March 8, 2018
Below, Religion and Its Publics Co-Director Charles Mathewes weighs in on Daniel Silliman’s recent Washington Post article, “Protestantism was born in Germany, but it was Billy Graham who brought evangelicalism there.”
In Germany, “Evangelische” meant someone who was Protestant—who was for the “good news” (evangelion) of Christianity, in a distinctively Protestant way, as was traditional (after the Reformation) for most of Germany outside of Southern Germany, which remained mostly Roman Catholic. But when American Evangelicalism came to Germany after World War Two, in the form of Billy Graham, the Germans realized that their word “Evangelische” did not exactly capture what Graham was offering. So a new word was created: “Evangelikale.” We should realize, too, the distinctive nature of white American Evangelical Protestantism, which is very much a product of American history, for good and ill.
This is part of a larger truth, one captured well by the Oxford historian of Christianity Diarmaid MacCulloch. There have been multiple Christianities throughout history—a Greek or Hellenic Christianity begun around the Eastern Mediterranean in the Roman Empire, a Latin Christianity in the West, a “West Asian” Christianity which was eventually subsumed by the rise of Islam. Perhaps the rise of American “evangelical Protestantism” in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries is one of the Western Hemisphere’s contributions to the history of Christianity—a radically new kind of Christianity, which is now shaping Christianity worldwide, through missions and perhaps especially the rise of is Pentecostal variant. Perhaps the Germans’ confusion about what to call what Graham was selling is indicative of that.