7 Historic Meanings of Evangelicalism—and Their Compatibility with Anabaptism

7 Historic Meanings of Evangelicalism—and Their Compatibility with Anabaptism January 10, 2019

In case you missed it, last month there was a bit of a blogosphere dust-up when religion writer Jonathan Merritt tweeted that it was “weird” that evangelical historian Thomas Kidd used the word “evangelical” to describe Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American poet.

A number of evangelical historians came to Kidd’s defense (as is well documented by historian John Fea), and the conversation quickly shifted to the questions of how to define “evangelicalism” and who should do it.

Boston Public Library / flickr

I followed this conversation with some amusement because I was at the same time reading Merritt’s latest book, Learning to Speak God from Scratch, where he argues that Christians should be liberated to play with religious words to breathe new life into them, and he notes that the advent of dictionaries and their seemingly rigid and prescriptive definitions have hindered our ability to do so.

In light of the argument of his book, Merritt’s insistence that Kidd use the word “evangelical” in conformity with his seemingly prescriptive definition seemed a bit—for lack of a better word—weird.

If Merritt had applied the approach of his book to the word “evangelical,” I think he would have seen how the word, like many religious words, has morphed and evolved over time and is used in different ways based on its context. There’s no Platonic essence of evangelicalism, but rather, as Wittgenstein argues in Philosophical Investigations, the meaning of a word is found in its use.

While Merritt is correct that it would be weird to consider Wheatley an evangelical in certain times and contexts, Kidd’s use of the term is quite appropriate relative to the time and context he was describing.

In Merritt’s defense, it has become nearly, might we say, useless to use the word “evangelical” without some accompanying adjective to specify whom or what one is describing—as Kidd himself has elsewhere acknowledged.

In my last post, I mentioned an article by one of my former college professors and personal mentors, Timothy Erdel (“Brother Tim”), in which he defines “evangelical” from a number of angles: historical, contemporary, theological, and behavioral.* In this post, I want to focus on the seven historical meanings of “evangelical” he describes in order to answer whether and how they’re compatible with Anabaptism.

(1) New Testament use of “evangelical”

Erdel notes that the New Testament frequently uses the Greek word euangélion to refer “to the basic message preached, taught, lived, and fulfilled by Jesus Christ.” According to the New Testament usage, “the Good News [euangélion] is that with the coming of Jesus, the Kingdom of God arrived on earth in a decisive way. Jesus came to bring Jubilee, Good News to the poor, release for captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.” The euangélion, writes Erdel, “stands in opposition to Roman power and military might, calling followers of Jesus to instead put on the whole armor of God in order to enter into spiritual warfare.”

This first use of “evangelical” is not only compatible with Anabaptism; it’s kind of the bread and butter of Anabaptist thought and life.

(2) Medieval use of “evangelical”

Erdel writes, “Numerous prophetic, reforming, and ascetic movements arose within the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages that attempted to take seriously the teachings of Jesus, calling for a return to the four Evangels.” Erdel identifies both groups that broke with the Catholic Church, including the Waldensians, Lollards, and Hussites, and religious orders that arose within the Catholic Church, including the Benedictines and Franciscans.

This second use of “evangelical” is also compatible with Anabaptism. While Anabaptists have a bit of a rocky relationship with medieval Catholicism, they tend to love “evangelical” Catholic figures like St. Francis and to view the various medieval reform movements as precursors to the 16th-century radical (Anabaptist) reformation.

(3) Reformation era use of “evangelical”

Erdel writes, “The Reformation era set the stage for subsequent understandings of the term ‘evangelical.’ All four major streams of the Protestant Reformation—Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Anabaptist—originally claimed the term; and, whatever their other differences, all four shared two major emphases that have been linked ever since to the word evangelical”—namely, the insistence that salvation comes solely by the grace of God through faith in the person of Jesus Christ (sola gratiasola fides, and solus Christus) and the insistence on the primacy of Scripture (sola scriptura).

While some contemporary Anabaptists would quibble with the way some of their evangelical friends use the solas, it should go without saying that this third use of “evangelical,” which was claimed by the 16th-century Anabaptists themselves, is compatible with Anabaptism.

(4) 17th to 19th-century use of “evangelical”

Erdel writes, “Pietism, Puritanism (including Baptist and Friends/Quaker offshoots), revivalism, Methodism, and numerous other renewal movements emerged in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, reacting primarily against nominal Protestants in state churches.” (Incidentally, this is the use of “evangelical” that Kidd deployed to describe Wheatley.)

This fourth use of “evangelical” is arguably where tensions begin to arise with Anabaptism. On the one hand, Erdel notes that some of these groups “described themselves as believer’s churches or free churches, often embracing believer’s baptism and the separation of church and state,” and some “were influenced by Anabaptists on other points as well, retaining the strong Anabaptist foci on community, humility, loving service, discipleship, and the refusal to bear arms.”

On the other hand, some Anabaptists have worried that these movements were responsible for making evangelicalism other-worldly, individualistic, and generally averse to social concerns. This is one of the arguments of Mennonite historian Theron Schlabach’s classic 1980 book, Gospel Versus Gospel, which has been taken as, well, gospel truth by subsequent Mennonite historians. Some Pietist historians, such as Chris Gehrz, have challenged this view of Pietism as a mischaracterization.

In short, some Anabaptists would be much more comfortable claiming this  fourth understanding of “evangelical” than others. While Anabaptism is compatible with this use of “evangelical,” the relationship is complicated.

(5) Early 20th-century use of “evangelical”

Erdel writes, “Fundamentalism emerged primarily as an American evangelical Protestant attempt to affirm decisive Christian doctrines that were in danger of being discarded by theologians more interested in accommodating Christianity to secular modernism than in defending biblical supernaturalism.” However, this movement “took on a more sharply polemical edge,” “became known as separatists,” and eventually “became social and political reactionaries,” even “openly championing segregation and other forms of racism.”

While some Mennonites, such as early 20th-century theologian Daniel Kauffman, were comfortably at home within the fundamentalist movement (as discussed by Ben Wetzel and Nathan Yoder in The Activist Impulse), the fundamentalist focus on right doctrine (orthodoxy) often at the expense of right practice (orthopraxis) sits uneasily with many Anabaptists today. And while Anabaptists have themselves been considered “separatists” by mainstream Christians, most would be uncomfortable being considered evangelicals of a fundamentalist stripe. And, at their best, Anabaptists have rejected the uglier sides of fundamentalism, such as its implicit and sometimes explicit racism.

In short, while this fifth use of “evangelical” has historically been claimed by some Anabaptists, its tensions with Anabaptism are so strong as to almost lead to a breaking point.

(6) Mid-20th-century use of “evangelical”

Erdel next describes the neo-evangelical movement, which was a mid-20th-century reaction against the excesses of the fundamentalist movement by conservative leaders like Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry. This movement is largely responsible for many of the evangelical institutions still around today, such as the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today, and Fuller Theological Seminary.

If the fundamentalist movement took the tensions between evangelicalism and Anabaptism to the breaking point, neo-evangelicalism brought the tensions back to the level of the 19th century. Many so-called neo-Anabaptists are children of neo-evangelicals who have been influenced by evangelical-friendly Anabaptists like John Howard Yoder and Ron Sider. As Anabaptist historian David Swartz argues in his chapter of The Activist Impulse, the evangelical left (Jim Wallis et al.) in particular was directly influenced by Anabaptist theologians.

All that to say, this sixth use of “evangelical” is also compatible with Anabaptism, though, as with the fourth use, it’s not without its tensions.

(7) 21st-century use of “evangelical”

While readers in North America might think that the evangelical pendulum is swinging back toward the worst of fundamentalism in the 21st century, Erdel helpfully turns his attention instead to 21st-century global evangelicalism. He argues that “most prophetic voices come from overseas and rarely get heard in North American evangelical settings.” Erdel thus identifies a “new evangelical global majority that today dwarfs Anglo-American evangelicals.” Among other traits, Erdel identifies global evangelicals’ understanding that “from the beginning Jesus brought Good News to the poor,” that “his message was one of liberation and healing,” and that evangelicals in the North often preach “a truncated gospel, one deaf to the cries of the oppressed.” In short, “majority world evangelicals want a whole gospel for the whole person.”

Such criticisms of North American evangelicalism by global evangelicals sound strikingly similar to Anabaptist criticisms of evangelicalism. Thus, ironically, in as much as contemporary Anabaptists are in tension with contemporary North American evangelicalism, they demonstrate just how compatible they are with this seventh use of “evangelical.”

If we look at the tally sheet, then, we find that of Erdel’s seven historical uses of “evangelical,” Anabaptists are largely compatible with (1), (2), (3), and (7); they have some tensions with (4) and (6); and they’re largely incompatible with (5).

What do you think of Erdel’s seven uses? Do you agree with my assessment of their compatibility with Anabaptism? Let me know in the comments.

*See Timothy Paul Erdel, “The Evangelical Tradition in the Missionary Church: Enduring Debts and Unresolved Dilemmas,” Reflections: A Publication of the Missionary Church Historical Society 13–14 (2011–12): 74–109, available through the ATLA Religion Database.

About David C. Cramer
David C. Cramer is teaching pastor at Keller Park Church in South Bend, Indiana, and managing editor at the Institute of Mennonite Studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. You can read more about the author here.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Lucas Land

    I find this historical breakdown very helpful in the current context where I find these tensions arising. I especially resonate with the idea that words are defined by their usage and don’t have a fixed meaning. Many are eager to jump ship on the term “evangelical” because it has one specific meaning for them. I hold out hope that we can learn from historical meanings and find new and interesting ways to rescue the meaning and history of terms for the present and the future.

    I am mostly in agreement with your assessment of where the two streams find resonance historically. Perhaps it is only natural to push back on the most recent example. I do think we have to listen to the majority of the global church to gain greater understanding and insight. However, I’m not convinced they speak so univocally on the meaning of evangelicalism and with such a strong critique of North American evangelicalism as we would like. I wonder how much we sometimes impose our (Progressive Western) hopes for how the rest of the world would view and critique our dominant culture. I’d be interested to see more hard data on this.

    I’ll speak from my experience. The Iglesia Evangélica Menonita de Bolivia (Evangelical Mennonite Church of Bolivia), which I currently attend, seems to lean more heavily on the evangelical than the Anabaptist. It’s complex of course, but I see the deep influence of the evangelicalism in #s 5 and 6 on the churches here, including those claiming the Anabaptist tradition.

    With that caveat, engaging the questions around this tension using these historical definitions of evangelicalism would go a long way toward better understanding of what is happening today.

  • karl


    This is a great analysis, and I am pretty sure I agree with you. But I would add that like “evangelicalism,” “Anabaptism” is also a word that lacks a “Platonic essence” and must be defined based on how it’s being used. So perhaps you need a more complicated matrix that connects Brother Tim’s seven uses of evangelicalism to the seven (or more?) uses of “Anabaptism” that are probably out there. I would underline your observation that both evangelicalism and Anabaptism aren’t purely separate realities. “Anabaptism” has had strong influences from all seven of these forms of evangelicalism, and as you also mention, evangelicalism has had strong Anabaptist influence at points.

    The one lacking “use” of evangelicalism in this list is the journalistic/sociological one that seems to conflate evangelicalism with particular political views in the American context. It’s kind of a rehash of #5 with some different issues attached. Maybe we should call it “7b.” Whether or not we like that use, we have to deal with its prevalence.

    In that use, “evangelicals” are pretty much just Christians who reject abortion and gay marriage (and perhaps some other “culture war” issues…) and are willing to go to the ballot box to force other Americans to comply. This leads to some strange definitions of evangelical, at least from a historical/theological perspective. I’ve read pieces that try to make the case that Mormons and conservative Catholics are in some way “evangelical.”

    For this use of “evangelical,” I’d say that once again, there are many American Anabaptist heirs who qualify as this sort of evangelical. But it isn’t a neat alignment. In many ways this is where the question of whether you belong on the evangelical channel may be contested. There are two types of misalignment between Anabaptists and evanglicals here:
    1. There are liberal heirs to Anabaptism who are OK with gay marriage and even abortion (though I’ll never quite understand why self-proclaimed pacifists who will take to the streets to protest overseas wars can reconcile themselves to folks killing unborn babies in their own community).
    2. There are conservative Anabaptists who may share traditional social views, but would not go to the ballot box to force others to share their practice (though of course more liberal Anabaptists to vote and force their social views on others).

    I do think Bro. Tim is right that we should look at global reality and identify this “7b” as a use that is problematic. Both evangelicalism and Anabaptism by their very nature are international movements, so limiting our definition to American politics is troubling.


  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Thanks, David, for this overview. I’m glad to see you make clear the substantive compatibility between ‘Evangelical’ and ‘Anabaptist’ with respect to several key biblical and historical reference points.

    Just as an adequate answer to this question calls for analyzing “Which Evangelicalism?”, however, it also calls for analyzing “Whose Anabaptism?” The two-kingdom Anabaptism of Sattler? The separatist Anabaptism of “the quiet in the land?” The revivalist Anabaptism of the Brunk brothers? The institutionalized Anabaptism of Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision”? The neo-Anabaptism of Yoder and Weaver? The “naked” Anabaptism of Stuart Murray? The activist Anabaptism of contemporary Mennonite campuses?

    (There. That should do ya for several more blog posts!)

  • Jamie Pitts

    Great post, David–always good to learn from Brother Tim! I agree with Lucas Land that many Anabaptists, in N. America and elsewhere, do resonate with option 5. Kaufmann and JC Wenger are still in print in some N. American communities, and many Anabaptists get their theology from Wayne Grudem, dispensationalists, or related sources.

    Perhaps here is where the ongoing validity of Theron’s critique comes in: the ways Anabaptist theology was often been hidden behind evangelicalism 5 (and maybe 6) in the mission movement.

    But note that not *all* Mennonite historians take Theron’s book as gospel. John Roth, for instance, points out how “peace” features throughout the global Anabaptist churches, even if it doesn’t look like what Yoderians would expect. And though he’s not an historian, I’ve heard theological/MWC president Nelson Kraybill discuss the limitations of Theron’s view, w/r/t definitions of evangelicalism/pietism and global Anabaptist peace concern.

  • Philipp Gollner

    All definitions that are thrown around today, incl. Bebbington’s quadrilateral (which Kidd relies on, and rests on the assumption that evangelicalism can be defined as a set of theological beliefs) and Merritt’s challenge (which relies on evangelicalism as a peculiarly American culture very much marked by race – as evidenced by the fact that the whole twitter exchange was all white men talking about whether an African-American woman should be considered evangelical) are defining imagined sets (imagined communities, I heard Kristin DuMez refer to Benedict Anderson last week). Who has the power to define evangelicals, and why they want to define it, or define themselves over against it (“I’m not THAT kind of evangelical”) seems much more interesting to me than the definition game itself. I am not sure that evangelicalism exists as anything more than a set of codes that is helpful only insofar as it points to more important questions of culture, race, politics, family etc. in America.

  • Yeah, I didn’t use the word “all,” though I probably should have used the word “some” or perhaps even “many.”

  • At least this comments section is full of diversity.

  • Philipp Gollner

    In other words: scholarship on Phillis Wheatley? Nice. Scholars on whether or not she was an evangelical? Who cares. (well, who cares – Thomas Kidd cares, because it helps him postion “his” evangelicalism away from those yucky Trumpsters. I share Tim Gloege’s frustration with all this positioning that goes into the definition exercises:”BEING EVANGELICAL MEANS NEVER HAVING TO SAY YOU’RE SORRY” http://religiondispatches.org/itsnotus-being-evangelical-means-never-having-to-say-youre-sorry/

  • Jamie Pitts

    Philipp, this of course can be said (and is increasingly said) about every perceived unity. Scholarly nominalism has its uses, and as a teacher of Anabaptist history I do find it necessary to disrupt my students’ assumptions with a good dose of “isms” (from “Anabaptism” to “Anabaptisms” etc., emphasizing the politics of all definitional claims). But that’s only a first step toward responsible identity claims. It seems like you’re leaving us with the “isms” because you’re annoyed by the conflict. But we won’t escape conflict even if we take seriously the “lower” levels of culture, race, etc. In short, I don’t think the effort to claim an “evangelicalism” (or “Christianity” or “Anabaptism”) is completely useless, even if it is risky and dangerous (like everyone else). Maybe I’m overreading you, though…?