Evangelicalism in American History and Culture
Evangelism in America has been a dominant Christian force that has shaped people’s ways of life, culture, beliefs, and Biblical interpretations. Focusing on the gospel, evangelicalism has managed to adopt modern culture and intertwine it with populist views as well as Christian values. This has been designed to increase membership as well as adjust to the needs of the modern world and culture. As such, evangelicalism has been an instrumental part of the Christian and education institution, as it incorporates philosophy and the Bible into a period of enhanced spiritual and self-awareness. The evangelical and intellectual life has also seen significant changes over the past decades because of the increasing diversity. This is synonymous to the First Great Awakening, which marked a turning point and revival for new age evangelicalism. Therefore, the movement has shaped the ways in which evangelicals interacted with the socio-political as well as Christian landscape of modern America.
Evangelicalism can be considered a combination of several Christian denominations. Therefore, there can exist several evangelical leaders as well as followers existing in a range of denominations. Evangelicalism is derived from the Greek word euangelion, which means “the good news.” Therefore, this Christian movement is focused on the gospel of God, which is centers on salvation, prosperity, and eternal life through Jesus Christ. Some of the tenets of evangelicalism include conversionism, activism, Biblicism, and crucicentrism. These tenets are widely similar to those that existed before its establishment. According to Turner, there exist structural similarities between evangelicalism and other Christian denominations (Balmer 18). This has led to Christianity, much like evangelicalism, existing in a form of a continuum where the lines of membership, views, and values remain largely blurred. However, Turner also notes that some of these connections can be drawn to fundamentalism, from where many evangelical leaders came including Charles Hodge, James Dwight, and James McCosh, among others.
Additionally, evangelicalism also received much influence from the Presbyterians, who are described as having gone “the modernist route in the twentieth century” (par 9). Modernity focused on embracing the social, cultural, and political changes that took place in America since the 19th century. This was achieved through developing more critical interpretations of the scriptures and criticizing fundamentalist and traditional views on Christianity. In essence, modernist views, which were developed during this time, were highly controversial, yet both schools of thought used the Bible as their theological foundation.
As formal education began to take root within the American history, Christianity merged with educational institutions to provide a more formal insight into the scriptures. This was designed to provide learners, mostly young people, with a more solid foundation of Christianity. However, the truth is that the merging of education and Christianity needed to take on modern approaches to learning, and thus had to change in accordance. As Turner notes, evangelical Christianity provided an opportunity for scholars and philosophers to develop new insight into adapting to modern cultures. In order to adopt, evangelical scholars needed to align with the new educational institutions. Turner maintains that “that evangelicals, in fact, did not build-could not have built-on their own intellectual foundations (par 11). Instead, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) maintained some theological traditions as well as practices while adopting a predilection for education. As a result, the evangelicals advanced to the same intellectual level as the Presbyterian peers, who were considered the most developed in terms of their theological principles.
Many of the evangelical groups also developed from the mainstream origins as a way of adapting to the modern ways of life for the American people. This included the Southern Baptists, Church of Christ, and the Pentecostal groups. A common theme among these groups was that they held populist ideals. For instance, they all embrace conversionism, which is based on the need for being born again. This is considered the only way through which people can attain eternal life and atonement. Crucicentrism centers on the price that was paid by Jesus Christ through His death, which allows us to receive forgiveness and new life. Evangelicalism within these sub-denominations is also centered on activism, which is focused on active expression of one’s faith to others. Preaching and social action within these groups is also common. It is designed to act as a form of social action that breeds unity, especially across the Christian denominations.
The aspect of modernity in Christianity and evangelicalism is also explored in depth by Richard Kyle in Evangelicalism: Americanized Christianity. According to the author, the forms of religions that are adhered to throughout history have been designed to be understood and applied according to the capacity of the people living in a particular culture or surrounding. Given the significant social, economic, cultural, technological, and political differences existing between now and a few centuries ago, evangelicalism as well as the larger Christianity was bound to change in this respect.
The author maintains that evangelicalism has been able to develop a relationship with modern culture, a factor that has facilitated its survival for so long. Additionally, evangelism can be loosely defined, and many Christian groups, even those with differing views, may consider themselves evangelicals. Essentially, evangelicalism is considered exists across many denominations, which introduces an aspect of fluidity or agility through which it can navigate the intricacies of modern Christianity. Evangelicalism in its fundamental nature has been designed to be inclusive as a way of maintaining cultural and populist relevance in today’s America. At the same time, this modern movement has sought to maintain the traditional Protestant doctrines from which it was originally derived.
According to the author, American Christianity has adopted many cultural and social principles of modernity to the point where it is difficult to tell which one influenced the other. Evangelicals have been at the forefront establishing modern views that reconcile with secular culture in a variety of ways. Essentially, Kyle maintains that evangelicalism has been aimed at sanctifying the secular culture as a means of remaining relevant to modern ways of life. Additionally, it has been aimed at increasing membership because its principles have become agiler over the decades. The author maintains, “evangelicalism may be the most Americanized and dynamic brand of religion in the United States” (9). One of the main reasons for the evolution of evangelism in America is the increasing influence of secularism. On a fundamental level, the principles of secularism are aimed towards centering the ways of life away from the traditional religious views. In America, where Christianity was the dominant religion, secularism occurred as a threat to its long-standing social and political influence. Therefore, evangelicalism was developed as a means to ensure that Christian values are maintained in an increasingly secular world. From the mid 20th century to the 21st century, evangelicalism has taken on a variety of forms that allow it to accommodate fundamental American values. The author also maintains that evangelicals have influenced the political route of America because aside from two member presidents holding office, there have been cabinet officials and congressmen who have influenced social policies in the past (Kyle 9).
Evangelicalism has also shaped the American social and political landscape through providing some forms of resistance to modernity and secularism. Turner notes that the Christian Reformed, which is connected to evangelism, possesses a “strong doctrine of the church and a deep attachment to creedal traditions” (par 12). Conservative views such as creationism, which sought to counter the scientific based evolution, was a development of evangelicalism, and was aimed at interacting with the secular culture albeit in a controversial as well as intellectual fashion. According to Kyle, there has been a series of conflicts and controversies owing to the fundamental differences existing between a developing non-religious society and a religious one. For evangelicalism, the decentralization of Christianity from positions of political and social authority has affected its capacity to provide religious impacts to the masses. Therefore, the resistance has resulted in the development of a kind of balance, whereby the American society is influenced by secularism as well as Christianity. From a different perspective, evangelicalism can be said as a movement aimed at bridging the gap existing between Christian fundamentalism and secularization.
Evangelicalism has shaped the manner in which Christian doctrine is viewed in modern society. According to Kyle, the issues of modernity have become too intricate to solve with the simplistic interpretations that existed in Christian fundamentalism. Therefore, evangelists opt to address the immediate issues without applying doctrine or Christian theories (10). This religious movement regards Christianity as a group that cannot exclude themselves from the larger society. This need for inclusion becomes increasingly necessary especially in today’s multicultural and multi-religious society of America. Kyle, therefore, maintains that the church will inevitably change in accordance with the mainstream culture. In a sense, the evolution of evangelicalism to suit the needs of the culture also serves as a means to influence the members therein. The author notes that this phenomenon is not new, and has occurred for centuries dating back to colonial America. This has resonated with one of their core beliefs, which is social activism. It involves preaching the gospel, becoming engaged, and reaching out to the needy (Kyle 2).
as a religious movement has become an important bridge between secularism and
Christian fundamentalism. It has managed to adopt modern culture and mix it with populist views as well as Christian
values. It is also rooted in the need to include members of the society. For
this reason, the movement exists as a continuum rather than a distinct group
with specific members and characteristics. As such, evangelicalism has been an
instrumental part of the Christian and education institution, as it
incorporates philosophy and the Bible into a period of enhanced self-awareness.
The evangelical and intellectual life has also seen significant changes over
the past decades, especially with the changing social and political landscape.
It has been rooted in intellectualism and popular culture all the while
maintaining the fundamental principles of Christian traditions.
Balmer, Randall Herbert. Evangelicalism in America. Baylor University Press, 2016.
Kyle, Richard G. Popular Evangelicalism in American Culture. Routledge, 2017.
Kyle, Richard. Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity. Routledge, 2017.
Turner, James C. “Something to be reckoned with.” Commonweal 126.1 (2004): 11.