Evangelical Christianity

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Evangelical Christianity

The word "evangelical" has several legitimate senses all related to the etymological meaning of "good news." For Christians of many types throughout history the word has been used to describe God's redemption of sinners by the work of Christ. In the Reformation of the sixteenth century it became a rough synonym for "Protestant." That history explains why many Lutherans still employ the term (e.g., the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). The most common use of the word today stems from renewal movements among English and American Protestants in the eighteenth century and from practitioners of revival in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The early movements were led by larger-than-life figures such as John and Charles Wesley, founders of Methodism; George Whitefield, the most effective preacher of his day; and Jonathan Edwards, a Massachusetts clergyman known for his profound intellect and his passionate defense of Calvinism. The later revival movements have been represented by a noteworthy series of public preachers, including Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875), D. L. Moody (1837–1899), and Billy Graham (1918–).

In one of the most useful definitions, the British historian David Bebbington has identified the key ingredients of evangelicalism as conversionism (an emphasis on the "new birth" as a life-changing experience of God), biblicism (a reliance on the Bible as ultimate religious authority), activism (a concern for sharing the faith), and crucicentrism (a focus on Christ's redeeming work on the cross, usually pictured as the only way of salvation). These evangelical traits have never by themselves yielded cohesive, institutionally compact, or clearly demarcated groups of Christians. But they do serve to identify a large family of churches and religious enterprises.

The prominence of the Bible and focus on Christ as the means of salvation link evangelical traditions with earlier Protestant movements such as English and American Puritanism. But where the Puritans worked for purified state-church establishments, most modern evangelicals have been independent-minded people delighted with the separation of church and state. In addition, where Puritanism retained an exalted role for the clergy and great respect for formal learning, modern evangelicalism, powered by lay initiatives, has been wary of formal academic credentials.

The relationship of African-American churches to evangelical traditions is complex. Blacks in America only began to accept Christianity in the mid-eighteenth century, when the Christian message was presented to them by evangelicals such as Whitefield or the Virginia Presbyterian Samuel Davies. To this day, most African-American denominations and independent congregations share many evangelical characteristics, including belief in the "new birth," trust in the Scriptures, and commitment to traditional morality. Some white evangelicals, such as the theologian Samuel Hopkins and the founder of American Methodism, Francis Asbury, were also early leaders in the fight against slavery. Yet other evangelicals, North as well as South, either tolerated or defended slavery. Throughout the nineteenth century almost all white evangelicals also frowned on elements of African ritual retained in the worship of black Christians. The fact that in the twentieth century white evangelicals have mostly supported the social and political status quo means that ties between black Protestants and white evangelicals are not as close as their shared religious beliefs might lead an observer to expect.

For much of the nineteenth century white evangelical Protestants constituted the largest and most influential body of religious adherents in the United States (as also in Britain and Canada). Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and many Episcopalians shared broadly evangelical convictions—though they could battle each other aggressively on the details of those convictions. Evangelical elements were prominent among Lutherans, German and Dutch Reformed, and the Restorationist churches (Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ) as well.

Division in the Protestant tradition—especially the fundamentalist-modernist battles of the first quarter of the twentieth century—greatly weakened the public presence of evangelicalism. At about the same time, large-scale immigration of non-Protestants, the growth of cities as multicultural sites, and the secularization of higher learning also eroded evangelical cultural influence. The passing of evangelical cultural dominance, however, was also accompanied by significant new developments. The most important of these was the emergence of Pentecostalism, which began early in the twentieth century as an outgrowth of emphases on Christian "holiness" in several Protestant bodies. With its emphasis on the direct work of the Holy Spirit, Pentecostalism has become a major worldwide force in the twentieth century. Its influence is seen in denominations such as the mostly white Assemblies of God and the mostly African-American Church of God in Christ, but also in a wide variety of other denominations and traditions, especially through the charismatic movement after World War II.

In the period of the Great Depression and World War II, evangelicalism was less visible than it has ever been, before or since, in American life. The fundamentalist strand of evangelicalism promoted "separation" from the world and the construction of a self-contained network of churches, publishers, Bible schools, colleges, and radio broadcasting (in which fundamentalists were the pioneers for religious purposes). Out of sight of media elites and against the trend of the older Protestant groups, several evangelical denominations—including the Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance—grew rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s. In roughly the same period fundamentalists and evangelicals established new connections with a number of immigrant traditions, such as the Dutch-American Christian Reformed Church and several Mennonite denominations, which would later play a large role in post–World War II evangelical enterprises. It was often traveling ministers or radio broadcasts—such as those emanating from the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago—that made these connections.

The three decades from the end of World War II to the mid-1970s marked a distinct era in American evangelical history. The prominent public activity of the evangelist Billy Graham inspired many fundamentalists and evangelicals, especially in the North, even as it recruited new adherents for evangelical causes and created coalitions beyond previous evangelical boundaries. Postwar "neoevangelicalism," a phrase popular in the 1950s and 1960s to describe former fundamentalists who sought a positive public image, was, however, considerably more than Billy Graham. When Graham downplayed issues central to earlier fundamentalist-modernist strife and set aside some fundamentalist shibboleths (such as avoidance of the cinema), many were eager to follow. In New England, the Philadelphia area, the upper Midwest, and California a small but vocal generation of articulate post-fundamentalists came of age as Graham's willing colleagues. During the war itself, these leaders founded the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942 to handle relations with the government and promote transdenominational cooperation. Soon the combined efforts of institutional leaders such as Harold John Ockenga, intellectuals such as Carl F. H. Henry, wealthy laymen such as Herbert J. Taylor of Club Aluminum and J. Howard Pew of Sun Oil, along with a host of missionary-minded young people, led to the creation or expansion of many ventures. These included Fuller (Pasadena, California), Gordon-Conwell (north of Boston), and Trinity (suburban Chicago) seminaries, which, along with Southern Baptist institutions, became by the 1980s the largest centers of pastoral training in the United States. They also included Christianity Today and several other periodicals, a number of active youth ministries such as Youth for Christ, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Young Life, and Campus Crusade for Christ. As part of this same surge, self-identified evangelicals soon made up the largest component of missionaries sent from the United States to other parts of the world.

The circle of individuals and agencies associated with Billy Graham was the most visible evangelical presence in these years, but many other evangelical groups were also at work. These included rapidly expanding Pentecostal denominations (whose leaders reached out to the Graham network), the strengthening of many evangelical churches in the South (which has always functioned as something of a self-contained religious domain), and the expansion of "holiness" denominations such as the Church of the Nazarene.

In marked contrast to the vigorous political activism of the nineteenth century, most evangelicals from 1928 (when the presence of a Catholic candidate for president on the Democratic ticket energized evangelical support for Republican Herbert Hoover) into the early 1970s remained largely quiet politically. Southern evangelicals were Democrats, like most of their region. Northern evangelicals leaned Republican but were not particularly active.

Since the early 1970s the diversity that always existed within American evangelicalism has become much more obvious. In addition, America's major social convulsions, such as racial conflict, the women's movement, and sexual permissiveness, have inspired a political reaction among many sectors of evangelicalism. Religious developments, including the charismatic movement, the decline of denominations, and the growth of parachurch networks have also shaped recent evangelical history.

Rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s that eliminated prayer in the public schools and in 1973 that legalized abortion on demand contributed to evangelical politicization. For many, these decisions, along with controversies over what should or should not be taught in the public schools and the growth of the federal government, were perceived as a decline in national moral values. Evangelicals of the Billy Graham sort remained relatively quiet in the face of these new political challenges. But other leaders, such as Baptist ministers Jerry Falwell and Timothy LaHaye, television broadcaster Pat Robertson, and lay psychologist and radio host James Dobson, entered politics with a vengeance during the 1970s and 1980s. These leaders, rather than the neoevangelical stalwarts of the previous generation, created the "New Christian Right" and made white conservative evangelical support an anchor in the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and for much of Republican politics since Reagan.

Recent decades have also witnessed a repositioning of old antagonisms. While American evangelicals still keep their distance from institutional Roman Catholicism, a wide array of social, political, academic, and reforming efforts now link some evangelicals with some Catholics. Evangelicals have helped once-sectarian groups such as the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Worldwide Church of God in their move toward more traditional Christian affirmations. At the end of the century there were even a few signs of improved relations between some evangelicals and Mormons, whom most evangelicals had long considered far beyond the pale.

With the decreasing influence of the older, mainline Protestant churches, evangelicals now worry less about theological liberalism and more about multi-culturalism, postmodernism, and the general secularization of public life. Evangelicals also now expend considerable energy in debating styles of worship, with much support in many churches for innovative contemporary styles (e.g., as on display at the seventeen-thousand-member Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago), while others promote traditional patterns of worship, and many vacillate in between.

Charting the size of the American evangelical constituency at the close of the century depends on criteria for definition. A 1996 poll of three thousand Americans by the Angus Reid group included four questions related specifically to traditional evangelical concerns: Was the Bible the inspired Word of God? Are you a converted Christian? Does God provide forgiveness of sins through the "life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ"? Is it important to urge non-Christians to become Christians? Nearly a third of the U.S. sample answered affirmatively to all four questions, and another 20 percent affirmed three of the four. (Proportions of those answering positively were much higher than national population distribution in the South and considerably lower in the West and Northeast. In addition, about 35 percent of American Catholics answered positively to three or four of these questions.) Alternatively, a team of political scientists ( John C. Green, James L. Guth, Corwin Smidt, and Lyman A. Kellstedt) has recently published a series of perceptive works on the political behavior of American religious groups. They find that about one-fourth of the American populace is associated with historically evangelical churches and denominations. Of that number they find about 60 percent quite active in their participation. As a third way of measuring the size of the evangelical constituency, a research team headed by sociologist Christian Smith has recently published important books and articles based on those who use the term "evangelical" to describe themselves, their churches, and their wider connections. These sociologists find about 7 percent of the population using that term of self-designation and participating actively in self-described "evangelical" enterprises.

Because of the imprecision of the term, more care is required than is often exercised in speaking of America's evangelical Christians. Yet however defined, it is clear that evangelical Christian traditions remain an important force in contemporary religious life—for social and political, but supremely for religious reasons.

See alsoAfrican-American Religions; Campus Crusade for Christ; Charismatic Movement; Falwell, Jerry; Fundamentalist Christianity; Graham, Billy; InterVarsity Christian Fellowship; Mainline Protestantism; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; Religious Right; Robertson, Pat; Televangelism; Young Life; Youth for Christ.


Balmer, Randall. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. 1989.

Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain:A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. 1989.

Blumhofer, Edith L. Restoring the Faith: The Assembliesof God, Pentecostalism, and American Culture. 1993.

Carpenter, Joel A. Revive Us Again: The Reawakening ofAmerican Fundamentalism. 1997.

Dayton, Donald W., and Robert K. Johnston, eds. TheVariety of American Evangelicalism. 1991.

Green, John C., James L. Guth, Corwin Smidt, and Lyman A. Kellstedt. Religion and the Culture Wars:Dispatches from the Front. 1996.

Marsden, George M. Fundamentalism and AmericanCulture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870 –1925. 1980.

Smith, Christian. American Evangelicalism: Embattledand Thriving. 1998.

Mark A. Noll

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Evangelical Christianity

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