Evangelicalism–a basic summary–part III


This is a continuation of this article and this article–all of which come from a talk I gave to a group of medical residents at a Twin Cities hospital. Portions of what follows are adapted from the essay on evangelicalism in the excellent Dictionary of American Christianity (Intervarsity Press). This part of the article sketches fundamentalism, the “neo-evangelical” movement of the 40s, and developments since then.

The Fundamentalist movement, 1920-1960

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, vast immigration of non-Evangelicals, including millions of Catholics and Jews, worked a demographic change, especially in America’s urban centers, where many of these immigrants settled. Political power, ethnic pluralism, industrial strength, media coverage, and liberal lifestyles were all concentrated in the cities.

Trends in scholarship and higher education also contributed to the social and intellectual dethronement of evangelicalism in America. The two chief trends here were the German historicist to biblical scholarship called “higher criticism” and Darwin’s naturalistic theory of evolution, that called into question God’s both designing providence and indeed the need for a personal, creating God at all. From interpreting their lives in Christian terms of creation, miracles, and new birth, millions of Americans began instead to see their place in the world in naturalistic terms of process, progress, and evolution.

This all came to a head famously in the clash between the old, rurally-concentrated evangelical order, and the new, urban secularized order at the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee. Here, battle lines were drawn over the teaching of evolution in America’s public schools.

In the first three decades of the twentieth century many conservative Protestants—supporters of William Jennings Bryant in the Scopes Trial—saw in the trends I have mentioned nothing less than the imminent end of Christian civilization. Especially they were disturbed by the concessions made to pluralism and the new intellectual trends by those “modernists” who welcomed the the fast-paced changes in American society and tried to adapt the Christian faith to these changes by modifying traditional doctrines to reconcile them with science, evolution, and religious pluralism.

“The fundamentalists resisted changes in American society and defended a supernatural Christianity by emphasizing an infallible Bible and Jesus Christ as the divine Savior. This threw them into conflict with American society and made them appear outdated and irrelevant.” In the end, modernism prevailed in most Protestant denominations, and fundamentalists turned to independent parachurch ministries to carry out their agendas. Some seceded from their denominations, with some Baptists and Presbyterians for example founding new groups bearing modified denominational labels.

After WW II, some evangelicals turned from the combative extremes of fundamentalism, including their separatist tendencies, social and cultural irresponsibility, and anti-intellectualism, and sought a new road, a “new evangelicalism.” This road was institutionalized in 1943 in the National Association of Evangelicals, given a strong educational foundation in 1947 with the founding of Fuller Theological Seminary, and given a mouthpiece in 1956 with the creation of the magazine Christianity Today. Intellectuals like Harold John Ockenga and Carl F. H. Henry and evangelists like Billy Graham helped build a broadly based evangelical consensus that sought to distance itself from the more reactionary aspects of fundamentalism and reengage with Amerian society and American culture. The charismatic movement, a lively Christian movement emphasizing the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in human lives, which began in the 1960s, gave this consensus a new vitality. And the election of Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter to the presidency in 1976 brought evangelicalism to the forefront of American politics, a position many of the so-called “Christian Right” have sought to buttress and enhance ever since.

Evangelicalism is hard to define today. Scholars talk about “mosaics” or “kaleidoscopes.” Many evangelicals are to be found in countless small denominations, and working with a host of parachurch organizations. One source has identified seven distinct evangelical traditions:

  1. Evangelicals in the Reformation tradition, primarily Lutheran and Reformed Christians (here we would include Presbyterians)
  2. Wesleyan or holiness evangelicals, such as the Church of the Nazarene or the Wesleyan church
  3. Pentecostal and charismatic evangelicals, such as the Assemblies of God
  4. Black evangelicals, with their own distinctive witness to the gospel
  5. The counterculture churches (sometimes called Peace Churches), such as the evangelical Quakers and Mennonites
  6. Several traditionally white Southern denominations, led by the Southern Baptists
  7. The spiritual heirs of fundamentalism found in independent churches and many parachurch agencies

To this list one would have to add many global forms of evangelicalism that have found their way to America, including Korean evangelicals and African spiritual churches, which usually have a charismatic flavor.

Scholar Donald Dayton argues that there is so much variety between the movements usually included under the umbrella “evangelical” that the term no longer has any real meaning. Others, however, argue for a loose “family resemblance” approach that focuses on central marks or traits shared by all.  These can be listed in various ways:

Scholar Thomas Askew identified four of these characteristics:

  1. 1. The Bible is the sole authority for belief and practice, and salvation comes through belief in the gospel.
  2. 2. Conversion is a personal experience necessary for beginning a deliberate Christian life.
  3. The self-conscious nurture of spirituality and holiness is to be sought, releasing lay energies. And
  4. Mission, both evangelism and social reform, is a Christian obligation.

Historian George Marsden reduces the four to three, while covering basically the same qualities:

  1. The Bible as authoritative and reliable
  2. Eternal salvation as possible only by regeneration, being “born again,” involving personal trust in Christ and in his atoning work, and
  3. A spiritually transformed life marked by moral conduct, personal devotion such as Bible reading, and missions.

Evangelical modes and culture

Throughout the 20th century and up until today, evangelicalism has continued to show its genius for “getting the message out” with the hippie “Jesus People” movement, the rise of Christian rock music, the creation of an entire consumer industry of evangelistic clothing, bumper stickers, and Christian kitsch, and the rapid rise of religious radio and television ministries—to the point where today, 1 in every 10 radio outlets is Christian, and powerful televangelists still bestride thriving empires, despite the scandals of the 80s.

Also arising from this evangelical penchant for culturally strategic “gospel activism” is the movement’s (improving) record of cooperation between its diverse elements—through unifying organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today magazine, and several key evangelical seminaries. Another trend is toward evangelicals cooperating even outside their boundaries, as in the recent efforts to find common ground with Roman Catholics on a number of political-moral issues such as abortion. And a third is the sheer creativity and multiplicity of the ways evangelicals have “done church”—from the exploding Pentecostal and charismatic movements, through the so-called “seeker-sensitive megachurch revolution,” to new, “postmodern” modes of ministry in coffee shops and house churches. It seems that as long as evangelicalism is a force within America, there will be a mode for getting the gospel to every generation, every class, and every subculture.

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