Modern Pensées

Reconsidering theology, philosophy, culture, economics, and politics

Thoughts on Evangelicalism Past, Present, and Future… Part 1

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George Whitefield

I have been reading a bit recently on evangelicalism as a movement in the United States.  I want to devote a few posts to defining evangelicalism and providing some analysis of its strengths and weaknesses, past and present.  I have been influenced heavily by Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth, Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism, David Well’s No Place for Truth, Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars.

We shall work our way from the past toward the present and then future, but before we do anything we must try to define evangelicalism.

Many things have served the muddy the term “evangelical” – the politicization of the Christian Right (ie. Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson), fundamentalism (is it part of evangelicalism or not), and the broadness of its history and key figures (ie. Jonathan Edwards, John Darby, and George Whitefield).

Our working definition of evangelicalism will be from David Bebbington (Cambridge), who describes the movement by four distinctives:

1.  Biblicism:  taking the Bible seriously (and typically holding to the doctrines of inerrancy and  infallibility)

2.  Crucicentrism:  having Jesus’ work of atonement on the cross as the central focus of the Scriptures and ministry

3.  Conversionism:  emphasis on need for all peoples to be converted to Christianity

4.  Activism:  the belief that Christians must be active in expressing their beliefs publicly

The movement has its beginnings in the First Great Awakening in the early 1700s.  It was first in Great Britain and then the United States.  Key to its expansion was the vivid theatrical preaching and promotional methods of George Whitefield.  In 1735-1739, Whitefield first takes the preaching and revival to Great Britain.  At this time John Wesley, a friend from their time at Oxford, had a dismal ministry in Georgia and was invited by Whitefield to come and take over the preaching and revivals in Great Britain.  Wesley, by his own admission, was uncoverted at this time preaches until he finally believes the gospel (under the counsel of a Moravian named Peter Bohler).  Whitefield then take his preaching and revival to the colonies.   Whitefield preached some 18,000 sermons and gave some 12,000 exhortative speeches in his 30 years of ministry.  He preached to every major city on the Eastern seaboard of the United States, crossed the Atlantic 13 times, and preached in Scotland, Wales, Great Britain, Ireland, and the Bahamas.  Without amplification, Whitefield preached regularly to several thousand people.  It is estimated that 80% of the entire population of the American colonies heard him preach at some point.   In America alone he preached to 10 million people.  It was with great fervor and very broad sowing that evangelicalism germinated.

Next time we shall examine the [controversial] methods of the First Great Awakening…

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  1. […] I have concern for evangelical populism and am more encouraged by Reformed evangelicalism (see blog series for […]

  2. […] on Evangelicalism Past, Present, and Future, Parts 1-7:  We defined the term evangelical.  We looked at its historical roots in the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, and its […]


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