British scholar David Bebbington serviceably defined evangelicalism with four key elements: biblicism (the inspiration and authority of the Bible), crucicentrism (the centrality of the atoning work of Christ), conversionism (the importance of being born again) and activism (the value of missionary and evangelistic work broadly conceived).
Bebbington’s standard definition recognizes clearly that throughout much of the history of both British and American evangelicalism these movements have been decidedly activist. In other words, evangelicalism in its best sense has embraced both personal and social action. In the words of Charles Finney, hailing from the nineteenth century, “Everywhere there is revival there must also be reform.”
Granted the social activism piece of the evangelical witness fell by the wayside in the early twentieth century during the Great Reversal in America but there have been some recent and solid attempts at recovery. According to some, evangelical faith is something that these believers should keep to themselves. In short, evangelicals should be seen but not heard—certainly not in the public square.
This perspective often doesn’t know what to do with John Wesley. Sometimes the Englishman seems to be an evangelical leader but at other times no. Granted the Anglican ecclesiastical situation in the eighteenth century was complicated. And though Wesley was not a part of “the regular Evangelical ministry within the prescribed structures of the Church of England,” nevertheless he (as well as 18th century Methodism) had all of the evangelical bonafides:
- Developing the theme of a “real Christian” as opposed to a nominal one throughout his writings
- Writing several sermons on the cruciality of the new birth
- Reflecting on the importance of conversion
- Underscoring the necessity of holy living in practical Christian experience
- Celebrating the inspiration and authority of Scripture as the Word of God
- Teaching that the atoning work of Jesus Christ is the foundation of justification and the new birth
- Considering service to one’s neighbor, in terms of both temporal and spiritual needs, as at the heart of the gospel
Despite this preceding evidence (and much more could be cited) John Wesley’s status as an evangelical is sometimes historically minimized or ignored, even though he was one of the most important participants in the Great Evangelical Revival that swept through England, Scotland and Wales during the eighteenth century. One problem for some evangelical historians is that Wesley as an Anglican taught infant baptismal regeneration. Are being evangelical and Anglican mutually exclusive? John Wesley, himself, clearly proved otherwise.
Even far deeper problems for some evangelical historians emerge in the definition of an evangelical in that the leaders they typically most credit, like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, were pro-slavery. Surely all that emphasis on the new birth and conversion should have issued in a renewed sense of the love of neighbor. However, not only did Whitefield and Edwards own slaves (though Edwards later renounced the slave traffic), but Whitefield successfully advocated slavery’s legalization in the colony of Georgia in 1751.
A far better example of a consistent evangelical, that is, someone who took the love of God and neighbor to heart, who ever saw a connection between the personal and the social, which by the way is, after all, a very evangelical thing to do, is once again John Wesley. He not only denounced American slavery as “the vilest that ever saw the sun,”[i] in a letter to William Wilberforce in 1791, but he had also earlier drafted a treatise on this topic, Thoughts Upon Slavery in which he developed a natural law argument (in a way that Martin Luther King, Jr. would do much later) and reasoned along the following lines: “Liberty is the right of every human creature as soon as he breathes the vital air; and no human law can deprive him of that right which he derives from the law of nature.”
As indicated by their focus on Edwards and Whitefield, often historians stress the Reformed side of Evangelicalism, and they often have little time for millions of Wesleyan evangelicals, who for most of the 19th century and beyond were more numerous than Calvinists.
Instructive is the lively and extended debate between Donald Dayton, well known Wesleyan historian, and George Marsden, a leading Reformed scholar, that occurred in Christian Scholar’s Review during the 1990’s in which the contested nature of the definition of an American evangelical was abundantly evident. At that time Marsden defended the “Reformed paradigm” that placed a premium on orthodoxy as he chartered a trajectory out of fundamentalism and into the neo-evangelicalism of Harold Ockenga, Carl F.H. Henry and Billy Graham. This narrative is important, to be sure. The problem is it’s just not the whole story.
Not surprisingly, in light of these omissions, Dayton challenged the explanatory power of the Reformed paradigm. He contended that with its unswerving focus on doctrine, due to the aftermath of the fundamentalist response to the challenges of higher criticism and evolution, it missed the salient element of social and economic class that had been, after all, a significant part of the Wesleyan and then later Pentecostal evangelical witness. Concern for the poor, the downtrodden, the culturally despised had been a prominent feature of American evangelicalism, especially during the nineteenth century, as Dayton had argued so cogently in his Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, published in 1976.
In the mix of these further considerations, largely neglected by Marsden, Dayton offered his “Pentecostal paradigm,” as a suitable corrective. By bringing the elements of social and economic class into the assessment of American evangelicalism, especially in terms of a proper definition, Dayton was able to track the embourgeoisement of an American religious movement that was being, in part, coopted by the American ruling class and its own preferred values. Does this sound familiar? The American evangelical story is much larger, more complicated, and includes far many more people than many historians and commentators imagine.
Kenneth J. Collins is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Collins serves on the Board of Directors for the Institute on Religion & Democracy and on the advisory committee for the UM Action program.