Evangelical is a term rightly applied to a large spectrum of Christians. Some Christians embrace this identity, some are ignorant of it, and others want to distance themselves from it. No matter our category of preference, we are all, most likely, in the dark about its history. Knowing this history can reconnect our present to our past heritage, and sure up the foundation of something that has become more defined by modernity than by its history.
Evangelical Christians have deep roots dating back to the middle of the eightieth century. The first evangelicals were Anglican Church members who had a conversion experience which resulted in their becoming serious about living out their Christian faith. As a result, they began to change the way they lived to conform to a new serious life devoted to applying the Bible to their lives, and serving the community in which they lived.
Instead of sending their children to boarding schools, as was the custom of the day, they began to educate them at home. Households, which included the family and servants, met together to pray daily. Devotions became a central part of each day. Sundays were dedicated to become a day of rest to such an extent that children had Sunday games and toys designed to teach them the Bible. Evangelical gentlemen kept strict accounting of their days noting the hours spent in prayer, Bible reading, and constructive work. Women gave themselves to raising their children, tending their families, and taking up the cause of the poor.
If we are getting the idea that this was a glorious time of Christian living and fruitfulness, we would only be looking at the wheat without the tares. The serious devotion of the Evangelicals included a strong legalistic lifestyle and expectations. We see this illustrated in the Victorian literature of the day, such as the orphanages depicted in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, or Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist. We can find a lot we can learn to reproduce from the hardworking Christians of this era, and a good deal we do not want to perpetuate.
A restorative movement often carries with it an extreme element which begins to fade once the restoration has taken hold. Such movements are prone to over-emphasis, and over-correction. However, history proves that despite some of the extremes there is real fruit that came out of the Evangelical movement that swept through Victorian England. I am confining this history to the Anglican Church Evangelicals, but John Wesley, one of the early leaders of this movement birthed the Methodist Church which took this movement to the poor as their main focus.
Successful enterprises followed the ventures of the first Evangelicals. Continuing into the nineteen century we find the emergence of William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect. Wilberforce, as we know, ended the slave trade by his persistent work as a long standing member of Parliament. His successor, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury took up the cause of the poor working conditions of the nation’s factory workers.
The Evangelicals were a separatists group. They were not welcome in the established Church of England. Their call to seriousness and dedication to seeing personal conversions were not shared by the established church of the time. Instead of starting their own church community, these Anglican Evangelicals installed their own people into the priesthood through the proper channels of becoming such a priest. Consequently, the local parishes with evangelical priests at the helm welcomed and promoted the evangelical way. This was the modus operandi of the Evangelicals.
When the East India Trading Company forbid Evangelicals from sending missionaries to India because they were concerned the missionary work would interfere with their profits, the Evangelicals simply became the board members of the company and changed the procedure in their favor. Notable Evangelical, Dr. Charles Grant, also worked from inside the company aiding the work of William Carey and William Wilberforce.
Branching into education, Evangelicals targeted royals and aristocrats by becoming their children’s nursemaids and tutors teaching the aristocrats’ children in the ways of the Lord. Moreover, schools were developed for the poor. Sundays were the only days the poor children had free to learn since they were busy working in the factories six days a week. Robert Raikes began the Sunday School Movement which consisted of five and half hours of schooling each Sunday. We now only know of Sunday school as the traditional hour of Bible instruction preceding a Sunday service.
Evangelicals were hard at work in Victorian England. They formed a Religious Tract Society which distributed 500 million copies of 5,000 separate tracts, printing approximately 20 million per year. Using creative ingenuity, the Evangelicals paid the people who distributed the city’s obscene material more than their normal day’s wages to distribute the tracts instead. These tracts were not the simple short Roman Road tracts we know today. These were well developed teachings on a variety of topics including the necessity of church attendance, giving to missions, and the call to seriousness.
Victorian era politicians were a sorry lot. Corruption reigned unchecked. The politicians alienated the middle class, and the political system itself became a weak institution. The Evangelicals jumped into the fray. Becoming great statesmen, they raised the bar for the whole system of politicians.
History shows us that it did not matter how corrupt the times were, men and women who were serious about their God-given mission to serve their nation changed the status quo through hard work and determination. Instead of staging a protest against the East India Trading Company, they infiltrated the company and became the decision makers. Instead of splitting the Anglican Church into Evangelical churches and non-Evangelical Churches, they reformed their own houses of worship.
Today we see the power of organizations. Businesses like Walmart, Target, and Starbucks have immense social and political power to change culture. When the South Carolina Confederate Flag debate raged across the nation, Walmart, Sears, Amazon and other distributors removed the Flag from their shelves thereby participating in the shaping of culture. According to Newsweek, corporate America’s support of gay marriage undergirded the movement’s success. According to Fortune Magazine,
In many ways, Walmart is the corporate face of America. With this position as the world’s biggest retailer comes the power to influence other corporate actors, setting business trends and consumer standards, and possibly shaping cultural norms.
Corporate America is a huge field ripe for influencing the nation. Christians can be on the boards of these corporations just the same as anyone else. Instead of bemoaning the success of these corporate giants, we should be excited at this new avenue of successful cultural molding. How many local businessmen and women are involved in our city’s politics? Are we getting to know these people in our cities? Are we serving them without an agenda to get something from them?
Evangelicals shout, protest, complain, and sometimes boycott, but we are not thinking the way our predecessors did. We want the secular world to stop shaping culture according to their worldview. This is not going to happen. We have the same tools available to us to shape culture; we have just abdicated them to the world. Our job is not to stop the world from shaping culture; it is to start being the shapers of culture. God gave man dominion over the earth. Non-Christians are not doing anything wrong by having dominion over the spheres in which they have influence. They are doing the job given to man; they are just doing it under a different master. We would have more success influencing the dominion people have instead of trying to make them stop being so good at changing the culture.
Typically, instead of changing culture, we create subculture. We create subpar sanctified imitations of the world’s culture so that we can enjoy music, art, entertainment, education, and media without being in the world. Our forefathers stepped into the fray. They went into the world. The Evangelicals were in Parliament, on the board of the East India Trading Company, on the mission field, establishing schools for the poor, and tutoring the children of the wealthy. In every conceivable way they could serve society and be the influencers and molders of the atmosphere of their cities, they were hard at work.
We, modern Evangelicals, like to be the victims of the secular influencers. We fight from a place of defeat. We are the marginalized group. We believe we cannot be salt and light in the public schools, in Congress, in mainstream media, because the secular forces will not let us. We errantly see our mission as stopping their work, instead of doing or influencing the work ourselves. No one let Wilberforce end the slave trade. No one stepped aside so that the Evangelicals could do mission work in India. No one bent to the will of a well-orchestrated protest. No one needed to even know the end game of these dedicated workers. They were present in the world, but living a life distinct from it. We know of them today because of their success. We are products of their legacy. The question we must ask ourselves is whether our legacy will be one of protestation or occupation?
 Bradley, Ian. The Call to Seriousness: The Evangelical Impact on the Victorians, Lion Books; London, November 17, 2006.
 Cadei, Emily, Newsweek: How Corporate America Propelled Same-Sex Marriage. June 30, 2015. http://www.newsweek.com/2015/07/10/shift-corporate-america-social-issues-become-good-business-348458.html
 Weathersby, Danielle & Day, Terri, Fortune: How Walmart Could Get Congress to Reform America’s Gun Control Laws. June 25, 2015 http://fortune.com/2015/06/25/how-walmart-could-get-congress-to-reform-americas-gun-control-laws/
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