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…

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