From frontier camp meetings of the early 1800s, to the urban revivals of the late 1800s and early 1900s, to late twentieth century Christian television networks, evangelism has been a prominent feature of American Protestantism. The process of evangelism focuses primarily on encouraging others to accept Christianity, usually through a personal conversion experience; but in the United States, evangelism has also been closely related to revivalism, the process of encouraging existing believers to renew their commitment to particular forms of Christian practice and belief.
Evangelism emerged as an important feature of American religious culture for several reasons. The American policy of religious voluntarism, which rendered religious affiliation a matter of personal choice rather than civic obligation, precluded even large denominations from taking their membership for granted. Evangelical efforts to acquire new members and to retain existing ones became an important church function, particularly within the Protestant churches and among interdenominational movements such as fundamentalism and Pentecostalism. In addition, secular influences have had pronounced affects on American society as it has gone through the processes of modernization and urbanization. The weakening role of religion in many aspects of American life has in turn motivated religious leaders and institutions to increase their involvement in evangelistic endeavors. Finally, the evangelical Protestant denominations, which defined the nation's religious establishment during most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, placed a strong doctrinal emphasis on evangelism and the conversion experience.
In promoting evangelism, different groups and individuals have developed diverse approaches to spreading their message. The most conspicuous form of evangelism early in the nineteenth century was the camp meeting, where believers would gather for several days of sermons, prayer, and religious testimony. Although the camp meetings were primarily a phenomenon of the frontier, many of their features persisted in the efforts of the itinerant evangelists who staged so-called tent meeting revivals in small towns and rural communities throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. As the United States became increasingly urbanized during this period, however, so did evangelistic activity; and by the early 1900s the most prominent evangelists worked primarily in urban settings. The urban revivals that they staged retained the focus on charismatic leadership and personal conversion, including the climactic "altar call" during which participants declared their faith; but the urban revivals reached audiences numbering in the millions, and produced converts by the thousands. The urban evangelists also incorporated a greater degree of showmanship, perhaps best exemplified by the garrulous, dramatic style of Billy Sunday during the 1910s.
Changing social conditions led to a decline in professional evangelism after World War I, particularly in urban settings. After World War II, however, a new generation of evangelists appeared on the American religious scene. These new crusaders became highly influential during the religious resurgence of the 1950s, although more so within the conservative wing of American Protestantism than among the mainstream churchgoers targeted by earlier revivalists. The leading figure in this new evangelical movement was Billy Graham, a conservative Baptist minister who spread his message through a wide variety of mass media, including radio, television, the cinema, and mass market publications. Graham's early use of television to promote evangelistic activities proved to be particularly important. By the 1970s, television had become a primary medium of mass evangelism in the United States—a position that was strengthened in the following decade as cable television enabled various Christian broadcasting networks to reach audiences dispersed throughout the country. As televangelism expanded, it also became increasingly associated with conservative perspectives in both religion and politics, and it generated considerable controversy during the 1970s and 1980s after a number of its major proponents lent their support to conservative political causes.
The shift in focus of mass evangelism during the twentieth century, from a broad connection to the Protestant mainstream to a narrower association primarily with religious conservatives, has had significant implications for its relationship to American cultural generally. The leading televangelists especially have become less exclusively concerned with the individual conversion experience, and increasingly concerned with general trends within American popular culture. In this sense, evangelism has evolved from a primarily religious phenomenon to one that has had significant impacts on politics and public policy in the United States.
—Roger W. Stump
Hardman, Keith. Seasons of Refreshing: Evangelism and Revivals in America. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Books, 1994.
Evangelism, or enthusiastic preaching of the Christian gospel, has always played an important role in U.S. Protestantism, as in the Great Awakening of colonial days or the Methodist camp meetings on the frontier in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, evangelism often took the form of elaborate crusades organized by such preachers as Billy Sunday (1862–1935; see entry under 1900s—The Way We Lived in volume 1), Oral Roberts (1918–), or Billy Graham (1918–), or, later, in the multimedia productions of "televangelists" like Pat Robertson (1930–) with his 700 Club, Jim Bakker (1940–) and his wife, Tammy Faye Bakker (1942–), with their PTL Network, and Jerry Falwell (1933–) with his Moral Majority.
While all Christians, including mainstream Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox believers, affirm baptism as a prerequisite for church membership, many evangelicals demand a "born-again" experience in which an already baptized Christian undergoes a personal experience with Jesus Christ. To these believers, evangelism involves more than just bringing information about Christ and his teachings; it demands an ongoing process of keeping believers enthusiastic about their faith. Evangelical crusades in large stadiums or on television are viewed by their organizers as revival meetings, designed to give already baptized Christians a chance to reaffirm their faith and be reassured about their salvation
As U.S. society became more urbanized and educated during the twentieth century, some religious leaders feared that it was becoming secularized as well, a phenomenon in which religious values lose their power to influence individuals and the culture at large. This motivated evangelists such as Sunday and Graham to organize tent meetings or crusades that moved from city to city with elaborate programs that included choirs and music, fellowship, personal counseling, and an "altar call" in which people were asked to come forward to reaffirm their faith publicly. The centerpiece of these crusades was always a rousing sermon preached with grand oratorical flourishes, often warning of hellfire and damnation, but also describing the joys of heavenly bliss.
Over the years, critics often charged that evangelism in its worst aspects bred a corrupt system that exploited sincere believers for money or power, as described by Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951) in his 1927 novel Elmer Gantry. In more recent years, revelations of sexual and financial misdeeds by some television evangelists have confirmed these suspicions. Among U.S. evangelists of the twentieth century, Billy Graham, consulted by U.S. presidents for spiritual advice, remains evangelism's most prominent role model of moral and intellectual integrity.
For More Information
Hardman, Keith. Seasons of Refreshing: Evangelism and Revivals in America. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994.
e·van·ge·lism / iˈvanjəˌlizəm/ • n. the spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness. ∎ zealous advocacy of a cause.
- Gantry, Elmer fire and brimstone, fraudulent revivalist. [Am. Lit.: Elmer Gantry ]
- John disciple closest to Jesus. [N.T.: John]
- Luke early Christian; the “beloved physician.” [N.T.: Luke]
- Mark Christian apostle. [N.T.: Mark]
- Matthew one of the twelve disciples. [N.T.: Matthew]