Who really wants to be named as an Evangelical today? The term comes with so much baggage from centuries of history and is a challenge to define in mainstream culture, as it often tends to categorize a very specific demographic having little to do with the origins of the movement at all. The word ‘Evangelical’ is frequently removed from ministry names as it is misconstrued for something it never was or at least was not intended to be. But what does ‘Evangelical’ mean and who are the Evangelicals?
According to a story done by National Public Radio during the last US presidential election, Evangelicals are deemed as either ‘born-again Christians’ or ‘white evangelical protestants.’ These two terms are centered on pollsters’ attempts to determine how to get a vote for a particular candidate. The National Association of Evangelicals begins with belief rather than political or racial demographics. Belief gets much closer to the heart and history of the Evangelical tradition. In his book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, David Bebbington outlines the historic passage from the beginnings of Evangelicalism through the majority of the twentieth century, defining at the outset the core elements comprising those who went by the term Evangelical. He writes, “There are the four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.”
Although Bebbington explains that the four qualities have rotated in prominence and by various leaders and groups since the 1700s each has remained over time. This holds true when referring back to the NAE’s definition on belief. Only two years ago the group of sociologists, theologians, and evangelical leaders used the following four statements to define an Evangelical, with near exact alignment to Bebbington’s thesis:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
Perhaps they used Bebbington as a reference. Regardless, the history originating in Britain is still accurate for the coalition of Christians in the United States today.
While the four pillars of belief have held over time, they only vaguely scratch the surface of what an Evangelical looks like or how they function. As Bebbington explains throughout his text, Evangelicals have morphed and changed over the years and included a variety of groups such as Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals. While some groups focused their effort on the poor, others were intent on education, while still others sought holiness of life.
Bebbington’s work is an educational standard and necessary historical account for Evangelicals as noted by Malcolm Greenshields, Robert Clouse, and William Sachs in their reviews of the text. Each comments on the depth and breadth citing the balance of content along with the readability by a general audience.
Each review is generally glowing although limitations are also mentioned. Greenshields comments that little is written about the influence of the Methodists in the mid-section of the book and the text is in need of a bibliography. Sachs determines Bebbington could use less narrative in his account while providing more analysis, particularly with regard to theological changes in the 1830s and the lethargy after WWI. These critiques are relatively minor in the scope of the work and value offered by the detailed historic research and composition of the text.
One particularly fascinating aspect still active today about Bebbington’s explanation of Evangelicals is that though the four core qualities of Evangelicalism remain there are many divisions arising not out of theology but rather from the impact of culture. Though theology is certainly impacted, the theologians are not the first movers. Rather, culture changes and the church responds to fit the needs of the day. This does not make the church spineless but rather nuanced, complex, and diverse. As Clouse remarked, “Despite statements to the contrary by Evangelicals, the movement does not reflect a world of eternal and unchanging truth. Rather, it has been bound to the flux of ideas and events within the general culture.” Sachs adds, ‘Bebbington does not believe Evangelicals triumphed over their circumstances. He endows contextual forces with the power to circumscribe religious forms. Social factors shaped Evangelicalism’s intentions repeatedly.” Two of the primary contextual forces noted include class separation and intellectual differences, which split the movement from within.
Today Evangelicalism is still responding to the context of the day. When we are not defined by our core historic beliefs, we likely do a really poor job responding, capitalizing on personal, political or social gains. Yet, when we know and are reminded of our core theology, we have the opportunity to remain faithful to the heart of the movement, even with the complexity and tensions of our general theological differences.
I have always been proud to call myself a Wesleyan and a Free Methodist theologically and practically. And, in reading Bebbington and discovering my historic Evangelical roots, rather than the cheap propagandized term, I am glad to be called an Evangelical within the wider array of Christians.
 Kurtzleben, Danielle. “Are You An Evangelical? Are You Sure?” NPR. December 19, 2015. Accessed January 12, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2015/12/19/458058251/are-you-an-evangelical-are-you-sure.
 Smietana, Bob, Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, Kate Shellnutt, Brett McCracken, and Marshall Shelley. “What Is an Evangelical? Four Questions Offer New Definition.” Christianity Today. November 19, 2015. Accessed January 12, 2018. http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2015/november/what-is-evangelical-new-definition-nae-lifeway-research.html.
 Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Taylor and Francis, 1988.
 Smietana, Eekhoff Zylstra, Shellnutt, McCracken, and Shelley.
 Greenshields, Malcolm. “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, by D.W. Bebbington.” Canadian Journal of History 25, no. 2 (August 1, 1990): 267-70.
 Sachs, William. “Evangelicals in the Church of England, 1734-1984 by Kenneth Hylson-Smith; Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s by D. W. Bebbington.” The Journal of Religion. 72, no. 1 (Jan., 1992): 114-116.
 Bebbington, 275.
 Clouse, Robert. “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, by D.W. Bebbington.” The American Historical Review 96, no. 1 (February 1, 1991): 165.
 Sachs, 115.