Historians point to the middle of the Twentieth Century as the origin point of Evangelicals. The welcoming of Billy Graham into the White House, the return from World War II, the creation of Christian radio networks, and the publication of Christianity Today magazine are each and all considered signs of Evangelicalism’s origin. But this too is a kind of forgetting, as if to say that one’s marriage is when they “became” someone.
To understand Evangelicalism, we have to roll back another half century to the publication of the Fundamentals. To understand why The Fundamentals were published, we have to know something about Princeton Theology, and to know about that, we have to go back to the Great Awakenings of America. This sounds laborious and excessively historic, but culture never exists apart from the circumstances that created it. One cannot speak of African Americans, in general, without first recognizing the role of segregation, itself a product of slavery, itself a product of race conflict. This might seem tedious, that’s exactly where Evangelicalism today thrives apart from a historical mooring. Today, Evangelicalism means whatever you want it to mean and because it stands for everything, it stands for nothing. In this uncertainty and lack of specificity, many will seek definition and walk away from those communities unable or unwilling to give it. Which leaves the dregs, the Fundamentalists who thrive on rigidity and the quest for power.
The word evangelical has its etymological roots in the Greek word for “gospel” or “good news”: εὐαγγέλιον euangelion, from eu “good”, angel– the stem of, among other words, angelos “messenger, angel”, and the neuter suffix –ion. That’s it. That’s the word as it stood at the time of Jesus. And, amusingly, the “good news” of Rome at the time of Jesus was always whatever those in authority said it was. Enslavement of nations? Great news! New tax to build a temple for the Caesar? Great news! Blood sports in the arena this weekend? Great news! If it meant anything at all, “good news” meant alignment with the very things Jews like Jesus, Paul, James, Peter, and all the important figures of the New Testament were instructed as children to renounce and which they now instructed the Christian Church to renounce in a way that Jews had forgotten. Christians adopted εὐαγγέλιον as an intentionally ironic twist, a subversion, of Rome and Roman authority. The εὐαγγέλιον wasn’t war, enslavement, and death. It wasn’t compromise. It was the renunciation of those things and all the unholiness Roman “εὐαγγέλιον” had unloosed in the world. Christians subverted the word to mean peace, release, and a new life.
By the Middle Ages, the term had expanded semantically to include not only the messager, but also the New Testament which contained the message, as well as more specifically the Gospels, which portray the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In seminary, this distinction was often glossed over and I watched as some of my classmates adopted a less-than-generous attitude to critical thinking. They assumed their status as a student at seminary infused them with meaning and substance, naturally, because they were becoming one with the Gospel, the inheritors of a legacy stretching back to Jesus Christ much in the same way that Catholics believe in papal supremacy. Their views, as messengers, were inherently correct. How could they not be? They were one with the message.
The first published use of evangelical in English was in 1531, when William Tyndale wrote “He exhorteth them to proceed constantly in the evangelical truth.” One year later, Thomas More wrote the earliest recorded use in reference to a theological distinction when he spoke of “Tyndale [and] his evangelical brother Barns”.
But where did this word come from, the mixing of message and messenger? Here too, we must take a step backward and do our historical reconstruction to know about Augustine of Hippo. Augustine was a Roman African by heritage who became the preiminent scholar of the 4th and 5th Centuries. As an early Christian theologian and Neoplatonic philosopher from Numidia, an ancient nation located today as Algeria, a small part of Tunisia and small part of Libya in the Maghreb. His writings influenced the development of the Western Church and Western philosophy, thus indirectly all of Western Christianity. It is from him that we can start to trace the origins of Evangelicals.
Writing for Pulpit magazine in 2009, Phil Johnson gives an exhaustive but instructive summary.
Augustine pointed out that Scripture everywhere attributes our salvation to the grace of God and nowhere gives credit to our own willpower. On the contrary, scripture repeatedly says we were slaves to sin—dead in sin—until God by grace saved us. Incidentally, Augustine went to Scripture, not to the bishop of Rome, to make those points. He insisted not only on the necessity of divine grace, but also the primacy of grace. If God did not first grant grace, no sinner would ever make the first move toward God. Augustine was defending the very spirit of evangelical conviction.
Now I’m not suggesting that Augustine was classically evangelical in the sense we speak of evangelicalism after the Protestant Reformation. I’m saying he kept the spirit of evangelicalism and a commitment to evangelical truth alive, even though he himself was in places inconsistent with his own evangelical convictions. For example, it is patently and grossly inconsistent to teach (as Augustine did) on the one hand that divine grace always precedes and initiates the sinner’s positive response to the gospel—so that even our faith is the fruit of God’s work in our hearts; not a decision we concoct for ourselves out of sheer willpower—and yet to teach on the other hand that the sacrament of baptism (a human work) somehow frees us from the taint of Original Sin and causes regeneration ex opere operato. So Augustine was somewhat inconsistent, but a strain of evangelical conviction dominates all the aspects of his teaching that he spent the most time and energy on.
Skip to the medieval church, and one of the brightest lamps of evangelical truth was Anselm of Canterbury and the work he did with regard to the atonement. After 1,000 years of neglect and inconsistency, he took up the doctrine of atonement and brought a major dose of clarity to the subject, arguing that the atonement was a substitutionary offered to satisfy God, not the devil. Christ died to appease the Father, not to pay a ransom to Satan.
Anselm was actually beginning to lay the foundation for the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers were as indebted to Anselm for their understanding of the atonement as they were to Augustine for their understanding of Grace. And here is the vital point: Anselm and Augustine before him both were concerned primarily with the need to understand the gospel correctly. That passion for getting the gospel right is the very lifeblood of authentic evangelicalism.
Some four centuries after Anselm, William Tyndale gave us the earliest recorded appearance of the English word evangelical. In 1531, in his commentary on the gospel of John (published 5 years before Tyndale died and just 16 years after Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg), Tyndale wrote, “He exhorteth them to proceed constantly in the evangelical truth.” Tyndale was not using the word to describe a theological position. It was simply an adjective meaning “of or pertaining to the gospel.”
But just a year later, you have the first known published use of the word evangelical in English where the word refers to a specific theological point of view. Sir Thomas More seems to have first used it in a derogatory and descriptive sense to speak of Tyndale and his followers. More, of course, was a devoted Roman Catholic. He was Lord Chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII, known for burning many of the first English Protestants at the stake because they questioned the precepts of the pope. In 1532, in his Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer, More spoke of “Tyndale [and] his evangelical brother Barns.”
More was referring there to Robert Barnes, an early English Reformer who had fled to Wittenberg to escape More’s persecution just one year before. As a matter of fact, Barnes spent about four or five years with Luther and returned to England five years later. He was later burnt at the stake in 1540. Carl Trueman has a great book, based on his doctoral dissertation, which you can read freely on line, in which he argues that Tyndale, Barnes, and others weren’t even truly Protestant in their soteriology until after their contact with Luther. They began their careers as Catholic humanists who had more in common with Erasmus—until Luther got them thinking about the gospel. That’s when they became true evangelicals, and the first Englishmen to wear that title. The timing of their awakening to the truth of the gospel almost exactly coincided with Sir Thomas More’s coinage of that term as a derogatory expression.
Reformation theologians began to embrace the term. Luther used the German equivalent to speak of gospel truth, and Lutheran churches throughout Europe soon were called “Evangelical” – actually, the German version of that word – to stress their common belief regarding the gospel.
All the major Reformers were evangelical. Here’s an interesting fact: you can survey all the major Protestant creeds – Lutheran, Calvinist, English, Dutch, or whatever – and you will discover that while they disagreed on many secondary things and sometimes the distinctions between their opinions are stark, the one doctrine all the Reformers and all their creeds consistently held in common was the doctrine of justification by faith. They stressed the imputation of righteousness to the sinner.
In other words, the evangelical doctrine could be summed up in this idea: Our standing before God is secured by a righteousness that is imputed to us—credited to our account; reckoned in the courtroom of God as if that righteousness were our own, even though justification is only a forensic or legal transaction, distinct from the sanctifying work that will eventually make us practically righteous. Justification itself is a legal decree that takes place in an instant, whereby we are declared by God Himself to be righteous—fully justified on the spot.
Roman Catholicism, by contrast, said the ground of our justification is a real righteousness that must be inherent in us. Therefore, Rome said, justification is a long process that isn’t even finished in this life. That’s the point of purgatory.
The term evangelical therefore became a way of designating someone who believes justification is a forensic past-tense reality grounded in a righteousness that is imputed to those who believe. Anyone who saw justification as an unfinished work that must be perfected by the believer’s own faithfulness was (by definition) not evangelical.
While Johnson’s summary is informative, it is not without bias or agenda. The casual reader will notice an inclination to say who and who does not qualify. Roman Catholics, there at the end, are summarily dismissed from Evangelicalism and this remains debatable if not problematic. Johnson isn’t wrong, necessarily. Catholic theology, speaking for itself, would certainly agree with his assessment. The study of history is always biased and, without judging this tendency, it is important to note it and “tag” it, so to speak, so that further biases can be identified and subsequent assumptions understood as derivative (not inherently wrong) of the original bias and assumption. Johnson borrows significantly from the concept of federal theology and substitutionary atonement in his explanation, for example, and these are primarily important to those studying theology in the Reformed tradition, such as the Presbyterians or Lutherans (or borrowing their theology from them at least). Federal theology assumes that humanity was so wicked and perverse that God did not sacrifice Jesus out of love so much as sacrifice him to “balance the scales of justice” in the universe – life for life, death for death. This distinction is important because whether one believes God is a god of justice or of loving mercy is essential to one’s understanding of religion. They are not synonymous, but two contradictory suppositions upon which all kinds of strange beliefs are based.
During the Reformation, Protestant theologians embraced the term as referring to “gospel truth”. Martin Luther referred to the Evangelische Kirche (“evangelical church”) to distinguish Protestants from Catholics in the Catholic Church. Writing in their 1975 edition of The Evangelicals, David F. Wells and John Woodbridge claim that
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.’
Into the 21st century, the term evangelical has continued in use as a synonym for (mainline) Protestant in continental Europe, and elsewhere. This usage is reflected in the names of Protestant denominations, such as the Evangelical Church in Germany (a union of Lutheran and Reformed churches) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but in the English-speaking world of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, evangelical was commonly applied to describe the series of revival movements that occurred in Britain and North America. Christian historian David W. Bebbington writes in 1993’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s that, “Although ‘evangelical’, with a lower-case initial, is occasionally used to mean ‘of the gospel’, the term ‘Evangelical’, with a capital letter, is applied to any aspect of the movement beginning in the 1730s.” The Oxford English Dictionary expands here, noting that evangelicalism was first used in 1831, but the term may have also been used outside any religious context to characterize a generic missionary, reforming, or redeeming impulse or purpose much in the same way that Rome spoke of the εὐαγγέλιον. For example a note from a 1971 entry in The Times Literary Supplement refers to “the rise and fall of evangelical fervor within the Socialist movement” as an example of the flexibility of the term.
Most scholars agree that Evangelicalism did not take recognizable form until the 18th century, first in Britain and shortly after in the North American colonies, though there were earlier developments within the larger Protestant world that preceded and influenced the fertility of the Awakening revivals. According to The Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism (2002) from religion scholar, social activist, and politician Randall Balmer, Evangelicalism resulted “from the confluence of Pietism, Presbyterianism, and the vestiges of Puritanism. Evangelicalism picked up the peculiar characteristics from each strain – warmhearted spirituality from the Pietists (for instance), doctrinal precisionism from the Presbyterians, and individualistic introspection from the Puritans.”
During the 17th century, Pietism emerged in Europe as a movement for the revival of piety and devotion within the Lutheran church. This was seen as a protest against “cold orthodoxy” or an overly formal and rational Christianity that had been constructed under the separate and unique nationalist expansion of Europe. Pietists advocated for an experiential religion that stressed high moral standards for both clergy and laypeople, but the movement included both Christians who remained in the liturgical, state churches as well as separatist groups who rejected the use of baptismal fonts, altars, pulpits, and confessionals as relics of Catholicism. Iconoclasm and the destruction of art and beauty within the church were prevalent, Calvinists seeking austerity and sobriety. This produced a desire for something more dynamic and experiential. As Pietism spread, the movement’s ideals and aspirations influenced and were absorbed into early Evangelicalism. The Presbyterian heritage in Scotland and Northern Ireland, presumed latent for centuries, not only gave Evangelicalism a commitment to Protestant orthodoxy but also contributed a revival tradition that stretched back to the 1620s. Pentecostals, for example, point to instances of ekklesia or “speaking in tongues” and the miraculous in the Western Isles as evidence that God could be found outside of tradition and regimental doctrinal creeds. But central to Presbyterian tradition was the communion season, which normally occurred in the summer months. For Presbyterians, celebrations of Holy Communion were infrequent but popular events preceded by several Sundays of preparatory preaching and accompanied by singing and prayers. God would not be restricted by the Church, but God was also not a wild and capricious deity. Expectation was an essential prerequisite to the experience of God’s presence.
Meanwhile, Puritanism in the Colonies of the New World combined Calvinism with teaching that conversion and social contributions to the betterment of society were also prerequisites for church membership and stressed the study of Scripture by laypeople. It took root in New England, where the Congregational church was an established religion. The Half-Way Covenant of 1662 allowed parents who had not testified to a conversion experience to have their children baptized while reserving Holy Communion for converted church members alone. But as we approach the 18th century, Puritanism was in decline and many ministers were alarmed at the loss of religious piety. This concern over declining religious commitment led many people to support an evangelical revival in pursuit of something new, a disruption of tedium and colorlessness.
According to historian Mark Noll in The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys (2004), High Church Anglicanism should be to Balmer’s list, as it contributed to Evangelicalism a legacy of “rigorous spirituality and innovative organization.” The High Churchmen of Anglicanism were enthusiastic organizers of voluntary religious societies, two of the most prominent examples being the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, which distributed Bibles and other literature and built schools, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which was created to facilitate missionary work in British colonies like the Colonies. Samuel and Susanna Wesley, the parents of John and Charles Wesley, were both devoted advocates of High Churchmanship.
With Charles and John Wesley, Evangelicalism as historians collectively recognize it had arrived in America.