What is an “evangelical”? In the preface to Christian Faith: Dogmatics in Outline (2016) B. A. Gerrish explored the question as an exercise in self-identification:
“[O]thers, whether approving or scornfully, have called me a “liberal,” whereas I have always considered myself an “evangelical” in the old, Reformation sense: one who holds that “the real treasure of the church is the sacred gospel of the glory and grace of God” (as Luther said in his Ninety-five Theses). But the word evangelical has come to mean something other than it meant to the Protestant Reformers: nowadays, it usually identifies a party with Protestantism. Party badges such a “liberal,” “conservative,” “evangelical,” “postliberal,” and “postmodern” may have some limited use in the theological typology. But over time they tend to become more misleading than helpful; adopted as substitutes for careful distinctions, they may even come to serve the abuses of complacency and disparagement of others. They are avoided in the pages that follow. But I see no reason to abandon “evangelical” in the Reformation sense.”
Reading this passage prompted me to want to come to terms with the word “evangelical.” What follows are more or less my notes on this exploration. In order to get a handle on the various ways the word has been used in English, I began (where I suppose any English teacher would) with the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED lists five senses of the word to which I propose adding two more, for a total of seven distinct senses. Due to its length, this exploration is divided into two parts. The first four senses of the word discussed in Part I and three more in Part II.
First, of or pertaining to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is the sense from which all the other meanings of evangelical are derived. While once a common adjective, it is typically avoided now due to the controversy generated by the fourth through the sixth senses of the word discussed below. In this principle sense, all Christians and all the branches of the Holy Catholic Church into which they are formally organized, the Greek, Roman, and Protestant, may be described as evangelical.
Second, equivalent to Protestant
To those who embraced the Reformation in the 16th C., it was as if the Evangel (i.e., the Gospel), tarnished by centuries of human frailty and folly, had been restored to its full luster; therefore, they were called evangelicals. The great 19th C. German-American historian Philip Schaff described “three fundamental principles of Protestantism: the absolute supremacy of the Divine Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice; justification by free grace through faith; the general priesthood of the laity” (History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII). On these three principles the different Churches of the Reformation, were essentially united, though emphases differed. The contrast to this sense would be Roman Catholic.
Third, a Lutheran (specifically in Germany and Switzerland)
The contrast to this sense of the word is Reformed. This sense can be seen in, for example, the Scottish historian Thomas M. Lindsay’s History of the Reformation:
“It is probable that, had Luther lived for ten or fifteen years longer, the great division between the Reformed or Calvinist and the Evangelical or Lutheran Churches would have been bridged over; but after his death his successors, intent to maintain, as they expressed it, the deposit of truth which Luther had left, actually ostracised Melanchthon for his endeavour to heal the breach.”
In this passage a typological distinction is seen — the capitalization of Evangelical. Lindsay, following common 19th and early 20th C. practice, uses “evangelical” as an adjective or a common noun interchangeable with Protestant, while he uses “Evangelical” as a proper noun to denote the Lutheran branch of the Reformation.
Schaff — though certainly dated now — possesses an aptitude for capturing the essential elements in a sea of historical data; his description of the difference between the Reformed and Evangelical branches of the Reformation is at least a helpful starting place (however much it might need qualification):
“Their differences are theological rather than religious; they affect the intellectual conception, but not the heart and soul of piety. The only serious doctrinal difference which divided Luther and Zwingli at Marburg was the mode of the real presence in the eucharist…. But other differences of government, discipline, worship, and practice developed themselves in the course of time, and overshadowed the theological lines of separation….
Both agree in the three fundamental principles of Protestantism: the absolute supremacy of the Divine Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice; justification by free grace through faith; the general priesthood of the laity. But as regards the first principle, the Reformed Church is more radical in carrying it out against human traditions, abolishing all those which have no root in the Bible; while Luther retained those which are not contrary to the Bible. As regards justification by faith, Luther made it the article of the standing or falling Church; while Zwingli and Calvin subordinated it to the ulterior truth of eternal foreordination by free grace, and laid greater stress on good works and strict discipline. Both opposed the idea of a special priesthood and hierarchical rule; but the Swiss Reformers gave larger scope to the popular lay element, and set in motion the principle of congregational and synodical self-government and self-support.”
This sense of the word can still be seen in the official names of several Churches that trace their origins to Luther, as, for example, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American. Ironically, while in this sense Evangelical contrasts with Reformed, in the next sense, those who come to be called Evangelicals are within the Reformed Tradition.
Fourth, a movement within Anglo-American Christianity originating in the 18th C. characterized by zealous preaching, strict social morality, and hymn-singing, which sought to return to what they perceived to be the neglected principles of the Reformation.
The OED explains that this sense of the word denotes a…
“school of Protestants which maintains that the essence of ‘the Gospel’ consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ, and denies that either good works or the sacraments have any saving efficacy.
“Other features more or less characteristic of the theology of this school are: a strong insistence on the totally depraved state of human nature consequent on the Fall; the assertion of the sole authority of the Bible in matters of doctrine, and the denial of any power inherent in the Church to supplement or authoritatively interpret the teaching of Scripture; the denial that any supernatural gifts are imparted by ordination; and the view that the sacraments are merely symbols, the value of which consists in the thoughts which they are fitted to suggest. As a distinct party designation, the term came into general use, in England, at the time of the Methodist revival; and it may be said, with substantial accuracy, to denote the school of theology which that movement represents, though its earlier associations were rather with the Calvinistic than the Arminian branch of the movement. In the early part of the 19th c. the words ‘Methodist’ and ‘Evangelical’ were, by adversaries, often used indiscriminately, and associated with accusations of fanaticism and ‘puritanical’ disapproval of social pleasures. The portion of the ‘evangelical’ school which belongs to the Anglican church is practically identical with the ‘Low Church’ party. In the Church of Scotland during the latter part of the 18th and the early part of the 19th c. the two leading parties were the ‘Evangelical’ and the ‘Moderate’ party.”
Note that the OED equates Low Church with Evangelical; however, Nockles has shown that the application of Low Church to the Evangelicals is not to be found prior to 1833. Low Church originally referred to the Latitudinarian party (I will further discuss this shift in terminology under the fifth heading). In the 18th C., the Evangelical party within the Church of England contrasted with both the High Church (in the pre-Oxford Movement sense) and Low Church (again, in its original sense, meaning latitudinarian) parties. This social phenomenon extended beyond the Church of England. It swept through all the major Protestant denominations, existing alongside and sometimes in tension with the institutional structures of the various Churches. In the American colonial context, this movement is described by historians as the First Great Awakening.
Because strong preaching (in and out of church services, by licensed and unlicensed preachers, both clergy and lay), strict social morality (that included opposition to hard liquor and opposition to slavery and the slave trade), and world evangelism were the most conspicuous features of this movement, the word evangelical also, at this time, became closely associated with the word “zealous.” In other words, those who were called Evangelicals or Methodists were also known to be evangelistic. “Zealous for the Gospel” might be aptly designated as sense 4b.
Pivotal in the development of this movement was the “Holy Club” formed at Oxford by John and Charles Wesley and later joined by George Whitefield, all of whom became Anglican clergymen. Their Oxford peers disparagingly called them “Methodists,” the sense of which is evident in this jerring ditty:
“By rule they eat, by rule they drink,
By rule do all things but think.
Accuse the priests of loose behavior.
To get more in the laymen’s favor.
Method alone must guide ’em all
When themselves “Methodists” they call.”
Whitfield formed the first Methodist Conference; when he left for the American colonies in 1739 on an evangelistic mission of preaching, he left the leadership to John Wesley. When he returned in 1741 he found that Wesley had turned many of his friends against him. Wesley’s rejection of the Reformed doctrine of predestination and his teaching on Christian Perfection (that one could attain to complete sanctification in this life) divided the Evangelicals and planted the seeds for a later development (See Nigel Scotland’s George Whitefield: The First Transatlantic Revivalist, 2019).
After the American Revolution, when the newly formed Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States was formed out of an alliance between latitudinarians (or, Low Churchmen, in the original sense) of the middle and southern colonies led by William White and New England High Churchmen (in the pre-Oxford Movement sense) led by Samuel Seabury. After their consecrations, both Bishop White and Seabury ordained several Methodist preachers. White tried unsuccessfully to bring about a formal union, that the three “daughters” of Anglicanism with the United States could exist in a single institution; instead, the Methodist Episcopal Church and Protestant Episcopal Church developed as separate institutions. Nevertheless, Evangelicals quickly became a prominent force within the new Protestant Episcopal Church and remained so until a full third of Episcopalians broke off to form the Reformed Episcopal Church in 1873 (see Diana Butler Bass’s Standing Against the Whirlwind: Evangelical Episcopalians in Nineteenth-century America, 1995 and Allen Guelzo’s For the Union of Evangelical Christendom: The Irony of the Reformed Episcopalians, 2010).
While many Evangelicals and High Churchmen were positively antagonistic, they were not mutually exclusive categories. Many churchmen could equally and honestly apply both labels to themselves. As, for example, John Henry Hobart, Bishop of New York, writing in 1826:
“In the correct sense of the term, High Churchmen disclaim the imputation of not being evangelical. It is only when faithless to their principles that they are not pre-eminently so. …Pardon, justification, eternal life, as the free gift of God the Father, through the merits and intercession of his eternal Son, and through the renovating and sanctifying agency of the Holy Ghost — these are the great evangelical truths which alone render of value or of efficacy, the ministrations and ordinances for which the High Churchman contends — and which so deeply pervade that Liturgy which he cherishes with a sacred affection, only inferior to that with which he regards the inspired volume.”
These evangelicals were not necessarily antagonistic to the rich symbolism of Medieval church architecture, ornament, and ceremonial. The Evangelical William Augustus Muhlenberg, for example, welcomed far more pre-Reformation ceremonial than the Old High Churchman John Henry Hobart. As Allen Guelzo notes,
“In 1846, when he became the rector of the Church of the Holy Communion in New York City… introduced weekly communion services, organized a sisterhood for social service, put away his preaching gown in favor of exclusive use of the surplice, and erected an altar with crosses, candles, flowers, and incense. …Whatever his dress and the peculiar decorations of his church, his theology and his spirit were firmly Evangelical.”
This fourth sense marks a significant shift that will affect the senses to follow. Evangelicalism in the second and third senses described above allied itself to the State. While the Protestant Reformation began in criticism of the Papal establishment, the Reformers quickly allied themselves to local political structures for protection. By and large they viewed Church and State as both necessary and necessarily connected sources of order within a society. Therefore, the major Protestant Churches formed part of the socio-political establishment, usually state-sanctioned or -protected. In contrast, this 18th C. development is a subculture the genesis of which consists in criticism of the establishment. Within the movement, some advocated for criticism from within the establishment, while others felt compelled to formally separate from institutions perceived as corrupt. Because this movement was largely successful in shaping the mainline Protestant denominations of the 19th and 20th C., this fourth sense of the word, is still widely used today though this sense is sometimes at odds with the senses to be discussed next month. What follows enters into more recently but muddier territory. The remaining three senses of the word are all used today, though they are not always easily distinguishable.