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Evangelicals: Past and Present

  • Christopher Catherwood Author
  • Updated Oct 11, 2023
Evangelicals: Past and Present
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[Editor's Note: In an age lamenting unending confusion and fragmentation in evangelicalism, Christopher Catherwood sounds a hopeful, unifying call in Evangelicals: Beliefs and Politics. (Adapted from Chapter 4 of "Evangelicals Past and Present," Crossway) Used by permission.]

"This is the new global Christian reality! This, rather than tired old debates on the culture wars is where evangelical Christianity is at: African, Latin American, Asian, growing, dynamic, expanding. Forget what you read in Western secular newspapers. This is evangelicalism in the twenty-first century and where it will be, I suspect, for some time to come." ~ Christopher Catherwood

Historically speaking, evangelicalism is supposed to have begun with the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century, a transatlantic phenomenon. Similar evangelical movements have also reflected both a British and an American dimension, such as a major turning to Christian faith, called a revival (in the British sense of that term) in 1859. In particular the United States saw great evangelistic activity and a turning to Christian faith on a large scale associated with the ministry of Jonathan Edwards, and Britain saw similar revival with the brothers John and Charles Wesley. George Whitefield figured prominently on both sides of the Atlantic.

Four Characteristics of Evangelicalism

Historians such as David Bebbington in Scotland have noted four main characteristics of the growth of evangelicalism at that time.1 These are:

1. Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be changed

2. Activism: the expression of the gospel in effort

3. Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible

4. Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross 

As Bebbington reminds us, leaders such as John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, emphasized the first tw conversion, being "born again," or what theologians call "justification by faith"; and the necessity of being saved through accepting Jesus Christ as Savior through Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross, what theologians call the atonement.

With all this, evangelicals are in full agreement today, in the twenty-first century. Here I should note that these four points are certainly what evangelicals ought to believe as their foundational doctrines, as we saw in the IFES basis of faith in chapter 1. However, as younger scholars such as Michael Horton and older preachers such as John MacArthur have pointed out, often in controversial books, there is sometimes quite a difference between theoretical belief and what evangelicals do in practice.

This is not the place to argue these much debated points! Suffice it to say that some authors and preachers—notably the two in the last paragraph—have pointed out what they feel is a major cultural compromise by many (but not all) evangelicals, in going along with the touchy-feely, faith-meets-my-felt needs, me-centered culture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. And it is certainly true that those who do preach what one might call Christianity-lite have packed congregations, hosted television shows, and written bestselling books you find at airport bookstores.

However, while I have the pleasure of knowing these two people, in this chapter I am going to accentuate the positive and concentrate on historic evangelicalism (to which they too also fully adhere). I will leave any negative commentary on the various weird and wonderful postmodern strains of what they and I would agree on as being pseudo- Christianity to other heavyweight commentators and theologians who have examined such trends in depth. What you are getting here is the original, historic evangelicalism, which is the same in the United States and the United Kingdom and which is becoming the norm in most of the developing world (where it is, in effect, the predominant version not just of evangelicalism but of Christianity itself).

We could say a great deal about the "Bebbington thesis" of evangelicalism, especially regarding these four crucial characteristics, which arose from the Great Awakening and have been a vital part of Protestant Christianity down to our own times. However, I do sympathize with what John Stott, one of the three or four most internationally influential twentieth-century evangelicals, has said, namely that evangelicalism is simply mainstream Christianity.2

In other words, while from a historic viewpoint (and your author is also an historian) the present manifestation of evangelicalism might indeed have some of its roots planted in the extraordinary spiritual growth of eighteenth-century America and Britain, theologically evangelical faith goes right back to the beginning of the church itself, a theme I have followed elsewhere, in Church History: A Crash Course for the Curious.3 Evangelicalism in this sense is not new at all: it was what the Christians at the time of the Bible thought, what the early church taught, and what the reformers of the sixteenth-century also believed.

There has therefore been a strong continuity throughout history, and what we see in the eighteenth century is not at all a new phenomenon, but perhaps a re-expression of old truths conveyed in new ways that reached a different audience. This is like, if you will, an English Standard Version to update the King James Authorized Version. The message is identical, but the language in which it is expressed is new. (This is of course a Protestant point of view. Catholics reading this will not agree, since they see a direct continuity from the early church right through to the present day fulfilled only in the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.)

It was on precisely these characteristics that the Reformation was fought. Sola fide, by faith alone, is 1 and 4 above, just as Wesley suggested, and 3 is sola scriptura, Scripture alone, a Protestant way of saying that only the Bible determines what Christians believe, and not the authority of church tradition (the Catholic view).


What is new, perhaps, is 2, activism. This is not a new doctrine but an additional emphasis; if the other three things are true, then it is the duty of true Christians to get involved in the society around them and to try to change it in a godly way for the better. From the time of the Great Awakening to the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth centuries, evangelicals were at the forefront of social change and improvement (until what historians call the Great Reversal, when evangelicals tragically, I would argue, stopped being what the Bible calls "salt and light" in society and retreated into a hidey-hole, emerging only to evangelize but no longer to transform the world in which God put them).

During the Reformation, Protestants still saw everything as being done through the state, which became Protestant instead of Catholic. (There were exceptions such as the Anabaptists—today's Mennonites— but at that time they were very much the exception.) By the eighteenth century the state might still have been Protestant, but spiritually speaking it was no longer, if it ever truly had been, sympathetic to the doctrines that believing Christians knew to be vitally important. Evangelicals therefore had to mobilize supporters for what they saw to be the key issues of the day, since the state would not do this for them.

In the late eighteenth century in Britain and well into the nineteenth century in the United States, the issue about which evangelicals became activists (to use the Bebbington term) was slavery. The two hundredth anniversary of the historic abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire was celebrated in 2007 (1807-2007; slavery itself was not abolished in British realms until the 1830s). Thanks to the film "Amazing Grace" we are now all familiar with the great British hero of the abolition movement, William Wilberforce (1759-1833).4

Wilberforce is a classic example of evangelical activism in the best sense, of seeing the duty to love your neighbor as yourself as something necessary to do alongside preaching conversion to those who do not know the message of salvation on the cross. He was a politician, but one who never held high office, since he devoted his political career to the great movement to end the slave trade and then to abolish slavery itself. It is important to remember that Wilberforce believed in both sides of the evangelical life—Christian mission and Christian social action— and did not see the two as incompatible. He was as much a writer of serious Christian literature as he was an abolitionist. He was actively involved in Christian mission to Africa in terms of winning converts as well as a person who wished that people from Africa were no longer enslaved.

He was also careful to be supported by a coalition of fellow evangelical activists, who were given the nickname of the "Clapham Sect," named for the part of London in which many of them lived. Among these was a lady who one might describe as one of the earliest public policy intellectuals, Hannah More, a woman who showed that, like Selina Countess of Huntingdon in the eighteenth century, women could be as actively involved in major campaigns as men. We know that Wilberforce's campaigns ended happily, and that in Britain, alas as opposed to the United States, slavery was abolished without great conflict. But it was a lifetime's campaign, decades long (something that the film does not portray adequately), and took an enormous amount of personal faith and persistence by Wilberforce and his supporters. They acted as they did because they were evangelicals, because they knew that slavery was morally wrong and that it was incompatible with what they understood to be the clear teaching of Scripture on the subject.

But they also were careful to be sure that their arguments would appeal to others, because evangelicals, the Great Awakening notwithstanding, were a small minority in Britain even then. They also did not attempt to link their campaigns with party politics. Wilberforce was a Tory (the forerunner of today's Conservatives), but that did not mean he ostracized the Whigs, the rival party (ancestor's of today's Liberal Democrats), because abolishing slavery was a cause for which they wanted to win over as many people as possible.

The same is true of another major British reformer of the nineteenth-century era of evangelical reform and philanthropy, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885). He was a hereditary politician as a member of the House of Lords, and someone who, like Wilberforce, never held high government office, despite, in his case, being related by marriage to the Whig Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston. Shaftesbury's great concern was the appalling way in which children, often extremely young, were forced into working in mines and factories, none of which had any of the safety features that we take for granted in the workplace today.

He was responsible for two Factory Acts in the 1840s that explicitly forbade child labor and a Mines Act that had a similar effect. But Shaftesbury was not just a reforming politician. He was president of the Evangelical Alliance and also involved with many mission agencies, including one that lobbied for the physical return of Jews to Palestine long before that became politically possible in the twentieth century. Shaftesbury, like Wilberforce, did not see any discrepancy between being involved as an evangelical in social activism while at the same time promoting evangelism and conversion through Christian mission. As he famously put it, the God that made people's souls made their bodies as well, and there is thus no divergence between wanting them to become Christians but also caring for them physically as human beings made in God's image. Shaftesbury also was careful not to make his campaigns party political, since he too needed support from all sides.

There were plenty of other major reformers in the nineteenth century who were passionately evangelical and active in the public sphere in terms of trying to improve the world in which God placed them. One of these was a woman, Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), who was instrumental in achieving major prison reform (British prisons had been barbaric places). Fry was successful despite the fact that women did not have the vote until 1918, decades after her death.

Like her was Thomas Barnardo (1845-1905; known simply as Dr. Barnardo, as he was a medical practitioner), whose homes for orphans and similarly disadvantaged children were a massive improvement over the soulless and often brutal local orphanages of his day. (His work among orphans still exists today, as do, in a different form, the Spurgeon's Homes, the refuges for children set up by the great Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, at around the same time.) However, both Britain and the United States then came to the Great Reversal, the decision by evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic to opt out of public life and to concentrate on evangelism only. Bebbington wrote:

The gospel and humanitarianism . . . were not seen as rivals but as complimentary . . . Although the career of [Lord] Shaftesbury was never forgotten, it is remarkable that the charitable theory and practice of the mass of nineteenth-century Evangelicals were to be minimised by later commentators. Probably the chief explanation is that Evangelicals of the nineteenth century have been tainted by the repudiation of Christian social obligation that marked certain of their successors in the following century. In the nineteenth century, however, even if private philanthropy was common in all religious bodies and beyond, Evangelicals led the way. Among charitable organisations of the second half of the century, for instance, it has been estimated that three-quarters were Evangelical in character and control.5

That last figure is in itself astonishing, and shows the enormous societal impact that an evangelistically active and socially aware evangelicalism had upon its own society. For instance, the Salvation Army in Britain has strongly evangelical roots, whatever individual members might be like today, and that organization explicitly connected evangelism with social concern.

Unfortunately, in late nineteenth-century America (and to a lessmarked extent, Britain as well), preachers such as the famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody began to preach that only conversion mattered. He also placed far more emphasis on the individual and on the need for personal repentance—all important historic evangelical concerns and emphases—and away from the idea of evangelical corporate action to transform society.

So unfortunately a dichotomy arose—either evangelism or social concern, but not, alas, both. As a result those of liberal theology, for whom the biblical emphasis on the new birth and being born again was alien or ignored, were able to reach in to fill the vacuum that evangelicals had created. Soon the Social Gospel—what we might describe as Christianity-lite, with all the foundational spiritual and theological components stripped out—took over. Social action, instead of being a natural corollary of an evangelical Christian worldview, became a watered-down substitute for the original by people whose attachment to the specifically spiritual side of Christianity was somewhat tenuous.

Thus by the 1920s evangelicals regarded social activism—so familiar to their nineteenth century evangelical precursors—as now the exclusive preserve of theological liberals, and thus something to be spurned at all costs. Today this divergence is slowly being overcome, with evangelicals once again becoming involved in societal issues, and not just those of personal morality, such as abortion.

Evangelicals are also becoming involved in environmental concerns, for instance, with leading 1970s evangelical and thinker Francis Schaeffer, an American living mainly in Switzerland, blazing a trail. His rare book gave a specifically evangelical theology of the environment long before others even recognized it as an important issue, let alone one about which evangelicals should concern themselves.

In Britain, thankfully, evangelicals are not automatically associated with any particular political party; there are evangelicals in the Conservative, Labor, Liberal Democrat, and other political parties. And so, as in the nineteenth century, evangelical social action is taken seriously by secular politicians of all stripes.

For all sorts of historic and cultural reasons, many specific to the United States, this is not quite the same on the other side of the Atlantic, where evangelicalism is still closely associated with the Republican Party, notably on the issue of abortion. Worldwide, however, the situation is much more similar to Britain, and evangelicals can get involved in issues of social and economic justice—and of personal morality—without being associated in the public mind as inevitable followers of a particular political party.

Perhaps the Great Reversal is being reversed and all four of the evangelical distinctives of the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century are coming back.


Conversionism is as active as it ever was. We saw earlier that evangelicals have historically collaborated across denominational divides, and regarding the specific issue of evangelism, of going out and winning converts, evangelicals have been as busy as ever in their history. One of the major evangelists of the twentieth century not to mire himself in controversy or scandal is Billy Graham, someone who merited a major profile in Time magazine as recently as 2007, despite the fact that now, due to ill health, he is no longer able to lead missions in the way that he once was.6

Graham's Crusades were always, by definition, multidenominational and unashamedly evangelistic. (In fact he would have people on his platform who were not evangelical, which led him to be treated warily by fellow evangelicals for whom this was going a step too far.) He was also careful to work with local churches, so that bringing friends to a Billy Graham Crusade was, properly speaking, the result of much local effort, of ordinary Christians using his presence in the area to bring their non-Christian neighbors to hear the famous preacher.

Today there are not many people, if any at all, who have quite the international fame of a Billy Graham. In the West, and particularly in the United States, some tend to politicize him, to associate him with the infamous Richard Nixon, who was ruthless in the way in which he would manipulate his connections with the frequently politically naïve Graham. When I wrote about Graham in the mid-1980s, his close friends, the Wilson brothers, looked back on that whole episode with embarrassment, on how they were snared.7

Graham himself told me (in 1983) that in terms of his own efforts in the 1950s to bring about racial reconciliation in the American South—in which he played a positive and wholly pivotal role—the president to whom he was the closest was Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat. But regardless of his political associations, Graham was one of the first leading Western Christians to spot that the center of gravity in Christianity was shifting from the West, including the seemingly all-powerful United States, to the Global South, to the Two-thirds World. So while in the United States he is often remembered for unwise political friendships as well as for his Crusades, and in Britain for transforming the nature of evangelism by his gigantic Crusade in London in 1954, in many other parts of the world he is revered for being the person who had the international reputation and authority to recognize that the days of Western leadership of Christianity were coming to an end.

Some of Graham's Crusades were in places such as India. There he was always keen to be culturally sensitive, and only to do things in a way that the local Indian Christians found acceptable; he did not want to make the mistake of leading others to equate Christianity with the West.

But more important, he realized that the key to Christian growth in these countries would not be Westerners like himself parachuting in from the outside, but local evangelists reaching out to their own people, in their own language—not on the scale of a Graham Crusade, but faithfully, slowly but surely, over many decades. In this he was changing the method of Western missionary activity from the past and allowing local Christians to run things their own way in their own countries.

The fact—for that is what it is—that Christianity is centered in the Global South is something that is only now dawning upon the consciousness of the academic and media worlds in the West, thanks to academics such as Philip Jenkins. But this is something evangelicals have realized for a while, since leaders such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones (and the creation of IFES—the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students) in the 1940s and Billy Graham and John Stott in the 1960s and 1970s.

Graham had a major training conference in Berlin in the 1960s. But the gathering that recognized the historic transformation of global evangelicalism, and indeed of all forms of Christian faith, was the Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelism in 1974, held in the Swiss town of that name. At that gathering, both Graham and Stott, who was acting as a kind of drafter-in-chief for all the various resolutions, effectively allowed their fellow evangelicals of the Global South to take over the proceedings and to determine the agenda. No longer could evangelicalism be said to be led by white Westerners, but now by Latin Americans, Asians, and Africans. It became a partnership, between Christians in the West and the majority in the Global South.

The Lausanne Covenant

When I had to choose a basis of faith as a classic example of what evangelicals believe, I chose that of IFES, as it is a movement within global evangelicalism with which I have been closely linked for over thirty-five years (and my family for over sixty). Nevertheless, I think it is also worth looking at the Lausanne Movement's covenantal statement, not in great detail, as we did with that of IFES and my church in Cambridge, but to show how evangelicals have come from being a Western phenomenon to being the global movement that they are today.8

The Lausanne Covenant was hammered together in 1974 by evangelicals from West and South, and all under the benevolent eye and encouragement of America's most famous evangelist, Billy Graham. It is this, I would argue, that is the true Graham legacy. This statement is often radical, and with the degree of emphasis it places on spiritual warfare, it perhaps goes further than many might be happy with in the West. But Jenkins has pointed out in his many books, it is precisely this that wins so many in the Two-thirds World to evangelical Christianity, since in many parts of the globe the feeling of the spirit world's real presence has never gone away. It is the liberal denominations, with their post-Enlightenment rejection of the supernatural, who are losing out, and it is the evangelicals, who recognize that there is a major spiritual battle (however one wants to express it), that are winning the hearts and minds of those in the Global South.

Note what the covenant says about issues such as culture and persecution. No longer is Christianity something brought by white people in a safari helmet! The old nineteenth-century identification of Bible and flag has gone. Note too that it affirms that Christians are sure to be persecuted—something that is as much a reality in the twenty-first century as it was for the believers in the early church. Note also that it has no problem linking together evangelism and social action, and that it was Billy Graham, so often linked with Nixon, who was signing off on such a statement in 1974, the year of Nixon's resignation after Watergate.

This is the new global Christian reality! This, rather than tired old debates on the culture wars is where evangelical Christianity is at: African, Latin American, Asian, growing, dynamic, expanding. Forget what you read in Western secular newspapers. This is evangelicalism in the twenty-first century and where it will be, I suspect, for some time to come.

Christopher Catherwood, a tutor for the Cambridge University Institute of Continuing Education and an instructor at the University of Richmond's School for Continuing Education, has written and edited more than twenty-five books, including Five Evangelical Leaders, Martyn Lloyd-Jones: A Family Portrait, and Christians, Muslims, and Islamic Rage. He holds degrees from Cambridge and Oxford in modern history and resides in Cambridge with his wife, Paulette.


1. Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington, George A. Rawls, eds. Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond, 1700-1990 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

2. John Stott, Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity & Faithfulness, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 15.

3. Christopher Catherwood, Church History: A Crash Course for the Curious, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007).

4. Amazing Grace, dir. Michael Apted, FourBoys Films, 2007.

5. D. W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London; Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 120.

6. Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, "Billy Graham: ‘A Spiritual Gift to All,'" Time, May 31, 2007.

7. Christopher Catherwood, Five Evangelical Leaders (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1985).

8. See John Stott, The Lausanne Covenant: An Exposition and Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism, 1975).

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