Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Evangelical Kaleidoscope: Part One - Evangelical History In A Quadrilateral Nutshell

I've always been an evangelical - maybe even a fundamentalist? - but I've recently realized I need to spend some time gaining a better understanding of the terminology in which I was immersed and by which I identify my Christian faith. I credit at least four developments for this new interest:
  • fielding dozens of queries like this from my non-religious friends: "Help me understand why 81% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump." On the other hand, I also heard from a lot of evangelicals, "Why would you not?" Those two comments are worlds apart, and yet somehow they both resonate. 
  • reading Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History Of The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures Of North America, a fascinating book on the regional cultures that shaped North America, and the influence that has had on politics, religion, and the intersection of the two. [1]
  • listening to The Holy Post’s podcast about evangelicalism vs. fundamentalism after Christianity Today’s editorial about Trump’s impeachment blew up the Christian internet. 
  • a brewing sense that Inigo Montoya’s insight is relevant in connection to the use of the word ‘evangelical’ by myself and others: “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” 
So, I picked up Thomas Kidd’s Who Is An Evangelical?[2]and Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, And Could Be (edited and partially written by three of the big historical hitters in the discussion - Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Marsden), and started digging through evangelical/fundamentalist articles, websites and organizations online. What follows is not a definitive overview by any means, but hopefully it will serve to provoke your thoughts as it has mine.

I’ll give away my conclusion: “evangelical” is, I’m afraid, no longer a helpful word.[3] It is simply too imprecise to describe the current forms of Christianity fragmented together in what Timothy Smith has called an evangelical kaleidoscope.

George Marsden offers a partial list of what that evangelical kaleidoscope looks like today: 
  • Black and White evangelicals (read "Democrats and Republicans." More on this in a later post) 
  • Calvinists and Arminians 
  • Pentecostals/Holiness and Separatist Fundamentalists (who don't care for Pentecostals) 
  • Pacifist Churches (such as Mennonites) and Baptists (who are not pacifists) 
  • Southern Baptists (are they really, evangelical, though?) 
  • Missouri Synod Lutherans and Reformed church (confessional heritage) and Methodists (Pietist heritage) 
Saying “I am an evangelical” is like saying, “I like fast food.” That’s interesting, but not terribly informative. What kind of fast food? What counts as “fast food” anyway? You mean Paneras, Boston Market and Culvers are the same kind of restaurant as Dairy Queen and McDonalds?[4] Pizza Hut is considered fast good but has a salad bar. Does "liking fast food" mean you eat out twice a week or just a few times a year?

Those are the kind of follow-up questions one must ask concerning evangelicalism: What kind of evangelical? Are you sure you know what it means? Should all those who claim to be evangelical be on the same list? Do they actually attend an evangelical church and do evangelical things on a regular basis?

So...let's look at this kaleidoscope.



"Evangelicalism," says Leith Anderson, former head of the National Evangelical Association, "is by nature a diverse movement. Though we affirm the historic creeds, there is no evangelical creed. We don't all read the same books or sing the same songs. Neither do evangelicals agree on how to practice our faith; we disagree over who can preach, hot to practice baptism and Communion, or whether we should drink alcohol." ("Defining Evangelicals In An Election Year," Christianity Today).

Nevertheless, historian David Bebbington has been able to define four core evangelical belief[5] that arose following the Protestant Reformation with his famous 'quadrilateral':
  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus 
  • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts 
  • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority 
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.[6]
Evangelicalism itself is a subset of Protestantism (specifically Puritanism), but these are not synonymous terms. Some denominations have a subset of self-claimed evangelicals (there are even Evangelical Catholics). Some entire denominations consider themselves evangelical. Others believe evangelical things but don’t think of themselves that way. It’s hard to keep the blurred lines distinct – and maybe that’s part of the problem of trying to talk about evangelicalism.


Colin Woodard argues that eleven distinct religious and cultural traditions formed America. For our purposes, I'm only focusing on a few that left a nation-defining religious legacy.[7]

Immigrants in the Midlands/North of America tended to bring with them a community-oriented tradition. Even their idea of freedom was influenced by this. Freedom was a community goal, not an individual one. The community should be free from outside coercion; within the community, one conformed to that which helped the community flourish. Not surprisingly, these communities had religious traditions that focused on how salvation impacted the collective society, not just the souls of individuals.

The Scotch/Irish immigrants to Appalachia, by contrast, focused on independence and personal responsibility. It’s no surprise that their faith was an intensely personal one, with a strong belief in a personal responsibility more than collective responsibility. Woodard calls this distinction Public vs. Private faith; I suspect this eventually correlates first with the confessional vs. revivalist split within evangelicalism, and eventually with evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

Here's how that Public vs. Private tension looks in two practical examples: 

  • Is alcoholism a private failure or a social ill? Is the solution personal salvation or community intervention? Does the guilt lie with the individual or the community? 
  • Is poverty a private failure or a social ill? Is the solution personal salvation or community intervention? Does the responsibility lie with the individual or the community (labor laws, minimum wage, etc)? [8]
Evangelicals were early proponents of religious liberty, but their application was not as consistent as their belief. We often hear the claim that the Puritans wanted religious freedom; really, most just wanted their own religious freedom. Massachusetts banned Roger Williams (who first wrote about the “separation between the garden of the church in the wilderness of the world”) for his religious views. He fared better than the Quakers, who were occasionally hanged. The Puritans also passed laws banning Baptists and other groups they considered undesirables.


The first Great Awakening introduced one of the first significant splits in evangelicalism: revivalism vs. the traditional confessionalism. Confessional traditions required those entering the church to make a formal confession of faith as a sign of conversion; they also believed conversion could be gradual, and that one need not "feel" assurance of salvation to be assured of salvation. Revivalists pushed personal experience (often fiery and intense); salvation as a specific experience, and the feeling of assurance as a marker of assurance. Truly, they were the theological children of a "hotter sort of Protestant," Patrick Collinson's descriptive term for their Puritan separatist ancestors. (Linford Fisher, "Evangelicals And Unevangelicals.")

The result of this revivalist/emotional trend toward revivalism instead of confessionals? Presbyterians and Congregationalists split. German Lutherans, Calvinists, and Mennonites clashed with pro-revival denominations like the Baptists, Methodists, and Disciples of Christ.[9]

While this internal splintering unfolded, dissenters simultaneously broke away from the established churches that had been trampling on religious freedom in America. Many were inspired by John Locke, who was hardly a friend of religion but was a friend to those wishing to separate government coercion from religion. This type of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” alliance in evangelicalism will continue to unfold with regularity in evangelical history.

George Whitefield, a key figure in the first Great Awakening, increasingly blurred political affairs with the message of the Gospel as he became more popular. This blurriness eventually manifested in the strong evangelical support of deist Thomas Jefferson. In 1802, Leland Baptist in Massachusetts presented Jefferson with a 1200 pound block of cheese. (I know, right? Who gives half a ton of cheese as a gift?) That gift happened within days of Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation between church and state” reply to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, which had congratulated him on his election and thanked him – a non-religious man - for defending religious freedom.[10]


When the Second Great Awakening rolled around, an interesting shift occurred: it was largely Arminian rather than Calvinist. It's not that they believed the Holy Spirit was not necessary; they began emphasizing the idea that a person's will to be saved was of great importance. This revivalist appeal to Free Will theology fit well in a nation that had begun to increasingly almost deify the notion of freedom.

The revivalism may have been new, but the traditional community concern for social reform stayed firmly in place.[11] The Evangelical United Front (the American Bible Society, American Sunday School Union, American Temperance Society, and others) began in the 1810s and 1820s. Catholics, as Linford Fisher has noted ("Evangelicals and Unevangelicals"), were pointedly not invited to this community, though a few Catholics over the years such as Jesuit priest Alonso de Sandoval had attempted to borrow the term. The Evangelical Alliance in 1846 specifically excluded "popery" and "romanism." This would change over time.

By the mid-1800s, post-Second Great Awakening evangelicalism had established a significant focus on evangelism both near and far. This increasingly led to not only the preaching of the gospel, but also to political engagement for social justice and moral reform for Native Americans and slaves. A number of evangelical colleges rose up, including Oberlin College in Ohio (at which evangelist Charles Finney was a professor). Oberlin was unusually progressive in that it was both coed and multi-ethnic. Students there advocated strongly for the United States to keep its treaties with Native Americans; it was even a stopover for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad.

Around this time, evangelicals also began crusades against poverty and alcohol abuse.[12] This was not new; evangelicals had addressed the needs of the poor going back to an orphanage George Whitefield established in Georgia. Methodists started a shelter for the homeless and abused in New York City in 1850. John Wesley passionately advocated for both evangelism and what he called "social holiness" (Wesley's combination of evangelism and his fight against slavery led to the conversion of William Wilberforce). While most evangelical ministries to the poor prioritized sharing the gospel over providing material relief, some form of ministry to impoverished and marginalized people had always been a hallmark of evangelical concern.[13]

The most celebrated American evangelical of the 1800s was Dwight Moody. #moodybibleinstitute. He preached the three R's of evangelicalism: ruin by sin; redemption by Christ; and regeneration by the Holy Ghost. However, Moody, skeptical of the Christian reform causes that had characterized evangelicalism, focused on the work of the Holy Spirit in the individual as being the key to addressing social issues.

Moody was the first evangelical leader to purposefully disconnect from denominationalism. One writer called Moody the midwife of trans-denominational movements.[14] If it wasn't clear before, evangelicalism had no interest in being saddled by accountability to an ecclesiastical church body.[15] This has continued to be the blessing and curse of non-denominationalism: it's flexible and mobile, but it lacks oversight and accountability. D.G. Hart notes in Evangelicals that this has been an ongoing, festering problem for evangelicalism: there are no official gatekeepers with the authority to identify outliers or proponents of what Ross Douthat calls "bad religion," and then enforce orthodox boundaries.

The Social Gospel movement soon began pushing back against revivalism, claiming it inhibited social reform. This was fueled by some of Moody’s own followers, who had watched him downplay the historic concern for community life. However, this pushback got swept up into the broader encroachment of Modernism. This included the challenge of German Higher Criticism, the growing embrace of Darwinism and scientific naturalism, and a move toward Process Philosophy, which would morph into Process Theology (Open Theism).[16] This movement created a decidedly liberal branch of evangelicalism and would in some cases simply move into mainstream Protestantism. [17]


The 1920’s saw the official rise of Fundamentalism as a labeled movement.[18] Over three million copies of The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth were mailed out across Protestant denominations. The essays focused primarily on “the inspiration and inerrancy of the bible; arguments against liberalism and higher criticism; basics of the Christian faith (sin, atonement, justification, grace); and the denunciation of false churches.”[19]

Billy Graham built on Moody’s trans-denominational foundation. His emphasis on revivals was not new (Mark Noll writes that expectation of ongoing revival had become a dominant feature of evangelicalism). At his ministerial prime, Graham absorbed Pentecostals (who shared the same theology but whose worship had scared others away) and Catholics (Vatican II helped) into the movement, much to the chagrin of fundamentalists, who saw him as compromising by association with false churches.

By the 1940s, the newly labeled “neo-evangelical” movement purposefully distanced itself from fundamentalism, largely over disagreement about how to engage the culture for Christ.[20] Christians use the phrase “in the world, but not of it” to describe the biblical call for the church in culture: neo-evangelicals accused fundamentalists of being neither; fundamentalists accused neo-evangelicals of being both.[21] During the 1940s, the Evangelical Theological Society (1949) and the National Evangelical Society (1942) emerged as big-tent entities distinctly not fundamentalist, at least in practice. This trans-denomination insistence increasingly created friction with the more fundamentalist wing.[22] (See the NAE’s “Evangelicals – Shared Faith In Broad Diversity.”)[23] In 1979, J.I. Packer's list of six evangelical foundational beliefs didn't soften the fundamentalist critique: he included the lordship of the Holy Spirit (for the charismatics) and the importance of fellowship (for the Catholics).

Since the 1970s, a clear line of demarcation emerged: Evangelicals define the center of the faith and give people freedom to explore and even push the boundaries; fundamentalists define both the center and the boundaries. While fundamentalists and evangelicals were united initially, the fundamentalist commitment to defining the edges – particularly premillennialism, dispensationalism, and separatism - has created some at times significant distance between the two camps.[24]

David Hubbard has summarized neo-evangelicalism this way: For the past fifty [now seventy-five] years or so, the term “evangelical” has described those American and Canadian Christians who viewed themselves as conservative without necessarily espousing some of the more negative traits of fundamentalism: anti-intellectualism that suspects scholarship and formal learning, especially when applied to the Bible or theology; apathy toward involvement in social concern, especially where political issues are in view; separation from all association with churches that are not themselves doctrinally pure.[25]


Broadly speaking, modern evangelicalism has settled into four general camps (at least as I see it):
  • liberal evangelical (left-leaning; perhaps better thought of as mainstream Protestant) 
  • neo-evangelical (center; non-denominational) 
  • fundamentalist evangelical (right-leaning; confessional) 
  • Pentecostal evangelical (charismatic; revivalist) 
They are, to use Marsden's words in Evangelicals, "superficially friendly, somewhat competitive empires built by evangelical leaders competing for the same audience, but all claiming allegiance to the same king."

There are nuances, of course.

1. It might be wise to think of black and white evangelicalism separately. Currently, there is a huge difference in their respective support of political parties.[26] More on why this has happened in the next post.

2. It’s not entirely clear that fundamentalists, and theological liberals, and black evangelicals always want to be called evangelical - or should be.

3. The majority of self-proclaimed evangelicals, when polled, don’t agree with the entire evangelical quadrilateral. According to the previously noted NAE/Lifeway poll, “Of all respondents, more than half [who claimed to be evangelical] strongly agreed that the Bible is their highest authority (52 percent) and that Jesus’ death is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of sin (58 percent). “ That’s, uh, a lot of people who claim to be evangelical but don’t actually hold to traditional evangelical beliefs.

So, with that whirlwind history twirling the evangelical kaleidoscopic, we are ready for...

Part Two: The Quadrilateral"isms"


[1] I thought the third act of the book turned a little to agenda-driven for my taste, but the book was fascinating and insightful overall.

[2] I started this essay with about 7 pages of notes from this book. I cannot overstate how much it contributed here.

[3] Tim Keller has taken to calling himself ‘orthodox’ because of the baggage and the confusion ‘evangelical’ creates in so many people.


[5] In Germany during the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, the word “evangelical” simply came to mean Protestant.

[6] “What Is An Evangelical?”

[7] For the sake of time and simplicity, I am taking the libery to paint with a broad historical brush where Colin Woodard uses a much finer technique. I hope I don't misrepresent him.

[8] Unsurprisingly, the Temperance/Prohibition movement was led by Public Protestants – evangelicals, for all practical purposes.

[9] “Evangelicalism and Revivalism.”

[10] As a general rule, evangelicals have been at their best when using their political sway to defend the weak and oppressed (such a slaves) rather than seeking to impose evangelical practices, ideas, or standards of conscience on the public (in the early 1800s, some sought to end mail delivery on Sundays).

[11] “Evangelicalism and Revivalism.”

[12] At that time, the average American drank about three times more alcohol than we do now.

[13] Inconsistently, as we will see.

[14] The now defunct magazine of Moody Bible Institute, Moody Monthly, had wide evangelical appeal.

[15] The current trend of non-denominational churches is almost certainly a result of this trend that Moody began.

[16] “Protestant Fundamentalism and Protestant Liberalism.”

[17] “Evangelicalism and Revivalism.”

[18] The World’s Christian Fundamentals Association started in 1919.

[19] “The Fundamentals.”

[20] Christian Smith calls the neo-evangelical approach “engaged orthodoxy.”

[21] Though not as much as the Modernist Mainstream Protestant churches, whom both camps saw as far to liberal theologically.

[22] John Fea calls the 1940s to the 1960s the “divisive phase,” when fundamentalism split into evangelical and separatist factions.


[24] The fundamentalist American Council Of Christian Churches started up in 1941 and explicitly denied membership to anyone affiliated with the World Council of Churches (WCC) or any of its affiliates, such as the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (NCC), the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF) or any of its affiliates, such as the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the modern Charismatic Movement, or the Ecumenical Movement.”

[25] “What Does Fuller Mean By ‘Evangelical’?”

[26] According to NAE/Lifeway research, 44% of black Americans describe themselves as evangelical as opposed to 29% of white Americans and 30% of Hispanics. Evangelical blacks voted overwhelmingly for Hillary in the past elections; the Hispanic vote swayed Democrat, but not as much. Fit that into a tidy election year story on evangelical voting habits.

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