Are Mormons Evangelical?

By September 2, 2008

The problem, of course, is in defining ‘evangelical.’

I

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.

II

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.

III

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.

IV
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

Article filed under Comparative Mormon Studies Theology


Comments

  1. I’m puzzled by the “fortunately for me” in your penultimate paragraph–do you mean fortunately for your argument, or do you personally like the notion of salvation through grace alone?

    (And how’s that for unbracketing personal belief right off the bat? Sorry!)

    Comment by Kristine — September 2, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

  2. I tend to think that when people talk about “evangelicals” they mean “Protestant evangelicals,” and I think that Smith’s definition is the most sensible. I think that the emphasis on populist evangelism is the clincher really. I think one could easily talk about “Mormon Evangelicalism”; but such an incarnation is quite distinct from the Protestant archetype.

    All that said, I think that certain brands of Evangelicalism make it really easy to paint with the broad brush of fundamentalism. In fact, they appear to be doing so themselves.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 2, 2008 @ 4:55 pm

  3. “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….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.”

    I think Latter-day Saints are more like Roman Catholics in this respect in that we do not exalt our canonized scripture over everything else (no “sola scriptura” for us). Along with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, we acknowledge the authority of the institutional Church (through its highest leaders) to interpret authoritatively the canon.

    As I understand it, some of the Roman Catholic defenders argued that church history and tradition (including Church teachings) were authoritative because they were a form of revelation from God. Thus, the Bible (canonized scripture) and history/tradition were equally binding because both were forms of God’s revelation.

    While Latter-day Saints do not refer to our Church’s “history” and “traditions” as authoritative, we do generally subscribe to the notion that “decisions” and current “teachings” of our leaders (which are the source of many “practices” which are a form of “tradition”) are authoritative because they are understood generally to be a form of continuing revelation.

    I may be mistaken, but I do not understand our evangelical brothers and sisters to place any sort of personal/leader inspiration/revelation/tradition/teachings on an equivalent plane to the Bible as do Roman Catholics and Mormons.

    Comment by DavidH — September 2, 2008 @ 5:36 pm

  4. Thanks, folks.

    As I understand it, some of the Roman Catholic defenders argued that church history and tradition (including Church teachings) were authoritative because they were a form of revelation from God.

    Still do, actually.

    David, this question of scripture is a very interesting one, and I think it’s ultimately a definitional one. What, precisely, is ‘scripture’ to Mormons? I think that, in practical terms, the products of continuing revelation are functionally scripture. Moreover, we treat the text of scripture much more like conservative evangelicals than Catholics or mainline evangelicals.

    Kris – on the first, yes, on the second, no comment. 🙂

    Stape – yes, there have been civil wars over the term ‘evangelical,’ even within the conservative camp. Billy Graham versus, say, Carl McIntire comes to mind. On the other hand, Harry Emerson Fosdick claimed to be evangelical. Descriptive definitions are more useful than normative ones because of that, I think.

    Comment by matt b. — September 2, 2008 @ 6:03 pm

  5. “I think it’s ultimately a definitional one. What, precisely, is ’scripture’ to Mormons? I think that, in practical terms, the products of continuing revelation are functionally scripture.”

    I think you are correct that the difference in viewpoints is largely definitional.

    1. If one views “continuing revelation” as “scripture”, then we are more like the Reformers. That is, if we call everything “scripture” that is authoritative (regardless of canonicity), then we can join Luther in proclaiming “sola scriptura.”

    2. If we view noncanonized LDS “continuing revelation” functionally as a form of inspired and revelatory “tradition”, then we are like Roman Catholics, by ascribing authority to a canon and to noncanonized decisions and teachings.

    I suppose the matter could be resolved most easily if Pope Benedict would simply state that Roman Catholic tradition is not just authoritative, but it is also “scripture”!

    Comment by DavidH — September 2, 2008 @ 6:49 pm

  6. David – I don’t, actually, think that we proclaim ‘sola scriptura,’ and I don’t know that I claimed that. Rather, I was intending to argue that Mormons use the signifier of ‘scripture’ as a way to invest what you’re calling ‘tradition’ with authority. The phrase ‘modern prophets’ gets as this, as does, I think, my primary argument. I think that in practice we treat scripture in ways much closer to conservative Protestants than to Catholics; the simplest word here is prooftexting.

    Further – and here’s the kicker – we also treat ‘continuing revelation’ (what I’m going to define as the teachings of General Authorities) in the same way; it’s authoritative for the same reason scripture is authoritative, and we cut and paste quotations from it side by side with quotations from scripture in conference talks. It is not authoritative in the same way Catholic ‘tradition’ is, and I don’t think that equating the two is entirely valid. We don’t baptize adults because we always have; we baptize adults because we have dictated revelation telling us to.

    Comment by matt b. — September 2, 2008 @ 7:44 pm

  7. 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.

    I think there’s certainly a shift, but I see it as the pendulum swinging back to where it should be or used to be, in some sense. The downplaying of grace was largely a knee-jerk reaction against (real or perceived) “easy grace” among Evangelicals.

    Robert Millet told a story at the Worlds of Joseph Smith conference in which he was preparing for his mission and came across grace in the Book of Mormon. He asked his Dad, one of the local people knowledgeable in history and doctrine, “do we believe in grace?”

    Sharp answer back, “No!”

    “Why not?” “Because the Baptists do!”

    David Paulsen has a review article which includes a historical survey of prophetic teachings on grace.

    And of course, it’s well grounded in the Book of Mormon and the JST.

    Comment by Nitsav — September 3, 2008 @ 7:12 am

  8. And the D&C, I left out.

    Comment by Nitsav — September 3, 2008 @ 7:12 am

  9. When Randall Balmer came to BYU a few years ago he gave a small seminar to some faculty (I was invited as a research historian at the JFSI) in which he defined evangelicism as (1) literal belief in the Bible (2) strong personal conversion experience, and (3) strong sense of evangelical proselytizing mission. Seemed like Mormons to me, so I said as much and asked him whether he considered Mormons evangelicals. He paused and then stated that he would decline to answer.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — September 3, 2008 @ 10:33 am

  10. True, Nitsav, though I’d argue that the Book of Mormon has not historically been representative of Mormon soteriology, and that the current pendulum swing is as representative of a re-emphasis on it as anything else.

    Mark – ha. I’m trying to guess what he was thinking based on what I’ve read of his, but I can’t quite make up my mind.

    Comment by matt b — September 3, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

  11. I don’t have much to add, Matt, but thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    Comment by Christopher — September 3, 2008 @ 4:02 pm

  12. (First time commenter – thanks for hosting…)

    I wonder if “ordinary language” theory (i.e. GE Moore) is instructive here. What matters in the question “Are Mormons Evangelicals” is if LDS match up to ‘evangelical’ in the ordinary use of that word, which is (as Stapley points out) conservative Protestant Christians. The etymology, history, and definitions are interesting, but the word has become a political term in its ordinary use. The question, then, is if LDS fit that political category. (Mike Huckabee, at least, thinks we don’t. On this point alone, I hope he is correct.)

    To go about calling Mormons evangelicals in the “evangelion” sense of the word is a bit like going to a soccer game and insisting on calling it ‘football.’ Accuracy, in some cases, is the root of confusion.

    Comment by MTN — September 4, 2008 @ 12:56 am

  13. Interesting, MTN. I think, though, that ‘ordinary’ use itself is dependent upon context; treating it as a political term applies best, I think, to a large group of center right evangelicals who have fought to control the term (for cultural more than political reasons) and a lot of Americans who are not evangelical but who consume media and have heard of evangelicals primarily in political contexts. This, however, excludes a fair number of 1)separatist fundamentalists who reject engagement with politics but self-identify theologically as evangelicals, 2)politically left wing self-identified evangelicals, 3)non-American evangelicals. All of the folks fit Smith and Weber’s categories. Because of that, I think, I think religious behavior is more useful than politics as an indicator.

    Comment by matt b — September 4, 2008 @ 11:49 am

  14. I wonder what to do with those who do not self-identify as evangelical but nevertheless share the traits common to that title.

    For example, here in Park City, one of my friends is a youth pastor for Young Life, an organization that focuses on outreach to youth who have not yet “found Jesus.” I asked him if he considered himself an evangelical and he said he considered himself simply “Christian.”

    Comment by MTN — September 5, 2008 @ 8:24 am

  15. This cartoon is vaguely relevant here.

    Comment by MTN — September 5, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

  16. Ha, ha. It’s true the word (like most words) is fluid, and there are politics surrounding it, some of which (the clashes of the 1940s) would probably be relevant to Young Life’s hesitancy to use the term. I’m thinking of a word bubble here, with ‘evangelical’ at the center and a collection of adjectives and traits surrounding it, and no real defined border.

    Comment by matt b — September 5, 2008 @ 3:09 pm


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