Evangelicalism Explained

Evangelicalism is a Protestant Christian movement which began in Great Britain in the 1730s.[1] Most adherents consider its key characteristics to be: a belief in the need for personal conversion (or being "born again"); some expression of the gospel in effort; a high regard for Biblical authority; and an emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus.[2] David Bebbington has termed these four distinctive aspects conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism, saying, "Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism."[3]

However, the term "Evangelical" does not equal conservative or fundamentalist, though there are many conservative and fundamentalist evangelicals, many Christians who consider themselves evangelical Christians are progressive, pluralist and even universalist. This is because of the diverse, ambiguous meanings it has, and uses, among Christians.[4] The Evangelical Free Church is an example of a conservative denomination.


Alternative usage

The term evangelical (with a lower case "e") can refer to the personal belief that Jesus is the Messiah. The word comes from the Greek word for "Gospel" or "good news:" ευαγγελιον evangelion, from eu- "good" and angelion "message." In that sense, to be evangelical would mean to be a believer in the gospel, that is the message of Jesus Christ as revealed in the New Testament.

Beginning with the Reformation, evangelical was used in a broad sense to refer to either Protestants or Christians in general. Martin Luther referred to the evangelische Kirche or evangelical church to distinguish Protestants from Catholics in the Roman Catholic Church.[5] In Germany and Switzerland, and especially among Lutherans, the term has continued to be used in a broad sense.[6] This can be seen in the names of certain Lutheran denominations or national organizations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, and the Evangelical Church in Germany.

Current usage

The contemporary North American usage of the term is influenced by the evangelical/fundamentalist controversy of the early 20th century. Evangelicalism may sometimes be perceived as the middle ground between the theological liberalism of the Mainline (Protestant) denominations and the cultural separatism of Fundamentalist Christianity.[7] Evangelicalism is therefore described as "the third of the leading strands in American Protestantism, straddl[ing] the divide between fundamentalists and liberals."[8] While the North American perception is important to understand the usage of the term, it by no means dominates a wider world view, where the fundamentalist debate was not so influential.


Protestant Reformation to World War II

In the 18th century the Wesleyan revival in the Church of England influenced the formation of a party of pietistic Anglicans, whose descendant movement is still called the "Evangelical party". In the United States, Jonathan Edwards and the "New Lights" (revival Calvinists) were opposed by "Old Lights" (confessional Calvinists). George Whitfield, a Methodist, continued and expanded this pietistic "New Light" revivalism together with the non-Calvinist, Arminian Methodist movement.

From the late 20th century such conservative Protestant Christians, and their churches and social movements, are often called evangelical to distinguish them from Protestants who have a tendency towards more liberal Christianity.

John Nelson Darby, 1800's English minister - Created the movement of Dispensationalism, an innovative Protestant movement that gave rise to evangelicalism - (History Channel "Antichrist: Zero Hour" (2005)).

Post WW II to Present

The term neo-evangelicalism was coined by Harold Ockenga in 1947, to identify a distinct movement within fundamentalist Christianity at the time, especially in the English-speaking world.

There was a split within the fundamentalist movement, as they disagreed among themselves about how a 'Christian' ought to respond to an unbelieving world. The evangelicals urged that Christians must engage the culture directly and constructively,[9] and they began to express reservation about being known to the world as fundamentalists. As Kenneth Kantzer put it at the time, the name fundamentalist had become "an embarrassment instead of a badge of honor."[10]

The fundamentalists saw the evangelicals as often being too concerned about social acceptance and intellectual respectability, and being too accommodating to a perverse generation that needed correction. In addition, they saw the efforts of evangelist Billy Graham, who worked with non-evangelical denominations, such as the Roman Catholics (which they claimed to be heretical), as a mistake.[11]

The self-identified fundamentalists also cooperated in separating their opponents from the fundamentalist name, by increasingly seeking to distinguish themselves from the more open group, whom they often characterized derogatorily, by Ockenga's term, "Neo-evangelical" or just Evangelical.

North American perspective

Evangelicals held the view that the modernist and liberal parties in the Protestant churches had surrendered their heritage as Evangelicals by accommodating the views and values of the world. At the same time, they criticized their fellow Fundamentalists for their separatism and their rejection of the Social gospel as it had been developed by Protestant activists of the previous century. They charged the modernists with having lost their identity as Evangelicals and the Fundamentalists with having lost the Christ-like heart of Evangelicalism. They argued that the Gospel needed to be reasserted to distinguish it from the innovations of the liberals and the fundamentalists.

As part of this renewal of Evangelicalism, the new evangelicals sought to engage the modern world and the liberal Christians in a positive way, remaining separate from worldliness but not from the world — a middle way between modernism and the separating variety of fundamentalism. They sought allies in denominational churches and liturgical traditions, disregarding views of eschatology and other "non-essentials," and joined also with Trinitarian varieties of Pentecostalism. They believed that in doing so, they were simply re-acquainting Protestantism with its own recent tradition. The movement's aim at the outset was to reclaim the Evangelical heritage in their respective churches, not to begin something new; and for this reason, following their separation from Fundamentalists, the same movement has been better known merely as "Evangelicalism." By the end of the 20th century, this was the most influential development in American Protestant Christianity.

Global demographics

On a worldwide scale evangelical churches (together with Pentecostals) claim to be the most rapidly growing Christian churches. The two often overlap, in a movement sometimes called Transformationalism. Churches in Africa exhibit rapid growth and great diversity in part because they are not dependent on European and North American evangelical sources. An example of this can be seen in the African Initiated Churches. The World Evangelical Alliance is "a network of churches in 127 nations that have each formed an evangelical alliance and over 100 international organizations joining together to give a worldwide identity, voice and platform to more than 420 million evangelical Christians"[12] . The Alliance (WEA) was formed in 1951 by Evangelicals from 21 countries. It has worked to support its members to work together globally.

Types of evangelicalism

Conservative evangelicalism

See main article: Conservative Evangelicalism.

Especially toward the end of the 20th century some have tended to confuse evangelicalism and fundamentalism, but they are not the same; the labels represent very distinct differences of approach which both groups are diligent to maintain. Both groups seek to maintain an identity as theological conservatives; evangelicals, however, seek to distance themselves from stereotypical perceptions of the "fundamentalist" posture, of antagonism toward the larger society, advocating involvement in the surrounding community rather than separation from it.

In North America, evangelicals tend to be perceived as socially conservative. For instance, based on the view that marriage is defined as only between one man and one woman, many evangelicals oppose same-sex marriage and polyamory. Also, based on the view that the life of a child begins at conception and that a baby's right to live takes precedence over the legal right to terminate an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy, evangelicals tend to oppose laws permitting abortion (See below for more details).


British author Dave Tomlinson characterizes post-evangelicalism as a movement comprising various trends of dissatisfaction among evangelicals. The term is used by others with comparable intent, often to distinguish evangelicals in the so-called emerging church movement from post-evangelicals and anti-evangelicals. Tomlinson argues that "linguistically, the distinction [between evangelical and post-evangelical] is similar to the one that sociologists make between the modern and postmodern eras."[13]

Evangelicalism in the United States


The 2004 survey of religion and politics in the United States[14] identified the Evangelical percentage of the population at 26.3%; while Roman Catholics are 22% and Mainline Protestants make up 16%. In the 2007 Statistical Abstract of the United States, the figures for these same groups are 28.6% (Evangelical), 24.5% (Roman Catholics), and 13.9% (Mainline Protestant.) The latter figures are based on a 2001 study of the self-described religious identification of the adult population for 1990 and 2001 from the Graduate School and University Center at the City University of New York.[15]

The National Association of Evangelicals is a U.S. agency which coordinates cooperative ministry for its member denominations.


Christian right

See main article: Christian right. Evangelical influence in America was first evident in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century movement of prohibition[16] .

In recent decades the most prominent issue that tends to be associated with conservative Evangelicals' political activism is abortion. Conservative Evangelicals generally believe it to be taking an innocent life, although the theological bases underlying this belief vary, from specific verses purportedly about when life begins, to the more generalized ban on murder (the latter typically descending into a mutually circular argument regarding the definition of personhood). Critics believe any legal restrictions based on such a worldview amount to imposing religion, whereas adherents claim that it is as legitimate as seeking protection for any other oppressed class through religiously-motivated activism (many of which causes are now non-controversial). Abortion abolitionists trace some lineage through the history of English common law, which for centuries had purported to implement fundamental Judeo-Christian principles of justice into its legal system. However, abortion was not deemed criminal until the "quickening" of the fetus under common law; it was not until England's "Offences Against the Person" Acts of 1837 and 1861 that abortion was fully criminalized there, and even then it was not legally classified as murder. There remains today a wide divergence of opinion among the American religious right as to precisely how abortion should ideally be classified and/or punished, exactly whom would be prosecuted, and other logistical matters of implementing an outright ban. There are also internal disagreements about whether and which exceptions to any ban should be entertained.

Modern opponents of the Christian Right assert that Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court decision rendered in 1973 preventing states from making laws that prohibit abortion, was not the most significant landmark of a new era of conservative evangelical political action. They maintain that it was not until 1980 that the evangelical movement came to oppose abortion.[17] [18] They cite Green v. Connally a.k.a. Coit v. Green (and President Jimmy Carter's support of the decision), which ruled any segregated institution was not charitable and thus not tax-exempt, as having galvanized conservative evangelicals.[19] Almost no conservative Evangelicals agree with this characterization, regarding it as an attempt to portray them in a negative light; they widely contend that racial segregation has long been a minority view among Evangelicals, and dismiss portrayals to the contrary as smears from what they regard as a hostile media.

The mass-appeal of the Christian right in the so-called red states, and its success in rallying resistance to certain social agendas, is sometimes alleged as an attempt to impose theocracy on an otherwise secular society.[20] There are indications that the belief is widespread among conservative evangelicals in the USA that Christianity should enjoy a privileged place in American public life according its importance in American life and history.[21] Accordingly, those Evangelicals often strenuously oppose the expression of other faiths in schools or in the course of civic functions. For example, when Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala became the first Hindu priest to offer an invocation before Congress in 2000, the September 21 edition of the online publication operated by the Family Research Council, Culture Facts, raised objection:

Conversely, many on the Christian right contend that they merely seek freedom from the imposition of an equally-subjective secular wordlview, and feel it is their opponents who are violating their rights. http://www.amazon.com/Persecution-Liberals-Waging-Against-Christians/dp/0895261111 They suggest that on many hot-button issues (other than abortion), they rarely seek to actually criminalize the behaviors of others, and that more often it is the other way around. Indeed while most in the religious right criticized the Supreme Court's Lawrence v. Texas decision striking down state laws prohibiting homosexual conduct, it was also emphasized that the reasons for disagreeing with the ruling were more about process than substance (much like dissenting Justice Scalia, who noted that were he a legislator he would oppose such laws, but he just didn't believe they were actually unconstitutional). Even the most ardent opponents of legally-recognized same-sex marriage almost never seek to reinstitute any bans on homosexual conduct.

The Christian Right is not made completely (or even a majority) of Evangelical Christians. According to an article in the November 11, 2004 issue of The Economist, entitled "The Triumph of the Religious Right", "The implication of these findings is that Mr. Bush's moral majority is not, as is often thought, composed of a bunch of right-wing evangelical Christians. Rather, it consists of traditionalist and observant church-goers of every kind: Catholic and mainline Protestant, as well as evangelicals, Mormons, and Sign Followers. Meanwhile, modernist evangelicals tend to be Democratic." Although evangelicals are currently seen as being on the Christian Right in the United States, there are those in the center as well. A major distinction between traditional/conservative Evangelicals and others is a conviction that a truly "Biblical worldview" compels certain social and cultural (and thus political) positions among professed followers. To the extent that traditional Evangelicals find common ground with conservative segments of other religions (especially other forms of Christianity), alliances inevitably form, sometimes ironically against the more moderate or liberal strains of Evangelicalism (with whom there may still be more theological overlap).

According to recent reports in the New York Times, some evangelicals have sought to expand their movement's social agenda to include poverty, combating AIDS in the Third World, and protecting the environment.[22] This is highly contentious within the Evangelical community, as more conservative Evangelicals believe that this trend is compromising important issues and prioritizing popularity and consensus too highly. Personifying this division were the Evangelical leaders James Dobson and Rick Warren, the former who warned of the dangers of an Obama victory in 2008 from his point of view http://focusfamaction.edgeboss.net/download/focusfamaction/pdfs/10-22-08_2012letter.pdf, in contrast with the latter who declined to endorse either major candidate on the grounds that he wanted the church to be less politically divisive and that he had substantial agreement with both men. http://www.christianpost.com/church/Politics/2008/07/rick-warren-pastors-shouldn-t-endorse-politicians-29/index.html Indeed many are not sure how to characterize Rick Warren on the Evangelical spectrum; despite his avowed centrism he recently supported California's controversial Proposal 8 (2008), which is regarded by critics as a right-wing position; however, many conservative denominations nonetheless vigorously dissociate themselves from him and his movement.

Christian left

See main article: Evangelical left. Typically, members of the evangelical left affirm the primary tenets of evangelical theology, such as the doctrines of Incarnation, atonement, and resurrection, and also see the Bible as a primary authority for the Church. A major theological difference, however, which in turn leads to many of the social/political differences, is the issue of how strictly to interpret the Bible, as well as what particular values and principles predominantly constitute the "Biblical Worldview" believed to be binding upon all followers. Inevitably, battles over how to characterize each other and themselves ensure, with the Evangelical left and right often hyperbolically regarding each other as "mainline/non-Evangelical" and "fundamentalist" respectively.

Unlike conservative evangelicals, the evangelical left is generally opposed to capital punishment and supportive of gun control. In many cases, evangelical leftists are pacifistic. Some promote the legalization of gay marriage or protection of access to abortion. There is considerable dispute over how to even characterize the various segments of the Evangelical theological and political spectra, and whether a singular discernible rift between "right" and "left" is oversimplified. However, to the extent that some simplifications are necessary to discuss any complex issue, it's recognized that modern trends like focusing on non-contentious issues (like poverty) and downplaying hot-button social issues (like abortion) tend to be key distinctives of the modern "Evangelical Left" or "Emergent Church" movement.

See also


Further reading

. Paul Freston. Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Cambridge University Press. 2004. 052160429X.

External links

Notes and References

  1. Bebbington, D. W. (2008). Evangelicals in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, London: Unwin, 1.
  2. Web site: Defining Evangelicalism. 2008-03-04. Eskridge. Larry. 1995. Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals.
  3. Bebbington, p. 3.
  4. George Marsden Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism Eerdmans, 1991.
  5. Book: Gerstner, John H.. John Gerstner

    . John Gerstner. The Evangelicals. David P. Wells. John D. Woodbridge. 1975. Abingdon Press. Nashville. 0687121817. 21–36. The Theological Boundaries of Evangelical Faith. Despite the dominant usage of euangellismos in the New Testament, its derivative, evangelical, was not widely or controversially employed until the Reformation period. Then it came into prominence with Martin Luther precisely because he reasserted Paul's teaching on the euangellismos as the indispensable message of salvation. Its light, he argued, was hidden under a bushel of ecclesiastical authority, tradition, and liturgy. The essence of the saving message for Luther was justification by faith alone, the article by which not only the church stands or falls but each individual as well. Erasmus, Thomas More, and Johannes Eck denigrated those who accepted this view and referred to them as 'evangelicals.'.

  6. Book: Marsden, George M. George Marsden

    . George Marsden. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. 1991. W.B. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids, MI. 0802805396. 5.

  7. News: Evangelicals Debate the Meaning of 'Evangelical'. Luo, Michael. 2006-04-16. The New York Times. nytimes.com.
  8. Web site: God's Country?. 2008-03-27. Mead, Walter Russell. 2006. Council on Foreign Relations. Foreign Affairs.
  9. http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN080282661X Henry, Carl F.H., (1947), The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism
  10. http://www.beliefnet.com/story/167/story_16774_1.html Kenneth Kantzer, The Fundamentalist-Evangelical Split
  11. http://mb-soft.com/believe/text/fundamen.htm (Christian) Fundamentalism
  12. Web site: History. World Evangelical Alliance. 2006. 2007-05-24.
  13. Book: Tomlinson, Dave. The Post-Evangelical. 2007. 0310253853. 28.
  14. Web site: The American Religious Landscape and Political Attitudes: A Baseline for 2004. Green. John C..
  15. Web site: Kosmin. Barry A.. Egon Mayer, Ariela Keysar. American Religious Identification Survey. City University of New York.; Graduate School and University Center. 2001. 2007-04-04.
  16. Web site: From Temperance to Prohibition. Jason S. Lantzer.
  17. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18429953 NPR.org
  18. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1073173 NPR.org
  19. http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/randall_balmer/2007/03/my_reponse_to_richard_land.html
  20. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/19/books/review/19brink.html?_r=1&oref=slogin New York Times Review of Books
  21. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5290373 Fresh Air
  22. The Evangelical Crackup, cited from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/28/magazine/28Evangelicals-t.html?_r=2&hp&oref=slogin&oref=slogin