Understanding “Evangelical” Part One: The Reformation and 18th Century Revivals
Dr. James Emery White Dr. James Emery White's weblog
- 2021 Oct 11
Heard the term “evangelical?”
Of course you have. Yet I’ve never seen the term more widely misunderstood – and misapplied – than it is right now. So much so, that many Christians who historically self-identified with the term now eschew it, while others who never embraced it are now doing so with (political) glee.
The word itself comes from the Greek word euangelion, which is used in the New Testament to represent the “gospel,” or “good news” of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. “Evangelical” was not a self-conscious term that the Church of the first century used; rather, it was seized by certain groups of Protestants during the Protestant Reformation to distinguish themselves from Roman Catholics.
But we’ll get to that.
This particular blog is the first of a five-part series on understanding what historical evangelicalism actually is, walking forward through time and development to the present day. Why do this? Because I am deeply concerned that the true history of evangelicalism is being lost, and the way it is being currently perceived – particularly by those outside of the Christian faith – is both confusing and unhelpful to what historic evangelicalism has attempted to achieve missionally as a movement. And, as someone who has self-identified as an evangelical in the past (more on that later in the series), I am invested in its meaning.
So let’s begin.
To understand modern American Evangelicalism, it is imperative to understand its formative influences. Three historical events take prominence: 1) the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century; 2) 18th century Evangelical revivals; and 3) the controversy between Fundamentalists and Modernists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The latter of these three formative influences will be given the most attention, for it was American Fundamentalism’s clash with Modernists that gave direct birth to contemporary American Evangelicalism.
The Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, especially English Puritanism, can be seen as a formative influence on contemporary American Evangelicalism. The Reformers denied starting a new church, and much of what American Evangelicals believe about God, Jesus Christ, humanity, sin and the eternal world is owed to the Catholic tradition from which they eventually separated.
Evangelicals do, however, join in the Reformation restatement of the gospel. While giving no challenge to the orthodox tradition of early Christianity, the Reformers rejected the medieval doctrines regarding salvation and the Church.
Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Seminary, once detailed four major distinctions between the Reformers and their Catholic heritage that Evangelicals continue to share. The first distinction concerned the issue of salvation (soteriology). The Catholic tradition asserted that justification comes through a combination of faith and good works. The Reformers countered that justification is through faith in Christ alone.
The second point of tension was the issue of religious authority. The Roman Church insisted that religious authority is a sacred institution established by Jesus Christ on Peter and his successors (the bishops of Rome). Reformation doctrine held that all truth necessary for faith and behavior is found in one source—the Bible, the written word of God.
A third area of disagreement was the doctrine of the Church (ecclesiology). Catholic theology at the time of the Reformation held that the true Church is that sacred hierarchical and priestly institution that Jesus Christ founded on Peter, the first pope, and on the apostles, the first bishops. The theology of the Reformers did not understand the true Church as a sacred hierarchy but as a community of faith in which all true believers share the priestly task.
The final major area of division was over the subject of Christian living. The monastic way of life was thoroughly entrenched in Catholic practice and thought. The Reformers understood the essence of Christian living as serving God in one’s calling, whether it be in secular or ecclesiastical life.
These four Reformation understandings remain in the mainstream of contemporary American Evangelical theology.
Eighteenth Century Evangelical Revivals
During the 17th century the vigorous defense of the gospel in the Protestant Reformation was replaced by an “unyielding spirit of Protestant orthodoxy.” Throughout Northern Europe, Protestantism was accepted but was relatively lifeless. A series of renewal movements changed the face of traditional Protestantism and gave a new meaning to the term evangelical: that of being “born again.”
The phrase “born again” was not an invention of 18th century revivalism. Its introduction dates to Jesus’ words as recorded in the third chapter of the gospel of John in the New Testament with use in the Reformation period as well as the German Pietistic era. As a phrase denoting spiritual regeneration, and thus prone to a broad and imprecise usage in general discourse, “born again” has generally come to mean “any Christian who exhibits intensity or overt self-identification or a keen sense of divine presence, or one who attributes causation to God for events in personal life or in the historical and natural processes” as defined by the Dictionary of Christianity in America.
The first of these revivals was a movement in Germany termed “Pietism,” which stressed a sincere faith through Bible study, prayer, and the nurture and fellowship of the Church as a supportive community of faith. In Northern Germany, Pietism expanded through a refugee group from Moravia called the Moravian Brethren under the leadership of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf. In other areas of Europe, Pietism merged with the Anabaptist tradition to create the Mennonite and German Brethren traditions of faith. One of the greatest contributions Pietism made to Evangelicalism was through its influence on John Wesley, who became the most prominent spokesman for England’s great spiritual awakening.
The American colonial counterpart to the Methodist revival in the British Isles has become known as the Great Awakening. This event was chronicled and led by one of America’s most brilliant minds, Jonathan Edwards, but soon spread beyond the confines of his parish ministry. Appearing first in the 1720s as a series of regional awakenings under the preaching ministry of George Whitefield (a friend of John Wesley), these regional revivals coalesced into a Great Awakening that arguably lasted until the American Revolution. Other preachers of influence during the Great Awakening include Theodore Frelinghuysen and Gilbert Tennant.
As Harry S. Stout has noted, these revivals “mark the beginning of popular evangelicalism in the American churches.” This had a decisive impact on American religion, for the Great Awakening, by increasing piety, increased dissatisfaction with rigid and especially political control of spiritual affairs. Pietism is invariably associated with that which is voluntary and personal, as it is antagonistic toward that which is compulsory and cultural – in the name of Christ.
This Evangelical call for an immediate and instantaneous conversion to Christ continued throughout the 19th century in camp meetings, revivals, and classrooms across America. Perhaps most noteworthy were the camp meetings led by James McGready in Kentucky and Tennessee. The 19th century witnessed the development of Christian missions that raised the issue of how parachurch missions should relate to established churches and denominations.
The leadership of such Evangelicals as Timothy Dwight (president of Yale), revivalist Charles Finney at Oberlin, and circuit-riding preacher Peter Cartwright helped to install Evangelical Christianity as the dominant faith in America before the Civil War. William McLoughlin went so far as to say that the story of American Evangelicalism during the 19th century is the story of America itself. He contends that Evangelical religion lay behind the concept of rugged individualism in business enterprise, laissez faire in economic theory, constitutional democracy in political thought, the Protestant ethic in morality, and the millennial hope in the manifest destiny of America to lead the world to its latter-day glory.
During the critical years between the Civil War and World War I, Evangelicalism was dethroned as the reigning religious perspective of American society, largely due to the clash between Fundamentalists and Modernists during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The seeds for this controversy were sown by the questions created in the 19th century context: How were people to combine intellectual rigor with personal religious experience? In particular, what should be the Christian’s response to the rise of biblical criticism? And on the scientific landscape, what of Darwin? Could there be such a thing as theistic evolution? Traditional Christian faith and the modern world were on a collision course that set the stage for the rise of American Fundamentalism.
And it is to that we turn next in part two of this series.
James Emery White
U. Becker, “Gospel, Evangelize, Evangelist,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 2, editor Colin Brown.
Bruce L. Shelley in “Evangelicalism,” Dictionary of Christianity in America, Daniel G. Reid, Robert D. Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, Harry S. Stout, editors.
Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.
Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers.
Bernard L. Ramm, The Evangelical Heritage.
Richard Mouw, “Theological and Ethical Dimensions of American Evangelicals,” address at Southern Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.
C.D. Weaver, “Born Again,” Dictionary of Christianity in America.
Harry S. Stout, “Great Awakenings,” Dictionary of Christianity in America.
Edwin Gaustad, The Great Awakening in New England.
William G. McLoughlin, “Introduction,” in The American Evangelicals, 1800-1900: An Anthology, ed. William G. McLoughlin.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.