David M. Gustafson. Gospel Witness Through the Ages: A History of Evangelism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2022. Paperback. 461 pages. $39.99.
David Gustafson’s thoughtful Gospel Witness Through the Ages: A History of Evangelism is written with a fresh Scandinavian coziness. The quaint college town of Uppsala that lies forty minutes north of Stockholm, Sweden, is the location of Johannelund School of Theology where Gustafson, as a docent, wrote the manuscript. Since 1164, Uppsala has been the seat of the archbishop of the church of Sweden and the location of the largest cathedral in all of Scandinavia. Having grown up in Sweden with missionary parents, I appreciate the book’s Scandinavian undertones and sent the book to my dad. Gustafson currently lives in Deerfield, IL, and is chair of the mission and evangelism department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He writes with the style of a professor who believes that followers of Jesus need to be engaged in the evangel witness of God. The act of evangelism has been manipulative at various times in history, but there is nothing manipulative about this work. The author is careful to discuss historical and theological bias and notices the need for sharing accounts that include men and women and a variety of people and approaches, including both well-known and lesser-known stories.
Gustafson follows a chronological methodology that includes an introduction focusing on foundations of the history of Christian evangelism in the Old Testament. He carefully identifies the history of evangelism in twelve chapters. The chapters do not rigidly follow dates but offer a history focused on evangelism through twenty centuries of the church. The first two chapters explore the first through third centuries CE and include references to the New Testament, early martyrs, and Christian apologists. An especially helpful map shows the evangelistic missionary tradition of the twelve apostles and a sculpture of Caritas (love) that depicts a wet nurse caring for orphaned children. The third and fourth chapters tell the history of Constantine with an understanding of the connection between the legalization of Christianity and the need for a monastic movement. The next two chapters demonstrate how the medieval period of the fourth to thirteenth centuries inoculates the Christian faith in whole populations through infant baptism, inadvertently creating the need for evangelism in both pagan and Christian groups. There is also a basic description of Islam and the seven Christian crusades.
The Renaissance, Reformation, and Pietism are the focus of the next three chapters, featuring John Wycliffe and Martin Luther’s important contributions. Resources like the Biblia Pauperum, the graphic illustrated Bible for the poor, and woodcut illustrations used for gospel presentations drawn by Lucas Cranach are helpfully described alongside historical narratives. Gustafson magnificently includes footnotes for quick reference to evangelistic techniques, stories, and illustrations. Additionally, he includes helpful excerpts that give the reader an appreciation of original sources. Chapter 8 describes revival evangelism in the eighteenth century, especially how it travels from Europe to North America.
In Chapters 9–12, the focal point is the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with stories about frontier evangelism in North America, urban evangelism through the industrial revolution, and missions agencies’ role in evangelism. Gustafson identifies the struggle in the last two hundred years between preaching the gospel and enacting the gospel through social justice. He affirms the importance of both as he describes such groups as the YMCA, Salvation Army, InterVarsity Press, and Sunday School Programs. The story of the recruitment of “Bible Women” in China recognizes the work of Dora Yu, who taught and converted Lin Heping and her son Ni Tuosheng, also known as Watchman Nee (348). Francisco Olazábal, known popularly as the “Mexican Billy Sunday,” had the full endorsement of Maria Teresa Sapia, a notorious gambler, gun woman, and rumrunner after finding healing and redemption at one of his services (321–22). Liberalism and the struggle to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible along with Pentecostalism in the work of evangelism are also part of the last two hundred years of evangelistic history.
Finally, the book concludes with an epilogue that briefly discusses evangelism in the twenty-first century. A critique from those living in Africa, Asia, and Latin America might include that this history of evangelism has been told from a primarily Euro-American perspective. It is difficult to not have a bias, and, in fact, the Scandinavian overtones are partly what fascinates me in reading this book.
However, Gustafson identifies the challenge “to communicate the gospel clearly,” create new models that consider the culture and context, and connect the gospel both in proclamation and social action (418–19). The daring stories of men and women who have given their lives with blood, sweat, and tears for the sake of the gospel spreading to the whole world are the focal point of this book. It dares the reader to be moved by that gospel through the history of God’s people. Gustafson’s concatenation of histories and pictures ushers the humble servant of the Lord to their knees.
Andy T. Richie Jr. Distinguished Chair of Discipleship and Church Planting