Evangelicalism is a diverse, worldwide, Protestant movement which places strong emphasis on personal salvation, the inspiration and authority of the Bible, and a life of personal piety and witness to nonbelievers. Some Mennonite groups and persons have strongly identified with evangelical thought and institutions, while others have attempted to clearly distinguish themselves from Evangelicalism. Between these two poles are those who have maintained a more complex relationship with this segment of Christianity.
The History and Nature of Evangelicalism
Contemporary Evangelicalism can best be understood as a movement of denominations, persons, and institutions which emerged out of Fundamentalism in the mid-20th century. Its adherents were attempting to recover and identify with an earlier evangelical spirit with roots in the Protestant Reformation.
The word evangelical stems from the Greek evangelismos, meaning good news or the gospel. The term was used in denigrating fashion during the Reformation era to describe Protestants in general (including Anabaptists), because of their emphasis on salvation by faith through God's grace, in contrast to salvation by works. The first awakening, which appeared in England and the United States in the 18th century under the leadership of John Wesley (1703-91), George Whitefield (1714-70), and Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), was often designated the "evangelical revival." Its counterpart on the continent of Europe was Pietism, which affected German, Dutch, Swiss, and Scandinavian ethnic groups in North America in ways not easily distinguished from Anglo-American Evangelicalism. Evangelical was sometimes employed to describe the worldwide mission movement beginning in the late 18th century and continuing through the 19th century, the Second Awakening in America (early 1800s), low church Anglicanism in 19th-century England, and the mainstream of 19th-century Protestantism in the United States. These movements all shared an evangelical propensity for conservative theology and a life of piety reflected in prayer, Bible reading, and evangelism, as well as varying forms of social concern.
By the end of the 19th century major evangelical tenets were being challenged by new social, intellectual, and religious forces. Notions of biological and social evolution were casting doubt on the evangelical view of creation. Historical and higher critical methods of biblical studies were challenging long held orthodox assumptions regarding the Bible and its historicity. The newly-emerging social sciences were probing into new ways of viewing the individual and society, so that structural transformation, as opposed to individual conversion, was becoming the rallying cry in secular and in some religious quarters.
The confrontation between orthodox faith and the forces of modernity led to major denominational divisions, personal attacks, and theological battles. One pole, the modernists (or theological liberals), openly embraced the new understandings of science, psychology, and sociology in order to make the faith "meaningful" to a new kind of world. At the other end of the spectrum were those who, in reaction to the modernists, clung tenaciously to the fundamentals of orthodox Christianity. Eventually this group was labeled Fundamentalist, a term most adherents proudly defended.
The Fundamentalists did battle with the modernists over such issues as creation, the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, and the substitutionary atonement of Christ. Many also began to adopt a dispensational theology, which was popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible (1909), and emphasized a rather pessimistic view of history and the imminent and premillennial return of Christ, as the only hope for a broken world. There were evangelical Christians who were essentially neither Fundamentalist nor modernists, but in numerous denominations and churches during the first four decades of the 20th century, the battle lines were so intensely drawn that few could clearly maintain that middle ground.
By the 1920s Fundamentalism was highly defensive, separatistic, and contentious. Over the years it developed its own denominations, Bible institutes (and eventually colleges), and publishing houses in isolation from other Christians. The militant spirit of this movement has often been strongly criticized, and rightly so, but it was in part a result of the treatment they received at the hands of the secular press and other church people.
By the 1940s there were growing numbers within Fundamentalism who were calling for changes -- not so much in basic theology as in mood. Carl F. H. Henry (the first editor of Christianity Today), Harold Ockenga (a Boston pastor and first president of Fuller Theological Seminary), and evangelist Billy Graham were among the early leaders of what was to become essentially a new movement -- Evangelicalism, or as some termed it Neo-evangelicalism. These and other leaders questioned the Fundamentalists' extreme ecclesiastical separatism, their failure to address social issues, and their antipathy to higher education (including both liberal arts education and graduate-level theological education). The new Evangelicals believed that the negativism and divisiveness of the past needed to be replaced by a cautiously positive and cooperative spirit. They emphasized their oneness with Fundamentalism in basic doctrines, but many Evangelicals tended to move away from dispensationalism or at least to modify it.
Evangelicals in the 1940s and 1950s developed numerous organizations, institutions, and magazines. They included: the National Association of Evangelicals (1942), Youth For Christ (1944), the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association (1945), Fuller Theological Seminary (1947), the Evangelical Theological Society (1949), World Vision (1950), Campus Crusade (1951), and Christianity Today magazine (1956). These institutions helped to give identity to denominations which were identifying more with Evangelicalism than hard-line Fundamentalism. They also served as bridges for many in mainline denominations who over the years had been neither truly Fundamentalist nor modernist but now found identity within Evangelicalism.
While there are numerous theological and polity differences among Evangelicals, most find general agreement with the seven major points of the National Association of Evangelicals' doctrinal statement. This statement includes: (1) the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible; (2) one God, eternally existing in three persons; (3) the deity of Jesus Christ as well as his miracles atoning death, and resurrection; (4) the necessity of personal salvation through regeneration; (5) the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to enable godliness; (6) the future resurrection of believers to life and the lost to judgment; (7) the spiritual unity of believers in Christ.
The Relationship of Mennonites to Evangelicalism
The relationship of Mennonites to Evangelicals is quite complex and reflects the broad diversity among and within the Mennonite groups. The interaction can best be understood in terms of institutional relationships and theological relationships.
At a denominational level there are four Mennonite bodies with membership in the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE): the Brethren in Christ, the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren (Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches), the Evangelical Mennonite Church, and the Mennonite Brethren Churches (USA). There are also a number of General Conference Mennonite congregations which have joined the NAE. The Canadian counterparts of these groups have tended to join the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, as has the Canadian-based Evangelical Mennonite Conference. Although statistics are not available, it would appear that these Mennonite bodies also have more significant involvements in other Evangelical institutions and hence a greater evangelical identity.
The Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church have had more selective institutional involvements, often more at a congregational or agency level than as a whole denomination, with Evangelicals. For example, these Mennonites have often participated in Evangelical events such as Billy Graham Crusades, Key 73, and the Lausanne Conference of 1974. Moreover, students from these two largest Mennonite groups can be found in most major mainline Evangelical institutions such as Wheaton College, Taylor University, and Fuller Theological Seminary. At the same time there are individuals and congregations from these two Mennonite denominations, who, for various reasons, avoid any Evangelical institutional involvement. The Conference of Mennonites in Canada has held observer status in the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada since the 1980s.
Theologically, Anabaptists and Mennonites have generally adhered to Evangelical tenets of the faith as outlined in the doctrinal statement of the National Association of Evangelicals. However, many Mennonites would wish to add to such a statement as well as place less emphasis on creed and more on action. A small minority would overtly reject the major theological emphases of Evangelicalism.
The Mennonite propensity towards evangelical or traditional orthodox Christian theology is evident in the study by J. Howard Kauffman and Leland Harder published in 1975. Using a general orthodox scale that focused on God, Christ, miracles, resurrection, Christ's return, a personal devil, and life beyond death, the authors found that among the five Mennonite groups studied 75 percent scored high on the orthodox scale, with another 14 percent in the next category, high middle. The groups with the greatest evangelical institutional identity scored the highest (Mennonite Brethren 87 percent; Brethren in Christ, 82 percent; and Evangelical Mennonite Church, 88 percent in the high category), while the General Conference Mennonite Church scored the lowest (65 percent were high in orthodoxy). The Mennonite Church was in the middle with 76 percent in the high category (Kauffman/Harder, 106).
The doctrinal statements and theological affirmations of the varied 20th-century Mennonite bodies are in essential agreement with Evangelical theology. However, each of them would tend to move beyond Evangelicalism by including an affirmation of certain life-style and ethical issues, such as nonresistance or peace witness. Mennonite soteriology has also tended to add commitment to Christ or discipleship as an integral part of salvation by faith.
The Mennonite churches have been influenced by historic and contemporary Evangelicalism in numerous ways: revivalism, Sunday schools, theology, and forms of piety. Some of these influences have at times been sources of contention within the Mennonite families. Mennonites have also made at least some impact upon Evangelicalism especially in recent years. Numerous Evangelicals have found in the sons and daughters of Menno examples of Christian discipleship, peace concerns, and the balance of justice and service concerns with personal piety.
Hunter, James D. Evangelicals: the Coming Generation. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1987.
Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975.
Kraus, C. Norman, ed., Evangelicalism and Anabaptism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1979.
Wittlinger, Carlton O. Piety and Obedience: The Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978.: 479-81.
Marsden, George. Reforming Fundamentalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
Wells, David Wells and John Woodbridge, eds. The Evangelicals. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1975.
Zercher, David. "Opting For the Mainstream: the Brethren join the National Association of Evangelicals." Brethren in Christ History and Life 10, no. 1 (April 1987): 48-70.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 281-283. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Hollinger, Dennis P. "Evangelicalism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 18 June 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/E938ME.html.
APA style: Hollinger, Dennis P. (1989). Evangelicalism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 June 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/E938ME.html.