Evangelism in the Early Seventeenth & Eighteenth Centuries
[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]
The roots of American evangelism go back to 16th century Europe, when Anabaptists began suggesting that church should be separate from the state. This view did not find favor among governments closely aligned with the Catholic church, and consequently Anabaptism was brutally suppressed. The means, as the Global Mennonite Encyclopedia starkly describes it, was often “the scaffold and the stake.” By the end of the 16th century, most European Anabaptist leaders were dead. Some of the survivors fled to America, where evangelism would later resume, but the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites who were descended from the original Anabaptists abandoned evangelism in the United States.
Evangelism, Not Evangelicalism
The most common personal experience with evangelism and apologetics in America today is with Jehovah’s Witnesses, who go door to door to advance their faith. Evangelists are the local equivalent of missionaries who go abroad to spread the word. Evangelism is not the same thing as evangelicalism. Evangelism is a practice, a way of sharing belief. Evangelicalism is a dogma and a trend that led to American political activism and megachurches in large U.S. cities.
Early American Settlers
The early 17th century in North America was marked by the establishment of colonies, including Jamestown, Plymouth and Boston. Some settlers came to escape religious persecution; others came to make money. It was a brutal time: many colonists failed to survive the deep winters, and native Indians were a danger as well. Although there was ample religious fervor among the colonists, there was little energy or enthusiasm for evangelism. Simple survival was the priority.
The Great Awakening
After a period of relative quiet in the religious sphere, like the calm before the storm, evangelism suddenly caught fire again in American culture during the Great Awakening. A charismatic preaching style modeled on the fiery, emotional sermons of George Whitefield, paired with dramatic “religious revival” events, drew increasingly larger crowds to Protestant churches in the late 1730s. Beginning in New England over six years, then spreading to the South, revivals were aimed at the faithful whose convictions were weakened by doubt and the unchurched who had little contact or experience with organized religion.
Whitefield was a central figure in establishing American evangelism, but according to some, he may have also been a factor in sparking the American Revolution. Before Whitefield, sermons were top-down affairs — the pastor preached, the congregation listened. Using the call and response technique, Whitefield established congregational participation and encouraged emotional expression. This exciting new dialogue, together with a generally defiant attitude toward authority, stirred what Nancy Ruttenburg calls the “democratic personality.” The Great Awakening unleashed more than a religious revival; it reinforced a fierce sense of independence. This eventually led to the separation of church and state that Anabaptists had advocated.