Christianity: Evangelicalism

James K Wellman Jr. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.

Overview

Evangelicalism is a movement within Christianity that emphasizes reliance on Scripture over tradition and that holds conversion to be the foundation of the life of the believer. The doctrine that Jesus Christ died to atone for the sins of mankind is central to evangelical beliefs. Pentecostalism, a charismatic movement, is usually considered to be a part of evangelicalism.

Evangelicalism originated in the 1600s in the Pietism of Philipp Jakob Spener, a Lutheran pastor in Germany. By the eighteenth century it had spread to England and by the nineteenth century to the United States. Today evangelicalism is a worldwide movement of some 750 million believers.

History

Evangelicalism, which began in the seventeenth century in the Pietism of the Lutheran pastor Philipp Jakob Spener and others, was a response to the formality and perceived rigidity of the Reformation. Evangelicals called for a religion of the “open air and the human heart.” On 24 May 1738 the Anglican priest Charles Wesley felt “his heart strangely warmed,” and from that time until his death in 1791, Wesley preached in churches and open fields throughout England and the United States, calling people to conversion and organizing small Bible groups for prayer. His strategies were enormously successful and resulted in the founding of world Methodism. With equal passion figures like the English Baptist John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, stressed a believer’s baptism, rejecting both Protestant and Roman Catholic forms of infant baptism and demanding that each Christian make up his or her own mind about belief in Jesus Christ. In the nineteenth century this message spread to ever widening circles in Europe and the United States through American revivalists like Charles Grandison Finney and Dwight L. Moody. Moreover, out of the movement came a worldwide evangelical mission to South America, Africa, and Asia. By the end of the nineteenth century Christian leaders confidently spoke of the “evangelization” of the entire world.

This hope was deflected in the twentieth century by controversies over the interpretation of Scripture that fragmented the evangelical movement. In the post–World War II years a new movement called “neoevangelicalism,” led by the former fundamentalist Billy Graham, created a loose coalition of evangelicals. This movement developed into several streams of evangelical religion in the United States: in the popular media in televangelism and the so-called prosperity gospel; in the cultural advocacy of the Moral Majority led by the Baptist Jerry Falwell; and in political circles in the Christian Coalition of the Pentecostal pastor Pat Robertson. At the same time the spread of evangelicalism to other countries, including Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, and the Philippines, brought further growth.

Central Doctrines

Evangelicalism is not a particular denomination. Evangelicals are found in the Roman Catholic communion and across the Protestant spectrum. Evangelicalism is best defined by its beliefs and practices: (1) the authority of Scripture as a core principle for faith and practice (biblicism); (2) the importance of a heartfelt conversion to the faith (conversionism); (3) the centrality of Christ’s death on the cross to atone for each person’s sin (crucicentrism); and (4) the call and obligation to share the “good news” of Jesus Christ with all people (activism). With subtle variations these beliefs are held by the groups that are called evangelical, whether mainstream Protestant churches, such traditional evangelical denominations as Baptist, Seventh-day Adventist, and Christian and Missionary Alliance, or the Pentecostal network of churches that includes Assemblies of God, Four Square, and the predominately African-American Church of God in Christ. Pentecostals often include a focus on the “gifts and fruits of the spirit”—healing, exorcism, and speaking in tongues—and the fastest growing evangelicals in the Southern Hemisphere feature Pentecostal forms of evangelicalism.

Evangelicalism differs from mainstream Protestant denominations in emphasizing the exclusive truth of the gospel message and the obligation to evangelize others and to lead them to conversion. Evangelicalism is distinct from Roman Catholicism in four principal ways: (1) an emphasis on Scripture over historical traditions; (2) a focus on religious experience in conversion and healing; (3) the independence of churches from one another; and (4) pronounced lay participation in leadership, often including women as missionaries and occasionally as pastors.

Moral Code of Conduct

Because evangelicalism had its origins in the Pietism and Holiness movements of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, purity of personal conduct has been a central mode of its expression. While this strictness has decreased over time, in general a person is expected to abstain from tobacco, alcohol, and sex outside marriage. At one time dancing was forbidden, and in the early twentieth century movies as well. The latter two restrictions have dropped away, but faithfulness in marriage has remained critical. After the 1960s, however, divorce was no longer an automatic reason for dismissal from the church or indeed from leadership as a pastor.

Sacred Books

The sacred book for evangelicals is the Christian Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments. In this sense evangelicalism has adopted the Reformation theme of solo scriptura, the belief that it is by Scripture alone that a person can know God. Correct biblical interpretation is a critical issue. Some evangelicals say that the Scriptures are “infallible” (without error regarding salvation), while other say that they are “inerrant” (without error in matters of both science and salvation).

Sacred Symbols

From its inception Protestantism has been iconoclastic, rejecting any object or person that might take the place of God in the hearts of believers. Thus, symbols—whether in stained glass, rosaries, or icons—have been rejected by many churches. Nonetheless, in much of the world the image of a man or woman with a Bible in hand has come to be a classic image of evangelicalism. For evangelicals, however, this is not so much a symbol as a witness of their faith in the power of Scripture.

Early and Modern Leaders

The founders of evangelicalism include Philipp Jakob Spener (Pietism), Charles Wesley (Holiness movement), Charles Grandison Finney (revivalism), and, in the early twentieth century, Aimee Semple McPherson, an American who was one of the leaders of the Pentecostal movement. In the second half of the twentieth century, the American Billy

Graham became a pivotal figure in carrying the evangelical message across the globe. Since evangelicalism has become a worldwide phenomenon, most leaders have been indigenous to their own countries. An example is Edir Macedo, who rose from the lower middle class of Brazil to found one of the largest churches in Latin America, the 4-million-member Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, in 1977.

Major Theologians and Authors

One of the most important evangelical theologians was one of its first, the Congregationalist minister Jonathan Edwards. From his parish in Northampton, Massachusetts, Edwards led a revival and wrote numerous theological works, including the classic A Treatise concerning Religious Affections (1746), a nuanced reflection on evangelical religious experience. In the nineteenth century Charles Hodge, a biblical theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary, created a scientific biblicism to counter the Darwinian movement and the German historical critical method of understanding the Bible. In the twentieth century British evangelicals like C.S. Lewis and John R.W. Stott wrote apologetic works that, along with the theology of James I. Packer, attracted a worldwide readership. In the contemporary period there has been a movement among American evangelicals promoting the idea of an intelligent designer, supported by the legal scholar Philip Johnson, the biochemist Michael Behe, and the philosopher William Dembski. The American theologian Stanley J. Grenz has become an interpreter of evangelical faith in the postmodern period.

Organizational Structure

The organizational structures of evangelicals are enormously diverse, with no central authority. This elasticity and the ability to adapt to the needs of particular cultural systems have allowed evangelical leaders to plant new churches quickly, with little or no bureaucratic approval. The authority of local evangelical leaders frequently depends on their personal charisma.

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

The houses of worship of evangelicals vary dramatically. They include Edir Macedo’s mother church in São Paulo, which has an arched-girder roof with a 230-foot clear span and holds 25,000 worshipers, as well as Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Orange Grove, California. Evangelical worship centers are diverse, ranging from stadiums to churches that are no more than thatched huts.

For evangelicals there are few holy places, but for some believers the doctrine of biblical prophecy called premillennial dispensationalism foretells that during the “last days” Jews will return to their homeland, Christians will be taken to heaven, and in 7 years Christ will return with his followers and rule for 1,000 years from the restored Temple in Jerusalem. In part this is the reason political support for Israel is strong in U.S. evangelical politics.

What is Sacred?

For evangelicals the Scriptures are the sacred witness to Jesus Christ as the only salvation for a person’s soul for eternity.

Holidays and Festivals

In general evangelicals do not follow the traditional Christian liturgical year. This is not to say that evangelicals do not celebrate Christmas, which they do, or recognize Easter, which they see as the focus of their faith. Evangelicals, however, tend to interpret liturgical patterns as overly ceremonial. A common phrase in American evangelical parlance is that “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship with Jesus.” Thus, liturgical formality is downplayed, and conversion becomes a central focus of worship and of holidays, with festivals often serving as occasions for evangelical outreach.

Mode of Dress

Although modes of dress for evangelicals vary by region, informality is the rule for both believers and clergy. In warm climates, for example, one may see a young pastor in shorts, while in colder climates he may wear pants and a shirt but without a coat or tie. There are, however, evangelical clergy in the Anglican and Catholic traditions who maintain the practice of wearing robes and collars.

Dietary Practices

Dietary restrictions for evangelicals often include a prohibition on the consumption of alcohol, although this varies by region. Otherwise, there are no notable restrictions.

Rituals

The evangelical movement is marked both by its core beliefs and by dramatic cultural adaptations in worship and rituals. One may, for example, see spirit dancing in an African congregation, a staid worship service in a Korean Presbyterian evangelical congregation, spirit healing and exorcism in a Brazilian house church, and contemporary music and drama in American non-denominational churches. Holy Communion, which serves as congregational fellowship, is often followed by a period of prayer that invokes the “gifts” of the Holy Spirit in healing and prophecy. Weddings are most often seen by evangelicals as an occasion for witnessing to the family, with funerals a celebration of the moment at which believers receive their promise of eternal life.

Rites of Passage

Because the rite of baptism signifies conversion, it is central to evangelicalism. This passage is the “new birth” that marks the believer as a disciple. Indeed, for evangelicals baptism is the only rite of passage that matters. It is often remembered as a birth date, and it is referred to as the major turning point in the course of a person’s life, marking one’s identity and sealing one’s salvation.

Membership

For evangelicals membership is a matter of conversion to the faith, which is the primary rite of passage. A person must repent, turn from sin, and give his or her heart to Jesus Christ. Membership is demanding in the sense that there is an expectation of personal change, a challenge of moral purity, an obligation to participate in worship, and an expectation that the person will reach out to others with the message of the “gospel of Jesus Christ.” In this sense the passage is from the “old life of sin” to the “new life in Christ.” There is often, though not always, an expectation that the person will tithe. Proselytization is central to evangelicalism, and the extensive use of mass media reflects this mission.

Religious Tolerance

Religious freedom is a key issue for evangelicals, particularly those in the Southern Hemisphere. There is political oppression in countries where Protestantism is the minority faith, and in many countries the lives of evangelicals and their families are in danger from secular as well as other religious groups. In Latin America, where Catholicism remains culturally and often politically dominant, Protestantism must struggle for both political and public acceptance. In some nations of Africa and Asia, Muslims have made it illegal for Christians to evangelize Muslims. In the United States evangelicals have supported religious freedom and tolerance, although as a context in which evangelization can take place rather than as a celebration of religious pluralism. Because evangelicals lack a broad ecumenical movement, international connections are rare, and institutional cooperation is not common.

Social Justice

In the nineteenth century evangelicalism featured a strong mission of social amelioration that included schools, children’s homes, orphanages, prison reform, hospitals, and centers for the care of the sick, elderly, and handicapped. Moreover, the English evangelical William Wilberforce, a member of the House of Commons, advocated an end to the slave trade, which was finally abolished by Parliament in 1807. All British slaves were freed in 1833, a month after Wilberforce’s death.

In the twentieth century evangelicalism has grown in places where there is significant poverty. Part of its appeal in Africa, for example, lies in its claim and in its ability to empower the poor in countries like Nigeria and South Africa. Although evangelicalism focuses on the importance of spiritual fruits, in some cases these fruits are held to manifest themselves in material blessings. Evangelicalism focuses less on programs for social justice, however, than it does on personal transformation, which often means a stronger work ethic and personal discipline, and on ameliorating social problems such as hunger and the effects of natural disasters. Nonetheless, some of the largest nongovernmental global social service agencies, such as World Vision, are evangelical. Human rights are important to, but not the focus of, evangelical advocacy.

Social Aspects

Whereas American evangelicalism has focused on specific social issues, for example, by taking a pro-life position on abortion or by opposing rights for homosexuals, evangelicals in the Southern Hemisphere have been less single-minded and have tended to focus on religious freedom. Moreover, evangelicals generally are less loyal than American evangelicals to specific economic policies (Western capitalism) or political ideologies (liberal democracy). Nonetheless, in some countries evangelicals have entered politics by forming political parties (Latin America has more than 20 evangelical parties) and running candidates (Brazil elected its first evangelical legislator in 1933).

In the United States the politicization of what is often called the Christian right has had effects on both American evangelicalism and on politics, including a shift toward the Republican Party. This shift is often framed by an emphasis on strengthening marriage and the family. Focus on the Family, an organization headed by the American psychologist James Dobson, sponsors radio broadcasts and distributes printed material that promotes its views and challenges conservative Christians to push this agenda in the public sphere.

Controversial Issues

The evangelical record is mixed on women’s rights. From its beginning in the United States, Pentecostalism was a tradition in which women attained religious leadership. This tradition has continued, but women in evangelical churches are most often found as missionaries or as Christian educators. In families women are honored as mothers and care-givers but not usually as equals. Nonetheless, many women encourage the conversion of their husbands precisely because evangelicalism advocates that males exemplify moral discipline, monogamy in marriage, and hard work in providing for the family. Evangelicals tend to favor contraception and divorce as options, however, particularly in Catholic countries where these practices are outlawed. Abortion is universally condemned, and adoption is encouraged as the last, best option.

Cultural Impact

It is not clear what the cultural impact of evangelicalism might eventually be on those countries in the Southern Hemisphere where it is growing so rapidly. At some point, for example, the expansion of evangelicalism in Latin American countries might allow Protestantism to displace the region’s traditional Catholic culture. In Africa evangelicalism has not displayed clear cultural consequences, and in Asia it has remained a personal faith.

In the United States, however, evangelicals have been highly successful in adapting popular forms of culture to their uses. This can be seen, for example, in the best-selling series of Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, in the proliferation of Christian self-held books, and in the development of Christian rock.