Charles Finney

Defining Evangelicalism


The term “Evangelicalism” is a wide-reaching definitional “canopy” that covers a diverse number of Protestant traditions, denominations, organizations, and churches. It originates in the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news,” or, more commonly, the “gospel.” During the Reformation, Martin Luther adapted the Latinized form of the term evangelium, dubbing his breakaway movement the evangelische kirche, or “evangelical church”—a name still generally applied to the Lutheran Church in Germany.

In the English-speaking world, however, the modern term usually describes the religious movements and denominations which sprung forth from a series of revivals that swept the North Atlantic Anglo-American world in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Key figures associated with these revivals included the itinerant English evangelist George Whitefield (1715-1770); the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791) ; and American philosopher and theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). These revivals were particularly responsible for the rise of the Baptists and Methodists from obscure sects to their traditional position as America’s two largest Protestant denominational families.

By the 1820s evangelical Protestantism was by far the dominant expression of Christianity in the overwhelmingly Protestant United States. The concept of evangelism—revival-codified, streamlined, and routinized by evangelists like Charles G. Finney (1792-1875)—became “revivalism” as evangelicals set out to convert the nation. By the decades prior to the Civil War, a largely-evangelical “Benevolent Empire” (in historian Martin Marty’s words) was actively attempting to reshape American society through Bible and tract distribution, the establishment of Sunday Schools and through such reforms as temperance, the early women’s movement, various benevolent and betterment societies, and—most controversial of all—the abolition movement.

After the war, the changes in American society wrought by such powerful forces as urbanization and industrialization, along with new intellectual and theological developments, began to weaken the power of evangelicalism within American culture. Likewise, evangelical cultural hegemony was diminished in pure numeric terms with the influx of millions of non-Protestant immigrants in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. Nonetheless, evangelical Protestantism remained a powerful presence within American culture (as evidenced by the success of evangelists like Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday). Going into the 20th century evangelicalism still held the status of a pervasive American “folk religion” in many sectors of the United States, particularly the South and certain areas of the Midwest.  

Defining the Term in Contemporary Times > 

©Larry Eskridge, 1996. Revised 2001, 2005, 2011, 2012

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