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Published: May 29, 2011

Evangelism (evangelicalism)

A relatively modern Anglo-American Protestant Christian proselytization movement that relies on the literal interpretation of the Bible, more than church hierarchy, as sole authority in religious matters. Evangelical differences with Protestant church hierarchy surfaced in the New World during the 18th and 19th centuries. Those differences centered on the doctrine of original sin and Christ’s role in removing man’s burden of original sin. Traditional “Old Light” Protestants believed that the fall of man from God’s grace in the Garden of Eden taints every human being with original sin from birth. With the exception of an unspecified elect (often duespaying members of organized churches) for whom Christ died, original sin leaves the rest of humanity eternally damned to moral depravity. “New Light” evangelicals, on the other hand, believed that Christ died to remove the burden of original sin from everyone. In effect, New Light evangelism was a democratized Protestantism that promised salvation to all who repented, laid aside all pride and humbled themselves before the Lord. The route to such salvation, said the evangelist preachers, lay in constant study of the Bible and a personal religious experience, or conversion, leading to a deep commitment to Christ.
Derived from the Greek euangelion, meaning “good news,” the term dates from the Reformation, whose leaders emphasized biblical writings and rejected the official pronouncements of the Roman Catholic Church. Evangelist practices of free-lance proselytizing go back to pre-Reformation European dissenters such as Peter Waldo and the Waldenses in 13th-century France, 14th-century English theologian John Wycliffe and the 14th-century Czech religious leader Jan Hus.
In the New World, evangelism began with the arrival of the first settlers—the Puritans, Dutch Reformed and Presbyterians, many of whom were evangelist rebels from the mother churches of England and Holland. Although its influence has waxed and waned from decade to decade, Evangelism has been a perennial element of and a profound influence on American life and, in turn, on American education ever since.
Evangelism as a mass movement reached its first peak in the colonies with the GREAT AWAKENING, which lasted from the 1720s to the 1740s. Led by such theologians as Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen, William Tennent, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, the Great Awakening swept across the East and left few Americans untouched by evangelistic fervor. Although a religiously based movement, the Great Awakening had a powerful impact on American society by undermining the notion of a divinely determined class system and imbuing it with a spirit of religious, political and social equality. Evangelism split communities and their churches and created a plethora of “New Light” and “Old Light” sects and divisions in each church. Because the church remained the center and source of all acceptable community knowledge and learning, the new, democratic, evangelist churches of the Great Awakening expanded the reach of education. They also taught an entire generation of American-born colonists that they were equal to their governors in England—a notion that eventually helped fuel the American Revolution. The Great Awakening might have converted the future United States into a fundamentalist Christian nation had dissent not erupted within the various Protestant sects over the question of original sin. Decrying the excessive zeal of some evangelists, dissidents rejected the notion of spending their lives on Earth burdened with guilt until they experienced conversion. Although egalitarian in concept, the evangelism of Edwards and others demanded a conversion prior to the promise of salvation. Dissenters introduced an even more egalitarian concept of the child being born as innocent as the Christ Child and, therefore, warranting immediate baptism. In addition to dissent within churches, practical considerations of day-to-day life also helped erode the religious strength of the Great Awakening. During the 1750s, political problems such as excessive parliamentary taxation of the colonies seized the attention of colonists. More and more, they spent their Sundays plotting against royal instead of religious authority and ignoring the call to prayer.
In addition, the exigencies of frontier life and the industrial revolution made the learning of agricultural techniques and mechanical skills more important than the need for salvation. Gradually, theology had to share the school day with mathematics, the sciences and foreign languages. At the college level, it all but disappeared from the core curriculum and became a specialty reserved for those studying for the clergy.
Although secularists dominated the writing of the Constitution of the United States, independence did not bring an end to evangelistic influence on American life. Indeed, it was not until 1791 that secularists were finally able to push through the First Amendment provision, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . . .” Nevertheless, evangelists were responsible for maintaining official state religions in six of the original states all of which mandated collection of taxes for the support of “public teachers” of the Christian religion. It was not until 1833 that Massachusetts became the last state to end its ties to an official state religion and cede control of common schools to secular teachers.
As secular public school systems were established in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, evangelists turned westward where no schools existed. The Rev. Lyman Beecher sounded the call in 1835, with the publication of A Plea for the West, writing, “The conflict which is to decide the destiny of the West will be a conflict of institutions for the education of her sons. . . .” He warned that waves of Roman Catholic immigrants from despotic European monarchies were flooding the West, threatening the foundations of American democracy. He said American democracy could only be preserved if Protestant missionaries fanned out across the West, establishing a vast network of common schools and colleges to indoctrinate American children in American Protestantism. A Beecher rival, Charles Grandison Finney, transformed evangelism into the movement we know today by completely democratizing Protestantism and opening it to all. Finney contended that Christ had died to remove the burden of original sin from everyone. Proclaiming a “universal amnesty,” Finney invited all his listeners to repent, accept Christ and, as a result, salvation. Finney’s appeals created an evangelistic fervor that swept across the nation and even reached Britain, where he twice went to preach. A lawyer by training and an electrifying orator, Finney might well have become the nation’s most powerful figure had the Civil War not forced Americans from revival tents and onto the battlefield.
Within a decade after the Civil War, evangelist missionaries had nevertheless been responsible for establishing the vast majority of common, or public, schools in the South and West. Even as the public school movement spread and states acquired control of common schools, Protestant teachings were so integrated into elementary school education that the Roman Catholic Church decided to establish its own private, religious school system in 1884, lest public school education convert Roman Catholic children to Protestantism. Evangelistic influences in public school education diminished somewhat in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when, just as it had in the late 18th century, the practical requirements of an expanding industrial nation made the study of engineering, mining, physics, chemistry, agriculture and other sciences and vocational skills seem more important to students than salvation. Moreover, the influence of new scientific theories such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, cast doubt on the practical value of Bible studies in secular schools. Indeed, most universities abandoned theology as a requirement and relegated it to a separate department for those preparing for lives as clergymen.
Evangelists nonetheless continued their efforts to control education. Indeed, during the 1880s and 1890s they sought nothing less than the creation of a Protestant Christian United States. Feeling threatened by the arrival of growing numbers of non-Protestant immigrants, they sought to resolve the conflicts that had divided them since the aftermath of the Reformation. To that end, a number of major groups united to secure “a larger combined influence for the Churches of Christ in all matters affecting the moral and social condition of the people, so as to promote the application of the law of Christ in every relation of human life.” The International Sunday School Union, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America and the YMCA/YWCA joined in common cause, each with a specific mission. The first unified the Sunday school curriculum to ensure that every Sunday school was using and teaching the same scriptural materials every Sunday of the year. The second organization developed a common creed for its 33 denominations. Based on what it called “social Christianity,” the council’s creed called for “equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.” The YMCA carried out missionary work among the idle and the poor in slum districts. They distributed tracts in boardinghouses, hospitals and jails, conducted Bible classes for businessmen, trained Sunday school teachers and set up formal programs of education that included evening classes that mixed secular education with religious indoctrination. Referred to as the “college of the people,” the YMCAs offered courses of all levels for youngsters and adults of all ages, including reading, writing, literature, citizenship, civics and vocational skills. Despite these far-reaching efforts, evangelists lost ground during World War I, as public agencies, including the new public high schools rising in cities across America, usurped educational functions, while secular settlement houses competed in the area of social services by offering a variety of enjoyable activities—without sermons. Toward the end of World War I, however, a new wave of evangelistic fervor swept the nation, and many formerly moderate evangelists joined efforts of the more fervently conservative movement of FUNDAMENTALISM to ban the teaching of evolutionalism in public schools. A number of southern states responded in the 1920s by passing laws that not only banned evolutionism from the classroom, but mandated the teaching of the biblical version of the origins of man. The last two such law remained in force until 1967 and 1968, respectively, when Tennessee voluntarily repealed its so-called monkey law, and a year later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a similar law in Arkansas unconstitutional.
Waves of evangelistic fervor have continued to sweep the nation from time to time since World War II, and evangelist leaders have managed to coax a number of state legislatures into passing laws that would force schools to teach “creation science” in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court has been firm in declaring such laws unconstitutional attempts to impose religious teachings in the science classes of secular schools. Protestant evangelists responded by founding their own evangelical schools or Christian schools—about 10,000 in the 30 years from 1975 to 2005, with an estimated total enrollment of one million students. (See also Aguilar v. Felton; church-state conflicts; Epperson v. Arkansas; Everson v. Board of Education; MCCOLLUM V. BOARD OF EDUCATION; SCOPES MONKEY TRIAL.)
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