“A History of Evangelism in North America” edited by Thomas P. Johnston – A Book Review

A History of Evangelism in North America is a collection of essays by various authors edited by Thomas P. Johnston. The goal of this collection is simple:

The goal was to offer a breadth of concurrent evangelism methodologies, which in some cases includes considerable interactions between the subjects. The result portrays God’s oversight of evangelism as North American Christians sought to obey Christ’s Great Commission in their generation.”

p. 9

This collection of biographical sketches and historic movements rekindles one’s passion in evangelism. I received a free copy of this collection from the publisher, Kregel Publications, in exchange for an honest review.

Each treatment includes a biographical sketch and an analysis of the historical figure’s evangelism approach. The chapters in this collection are the following.

I offer several reflections on this collection of essays.

1. These essays serve as appetizers that make you want to read more about these evangelists.

This collection includes familiar names like Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd, John Wesley, George Whitefield, Francis Asbury, Billy Graham, and John Piper.  Then there are names that most of us have not heard of: Shubal Stearns, John Mason Peck, Shadrach Meshach Lockridge, and perhaps D. James Kennedy. What I love about this is that while God is using the Edwards and the Pipers, he also uses ordinary pastors like S. M. Lockridge.

I also learned new things regarding familiar people and ideas. A common anecdote that I hear about Jonathan Edwards is that he read his sermon manuscript in a monotone voice, but Henard argues in his essay that Edwards most likely progressed to be more extemporaneous in his sermon delivery (p. 15). This is evidenced by handwritten notes and later an abbreviated form of sermon notes (p. 16).

I am familiar with Evangelism Explosion (EE) and the Four Spiritual Laws as evangelism methods taught in Bible college, but I have never heard (although I should have) of James Kennedy who developed EE and Bill Bright who developed the Four Spiritual Laws.

2. These essays remind us that some methods for Gospel advancement are historically contextualized.

In the study of history, some practices that were helpful then are not necessarily helpful now. For example, the circuit riders were effective in preaching through areas with no pastors but are hardly needed in this day and age. The same goes for camp meetings and crusades.

Perhaps in some contexts, Bill Bright’s “Four Spiritual Laws” could still be effective. Bright presents the gospel this way:

  • God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life (John 3:16; 10:10).
  • Man is sinful and separated from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life (Rom. 3:23; 6:23).
  • Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. Through him you can know and experience God’s love and plan for your life (Rom 5:8; 1 Cor 15:3–6; John 14:6).
  • We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we must know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives (John 1:12; 3:1–8; Eph 2:8–9; Rev 3:20).

Yet this development may not be effective in a secular culture that questions God’s very existence or is unsure about who Jesus really is. Plus, some of the passages listed may be explained out of their context. The same is true with James Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion. These are helpful tools that God has greatly used for a specific place and time, but they do not necessarily have to be repeated in every generation.

3. These essays teach us that the biblical principles for Gospel advancement are transcultural and transgenerational.

First, these essays demonstrate the primacy of the Word in evangelism. George Whitefield’s evangelistic fervor stemmed from his immersion in the Word (p. 74). He prayed over the Word—in the English and the Greek—to feast his mind and his heart until the essential meaning of the text became part of his very person (p. 74). Bible societies have played a crucial role in laying the foundation for evangelism as they published and distributed Bibles. Jonathan Edwards viewed the preaching of the Word as the effective way to call sinners to Christ. Through preaching, he exposed his audience to the supremacy of God and their need of Christ. According to Edwards,

God has ordained that his Word be opened, applied and set home upon men, in preaching.”

Jonathan Edwards (pp. 13-14)

Second, the ordinary means of prayer is a significant means for evangelism. David Brainerd’s diary is filled with entries of his prayer. He was deeply burdened for the conversion of the Native Americans, and he brought them to God in prayer. Jake Roudkovsky writes that

Whitefield’s evangelistic effectiveness didn’t stem from his oratory skills or Oxford education but primarily from prayer spent alone with God. As he poured his heart to God in prayer, he was used effectively by God to reach more people for Christ.”

p. 74

Third, personal holiness must not be overlooked. Whitefield pursued holiness and asked others to intercede for his pursuit of holiness. Shubal Stearns believed that pastors needed to care for their own spiritual health before they could minister to others (p. 88).

Fourth, God has used simple methods to bring people to himself. David Brainerd’s plan was simple: prayer, Christocentric preaching, lectures, baptism, cultural study, engage with the needs of the community, and church planting. Shubal Stearns shares the same vision in planting new churches, instilling the same vision in others, and being insightful in choosing church locations. S. M. Lockridge testifies to the ordinariness of evangelism. He saw that “any attempt to lure man rather than going communicates that believers can save sinners by attractional methods, as opposed to divine personal contact (p. 222).”

Lastly, the training of pastors is essential for Gospel advancement. Jason Mason Peck was concerned about the lack of sound biblical understanding and the need for additional education among pastors and lay elders (p. 175). He believes that a young man who is called to preach must avail himself of theological education. Doug Munton lists at least two benefits of the Rock Springs Seminary started by Peck:

“One impact of education was training pastors to know the message of the Bible more thoroughly than ever before. Much of the curriculum for Rock Springs Seminary revolved around teaching the Bible in systematic ways. The study of the text in the original languages forced these young pastors to grapple with the issues raised in the Bible in ways they had never done before.

A second benefit of this theological training was preparing pastors and church leaders for practical issues of church leadership. There, the next generation of pastors and missionaries could learn to preach and teach effectively. They learned to share the message of the gospel clearly. They dealt with some of the practical issues of church governance and administration. The goal of seminary education was more than just knowledge. It was to provide biblical and practical knowledge that could be used in the real-life ministries to which these young leaders would one day find themselves placed.”

p. 180

4. These essays teach us that we can learn from the mistakes of others in the past.

Granted, this point is calibrated according to my theological persuasions. Also, these are reminders that we all have blinders in our own ministries that a later generation can point out. Yet we can all learn from these events in the past.

First, evangelism is not the end of it all. John Wesley had little patience for those who thought that the point of Christianity is not winning the world for Christ. While Wesley’s evangelistic fervor is worth emulating, growth in biblical understanding tells us that (as John Piper often says) “missions exists because worship doesn’t” (cf. Eph 1:1–14; Rev 7:9–11).

Second, evangelism should be done in an orderly way. There was some weird stuff going on in the Camp Meeting Revival Movement. Scott Hildreth comments that “emotional excess and spiritual exuberance remain one of the most notable elements of the Cane Ridge revival” (p. 119). Another writer comments that this revival was “in all probability, the most disorderly, the most hysterical, and the largest revival ever held in the early day America” (p. 119). There was singing, praying, moaning and shouting for days. At one point, there was a seven-year-old girl who climbed on a man’s shoulders and preached until she got tired (120). Paul’s words about worship come to mind: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40).

Third, pastoring a church is not antithetical to evangelism, and evangelism should not take away the pastor from his primary duty of shepherding God’s flock. I find it concerning that some authors  view pastoring a church negatively and pitted it against evangelism. Taking the example of J. Wilbur Chapman, Jeff Farmer opines that

A pastor can very easily get caught up in addressing the needs of the congregation. “One-stop-shop” pastors already feel overwhelmed, overworked, and underresourced [sic]. In larger churches, the pastor fights the urge to delegate as much responsibility to associate pastors. For all pastors (and believers for that matter), the need to prioritize often leads to the pastor prioritizing those things that keep him employed rather than what is most important.”

pp. 159-160

Yet is it not the pastor’s main task to shepherd the flock—what he is hired to do? While pastors should do the work of an evangelist, their primary task is to shepherd and equip the church to do the work of the ministry, including evangelism (cf. Eph 4:11–16).

S. M. Lockridge was another evangelist who left his pastoral duties despite the members themselves calling him to give more presence in the church. Instead, Lockridge traveled extensively for several years (while remaining as the pastor of his congregation). He says,

My greatest opportunity was a few years ago when I was used in 44 countries to spread the Good News. I was sent by the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board to several mission fields. I preached in Southeast Asia just as the war was winding down. One of the greatest opportunities for service I’ve had was preaching at 21 Air Force bases around the world, beginning at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.”

p. 224

Lastly, evangelism should not be done to the expense of doctrine. Thomas P. Johnston’s treatment of Billy Graham was evenhanded. Graham was an evangelist greatly used by God for the conversion of many. But Johnston also notes that

“Graham’s doctrinal shifts have been chronicled in my doctoral dissertation. There is no doubt that he adjusted his doctrinal and methodological positions over time. This movement was particularly noteworthy in his communication of the sin nature of man, in his ecumenical efforts, and in his drift toward a type of universalism. Yes, the onset of his Parkinson’s in the middle 1990s must be taken into account. Yes, those who advised him must be taken into account. The Billy Graham of 1949 was different than the Graham of 1999.”

p. 244; see Johnston, Examining Billy Graham’s Theology of Evangelism, 218–307

5. These essays are not all created equal—a minor quibble.

As a reader, I have two minor quibbles with some of the essays stylistically. First, some essays were composed with lots of block quotes and very little thoughts or summaries from the writer himself or repetition of the same quotes or anecdotes within the same essay. Second, in the second half of the essay about J. Wilbur Chapman, it was not clear whether the writer is summarizing Chapman’s evangelistic method or the writer’s own prescriptive philosophy of evangelism methods. These are minor issues and should not take away from the overall value of this collection.


Overall, these essays, written in a popular style, demonstrate the best approach to history, namely, combining historical anecdotes with practical and theological principles. These essays are fun to read. This may even be a good supplementary reading for a course in evangelism. I recommend it for family reading (I read some chapters to my family at night). I recommend this for anyone wanting to have a survey of history.

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