Chris Gehrz's Call for More "International and Transnational" Histories of Evangelicalism

Brantley Gasaway

At last month's meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, a panel discussed David Swartz's Moral Minority, a pioneering history of the evangelical left.  (I interviewed David about his book on this blog last year--see here and here.) Panelists included Dick Pierard, Owen Strachan, Miles Mullin, and Chris Gehrz. As my own forthcoming book examines the history and public theology of the contemporary progressive evangelical movement (UNC Press, Fall 2014), I would have enjoyed the opportunity to hear each respondent's appraisal. I was not at the ETS meeting, however, and therefore was pleased to discover that Gehrz, an international historian at Bethel University, posted his paper on his own blog. Click here for part one and here for part two.

I encourage you to read the paper in its entirety, for Gehrz makes a strong case for the need for "a more international and transnational approach to the history of evangelicalism." In reviewing Swartz's book, he suggests "that time might tell that the most significant chapter in Moral Minority is the one that has the least to do with (North) American history: the chapter entitled “Samuel Escobar and the Global Reflex.” Swartz demonstrates how Escobar, a Peruvian theologian, and other Latin American leaders such as René Padilla of Ecuador and Orlando Costas of Puerto Rico shaped international conversations about evangelical theology and practice. Gehrz proposes that 

Swartz’s “Global Reflex” suggests a different way to write the recent history of American evangelicalism: as one expression of an international, interconnected movement whose center of gravity was already shifting southwards by 1970. According to the most recent report from Gordon-Conwell’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity, three out of every four evangelicals live in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. From 1970 to 2010, the evangelical population grew 5.5-6.5 times faster in those regions than in North America, and in the present decade alone growth in the Global South is projected to outpace that in this part of the world by a factor of 2.5-3.5.

Thus, Gehrz argues, historians of evangelicalism would benefit from considering comparative approaches and examining how "ideas flowed through international networks."  He concludes:

David Swartz, in his chapter on the “Global Reflex” in Moral Minority and in his continuing work on the history of evangelical internationalist organizations like World Vision, makes clear that this kind of history can be written: synthesizing stories from several continents, drawing on sources in multiple languages, and cognizant that the ideas that reshaped progressive evangelicalism crossed national borders thanks to forces like migration, educational exchange, and mass communication. His work embodies the benefits claimed by historian Mae Ngai for the “transnational” turn in our discipline: “By directing attention to the circuits and flows of social forces and discourses that span nations and cultures, we unfasten the blinders of national history. In a sense it is an indirect approach, which hopes by way of the broader context to deflate claims of national greatness and to gesture to histories that are more connected, more aware and of a piece with the modern world.”

I appreciated Gehrz's argument, and his proposal seems in line with the helpful ways that scholars such as Philip Jenkins and Lamin Sanneh have challenged us to re-examine our understanding of global Christianity (or, perhaps, Christianities). In addition to Swartz's work, do readers know of other studies of evangelicalism that offer models for such international and transnational historiography?


cgehrz said…
Thanks for the mention, Brantley. One example of what I'm encouraging was recently featured at this blog: Lauren Turek's guest post on her research on "how American Christians, operating within the context of the global social, political, and economic changes of the late twentieth century, influenced international affairs and U.S. foreign policy."
Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks for this post. Chris's full post of his ETS talk is well worth reading.

When I read this, I immediately thought of Lauren's work, too. Gene Zubovich, of UC Berkeley, is also working along these lines. Michael Thompson of the University of Sydney and Justin Reynolds at Columbia are developing such transnational approaches in relation to the World Council of Churches and the ecumenical movement.
David said…
Thanks, Brantley, for this post and to Dick, Miles, Owen, and Chris for their thoughtful papers at the panel.

The following names--many familiar to readers of this blog--are doing some terrific transnational work on evangelicals. They include Andrew Preston, participants in the Creighton’s Religion and U.S. Empire Project, and authors of many books published by Oxford University Press. And there are others recently arrived or on the way including a dissertation by David King on World Vision, a manuscript by Melani McAlister on evangelical relief, development, and missions efforts in Africa, books by Mark Shaw and Brian Stanley, and in-progress dissertations by promising graduate students Ben Brandenburg and Lauren Turek. Perhaps the most impressive of the few works to apply a reflexive lens is An Unpredictable Gospel, a study of 19th century evangelical Baptist and holiness movements in Africa, Asia, and North America. Case's book really should be getting more attention.