Ashes to Ashes: The Evangelicals—Part I

The other day my wife and I found ourselves talking about a friend who is on the (very large) staff of ministers at a big, energetic Protestant church near Chicago. The conversation turned to the whole phenomenon of such churches, and it struck me that it might be something to the purpose to try to explain all of this to Roman Catholics, who most certainly have heard about “the evangelicals.” Who are they? What’s the difference between a Protestant and an evangelical? Any number of such questions tend to perplex curious Catholics.

Evangelicalism is not a denomination like Presbyterian, Baptist, or Episcopalian. The word refers, rather, to an outlook on the part of some millions of Protestants in America and England—and, by extension, in the rest of the world, which has been the object of English and American missionary work. I should mention that the word evangelische in Europe merely means Protestant. But in America, the evangelicals believe the ancient creeds, with no diluting brought about by what Pius X saw coming down the pike, namely Modernism. The big Protestant denominations, with the exception of the Southern Baptists, have pretty well gone over to some form of Modernism, which questions the authenticity of the Old Testament, and, in many cases, entertains the most somber doubts about Our Lord’s miracles—most notably, His virgin birth and His Resurrection. The evangelicals will have none of this. Like orthodox Roman Catholics, they take Scripture and the creeds to mean that Mary conceived Jesus without help from any Roman soldier (that is the usual canard), and that His physical body left the tomb on Easter. Evangelicals also cling fiercely to Luther’s notion of sola scriptura, which holds that nothing but the Bible (no Church, no Tradition, no priesthood) is fundamental to Christian life and belief. That is why your evangelical friends, upon learning that Catholics venerate (not worship) the Blessed Mother, will want you to quote them a text from the New Testament supporting such a practice. So far, evangelicalism is indistinguishable from old-fashioned, orthodox Protestantism.

In order to clarify the distinction, we have to go on to speak about the evangelical outlook and attitudes. For one thing, evangelicalism constitutes an enormously muscular—doubtless the most muscular—wing of Protestantism. The sheer facts account for this. In the usual run of things, the liberal (Modernist) Protestant churches, while commanding all the headlines in the New York Times and ruling absolutely from all of their denominational headquarters and in seminaries, have a melancholy way of dwindling, whereas one can’t stop the evangelical churches from growing and bursting. It is nothing for an evangelical church, founded five years ago by some ardent minister out of his own back pocket, to swell to thousands and find it necessary to split into two, then three, then four, congregations.

One such church is the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan: A man called Tim Kelly started this operation some years ago, and it is very likely the fastest-growing—and, I would guess, the most intelligently energetic church in New York. Actually, the world now is full of such churches. The “mega-churches” are all evangelical, although many cautious evangelicals are far from certain as to what view to take of them. They look like corporations to an outsider.

We have perhaps brought things to a point, if not of completion, at least of introduction. Next month, God willing, we may continue this brief sketch of a phenomenon that we Catholics will do well to ponder. As a convert myself from evangelicalism to the Church, I ache to see evangelicals enter into the riches of true Catholicism.

  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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