenhanded way. In Garth Rosell, twentieth-century evangelicalism has just such a historian. His book narrates reliably and compellingly the emergence during the 1940s and 1950s of fundamentalism’s more irenic and culturally savvy child. Though this period has been discussed before in the context of Billy Graham’s life and ministry, this account draws also from a deep well of Ockenga material. From it, Rosell draws many insights on the ins, outs, and meanings of the evangelical movement in America. This is an insider account. It is marked by its author’s certainty that the growth of evangelicalism it describes was a good thing—that it was indeed “the surprising work of God.” It is also a model of critical history: meticulously researched, judiciously told, and gloriously footnoted. The generous bibliography only adds to its value for scholars and students of evangelicalism. An appropriate text for any course that deals with twentieth-century evangelicalism.

Chris R. Armstrong
Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, MN

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