What on Earth is “Evangelical”?

By Ricky Njoto

The label “Evangelical” is often used among Christians, either as a proud badge of identity or as an insult from those who hate it. But often, the meaning of this label is assumed. Some people assume that being Evangelical means being Protestant. Some others follow the American trend of assuming that Evangelical is synonymous with “conservative.” But what does the word mean?

The word “evangelical” literally means “of the gospel.” In a literal use like this, this word has been used since the Reformation in the 1500s as a label for Protestants because they claimed to live according to the gospel. However, the label Evangelical that we use today has a somewhat different meaning than the meaning of evangelical in the Reformation era. The label Evangelical now refers to a movement; that is, the Evangelical movement. Hence the term Evangelicalism.

Exploring Its Origin

To understand the importance of the Evangelical movement, we must look at the world of Christianity in Europe and America in which this movement emerged. We all know that Martin Luther lit the fire of the Reformation in 1517. Since then, several denominations had emerged independent of the Roman Catholic church. In Germany, Lutheran churches began to appear. In Switzerland, the churches we now call “Reformed” began to rule. In England, the Anglican Church began. In Scotland, the Presbyterian church sprang up. In addition, some streams began to emerge such as Anabaptism.

However, in the 1600s, these Protestant countries began to show conflict between one another, especially in the political field. At that time, there was no concept of individual faith. To ensure political unity, true faith must be the faith of the whole country/kingdom; what we now call the state church. Because the line between politics and religion was blurred, often they could not distinguish between political and religious conflicts. A war broke out throughout Europe called the Thirty Years War. In this war, the Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic countries fought against one another. In connection with the Thirty Years War, the Civil War also broke out in the United Kingdom between members of the Reformed Parliament and defenders of the more Catholic King of England.

The Thirty Years War

During this time, some Protestants began to realise that mere understanding of Reformation doctrine alone could not change people’s lives. This was especially true for the Moravians. The Moravian Church was located in Germany, where most of the Thirty Years War was fought. During this time, the Moravians were well aware that those who claimed to be Lutheran or Reformed still did not demonstrate changes in their lives. They were still cruel, sadistic, hateful, and hypocritical. Because of this, the Moravians began to preach about the new birth, faith that transformed life, and personal piety (not just faith as a community).

John and Charles Wesley

About 100 years later, Moravian teachings began to bear fruit in different figures at the same time. In the Anglican church, we can highlight 3 people; John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield. John Wesley met the Moravians and was changed by them. Since then, he started preaching on the streets outside the church, which was controversial because it meant that his sermons could not be controlled by the Anglican Church. Charles Wesley was also converted at about the same time and began writing contemporary Christian songs, a controversial practice because at that time the churches only sang the Psalms. George Whitefield also began preaching in theatrical styles. This, again, was also controversial because at that time preaching was an activity that was considered serious and solemn, not carried out dramatically and theatrically. All of these preachers carried the same message: salvation through faith in Christ, and not through state or church institutions. And they always invited listeners to respond personally.

Jonathan Edwards

Around the same time, an amazing event happened in America. A Congregationalist preacher named Jonathan Edwards started an extraordinary spiritual awakening. In 1740, Edwards invited George Whitefield to come and have a preaching tour. The collaboration between these two figures resulted in such a large event that we now call the First Great Awakening. Many people repented. People who had used to claim to be Christian but whose faith was nominal now gave a personal faith response. Church activities that had only been isolated to Sundays were now becoming popular. Prayer meetings were held globally, the first Sunday school appeared, youth groups emerged. But the event was also accompanied by controversies. During the Great Awakening, those who listened to sermons responded in extreme ways. There were some who cried, screamed, fainted, shrieked, or suddenly jumped from their seats.

Many pastors and preachers joined this movement, ranging from Presbyterian ministers, Congregationalists, Baptists, etc. However, not a few pastors also denounced it as the work of Satan. One of such pastors was Charles Chauncy, a Puritan, Protestant, and Reformed minister. Jonathan Edwards (and later George Whitefield and John Wesley, among others) defended this movement as the work of the Holy Spirit because, for him, faith that only existed in the brain was not true faith. Reciting the confession of faith was not enough. True faith must touch the heart and give passion for both piety and evangelism.

The word “Evangelical” appeared the first time in the 1700s after the First Great Awakening to characterise the movement.

John Newton

Since its birth, this movement has spread widely. People like John Wesley and George Whitefield spread this movement through their preaching, people like Jonathan Edwards through theological writings that defended it, people like Charles Wesley and John Newton through contemporary songs that touched the heart (such as “Amazing Grace”), and later, people like William Wilberforce through the changes they brought in politics. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Evangelical movement produced 2 children who came from the same principles: Fundamentalism and Pentacostalism. Over time, some people in traditional denominations also joined the Evangelical movement (such as some Catholics, some Lutheran churches, etc.).

Chasing After a Definition

Knowing a movement through its story enables us to know it better than merely having a precise definition without context. However, if Evangelicalism must be defined, how should we define it? We will end this article by looking at 2 definitions that I think capture the movement well.

Historian David Bebbington offers 4 characteristics of the Evangelical movement:

  1. Conversionism (the importance of personal repentance and the new birth),
  2. Activism (the importance of active evangelism not only by pastors but also by each Christian),
  3. Biblicism (the importance of the Bible as the word of God), and
  4. Crucicentrism (the importance of the cross of Christ as the only way to salvation).

But, my favourite definition is expressed by historian Douglas Sweeney as follows: “Evangelical movement is a movement rooted in classical and orthodox Christianity, formed by a largely Protestant understanding of the gospel, and has 18th century twists” (such as individualism, the importance of the heart, being dramatic, etc.). Thus, the Evangelical movement assumes the formulation of orthodox faith (such as the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus) and Protestantism (such as justification by faith) but also has modern characteristics. Further, Evangelicalism is a movement, not a denomination. Since its birth, the Evangelical movement has been a movement of unity of Protestants who care about the application of the gospel to the hearts of individuals; ranging from Methodists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, and Moravians.

Soli Deo gloria!

Evangelicalism is a movement, not a denomination.

Ricky Njoto

Ricky Njoto is a pastor of Church on the Corner, an English congregation of Camberwell Methodist Church, Melbourne.