The media are full of anguished testimonies of people formerly identified as “evangelical” declaring that it has been irrevocably spoiled. It won’t disappear because, for scholarship, it’s too useful. But that doesn’t mean everybody has to keep it.
There is a difference, that is, between a label and a brand.
The “spoiling” has come from the linkage of evangelical leaders, mostly from the “prosperity gospel,” with American president Donald Trump. This alliance coupled with polls indicating that Trump enjoyed the vote of a large majority of white evangelicals has meant embarrassment for many evangelicals, white and otherwise, who are outraged by his behaviour, politics, and values. So they want to be identified otherwise, and are everywhere shedding the “evangelical” label.
This problem is, to be sure, largely an American problem. But because of America’s prominence on the world stage, evangelicals elsewhere, and particularly in Canada, feel its effects. So is “evangelical” over?
Speaking historically, it isn’t a big deal if it is. The roots of evangelicalism as a movement of renewal and mission go back to Puritanism in Britain and Pietism in continental Europe. It was the religious awakening of the eighteenth century under John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and many lesser lights that wrote the first chapter of evangelicalism’s history. And it didn’t feature the term “evangelical.” The preaching and hymnody focused instead on “the New Birth.”
As evangelicalism spread throughout North America and around the world in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t called “evangelicalism” then, either. But again the revivals featured the characteristic emphases noted by British historian David Bebbington: a focus upon Jesus Christ (rather than “God-in-general”) and his atoning work on the Cross (rather than moralism or mysticism); a commitment to the supreme authority of Scripture (versus church tradition or the current opinion of the day); promotion of conversion, including both personal declaration of faith plus a lifelong commitment to holiness; and activism in fostering spiritual renewal, sanctification, and the improvement of society along Christian lines.
Most of these affirmations are generically Christian, of course, with only the sola Scriptura element marking them out as Protestant. And for the first two centuries of evangelicalism, no one felt the need to label this movement. But it was distinctive, particularly because of a fifth element identified by the American historian George Marsden: transdenominationalism. These Christians emphasized these characteristic commitments over others (such as sacramentalism or a particular form of church government) so that they could work together on matters of common concern. And thus their networks reached across the divides separating Baptists from Anglicans and Methodists from Presbyterians.