A Brief History of Evangelicalism, Part 1

The development of Evangelicalism did not begin as what we see today, it has a long and complex history, and I cannot hope to put it into just a few words; but I think it is important to understand a little of how this thing called Evangelicalism developed over the last few centuries.  It is sometimes a muddled mix, and to try and find a clear historical line between where Evangelicalism started, and where it has ended up today is difficult at best.

Evangelicalism actually began to take form in the 1730s in Europe and the colonies led by the like of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley.  It was a movement that eventually brought together several ideas and attitudes of Protestant thought under the overarching umbrella of conversion or salvation.  Many of the revivalist preachers traveled extensively and organized churches, particularly in the United States, were still somewhat rare in many areas.  To meet these circumstances, Evangelicals began to emphasis the concept of Assurance and Eternal Security – it is the “once saved, always saved” thing.  It can be argued that without these concepts, the Evangelical movement would have never become the dynamic force it was in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Proselyting became an emphasis, and relatively easy with these concepts, however developing discipleship was much more difficult.  Over time though churches did develop and challenges began to develop in how to address the culture in which the movement found itself.

During the middle of the 20th century, a split developed between the fundamentalist factions of the Evangelical movement and those more liberal who wanted a more non-judgmental and engaging manner to address the culture. During this time, fundamentalist factions tended to isolate themselves, leaning toward a kind of tribalism, interacting primarily with other fundamentalist groups; while the rest of Evangelicalism embraced Ecumenism.  This split apparently remained until the latter part of the 1980s when the fundamentalist factions again became the primary voice of the Evangelical movement.

The current manifestation of Evangelicalism, what we generally refer to today, what the news media refers to, and what has become a political force in our country actually began as a reaction to the turmoil of the 1960s; the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, gay rights, the perceived spread of Communism and the Vietnam War with the anti-war protests that came with it, to name a few of the contributing factors that sent chills up the spine of the fundamentalist factions.  Humanism and Communism were the greatest enemies back then to the Fundamentalists, and they feared that the government, under these “liberal” influences would in time encroach upon their religious rights and liberties.  At this time there also came a deep distrust of the evening news “liberal” media.

The first major catalyst to what became the modern Evangelical movement was not Roe-Vs-Wade as many imagine, but actually began with a court case involving Bob Jones University, a segregated, fundamentalist school in South Carolina, and the IRS.  In 1970 Bob Jones University was notified that they would lose their tax exempt status because of their racially biased admissions policies.  Bob Jones filed suit claiming that the IRS was violating its First Amendment rights to religious liberty.  The case wore on in appeal until it was finally decided in 1975 by the Supreme Court in an 8-1 margin in favor of the government. Fundamentalist factions were quick to come out in support of the university, despite its policies were openly racist in nature.  This was just the first case however that fundamentalists objected to rulings by the Supreme Court, at the same time as this case was being litigated, there was also Roe-vs-Wade, and the ruling to remove institutionalized prayer and Bible reading from public schools; both of which made more headlines and drove the newly formed alliances of fundamentalism into the national scene.  I can remember hearing about all these cases while sitting in Evangelical churches and from the inception of modern Evangelicalism the Supreme Court has been a major target in expanding their agenda.

In 1979, Jerry Falwell, a Baptist pastor, televangelist and civil rights opponent, founded the Moral Majority.  Even though the Moral Majority worked openly with other religious persuasions such as Jews and Catholics, this was a fundamentalist organization and deeply committed to its own political agenda. Even though the Moral Majority lasted only about 10 yrs before disagreements over working with these other persuasions caused it to dissolve, it was the first truly organized political effort by fundamentalists to be directly involved with the political process.

The Republican party was quick to see the voting value of what was soon to become known as the “religious right” and it did not take many years for what seemed at first to be a fringe element of the Republican party to be able exercise more and more influence in party platform and politics.  At the same time, the religious right was also able to gain more and more influence in the Evangelical movement and by the 1990s dominated the dialogue of the Evangelical movement to such an extent that they became synonymous with what it was to be Evangelical. With the fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War, the Evangelical fundamentalists needed a new enemy to keep their momentum going both in the political and religious spectrum.  To have an enemy to rage about is extremely important in both political and Evangelical perspectives. The choice was obvious and they soon turned its attention almost entirely toward political liberalism, creating even closer links to the Republican party.  Today, if you were to go into one of the Evangelical Baptist churches I grew up in it is assumed that you are a Republican, not inquired of, not asked, not discussed, it is simply assumed.

Today, for all practical purposes, to be Evangelical is to be Fundamentalist.  I know that many who still want to hold to the pre-1990s definition will be disturbed by that statement, and that there are many who still hold to the label who do not practice fundamentalism, but by all practical measures by which Evangelicalism is viewed today, it has become a fundamentalist movement.

In order to fully appreciate what Evangelicalism is today however, we have to step back again in time and look at another development that is often overlooked, and even more often misunderstood.  We must look at the development of Dispensationalism.  That is the subject of the next post – stay tuned…

Raptured Out of Fear

At this point, after reading my previous post, you might wonder what happened to me as a child, did I ever get over the dread of being separated from my mother and family?  Well, yes I did – but it wasn’t the Evangelical way.  To the Evangelical, assurance of salvation is extremely important.  They will hand out Bible verses that are not meant to be questioned, very often they will want you to record the day and time in some manner, they will emphasize that your salvation is assured at every turn they have; but there was nothing in those things that I found at all helpful.  Not the verses, not the prayers, not the preaching; none of it was helpful – there had to be something else.

When I was 14, not quite having turned 15 yet, my mother was again late coming home; and, as normal I had begun to panic.  I remember I was pacing the floors again, I was in tears again, I was again in hysterics that I had been left alone.  But this time, instead of reading my Bible for comfort, or recalling the verses I had memorized, or praying for God to “save” me again, I remember I kneeled down at the side of my bed and prayed “God, I can’t do this anymore!  Bible verses don’t work, and I have asked you to save me so many times, I don’t know if I am saved or not.  But please God, just take this fear away.”

At that moment, I felt something I never knew before, I felt peace, total peace.  I got up from the side of my bed, and looked out the window to see my mother walking up the sidewalk.  I just watched her.  I didn’t feel the same “safe for another day” feeling that I normally did, I just felt at peace.  I knew then that those feelings of dread that I had experienced so often would never return, God had taken them away – and they never did return.

I did continue to believe in the Rapture for another 12 yrs or so, but it never held me in the grip of fear again that it once did.  That day, kneeling beside my bed, God worked a miracle in my life; God became real to me that day.  That day I found a God that was, for whatever reason, able to reach into people’s hearts and minds in ways that words in the Bible, and theories spoken by preachers could never do.

The Evangelical reading this would probably say that this was the moment I was “truly saved”, my conversion.  I have nothing against that – I do actually believe in the concept of conversion.  On that day, I see my conversion to being a disciple of Christ beginning, it was not the final step, it was not enough be “saved”, one had to begin a journey to follow Jesus in teaching, example, and life, as well as in death and resurrection.

The best way I know how to describe the Evangelical view of conversion is that they will look at “salvation” or “conversion” and see Jesus as a kind of façade.  The façade of a building is the front – where the entrance is.  It can be very beautiful and most architects place special emphasis on this part of the buildings design; but it is only the façade.  What is inside is where we find the functionality of the building, why it is there and how it is of value.  Look at John 10:9: “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved…” This is Jesus the door of salvation. Evangelicals will see salvation as this.  Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, which open the door of salvation; but is there anything on the other side of this door?  I did not find anything in Evangelicalism to show me there was.

Evangelicals will overwhelmingly believe in the “once saved always saved” idea, and the majority will believe in the “salvation by faith alone” idea; but as time has gone by I have begun to realize that the Evangelical salvation is really a very theoretical salvation.  It requires little by way of practical application.  Sure, they will want you to go to church (their churches), and they will want you to “grow in Christ” (as they define it), but there is little requirement for discipleship.  I define discipleship as following the teachings of Jesus and His example.  This lack of discipleship tends to leave a kind of void, a gap in understanding what it means to be a follower of Jesus (i.e. Christian).  This void has proven to be easy to manipulate and take advantage of by leaders whose motivations have actually been the advancement their own political position and influence.  People like Jerry Falwell, his son Jerry Falwell Jr. and Pat Robinson on the religious side, and like Pat Buchannan, Ted Cruz, and even George Bush on the political side.  All sought to manipulate the void created by an incomplete, and misunderstood idea of “salvation” toward their own ends and political standing

We must see that John 10:9 goes on:  “…he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” Then in the next few verses Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd.  These words stand out to me though here: Go in and out, find pasture…  This is not a passive, theoretical salvation I see here, it is an active salvation.  It is one of movement, and finding safety and nourishment in Jesus.

It took a number of years of moving forward and backward, in and out, before I came to terms with the ramifications of what happened to me that day – and in many ways I still am working on that.  What I can say with certainty is that I learned that being a Christian was not about saying a prayer that will hopefully get you to heaven and keep you out of hell; that is not what conversion is.  Christianity is about the life we live here and now, and how we live as Christ lived.  What I have learned in my Christian life is that Jesus, Jesus alone, is the Way.  The way we should be living our lives now, not just to go to heaven, not just to believe in the crucifixion and resurrection, but Jesus is the example we need to look at to live our lives every day.  I learned that Jesus is the Truth; not our preachers (and definitely not our politicians), they don’t hold the truth – only Jesus, and Jesus alone.  And I learned that Jesus is the Life; the life we should be living right now.  Our churches do not hold the key to Life, our preachers do not hold the key, Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the Way to the Truth about the Life we should be living. (John 14:6)


I want to share a personal story with all those following Breakfast In The Basement.

When I was a child, I heard of something called the Rapture.  This is the moment that Christ comes and takes those who have accepted him as their personal Savior away (believed to be described in I Thessalonians 4:16-17), and everyone else is left to endure the seven years of Tribulation meant to judge humanity.  In a moment, a twinkling of an eye, all those who are true Christians will simply vanish, to meet Jesus in the clouds – everyone else, faces the horrors of God’s judgement with no escape.

This was a very traumatic thought to me as a child!  It shaped much of my childhood.  It scared me to panic, the thought that my mother would be taken from me and I would be left alone in this world.  I tried to be “saved”; I went forward in church, I prayed all the prayers, I read all the Bible verses – it never helped.  I still could never really be sure; and when my mother was just a couple minutes late coming home, I would be in panics until I saw her walk in the door.  I would pace the floor, I would cry, my thoughts would be overwhelmed by the terrifying feeling that my mother was gone – and I was alone.

When my mother would finally come home, I would often run and hide; I would wipe my tears, and try to gather myself.  I never told her my feelings, even after I grew up she never knew; I never told her how this idea had affected me.  She never knew about my panics or my tears.  Not because my mother would have been anything but understanding, caring, and compassionate. It was not out of fear of being scolded that I did not tell her, it was because I was ashamed.  You see, to doubt your salvation is a sin in the way I was raised – you must trust unquestionably the Word of God, these verses that had given me no comfort. You simply had to accept it.  To do otherwise is to call God a “liar”, that is a sin – and I sinned a lot!

It was unashamedly taught by churches that families would be torn apart by the Rapture; “one will be taken, the other left” (Matthew 24:40-42).  It was the thought and teaching I grew up with, and believed for most of my childhood.  Looking back on these teachings, I can begin to understand (NOT condone mind you) how Evangelicals today can look the other way, or even openly encourage, how our country is taking children away from their parents at the border.  To those who were not raised in this environment, this acceptance may seem a mystery, but the answer, at least in part, lies in this teaching.  To the Evangelical who believes that someday Jesus himself will rip apart thousands, if not millions, of families all over the globe in this way, the current crisis on the border may pale in significance.

This teaching of the Rapture has the effect of removing responsibility for the hurt and suffering in the world.  If you are “saved”, you will be taken away before all the bad stuff happens, you have no reason to worry about the suffering in the world today; it will get much worse, but that is not your problem.  By removing responsibility, a kind of callousness to others suffering ensues.  Their suffering is after all, their own fault, they did not follow God’s law and accept Jesus as their personal Savior.  That callousness in turn can bring about a disdain, contempt, and even hatred of those who one does not believe will be part of the Raptured few.  While the Evangelical may claim a “burden for lost souls” while they remain hopeful of being Raptured, their anticipation is that, once Raptured, they will sit in Heaven looking down the judgement of human beings saying “those dirty sinners will get what’s coming to them!”  That “burden” only extends to the time when they leave those lost souls behind.

To far too many Evangelicals today, what is happening on the border is these peoples own fault, they broke our laws, they get what’s coming to them.  It is the Rapture attitude in miniature.  It is without responsibility, it is callous, it is even hateful; but it is essentially no different than what the Rapture will do to many more children.  The results are the same, except the judgement God rains down on human beings will be much worse.  It is then no mystery why the Evangelical will accept and condone such actions so readily.  These actions have much in common with one of their most dearly held beliefs.

What makes the Evangelical, Evangelical?

In one Methodist church I attended after leaving the Evangelical movement, during part of the service the pastor would ask “where have you seen God this week?”  Invariably the answers would consist of grandchildren, flowers, sunshine, etc.  Pretty things, hopeful things, things that cause us to take a moment and reflect on the beauty of the world God has provided for us.  There is nothing wrong with that, but to be honest it got a little boring sometimes.  I think sometimes we forget that the world is a difficult place and life is hard – we need to see God in those things as well.  But to the people in those pews, and most I think attending main stream churches, this is what they want to hear, and this is what they want God to be.

Go to an Evangelical church, like the Baptist churches I grew up in, this Sunday and ask that same question: “where have you seen God this week?”  You will most likely here accounts of great “victories”.  This Sunday, you will hear of the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice that meets their Evangelical criteria.  You will hear how Donald Trump stood up to NATO; and you will hear whatever spin they want to put on the meetings happening the rest of this week.  This is what the Evangelical will want to hear, and this is what they want God to be.  A confrontational God, a warrior God, a judging God, a God that stands up and fights for their version of what is right.

This illustrates the difference between the Evangelical and the main stream Protestant.  Both will see God in the way they want to see God, but, as you might expect from the above comparison, the Evangelical will take a particularly hard line view.  Not only that, they will most often express this view very loudly and assertively.  If that does not work to sway, they will often resort to insults or bullying get their point across.  This is especially noticeable in the rise of right wing media over the last 30 yrs; the goal seeming to be that if you can say it loud enough, mean enough, and often enough, then somehow interject the name of God or quote the Bible, you win, regardless of validity.  With the ever increasing popularity of social media, we are seeing the confrontational attitude become more and more prevalent among Evangelicals, and it seems to have reached a fevered pitch since the 2016 election.  Winning is a victory for God, and whatever the cost, winning is paramount.  Lies can be rationalized, or just ignored as “alternative facts”, anger can be justified, bullying is just a way to look strong; none of those things matter as long as the “victory” can be attained.

This is difficult for the main stream Protestant to understand, unless they happen to be one who has come out of the indoctrination that makes Evangelicals what they are.  After waking up the other day at 4 AM by the TV relating how our President was taking hard line (and some will say destructive) approach with NATO allies, this difference however became especially clear to me.   Evangelicals simply do not see Christianity in the same way that other Protestants do.  To the Evangelical, Christianity is not a message of peace and love (unless it is their version of those things), it is a message of battles – battles to be fought and won by whatever means available.