A historian looks at evangelicalism past and present
By Jennifer Lynn Woodruff Tait
If ever we knew when a movement started, who started it and why, perhaps evangelicalism is that movement: traceable to April 1942, when J. Elwin Wright, Harold Ockenga and friends met in St. Louis, Mo., seeking greater unity and clarity of mission among various effective but scattered, fundamentalist ministries and founded the National Association of Evangelicals, declaring in their statement of faith: “We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in his virgin birth, in his sinless life, in his miracles, in his vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in his bodily resurrection, in his ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in his personal return in power and glory.”
Or, perhaps, traceable to the fall of 1821 when a young lawyer named Charles Grandison Finney, soon to become one of the 19th century’s most famous revival preachers, felt the call of God on his life, writing later in his memoirs: “But now after receiving these baptisms of the Spirit I was quite willing to preach the Gospel. Nay, I found that I was unwilling to do anything else…. Nothing, it seemed to me, could be put in competition with the worth of souls; and no labor, I thought, could be so sweet, and no employment so exalted, as that of holding up Christ to a dying world.”
Or then again, to May of 1738, when Anglican priest John Wesley, struggling with issues of faith and assurance, went to an evening meeting of Moravian believers and met God in a new way that would lead to the founding of the renewal society called Methodism—writing soon afterwards in his journal: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Or perhaps we should look to 1675, when Lutheran pastor Philip Jakob Spener published a little book, Pia Desiderata, setting forth proposals for renewing the Lutheranism of his day, which gave birth to the term “pietist”—pleading, “Thought should be given to the more extensive use of the Word of God among us. We know that by nature we have no good in us. If there is to be any good in us, it must be brought about by God. To this end the Word of God is the powerful means, since faith must be rekindled through the gospel.”
Regardless of their beginnings, evangelical Christians—in the mid-20th century almost invariably the subject of dismissal and derision from cultural and political elites—have, in the last few decades, become one of the most visible Christian expressions in the American religious and political context.
Several decades after the founding of the NAE, when Jimmy Carter identified himself as an evangelical during his 1976 presidential campaign, he was treated in the press, in the words of journalist E. J. Dionne, “as if he were some sort of Martian.” In 2008, by contrast, evangelical megachurch pastor Rick Warren hosted both presidential candidates in hour-long discussions of faith and politics broadcast on major cable news networks.
Books and movies from mainstream media outlets, while not always expressing evangelical theology, are regularly aimed at the evangelical market (The Passion of the Christ and the Narnia movies, for instance). While mainline denominational attendance declines, attendance in more conservative and non-denominational churches is rising. And evangelical theologians have become respected partners in ecumenical dialogues such as the one sponsored by First Things, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.”
Although precise estimates are difficult to come by due to the difficulty of capturing exactly what makes for an evangelical on surveys, responsible estimates (such as those from the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicalism) put the number of evangelicals in the early 21st century at anywhere between 25-35 percent of Americans, or 70-100 million people. In many ways it is, potentially, our moment.
Who we are
Knowing what we are called to do in this moment depends, to some extent, on knowing who we are. As the NAE points out, following historian David Bebbington, evangelicals are often identified by their focus on four crucial points:
- “Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a ‘born-again’ experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus.
- Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts.
- Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority.
- Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.”
These emphases characterize most of those who claim the term “evangelical,” whether they live and speak out within established mainline denominations, gather in breakaway denominations of their own or claim no denomination at all. They admit some diversity of opinion (Once born again, can one fall away? Is the Bible inerrant? How involved in social justice should missionary activity get? Must Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross be defined as penal substitution?), but they also serve as a unifying force.
Notably absent from this list, as from the NAE’s statement of faith itself, are positions on some other questions that have historically troubled Christian believers. What is the relationship of the Bible as the “inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God” to the Christian tradition, which, guided by the Holy Spirit to give us this biblical canon, has also given us considered views on its interpretation down through the centuries? What is the relationship of “the spiritual unity of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ” to physical ecclesiastical attempts at ecumenical reconciliation? How are the Holy Spirit’s “regeneration” and “present ministry” connected to some ways historically preached as agents of the Spirit in this, such as the sacraments?
Much of modern evangelicalism is well exemplified by Warren’s church and others like it, as well as the burgeoning traffic in Christian versions of all aspects of secular culture, from music to self-help books to colleges. But some modern evangelicals have also been searching for answers to these other questions.
Searching for answers
One example of this search is a movement known as the “New Monasticism.” While the term goes back at least to the interdenominational community of Taizé in France in the mid-20th century, its current popularity grew out of the conviction of several young seminary students almost a decade ago that they needed to do a better job of living out as well as preaching the Gospel. In 2003 they founded a Christian community in Durham, NC, called Rutba House, opened both to married couples and celibate single persons.
In the process they developed 12 “marks of distinctiveness” influenced by both Anabaptism and the monastic movement. These included “relocation to the abandoned places of empire” (such as the inner city), hospitality and sharing of resources with fellow community members and the needy, a commitment to addressing racism in both society and the church, intentional submission to spiritual disciplines and to community accountability, nonviolence and conflict resolution (on the basis of Matthew 18) and “care for the plot of God’s earth given to us” including support of local businesses and agriculture as opposed to large national corporations.
Another example, under the leadership of Northern Baptist Seminary professor and author Robert Webber, was the Center for an Ancient Evangelical Future, which took as its mission the relating of evangelicalism to historic Christian traditions and practices. Their “Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future” took the broader evangelical culture to task for letting its four defining characteristics run away with themselves. For example, they opposed “forms of worship that focus on God as a mere object of the intellect or that assert the self as the source of worship. Such worship has resulted in lecture-oriented, music-driven, performance-centered and program-controlled models that do not adequately proclaim God's cosmic redemption.”
They also called evangelicals “to turn away from an individualism that makes the church a mere addendum to God's redemptive plan,” an individualism that they felt had “contributed to the current problems of churchless Christianity, redefinitions of the church according to business models, separatist ecclesiologies and judgmental attitudes toward the church.”
Finally, like the new monastics, they sought to intensify evangelicalism's prophetic voice “against the culture's captivity to racism, consumerism, political correctness, civil religion, sexism, ethical relativism, violence and the culture of death.”
Common to these efforts was the recognition that evangelicalism’s many beginnings had all begun as renewal movements within something larger, whenever it seemed that the larger Christian context had lost its passion for applying orthodox doctrine to the believer’s heart. Ultimately, they all argued, the evangelical movement functions best as an important emphasis within historic Christianity rather than as a separate movement standing, in some cases, over against it.
And in many ways, this recognition represents a crossroads. After all, those forms of evangelicalism criticized by the writers of the AEF Call have, on the whole, been successful when measured in terms of membership growth and geographical spread of the Christian message. Perhaps more people are hearing and in many cases responding to, the message of the gospel than at any other time in American history. Yet the question remains: Is what they are hearing always adequately connected to the fullness of the gospel Christians have historically preached?
And here is where the Mennonite Brethren can, in my opinion, most clearly have a voice. One of the great contributions the Anabaptist movement has made to the Christian tradition is its clear witness that the gospel, lived out to its fullest, poses a serious challenge to the powers and principalities of this world, whether those powers are kings and emperors or marketers and statisticians. And it is never a message that needed to be preached and lived more distinctively than it does at this moment.
For, in the end, if ever we knew when a movement started, who started it and why, it was in a small Middle Eastern garden over 2,000 years ago, when the God by whom all things were made, for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures. By grounding ourselves in that story, we will be able to tell all the other stories that really matter.
Jennifer Lynn Woodruff Tait is an adjunct professor of church history at Asbury Theological Seminary, Huntington University, Southwestern College and United Theological Seminary and the author of The Poisoned Chalice: Eucharistic Grape Juice and Common-Sense Realism in Victorian Methodism, University of Alabama Press, 2010. She lives in Huntington, Ind., with her husband and daughter.
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