Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, virtually all American Protestantism would have been considered evangelical. Despite denominational disagreements and developing theological tensions within some denominations, evangelicals were laying claim to America through a massive variety of social programs, benevolent enterprises, and increasingly pervasive revival efforts. At the same time, several factors began to fragment this consensus.
From Consensus to Fragmentation
The Unitarian movement that took over Harvard and split congregationalism in New England, the rise of a variety of sectarian movements such as Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses and a variety of communitarian groups, plus the development of theological liberalism and the social gospel movement challenged Protestant evangelicalism.
The polemical urgency of these challenges led to the production of a series of books defending Protestant evangelicalism known as The Fundamentals. This series carried a wide variety of articles from theologians and Christian practitioners from many denominations. As the historic evangelicals lost ground within the mainline denominations, however, and their concerns began to be marginalized, they sought to cut their losses. They did this through a renewed focus on evangelism and revival in the local church so as not to allow their churches to be swept up in the infidelity of liberalism and its substitute for evangelism, the social gospel.
They minimized their benevolent involvement to foreign missions, often through independent missionary societies. They emphasized central doctrinal affirmations that became widely known by the same name as the series of evangelical pamphlets, the fundamentals. They left the denominational seminaries, largely boycotted the Universities, founded Bible colleges, and frequently left their denominations to form a large independent church movement. Some of the separations resulted in the formation of much smaller denominations that focused strongly on confessional fidelity.
As the nineteenth-century American society molded by evangelical social zeal and civil involvement gave way in the twentieth century to increasingly secular commitments under the power of a liberalism that capitulated to scientism and pragmatism, evangelicals flinched and blinked. They also mourned the increase of flippancy and shallowness in the most popular means of entertainment, increasing sexual permissiveness, the sacredness of Sunday more and more under attack, and set themselves to be culture opposers rather than culture shapers. Many began to define holiness by the avoidance and condemnation of the pastimes that dominated the secular culture—dancing, movie attendance, consumption of beverage alcohol—codified appearance involving clothes and hair, and minimized the importance of advanced education.
By the late 1940’s a group of second generation “fundamentalists” decided that the time had come to re-engage the culture in the way that American Protestants had done prior to the conflicts with liberalism. Carl F. H. Henry, E. J. Carnell, Charles E. Fuller, a well-known radio evangelist, Harold J. Ockenga, pastor of Park Street Church in Boston, Billy Graham, a young and increasingly noted mass-evangelist, William Moorehead Smith and Harold Lindsell were active and began seeking to reform fundamentalism. They wanted cultural engagement without loss of holiness, social involvement without loss of evangelism, theological sophistication without loss of biblical authority, and advanced education without loss of a Christian worldview.
Defining events that gave initial impetus to the rise of “neo-evangelicalism” were the publication of Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism in 1947, the establishment of Fuller Theological Seminary in 1947, the founding of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1950, who also founded Christianity Today in 1956 with Carl Henry as its first editor. The project succeeded amazingly well. Large numbers of young theologians, ethicists, biblical scholars, historians, and pastors from across the nation identifed themselves as intentional “evangelicals,” conservatives in theology with a penchant for social engagement and respectability in the academy. The attractiveness of the idea brought a wider variety of denominational and confessional loyalties into the mix of evangelicalism and has led to some challenges of definition. From a basic Baptist/Reformed perspective initially, large numbers of Arminians, traditional Pentecostals, historic Pietists, and other developing theological positions have linked themselves to the evangelical movement.
Three Central Ideas
The next three entries will explore three central ideas without which, from my historical and theological observation, evangelicalism could not exist. The first concerns the necessity of a word-centered approach to theology, ethics, preaching, and social engagement. The second concentrates on the necessity of a Christ-centered approach to all these same areas. The third gives a further defining paramenter by pointing to the cross-centeredness of evangelicalism.
Tom J. Nettles