The term “evangelical” is thrown about all the time, via the media and other outlets. What is an evangelical, exactly? And, who might be the first famous or well-known evangelical?
The word evangelical was first used around 1531 or 1532, which of course was the approximate dawn of the Protestant Reformation. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, there are 5 definitions of the word “evangelical”. Two of them have nothing to do with what we, in this country in 2012, would believe:
1. of, relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel especially as it is presented in the four Gospels
2. marked by militant or crusading zeal
Then there are other definitions which are more in line with what many think:
4. of, adhering to, or marked by fundamentalism
5. (synonym for) protestant
The term itself is one that I am not fond of; it seems to be the creation of another unnecessary division within Christianity. That said, per the number one official definition above, ANY Christian can be, and is, an “evangelical”. Greek or Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholics are all evangelical. Any of the Protestant denominations would also be evangelical. That said, anyone who believes in the Gospels is an evangelical.
However, that is not what most readers would suggest. So, we will look at the other main definitions to further narrow our pool of historical candidates. Arbitrarily we will slightly alter the title question to ask about just Americans. Who would you select? It may depend on when you think the evangelical “movement” started. Here is a sampling of who I might consider:
- John and Charles Wesley- Established the Methodist “movement” which would become the Methodist Church in the USA, in the middle of 18th century
- Jonathan Edwards- called by some as America’s most important theologian, he lived and preached throughout the 1700′s
- George Whitefield- was one of the most popular figures in colonial America, as a leader of the Methodist movement in the mid-late 1700′s
- Charles Grandison Finney- a leader in the 2nd Great Awakening, in the mid-late 1800′s
- Roger Williams- Established the Baptist Church in the mid-1600′s; also founded Providence Plantation (which would become Rhode Island)
Note that some of the above were not born in America, but I call them Americans as they spent much of their adult life on this side of the Atlantic.
For me, I may have to go with Roger Williams as the first American Evangelical; Williams was also a key early Abolitionist. All are good choices, and worthy of further study for any Christian today. All 5, and there are others of course, are truly men of God and outspoken men that wanted to help save their fellow citizen. We need more of these kind in 2012, in order for the Gospel to become a more important part of the average American’s life.
Please comment as to your selection, and why.