The term evangelical refers to the gospel of the New Testament and to the evangels, the authors of the first four books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Evangelical took on another layer of meaning in the sixteenth century, with Martin Luther's “recovery of the gospel” from what he considered centuries of corruptions and accretions at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther's complaints against Rome triggered the Protestant Reformation; the Lutheran Church in Germany to this day is known as Evangelische (“Evangelical”).
Evangelicalism, then, traces its lineage from the New Testament, through the Protestant Reformation, and then through the various Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), and Anabaptist traditions in early modern Europe, and then, finally, to North America, where it assumed unique characteristics and evolved into the most influential social and religious movement in American history. American evangelicalism emerged from two strands, Continental Pietism and the remnants of New England Puritanism, which became intertwined in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. The combustion of these two elements (to change the metaphor) ignited the revival fires of what historians call the Great Awakening, a massive spiritual movement that swept through the Atlantic colonies.
Already in the eighteenth century some of the distinctive characteristics of evangelicalism began to emerge: the emphasis on introspection and warm-hearted piety; the importance of preaching, especially persuasive oratory; and the assault on clerical and ecclesiastical pretensions. American evangelicalism was refined further in a subsequent revival at the turn of the nineteenth century, the Second Great Awakening, which convulsed the new nation in three theaters: New England, especially northwestern Connecticut; the Cumberland Valley, recently opened to settlement by the Louisiana Purchase; and western New York, where the construction of the Erie Canal gave rise to a booming frontier. During the course of the Second Great Awakening evangelical theology shifted decisively from the Calvinist doctrine of election—God has elected some for salvation, regardless of merit―to a theology called Arminianism (after Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius), which emphasized the ability of individuals to initiate the salvation process. Among a people who had only recently taken their political destiny into their own hands, Arminianism assured them that they controlled their spiritual destiny as well, a notion that proved to be overwhelmingly popular in the antebellum period.
Evangelical enterprises suffered a setback later in the nineteenth century when urbanization, industrialization, and waves of immigrants diminished expectations that America would become the New Jerusalem anytime soon, but the Pentecostal revival at the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles, beginning in 1906, rekindled optimism that God was indeed at work, and one of the most notable legacies of Azusa Street was a renewed missionary impulse. Pentecostals (those who believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including divine healing and speaking in tongues) left Los Angeles and fanned across North America and eventually to Latin America and the rest of the world, where they joined other evangelical missionaries in spreading the gospel or “good news” of the New Testament.
After the infamous Scopes trial of 1925, evangelicals, now battered by Darwinism and, increasingly, by liberal theology and scholarly assaults on the Bible, retreated into their own subculture, a vast and interlocking network of congregations, denominations, Bible institutes, colleges, seminaries, mission societies, and publishing houses. They remained safely cosseted within the subculture until the mid-1970s, when they began to venture into the larger world and to reinsert themselves into the arena of public discourse. The success of the Religious Right in the 1980s signaled an important shift for evangelicals. They were still part of the evangelical subculture, but their comfort with the larger world meant that they were no longer a counterculture in the way they had been during the middle decades of the twentieth century.
The general definition of an evangelical is twofold. First, an evangelical is someone who believes in the centrality of a conversion or “born again” experience as the criterion for salvation; this is taken from John 3, where Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night to inquire how he could enter the kingdom of heaven. The other characteristic is that an evangelical, taking a cue from Luther's notion of sola scriptura (the Bible alone is the source of authority), approaches the Bible seriously as God's inspired revelation to humanity. Many even go so far as to insist on literal interpretations of the entire Bible, from Genesis and the account of creation to the Book of Revelation, which they claim provides a blueprint for understanding the end of time. Some scholars and pollsters add a third element to evangelical: someone who affirms the importance of evangelism or telling the “good news” to others.
Within that broad and general definition of evangelicalism, however, there are several variants. Pentecostals, as indicated earlier, believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and their worship is often lively, even ecstatic, in that they recognize the practice of speaking in tongues. Fundamentalists take their name from a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals, published between 1910 and 1915 in an effort to arrest the slide toward what conservatives reviled as “modernism” in many Protestant denominations; fundamentalists tend toward militancy and separatism with respect to those they regard as insufficiently conservative. The new evangelicals, symbolized by Billy Graham, emerged at the middle of the twentieth century; unlike the fundamentalists, whom the new evangelicals regarded as too starchy and legalistic, the latter sought to speak the language of the larger culture, and to help them do so they exploited the newly emerging media. Charismatics, who bear a strong resemblance to Pentecostals in their embrace of the spiritual gifts, are those who maintain their evangelical presence in the Episcopal Church or the Roman Catholic Church or other venues not generally known for their hospitality toward ecstatic expressions of faith.
There are other strains that might be added beneath this general rubric of evangelicalism (for example, Southern Baptists, particular Hispanic and African American traditions, holiness people) but all fit the larger definition of evangelicalism. In addition to the diversity within the movement, there are other factors that make quantification difficult. First, it is nearly impossible to find evangelicals by denomination. While many denominations are identifiably evangelical—the Assemblies of God, the General Association of Regular Baptists, or the Evangelical Free Church, among many others—many evangelicals remain part of mainline Protestant denominations, so they would not show up in statistical analysis by denominations. Another complication revolves around the way that membership is reckoned. For many Protestant churches membership is almost a birthright, bestowed on the children of the faithful through baptism or confirmation, whereas most evangelical churches have more exacting standards for membership, which might require a candidate to stand in front of the elders or the entire congregation and give a detailed account of his or her conversion and spiritual pilgrimage. This divergence in standards for membership has given rise to the odd situation in which a local mainline Protestant congregation might have two thousand members on the rolls but only two hundred present for Sunday worship, while an evangelical church would tend to have the opposite: two thousand in attendance but only two hundred formally enrolled members.
Regardless of these difficulties, however, pollsters have become more sophisticated in recent years in calculating the number of evangelicals. A 1998 Gallup poll, for instance, placed the number at thirty-nine percent of the population of the United States, using the three-fold criteria of personal conversion, belief in the Bible as the Word of God, and a desire “to lead nonbelievers to the point of conversion.” The poll found that among the African American population the percentage rose to fifty-eight percent, and twenty-one percent of Roman Catholics fit the definition of evangelical (up from twelve percent in 1988). Gallup also identified large numbers of evangelicals in every region of the country, from a low of twenty-six percent in the East to fifty-four percent in the South.
The Second Great Awakening early in the nineteenth century unleashed a torrent of evangelical activism, much of it directed toward a reformation of society and ushering in the millennium, the kingdom of God, in America. Evangelical sentiments animated such social reform efforts as abolitionism, the temperance movement, prison reform, women's suffrage, and the female seminary movement. While many evangelical women succumbed to the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity, many others marched in the vanguard of efforts to reform society according to the norms of godliness. Those efforts waned in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, however, when evangelical faith began to be overwhelmed by industrialization, urbanization, and the arrival of non-Protestant immigrants who did not share the evangelical's scruples about such issues as temperance. Frightened by such intellectual developments as Darwinism and the German discipline of higher criticism, which cast doubt on the veracity of the Bible, evangelicals sounded a retreat from the social and political arena.
Evangelicals remained largely apolitical throughout most of the twentieth century until one of their own, a Southern Baptist Sunday-school teacher named Jimmy Carter, mounted his campaign for the U.S. presidency in the mid-1970s. Using language familiar to evangelicals, Carter declared unabashedly that he was a born-again Christian, and he benefited from the votes of many newly enfranchised evangelicals, especially his fellow Southerners. Ironically, however, politically conservative evangelicals, organized as the Religious Right, turned against Carter in his bid for reelection in 1980. While by no means are all evangelicals politically conservative, the Religious Right, with its adroit use of media, helped to ensure the election and reelection of President Ronald Reagan, and it made its presence felt on the landscape of American politics through the end of the twentieth century. In espousing a rigidly conservative agenda, however, and especially with its insistent opposition to feminism, the Religious Right thereby turned its back on the nineteenth-century heritage of evangelical reformers.
One of the most persistent myths about evangelicals is that they are implacably opposed to modernity and seek shelter in some earlier, halcyon age of innocence. Yet, judging from the agenda adopted by the Religious Right in the final decades of the twentieth century, that conclusion may be misleading. Many evangelicals are indeed suspicious of modernity insofar as modernity carries a moral valence, but that should not be confused with a suspicion of innovation. Evangelicals have been remarkably adept at using innovations in technology and communications to propagate the gospel. Throughout American history, beginning in the eighteenth century, evangelicals have appropriated new forms of communication (for example, open-air preaching, camp meetings, colporteurs, radio, television, cyberspace) and the relative absence of ecclesiastical hierarchies, entrenched institutions, or theological rigidity have made it infinitely easier for evangelicals to compete in the marketplace of ideas.
Finally, evangelicalism has endured and flourished because of its entrepreneurial nature. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, with its guarantee of “free exercise” of religion and its proscription against religious establishment, set up a free market of religion. American history is littered with examples of religious entrepreneurs who have struck out on their own, galvanized a popular following, and offered alternatives to the existing religious options. As often as not, those entrepreneurs have been evangelicals, taking full advantage of the religious marketplace. The protean character of evangelicalism lends itself to such challenges, and its adaptability to popular whims has ensured its durability throughout American history.
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