What is an evangelical?

Whether you call yourself an evangelical or not, whether you broadly support evangelicalism or oppose it strenuously, do you really know what an evangelical is? I called myself an evangelical for at least a decade, but I realise now that I had only a vague understanding of the origins and heritage of evangelicalism and of its core defining tenets.

However, I can now put that right, having conducted extensive and diligent research with a little help from the Infallible and Inerrant source of all Truth – Wikipedia. Let’s start with a basic definition:

“Evangelicalism is a Protestant Christian movement which began in Great Britain in the 1730s and gained popularity in the United States during the series of Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries” – thus saith the Wiki of Pedias. Possibly needs a bit of expanding upon.

Historian David Bebbington identifies four key priorities of evangelicalism:

  • Conversionism – the need for individuals to convert or be ‘born again’, repenting of their sins and making a personal commitment to follow Christ as Lord and Saviour, resulting in a changed life
  • Biblicism – a high regard for the authority (and usually inerrancy) of the Bible as the inspired Word of God
  • Crucicentrism – an emphasis on the Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross as the means/mechanism of salvation
  • Activism – the need to share and express the gospel of Christ actively in evangelism (and, for some, social justice).

Evangelicalism can also be more broadly understood simply as an organic group of movements within the Protestant tradition – Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists etc. Lastly, the term is also used (mainly in North America) for a coalition that arose in reaction to the militant and separatist Fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century. Core institutions and organisations of this evangelical coalition include Moody Bible Institute and Youth For Christ.

A Brief History of Evangelicalism

The word ‘evangelical’ itself of course derives from the Greek evangelion, literally ‘good message’ (or gospel).

During the Protestant Reformation (which began with Luther’s 95 theses in 1517), Protestant theologians started to use ‘evangelical’ to mean ‘gospel truth’. Indeed, the term ‘evangelical’ first appeared in print in 1530 in the phrase ‘evangelical truth’, in a work by William Tyndale. Martin Luther further used the phrase evangelische Kirche (evangelical church) to distinguish Protestants from Roman Catholics.

The 16th and 17th centuries saw the rise of a number of proto-evangelical Protestant movements, most notably among Calvinism in terms of theology, and the proto-fundamentalist Puritanism in terms of values and practices. More of these later.

However (and this surprised me), Evangelicalism as a distinct movement didn’t emerge until about 1730 when the newly-converted John and Charles Wesley led the Methodist movement within the Church of England. In Germany and the Netherlands there was the parallel Pietist movement. And in the American colonies there was the First Great Awakening, arising from revivals led by Congregationalist Jonathan Edwards and Methodist George Whitefield.

The 19th century was perhaps evangelicalism’s great heyday. In America, Baptist and Methodist churches saw major growth as a result of the Second Great Awakening. Preachers like Charles Finney, Dwight L. Moody and Charles Spurgeon expounded the evangelical message powerfully and to great effect in both America and Britain. An evangelical emphasis on missionary work also began in the 1800s, with the founding of many of today’s major missionary societies. There was also a strong concern for social reform, particularly the campaign for the Abolition of Slavery with figures like William Wilberforce.

Theologically, the 1800s saw the rise of Dispensationalism, promoted by John Nelson Darby and Cyrus Scofield. This theory divides all time into seven stages (‘dispensations’) of God’s revelation, after each of which God punishes humanity for its failure in the light of his revelation. Dispensationalism came to be highly influential in 20th century evangelicalism and fundamentalism, as manifest in the bestselling Left Behind novels and the ‘Rapture’ theology of Harold Camping and his ilk.

In the early 20th century, Evangelicalism was dominated by the Fundamentalist movement, particularly in North America. (The movement had arisen in the late 1800s, though the term ‘fundamentalist’ didn’t appear till 1920.) Fundamentalists rejected liberal theology and militantly defended key ‘fundamentals’ of belief such as the virgin birth, biblical inerrancy, penal substitution and the literality of the Genesis accounts. Their adoption of Dispensationalism also led them to seek separation from a sinful world which they believed would experience God’s judgement.

In the post-war 1950s, again particularly in North America, there was a split between the fundamentalists and the more open evangelicals, who felt that Christians should engage constructively with the culture and who wished to abandon a militant stance on the Bible in favour of dialogue. Fundamentalists saw these ‘neo-evangelicals’ as compromising with the world and caring too much about social and intellectual acceptability. Fundamentalists were also opposed to the burgeoning ecumenical movement, and disapproved of evangelist Billy Graham’s practice of working with Roman Catholics and other non-evangelical denominations.

As a result of the fundamentalist/evangelical controversy, in North America a strong distinction still exists between fundamentalists and evangelicals, who are seen as a middle ground between fundies and liberals. In many other parts of the world however, ‘evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist’ are often seen as almost interchangeable terms.

Meanwhile on this side of the Pond, John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones emerged as key leaders of British Evangelicalism.

In the 1960s, Pentecostal influences also began to enter the picture. Pentecostalism had been spreading since the Azusa Street Revival in 1906, but it wasn’t until now that Pentecostal theology and practice began to enter mainline and evangelical denominations through the Charismatic movement. This was, however, viewed with suspicion by more conservative evangelicals who (rather oddly in my view) believed that miraculous spiritual gifts had ceased with the closing of the Biblical canon (‘cessationism’).

The end of the 20th century saw the Emerging Church movement, well, emerging, introducing controversial postmodern influences into evangelicalism.

Influences – Calvinism and Puritanism

I’d like to look more closely now at some of the ideas and theologies that influenced and gave rise to evangelicalism.

Firstly, Evangelicalism is a Protestant movement, and so has to be seen in the overall context of Protestantism and the Reformation, and particularly the ‘Reformed’ theology of Calvinism (though interestingly the Wesleys were Arminians not Calvinists).

Protestantism’s theological core is its five ‘solas’: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, sola Christus, soli dei Gloria (Bible alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, and only God’s glory). Sola scriptura also encompasses four further points – the necessity, sufficiency, inerrancy and clarity of the Bible. Evangelicalism has proudly kept these principles alive while many other protestant groups have quietly let them slide.

To these, Calvinism adds another five, the ‘TULIP’ of Total depravity (everything’s marred by sin and we can’t save ourselves); Unconditional election (salvation is based entirely on God’s sovereign choice, not our merit); Limited atonement (Christ’s saving death is only effective for the Elect); Irresistible grace (if you’re chosen, you’ve got no choice to resist), and Perseverance of the saints (all who are chosen will make it through to final salvation). In a nutshell, Predestination.

These five points sit within the Protestant high view of Scriptural authority and of God’s utter Sovereignty, alongside a Calvinist covenantal theology which ties in nicely with later Dispensationalism. Personally, I take issue with pretty much every aspect of Calvinism, and can’t help wishing that evangelicalism had stuck with its Wesleyan Arminian roots.

Puritanism forms another related strand of influence on early evangelicalism whose presence is still felt today. Puritanism was a separatist movement, perhaps not unlike early 20th-century fundamentalism. Its theology was primarily Calvinist and there was a strong emphasis on personal piety and purity of worship, without idolatrous icons or distractions. For a time in the 17th century it was hugely influential, giving rise to the Pilgrim Fathers who founded America and, in England, to Ollie Cromwell and the Parliamentarians.

Perhaps the most abidingly influential literary work to come out of Puritanism is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678/1684), which continues to exert a hold over the evangelical imagination today. I have to admit I’ve never got on with Pilgrim’s Progress – it seems to me more fear-filled than grace-filled. But I should point out that the popular view of Puritans as piously disapproving of all fun is a misrepresentation – much like the common misrepresentation of fundamentalists and evangelicals today.

A final dual strand is Pietism and Moravianism, both of which were highly influential on the Wesleys. From the Moravians in particular, they took the ideas and practices of open-air preaching, popular hymnody and meeting in small groups (the forerunners of today’s home groups and cell groups).

Characteristics of evangelicalism

From its early Protestant, Puritan and dissenting/non-conformist roots, evangelicalism has inherited a certain degree of antagonism and suspicion towards other denominations and theologies, and so of ecumenism. In particular, evangelicalism has often defined itself against liberal theology (and vice versa), and also against Roman Catholicism with its perceived idolatries, heresies and sacramentalism.

Evangelicals (and fundamentalists) often define themselves as ‘Bible-believing’ Christians who alone truly honour and obey the Bible as God’s inerrant Word. However, like every other group of Christians, evangelicals approach the Bible with particular filters and agendas and with a particular hermeneutic of interpretation. In the case of evangelicalism this leads to a focus (some might say obsession) with ‘sound doctrine’, or believing the right things.

As noted earlier, evangelicalism also places a particular emphasis on evangelism as ‘soul-winning’, saving souls from sin, Satan and hell. Alongside this are parallel emphases on Christ’s cross as what saves us, and on personal morality and holiness as the outworking of salvation. (See also More to Christ than just the Cross)

It must be remembered though that, within its overall framework, Evangelicalism encompasses a wide range of views. There are the fundamentalists, the hard-line or extreme evangelicals who unfairly get a lot of the press. Then there are the conservative evangelicals who, while less militant, nonetheless affirm classic or Reformed evangelical views on biblical inerrancy, penal substitution, hell, the role of women, the unacceptability of homosexual practice etc.

Alongside these though are moderate or centrist evangelicals who adopt a much more ‘live and let live’ policy. And there is also a growing group of ‘open’ or progressive evangelicals who are happy to work with other denominations and even sometimes other faiths, and who are more concerned with social justice and care for the planet than for strict doctrinal correctness.

At its best then, there’s a warm and generous Wesleyan spirit in evangelicalism; at its worst, a Calvinist and Puritan exclusivism, a desire to define itself against others on doctrinal grounds with statements like The Cambridge Declaration, which I find repellent.

Here endeth the history lesson.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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10 Responses to What is an evangelical?

  1. Daniel says:

    Always an interesting lesson is History (Hated it at school). The more I read what an particular sect of Christianity believes down to the very hardline 4 or 5 statements, the ABCDE’s if you will the more I am convinced I am a Christian and nothing more. All this Roman Catholics are wrong because of …. or Fundamentalists are right because of …… does nothing but harm for the church as a whole. We are all wrong to a greater or lesser extent (Please feel free to add in metaphorically why you are) and it is God’s blessing to forgive us which is probably harder than we will ever know.


  2. Roisin says:

    Enjoyed reading the above , brings back memories of debates had with follow students of Cliff college! roisin


  3. dsholland says:

    Nicely put together. History is context and without context we loop don’t we?

    Enjoyed it, thanks.


  4. Pingback: Puritans characteristics | Kimberlymoorec

  5. Ben Newton says:


    Thought you might like to see Rob Bell’s definition of an evangelical…

    Plus – if you get chance, check out my recent blog on worship 🙂


    • Thanks Ben – I like Rob Bell’s definition, even if I think it’s perhaps more aspirational than universally applicable!

      I also really enjoyed your blog on worship, and it’s great that you’re able to share these ideas both with your own church and with the wider world.

      All the best,


  6. Oscar says:

    I recently heard a lecture by Kenneth S Kantzwer, posted by @ http://www.henrycenter.org/media/view-all/?link=all&sort=&type=video# (The series “now your roots”, 1st video), where he says it was used by Luther to describe his understanding of the Christian faith, as early as 1520, and that was used by the catholic church to describe the Lutheran movement…


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