Why We Are Evangelical

March 22, 2017

We are told in the gospels that Jesus began His public ministry after a period of preparation through His baptism and temptation in the wilderness under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Mark tells us that after these events, “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God,” with this declaration:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).  The Greek word in the text which reads as gospel is euangelion, the source of our modern word “evangelical,” the root meaning of which is “good news.”  We are truly being told that the very first act of Jesus’s ministry was to preach the good news and that his message was to repent and believe this good news.  Luke adds the detail that Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth and read from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel [euangelion] to the poor” and then declares, “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21).


This declaration of the good news is the central and first reason our church is named the Evangelical Church, now 2000 years later.  The Greek euangelion shifted directly into the Latin of our church ancestors as evangelium, and then into Old English as godspel (“good announcements” or glad tidings) and then into modern English as gospel, quite properly the word in our Bibles for the good news of Christ.


It was not until the modern age that church usage began to include the designation “evangelical,” a term that has at least four key moments on its route to becoming the name of our Church.  The church world is currently celebrating the five-hundredth anniversary of the first of these, the range of developments in the 1500s that we collectively call the Reformation.  Its first and most prominent leader, Martin Luther, who led the movement in the German lands of that time, began to call the church the Evangelische Kirche (Evangelical Church) to distinguish it from medieval Catholic practice and theology.  Over time, it came to be a functional synonym for Protestantism and included both the Lutheran and Reformed strands of the Reformation.  To this day, the largest Protestant body in Germany, the result of several mergers in the twentieth century, is called the Evangelical Church.  It continues primarily to mean “Protestant” and carries a special resonance to speakers of German.


The second introduction of “evangelical” into the language of the church came during the great revivals in the English-speaking world during the eighteenth century.  The most prominent leader of these revivals was one of our true denominational ancestors, John Wesley, who traveled the width and breadth of the British Isles for over fifty years, never leading his own congregation as pastor, but living out the calling of his declaration that “the world is my parish.”  The organization of the fruit of his labors into chapels gave birth to the Methodist Church, but also deeply shaped the Church of England and influenced other English denominations.  Among these other leaders was John Newton, minister at the small parish church of Olney, who penned perhaps the best known of all Christian hymns, “Amazing Grace.”  Most commonly, the spiritual revitalization that came with this movement has been commonly called the evangelical revivals.  On the American side of the Atlantic, comparable revivals became known as the Great Awakening.  In both England and America, the emphasis on salvation by grace, the call to decision, and the need for personal conversion came to be known as evangelical Christianity and marks the introduction of that term into our modern Christian vocabulary.


In the 1790s, Jacob Albright, veteran of the Pennsylvania militia during the Revolutionary War and descendant of German immigrants in southeastern Pennsylvania, became the unexpected founder of a new Christian movement.  A member of the Lutheran Church, he later described his religious life as “indifferent,” according one Evangelical historian.  But the death of several of his children in an epidemic of dysentery led him to seek God, and his life was transformed in a vivid conversion experience.  Albright soon was compelled by the call of God to preach the gospel to his fellow Germans throughout eastern Pennsylvania.  When he felt an urgency to conserve the conversions that came through his work, he organized many of the converts into class meetings after the fashion of the Methodists.  By 1803, a group of local congregations took action to organize into a formal body of believers, its first conference.  Albright died in 1808, but the young denomination continued to increase and organize, adopting its first Discipline in 1809.  The first General Conference met in 1816, and, among other matters, tackled the issue of its name.  The descendants of Albright were most commonly referred to as the Albright People, a term that was used more by its persecutors than its followers.  In common conversation the “Albright People” had referred to themselves as a Gemeinschaft (Association), and it was natural to describe it with the term familiar to all Germans and more recently used to describe the revivals in England and America.  Thus was the Evangelische Gemeinschaft, the Evangelical Association, born as the name of the new church.  Reuben Yeakel, nineteenth-century historian of the church, describes the selection of the name in 1816 in this manner. 


            A better word for this purpose could not be found than the

            word “Evangelical”, for this contains nothing sectarian, nothing      that is merely human, yet nothing that is exclusive or arrogant.            The Holy Spirit, who was with these plain servants of the Lord,      guided them also in this matter into the way of truth.


From 1816 to 1968, Evangelical was the leading term in the name of the church.  It was known as the Evangelical Association until 1922, when a merger to heal a break of 30 years established the name Evangelical Church.  In 1946, the Evangelical Church merged with the fellow-minded Church of the United Brethren in Christ to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church.  This was the Church that pondered the implications of impending merger with the Methodist Church in 1968.


The major portions of the Pacific Northwest Conference and Montana Conference of the Evangelical United Brethren Church declined to participate in the 1968 merger and banded together to form a new church built, in the words of the Committee on Church Union of the Pacific Northwest Conference, to “conform to the doctrine, polity and program of the Evangelical United Brethren Church as it now exists.”  It was only natural that the new church chose as its name the Evangelical Church.  The Pacific Northwest Conference took the first action, meeting in March in special session as the Pacific Northwest Conference of the EUB Church, and then in June to organize the new Evangelical Church.  What better name could there be than the one which captured all at once its German heritage, its longstanding name and culture of over 150 years, and above all, a commitment to be a church of the euangelion, the good news of Christ who brings salvation by grace?

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