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Related to evangelical: Evangelical Church, Pentecostal


1. of, based upon, or following from the Gospels
2. denoting or relating to any of certain Protestant sects or parties, which emphasize the importance of personal conversion and faith in atonement through the death of Christ as a means of salvation
3. an upholder of evangelical doctrines or a member of an evangelical sect or party, esp the Low-Church party of the Church of England
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The strict meaning of "evangelical" refers to the Gospel. The Greek word from which it is derived, euaggelion, means "good news." So does the word "gospel." So in this sense, evangelical means "pertaining to the Gospel," or the story told by the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They are the New Testament books that record the life of Jesus. Perhaps the apostle Paul best summarized the "evangel" in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8:

Now brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, although some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

This is a synopsis of the story. The one who tells it, who brings the "good news," is called an evangelist.

All Christian churches use basically the same Bible and read the Gospels at their worship services. All accept what the apostle said in 1 Corinthians. So all claim to be evangelists and all claim to be evangelical. But some claim to be more evangelical than others.

Some Protestant churches began early on to differentiate between evangelical and evangelistic. "Evangelical" became a noun—something a Christian was if he or she believed the Gospel. But "evangelistic" described something the Christian did, something he or she lived for. Evangelistic churches purposely set out to convert souls to Christ. After a while, a liturgy developed, although most Evangelistic churches favor spontaneous rather than recited worship and would be mortified to admit they had a liturgy. Nonetheless, when the evangelist gave the altar call and the organist struck up the familiar strains of the hymn "Just As I Am," everyone knew what to do. They came forward to "get saved." It was the whole purpose of the service. It was what the liturgy called for.

This method of religious practice was completely different from what had become known as "High Church." In High Church, the emphasis was on liturgy and worship. No one ever asked if a worshiper was "born again." That would be prying. The person was a member of the church; he was there; he was a Christian. His name was on the rolls.

An evangelist, however, might say that being a Christian in name is not enough; one must be a Christian "in your heart." Testimonies began to be preached in Evangelical churches that went something like this: "I went to church all my life but I never accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. I was going to hell and I never knew it because I sang in the choir every week. But when Brother... came to town, I went forward and was born again."

Now there were, in effect, two different definitions of evangelical. All kinds of denominations arose that used the term "evangelical" in their title to advertise the fact that they were in the business of "doing" church instead of what they often called "playing" church. Evangelical had become a label differentiating what is now called conservative theology from liberal theology, even though both liberal and conservative churches still used the same word. It was a matter of interpretation. If a church believed in a literal reading of the Bible, rather than metaphorical; insisted on the individual's need for a personal experience of being "saved"; and sang the songs of John and Charles Wesley, it was "more evangelical" than those that didn't. The church might still have a formal worship service, but it would be considered Low Church rather than High Church. Many on both sides of the issue reveled in the difference.

The situation can be seen clearly in the formation of the Protestant Episcopalian Church in the late 1700s. Right from the beginning, High Church became Protestant Episcopalian. Low Church became Methodist Episcopal, eventually shortened to Methodist. Methodists considered themselves evangelical. So did Episcopalians, but not in the same sense. Style and theological substance were at odds with each other. When a person "converted" from one theology to the other, they tended to lump worship style into their bag of complaints about their former church home.

New Low Church adherents might have complained that their former congregation was just going through the motions, while established High Church folks might have lamented what they perceived as a lack of dignity and beauty in the worship.

It's important to remember that, at this point, no one was yet using the term "evangelical Christian" as a label. But everyone knew what the term meant. There were sermons being preached by Anglican and Episcopalian (typically High Church) ministers with titles such as, "We Are Evangelical." But Baptists and Methodists (typically Low Church) knew better.

By the 1920s the rift had grown into a chasm. Even those who were on the conservative side of what would soon be known as evangelicalism were suspicious of those more toward the center. With the publication of a series of pamphlets defining "the fundamentals" (see Fundamentalism) beginning in 1910, right-wing evangelicals began to call themselves fundamentalists. They wanted to distance themselves from what was being called "literary" or "higher criticism" (see Literary Criticism/Historical Critical Method) and from those who questioned the doctrine of the virgin birth, miracles, and the Second Coming of Jesus. Fundamentalism united the religious right against the form of liberal Christianity then called "modernism." The Scopes "Monkey Trial," held in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, pitted "modernist" Darwinism versus "fundamentalist" creationism. It generated such nationwide publicity that fundamentalism vs. modernism became a national debate (see Christianity).

Problems arise, however, whenever something as deeply felt as religious conviction comes to the surface. Fundamentalists took such pride in the purity of their beliefs, and modernists in their educated views and traditional worship, that the two sides simply stopped talking to each other.

But by the 1950s fundamentalism had developed the appearance of an "attitude." Science had produced such a huge body of evidence supporting evolution that even though the fundamentalists had won the Scopes trial, it seemed they were losing the modernist war. Evolution, not Creation, was being taught in the public schools. Men returning from World War II were attending liberal colleges financed by the G.I. bill. Having been in contact with different cultures and religions, these men were not quite so quick to condemn others. Churches were booming, but many were moving to the suburbs, where Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Jews were all in the same bowling league.

The harder fundamentalists fought, the more their image became that of the preacher with the clenched fist, the unenlightened, the unbending.

Although it is difficult to document, a good argument can be put forth that it was fundamentalist objection to Billy Graham (b. 1918) that finally caused large groups of Christians to distance themselves from the fundamentalist title. The Reverend Billy Graham, arguably the most influential evangelical in America, was a fundamentalist, but he was open and inviting to everyone. He often welcomed civic leaders to sit on the front dais with him at rallies. This caused some fundamentalists to draw back in horror. How can believers associate with unbelievers?

Some fundamentalists began to picket Graham's famous rallies. They were called "separationists." Others were even more extreme. They not only disassociated from Billy Graham, they disassociated with those who associated with him. They were called "secondary separationists."

This incident was embarrassing to many who agreed with fundamentalist theology but didn't feel comfortable associating with fundamentalists. It became popular to declare one's theological position by announcing, "I am a fundamentalist in theology but not in attitude."

It was Harold Ockenga, pastor of Park Street Church in Boston, who coined the term "new evangelical." He preached a conservative form of theology but was greatly respected by the liberal intellectual community. When the popular periodical Christianity Today identified with the new label, and when the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association followed suit, the term "evangelical" stuck. It became the name for people of all denominations who followed a fairly conservative brand of Christian belief but felt free to associate with those who did not. At the same time, evangelicals sought to explore their faith unencumbered by the restraints of those who were suspicious of scientific inquiry and critical biblical scholarship.

Today's evangelicals can be found in every denomination and every local church. It is almost a separate denomination. Evangelical members of the United Church of Christ might attend conferences with evangelical Methodists and Baptists, feeling closer to them in the faith than they do with more liberal people in their own church. Probably every Protestant church in America has an evangelical wing in the congregation, even though they may not use the term.

Currently the labeling system is as follows (see Bible):

To the far right of the Christian spectrum lie those calling themselves fundamentalists. Moving toward the center, but still on the conservative right, lies the evangelical camp. In the center are those usually called "mainstream" or "middle of the road." To the left lie the liberals.

Notice that it makes little difference what the denomination is. Fundamentalists of the Missouri Synod Lutherans feel more comfortable with fundamentalist Orthodox Presbyterians than they do with liberal Lutherans. And Methodist evangelicals work together with American Baptist evangelicals when the Billy Graham organization comes to town. Evangelical student organizations are found in even the most liberal of seminaries and theological schools, for evangelicals consider themselves the heirs and modern expression of traditional fundamentalism—the essence of traditional Christianity.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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