Understanding “Evangelical” Part Three: The Birth of Contemporary American Evangelicalism

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, October 18, 2021

Understanding “Evangelical” Part Three: The Birth of Contemporary American Evangelicalism

*Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of a five-part blog series. Be sure to read the first installment here and the second installment here.

As mentioned in the last blog, many Fundamentalists grew uneasy with the denominational separatism, social and cultural irresponsibility, and anti-intellectual stance that pervaded the years of controversy with the Modernists. These individuals branched off and formed the movement that is now known as contemporary American Evangelicalism. 

Carl F.H. Henry wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Fundamentalism in 1947 that warned of these excesses; nevertheless, Henry still equated Fundamentalism with Evangelicalism. Later, in Evangelical Responsibility in Contemporary Theology (1957), Henry termed himself an Evangelical and associated Fundamentalism with a narrow-spirited polemicism. Others who followed this new mindset and became significant leaders were evangelists Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, E.J. Carnell and Bernard Ramm. The formation of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942, Fuller Theological Seminary in 1947 and Christianity Today magazine in 1956 helped to distinguish the two movements. 

Perhaps most decisive in the rise of Evangelicalism as a distinct movement from Fundamentalism was Billy Graham’s 1957 New York City crusade. The basis of the Fundamentalist criticism of Graham involved his efforts to gain broad ecumenical support for this crusade, for Graham accepted the sponsorship of the local Protestant Council of Churches. From this point forward, the movement tended toward fragmentation in that Fundamentalists separated themselves from Evangelicals. During the 1960s a related movement known as the charismatic movement added new vitality to American Evangelicalism.

These “new Evangelicals” avoided the negative reaction of Fundamentalism. Scientists and secularists were not as confident as they had been in the previous century. The nation as a whole was looking for stability and authority. It was time for the Word of God to be announced with authority as demonstrated with Billy Graham’s now famous “the Bible says” phrase. Ockenga provided the strategy and Henry, Carnell and Ramm provided the theological, ethical and apologetical substance. They emphasized that the true authority of the Bible is primarily a faith affirmation rather than a theological dictate.

This new coalition gained national attention in 1976 when Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist and professed “born-again” Evangelical, was elected President of the United States. Newsweek magazine declared 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical.” Books such as Donald Bloesch’s The Evangelical Renaissance (1973) and Dean M. Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (1972) typified the Evangelical triumph in America.

This newfound prominence led to the desire among certain Evangelicals to shape contemporary culture and values. This was largely attempted through the political realm. The late 1970s saw the formation of a “Christian Right,” or conservative Christian political activity that became associated with contemporary American Evangelicalism. These groups organized Evangelicals to support the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency of the United States and to lend their voice to a host of issues, including school prayer, tuition tax credits and the reversal of Supreme Court decisions such as “Roe vs. Wade.” 

Two concerns fueled this politicization: first, there was an obsession, bordering on paranoia, with what was called “secular humanism.” Popularized as a tremendous threat to the continuing existence of Christianity by such Evangelical leaders as Francis A. Schaeffer, secular humanism was generally defined as the idea that humanity does not answer to any higher authority than humanity itself. 

The second concern that brought many evangelicals into the public arena was the vision of a “Christian America,” perhaps popularized most widely by Evangelical authors Peter Marshall and David Manuel in The Light and the Glory (1977). Marshall and Manuel held that America was founded as a Christian nation and flourished under the benevolent hand of divine providence, arguing further that America’s blessings will remain only as long as America is faithful to God as a nation. 

It is important to note that many, if not most, Evangelicals held the “religious right” in disdain, or at least in suspicion, and that a team of leading Evangelical historians attempted to lay the “Christian America” thesis to rest. Yet both continue to be present within streams of Evangelicalism to this day. 

Contemporary American Evangelicalism

Rooted and shaped in the Reformation of the 16th century, the 18th century Evangelical Revivals and, most recently, in the controversy between Fundamentalists and Modernists, contemporary American Evangelicalism has a rich and varied history that has made definition problematic. It can be concluded from earlier installments in this series that contemporary American Evangelicalism has gained its theology from the Reformation, its spirituality and commitment to evangelism from 18th century revivalism, and its concern for orthodoxy and intellectual engagement from the clash between Fundamentalists and Modernists in the early part of the twentieth century.

George Marsden does an admirable job of pulling the many diverse threads together in his essay “The Evangelical Denomination” that offers the following three-fold understanding of contemporary American Evangelicalism—a single phenomenon that involves the senses of: 1) a conceptual unity that designates a grouping of Christians who fit a certain definition; 2) an organic movement with some common traditions and experiences tending in some common directions; and 3) a transdenominational community with complicated infrastructures of institutions and persons who identify with “Evangelicalism.”

American Evangelicalism is therefore best described as a “mosaic” or “kaleidoscope.” The major participants in the mosaic would include Evangelical denominations and parachurch organizations. Parachurch organizations can be categorized into the following groupings: 1) the “Electronic Church” (e.g., CBN or TBN); 2) Evangelical mission organizations; 3) Evangelical publishing companies; and 4) Evangelical colleges and seminaries.

While organizational unity can be problematic as a result of the many denominations and parachurch organizations within the Evangelical mosaic, theological unity has been sought among Evangelicals through various gatherings such as the original Lausanne Conference (1974) resulting in the Lausanne Covenant, Manila 1989, Amsterdam 2000 (resulting in the Amsterdam Declaration), and Cape Town 2010. There were many more, including the “The Chicago Call” and “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” two documents put forth by groups of leading Evangelicals in an effort to sharpen Evangelical identity and foster Evangelical unity.

So with this in mind, what does it mean – now – to be an Evangelical? We’ll take another step forward in the next installment of this series.

James Emery White

Sources

Bruce L. Shelley in “Evangelicalism,” Dictionary of Christianity in America, Daniel G. Reid, Robert D. Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, Harry S. Stout, editors.

Gabriel Fackre, “Carl F.H. Henry,” A Handbook of Christian Theologians, Enlarged Edition, edited by Dean G. Peerman and Martin E Marty.

Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture and A Christian Manifesto.

Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch and George M. Marsden, The Search for Christian America, Expanded Edition.

George M. Marsden, “The Evangelical Denomination” in Evangelicalism in Modern America.

Timothy L. Smith, “The Evangelical Kaleidoscope and the Call to Christian Unity,” Christian Scholar’s Review 15/2.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.