Tidiness and reward: the British Evangelical Networks project

[The British Evangelical Networks project will create a crowd-sourced dataset of connections between twentieth-century evangelical ministers, their churches and the organisations that trained them and kept them connected. Here I argue that the project adopts an approach that can achieve what is beyond the capabilities of any single scholar. However, it will require participants to live dangerously, and embrace different approaches both to academic credit, and to tidiness.]

For a couple of years I’d been sitting on a good idea. Historians of British evangelicalism have for a long time had to rely on sources for a small number of well-known names. John Stott, for instance, has not one but two biographers, and a bibliographer to boot. But we know surprisingly little about the mass of evangelical ministers who served congregations; the foot-soldiers, as it were. There are some excellent studies of individual churches, but not nearly enough to begin to form anything like a national picture.

But what if we begin to trace the careers of evangelical ministers – from university through ministerial training to successive congregations ? Who trained with whom, and where did they later serve together ? Which were the evangelical congregations, and when did they start (or stop) being so ? We could start to map evangelical strength in particular localities, and see how co-operation between evangelicals in different churches might have developed. If we could begin to reconstruct the membership of para- and inter-church organisations, from the diocesan evangelical unions (in the Church of England) to the Evangelical Alliance, what a resource there would be for understanding the ways in which evangelicals interacted, and sustained themselves. And what did evangelicalism look like when viewed across the whole of the UK ? What were the exchanges of personnel between churches in England and Wales, say, or between Scotland and Northern Ireland ?.

But which single scholar could hope to complete such a task ? None – but that need not stop it happening. Much of the data needed to trace all these networks is already in the possession of individual scholars, as well as librarians and archivists, and members of individual churches with an interest in their own ‘family history’. All that is needed is a means of bringing it together; and that is what the British Evangelical Networks project aims to do.

The fundamental building block is what I’m calling a ‘connection’ – a single item of information that connects an individual evangelical minister with a local congregation, or a local or national organisation, at a point in time. Using a simple online form, contributors will be able to enter these connections, one by one or in batches. From time to time, all the connections will be moderated and made available as a dataset online. Scholars can then use the data, ask questions of it, uncover the gaps, and be inspired to fill those gaps. They can then add the new connections they have found, and so the cycle begins again:

Connect – Aggregate – Publish – Use – Connect.

But I don’t suppose it will be easy, because it will require different ways of thinking, both to do with credit and reward, and also about completeness, or tidiness.

Firstly, credit and reward. Those of us who were trained up in the way of the lone scholar tend to be protective of our information, dug from rocky soil at great expense of time and effort. Our currency has been our interpretation, and the authority it bestows. Some while ago I suggested that everyone could benefit from editing Wikipedia and making it better, even if that involved not being obviously credited, and the same applies here. I plan to make available data on the number of connections people contribute, in order that there is something to report to whichever authority needs to know how busy a scholar has been. Those who contribute will also have access to a more fully featured version of the dataset as it is released; those who don’t will be able to read it, but not much more. But still, it will still be less spectacular than a big book with OUP.

The other issue is about tidiness. Sharon Howard recently encouraged scholars to make more of the data we generate in the course of research available online for others to reuse. But this will involve overcoming a natural wariness of sharing anything “unfinished”. BEN will encourage contributors to submit a connection even if they do not have all the details, since another contributor can’t develop and strengthen a connection that hasn’t been made in the first place, however tentatively. The dataset as a whole is likely to remain incomplete in many places, and tentative in others; but neither of those things make it useless, if it is clear what the state of play is.

For scholars of British evangelicalism, such a resource could transform our understanding of the subject. But we’ll need to live a little dangerously.