Various but Coherent

'Apostles of Reason'

The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism
Molly Worthen
Oxford University Press, $27.95, 352 pp.

Ever since Luther’s Reformation almost immediately led to Anabaptist spinoffs, Catholic observers have been pointing out that Protestants have an authority problem. “The Bible alone” inevitably leads to many conflicting interpretations of the Bible and to seemingly endless organizational fragmentation. The magisterial Reformation managed to limit Protestant diversity for a time by using state authority to impose regional uniformity. But after the era of religious wars and then the Enlightenment, ideals of religious tolerance eventually prevailed, especially in Protestant lands. In that new setting, of which the United States was a prototype, voluntary religion flourished. Evangelicalism, emphasizing “the Bible alone” and the conversion experience, became the most characteristic religion in young America. Evangelicalism also came in bewildering varieties that seemed to fulfill Catholic predictions of ever-increasing Christian fragmentation and the anarchy of competing claims to stand solely on the authority of the Bible.

Evangelicalism is still very much around in America (something like 80 million people, or 26 percent of the population, can be identified as evangelical), and understanding such a diverse movement is a formidable challenge. Molly Worthen is to be commended for helping to meet that challenge. She takes on the daunting task of providing an...

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About the Author

George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale). His forthcoming book is The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief (Basic).