Historians on the Hot Seat: David Swartz (How The Majority World Is Reshaping American Evangelicalism)

The Lausanne Covenant marked a decisive moment in neo-evangelical history.

My next project—tentatively titled From the Ends of the Earth: How the Majority World Is Reshaping American Evangelicalism—seeks to expand this narrative to other geographies and sectors of evangelicalism. It will chart how evangelicals abroad and American missionaries “spoke back” to American evangelicals on matters of race, imperialism, mission strategy, economics, sexuality, and theology.

 

This week’s post spotlights historian David Swartz as part of a new series meant to focus on historians and their ongoing work: current projects, research efforts, innovative teaching, travel abroad, and other activities of interest. (It’s not really a hot seat at this point, but maybe we’ll get some controversy going eventually!) Rumor has it that Chris Gehrz and John Fea may be here talking about new book projects in the near future.

I am excited to have David on the hot seat for this inaugural post. I’m a fan of David and his work. Soon after his last book, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, was published I interviewed him and it generated a lot of interest. David’s next project is nearing completion with Oxford Press and promises to be the kind of innovative scholarship we have come to expect from him. He joins a growing list of historians (including Jay Case, who was also interviewed here several years ago) who are turning missions historiography on its head. Though we normally think of missions altering the culture of places where American missionaries are sent, these scholars are showing instead how involvement in missions ended up transforming American Christians in profound ways.

THC: Where has your research agenda taken you after Moral Minority? Can you summarize your current book project? What, if any, relationship does this project have with MM? How did you land on this project?

Swartz: In 1974 nearly 3,000 evangelicals from 150 nations met at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. Amidst this cosmopolitan setting—and in front of the most important white evangelical leaders of the United States—members of the Latin American Theological Fraternity spoke out against the American Church. Ecuadorian René Padilla condemned North American missions as rooted in cold efficiency, and Peruvian Samuel Escobar criticized American evangelical politics as myopic. The Fraternity’s bold critiques electrified Lausanne delegates from around the world. Padilla received a rare standing ovation, brought to an end only when Cliff Barrows, Billy Graham’s song leader, began to lead a hymn. More than a few international delegates saw “deep political overtones” in the ovation’s premature end.

Provoked by this startling insurgency, leaders rewrote the Lausanne Declaration. According to one satisfied observer, the new version dealt “a death blow to the superficial equation of Christian mission with the multiplication of Christians and churches.” Billy Graham declared, “If one thing has come through loud and clear it is that we evangelicals should have social concern. The discussion . . . about radical discipleship has caught fire.” Indeed, the Lausanne Covenant marked a decisive moment in neo-evangelical history. On a global stage, Majority World evangelicals spoke directly to North American evangelicals. This exchange would help spark mainstream evangelical campaigns against global poverty and human trafficking and for a more culturally sensitive missiology.

This scene in Switzerland, narrated in my first book, Moral Minority, demonstrates the significant role that transnational networks exerted on an emerging progressive evangelicalism. My next project—tentatively titled From the Ends of the Earth: How the Majority World Is Reshaping American Evangelicalism—seeks to expand this narrative to other geographies and sectors of evangelicalism. It will chart how evangelicals abroad and American missionaries “spoke back” to American evangelicals on matters of race, imperialism, mission strategy, economics, sexuality, and theology. As international telephone traffic quadrupled between 1991 and 2004, as air passengers from the U.S. grew from 10 million in 1975 to 60 million in 2000, as the Internet shrunk time and space, and as a striking 62% of active church members in the U.S. traveled or lived in another country, American Christians often returned home thinking more critically about their own heritage and assumptions. In the meeting of East and West in a globalizing twentieth century, influence flowed in multiple directions. Sometimes the empire struck back. 

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