The problem, of course, is in defining ‘evangelical.’
The term is Biblical, and there generally refers to the Gospel; literally, the “good news.” The Greek here is ‘evangelion.’ Thus, in the broadest sense, evangelicalism is simply the proclamation of Christ’s salvific role as the Messiah. This is why we call the authors of the Gospels the ‘evangelists.’
During the Reformation, Martin Luther referred to his movement as “evangelical,” in the sense that he re-emphasized our utter dependence upon the grace of Christ’s cross for salvation, in contrast to Catholic theologies of salvation through sacrament. Thus, many continental Reformation churches have adopted the word, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Another way to use the term “evangelical,” then, is in what Timothy Weber* has called its ‘classical’ sense. An evangelical may be one who strictly adheres to the doctrines of the Reformation: justification by faith, a strict adherence to the authority of the Bible in issues of faith and practice, and an Augustinian doctrine of the nature of man: that is, fallen and in need of God’s grace to know the good and attain salvation.
Beginning in the eighteenth century, “evangelical” took on another aspect, what Weber calls “pietist.” This movement culminated in the United States in the First and Second Great Awakenings, but began both on continental Europe in the teachings of Jakob Spener, who taught that true Christianity demanded introspection, individual study of the Bible, and personal communion with God, and in Great Britain, where the Puritans stressed that God’s election could be made known to the individual through a encounter with the Holy Spirit.
While the continental school made its presence known in the United States among German immigrants, among many British-derived denominations, notions of election gradually drifted from Reformed rigor. The influence of Methodism, which taught that it was possible to lose election through sin, was paramount here. The early nineteenth century evangelist Charles Finney taught that rather than seeking knowledge of election, the individual could seek salvation itself through embracing God’s gracious offer of a personal relationship with Christ. He adapted the Methodist camp meeting to create a liturgy directed at promoting conversions. This revivalist Protestantism, what James White has called “frontier religion,” has since become a defacto denomination for many Americans. When many Americans hear ‘evangelical,’ images of Billy Graham, televangelism, and megachurches, the modern manifestations ofthe nineteenth century revivals.
By the early twentieth century, the term “evangelical” took on a final definition through its association with the fundamentalist movement. While there were (and remain) many non-fundamentalist evangelicals, the fundamentalist movement drew upon evangelicalism’s traditional sympathy for a “high,” or authoritative, inspired approach to Scripture, as well as its stress (through Wesley) on sanctification, or righteous living guided by the influence of the Holy Spirit. Today as well, most Americans picture evangelicals as culturally and religiously conservative.
By this point it should be clear that there is, in Donald Dayton and Richard Johnston’s term, “a variety of American evangelicalism.” How to define what “evangelicalism” is, then?
An often cited definition is that of David Bebbington**, who argues that evangelicalism can be defined by its adherence to four points: 1)An emphasis on the conversion experience, a spiritual encounter with God; 2)Biblicism; an emphasis on Scripture as an inspired source of instruction of faith and praxis; 3)Activism: a stress on the importance of mission work and proclamation of God’s word; 4)Crucicentrism, or an emphasis on the redeeming work of Christ done on the Cross as the only source for salvation.
Note the ambiguities here; Bebbington has made room for both predestinarian Calvinists and Arminian Methodists, for both Biblical inerrentists and those who accept the higher criticism of Scripture. For Bebbington, evangelicalism is less a doctrinal movement than a series of emphases within orthodox Christianity.
Timothy Smith, speaking particularly of American evangelicals, broadens the tent even more. According to Smith, “These three characteristics – commitment to Scriptural authority, the experience of regeneration or ‘new life in Christ,’ and the passion for evangelism – have marked evangelicals ever since [the first Great Awakening].”*** For Smith, a particular theology of soteriology retreats even more. Evangelicalism is not a set of doctrines or religious positions; rather, it is a style, a collection of behaviors and impulses, a way being religious.
So, are Mormons evangelical? Certainly, in the New Testament definition of the term as one who proclaims the saving work of Christ, Mormons are among the most evangelical of all the varieties of Christianity. Mormons then fit one of both Bebbington and Smith’s requirements.
The other distinction both Bebbington and Smith emphasize is scriptural authority. Some distinctions can be made here. Of course, Mormons have scripture beyond the Bible. Mormons also emphasize the importance of continuing revelation as a source of authority equal to scripture. However, if we get to the fundamentals of the question, I think there is some overlap. That is, evangelicals emphasize the Bible as the source of authority for faith and practice – rejecting, primarily the competing claim of church history and tradition which Catholics and Anglicans accept. Mormons, I think, come down on the side of evangelicals here. We invest scripture with the same authority – and indeed, that we eventually blend our other competing claim (continuing revelation) into the category of scripture (through our open canon) indicates the aura of authority that the concept of scripture holds in our tradition.
Mormons also, like evangelicals, stress the importance of the conversion experience. Indeed, there are parallels in method to be drawn between the evangelical revival and the Mormon conversion method: particular methods for encouraging the convert target to seek an encounter with the Holy Spirit are used; particular interpretations of that encounter after it has been attained are offered to help the convert understand what has happened. The argument, of course, can be made that Mormon and evangelical interpretations as to the significance of the conversion event vary widely, though there are more pervasive similarities even here than I think either side recognizes (ie, the experience is referred to as a divine confirmation or witness; it is framed in terms of gaining truth, etc).
The stickiest point for an argument classifying Mormonism as evangelical is Bebbington’s last point – that is, that salvation is gained only through the grace of Christ’s cross. Fortunately for me, a coterie of Mormons, including Stephen Robinson and much of CES, are industriously remaking Mormon theology after the image of justification by grace. Further, Smith, recognizing that some evangelical groups (such as the Churches of Christ or the Seventh-Day Adventists) seek a similar reconciliation between faith and works, softens his definition.
What’s the value in this exercise? First, I hope to offer a counterweight to a tendency I’ve seen recently in the media, on blogs, just about everywhere, to oversimplify evangelicalism or take one of its factions to be representative of the whole. Secondly, what I’ve done here, I hope, takes another step toward a task that I believe to be paramount to Mormon studies – drawing the study of Mormonism out of the ghetto, and understanding ourselves within the larger context of Christianity and American religion.
*Donald Dayton and Robert Johnston, eds., The Variety of American Evangelicalism (Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1991) 12-3.
**David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in modern Britain : a history from the 1730s to the 1980s. (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989) 2-17.
***Timothy Smith, “Evangelical Christianity and American Culture,” in James Rudin and Marvin Wilson, eds., A Time To Speak (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 60.
Adapted from here.