The term “evangelical” has meant different things to people at different times. In this brief clip, W. Robert Godfrey explains where the word comes from and how it was used from the 16th to the 20th century.
The word “evangelical” was widely and popularly used amongst American Protestants in the 19th century. Almost all American Protestants would have been willing to say that they were evangelical. And that’s the irony in the middle of the 20th century, that we end up with non-evangelical Protestants who get the label “mainline.” Who made them the mainline? Now, I don’t know exactly where the phrase “mainline” came from. If I were a better historian, I’d know. I know if you live in Philadelphia, “mainline” just means the rich people who live out in the posh suburbs. I don’t think that is probably where “mainline Protestant” came from. It assumes that there are these mainline denominations who represent the sort of history of American Protestantism, and then in the later part of the 20th this kind of large conservative evangelicals. Well, the irony of that is in the 19th century, almost all Protestants thought of themselves as evangelicals. The label “evangelical,” the phrase of “evangelical Christians” really originates in Germany in the 16th century, where the Protestants there identified themselves as evangelicals over against the Roman Catholics. And so, in the 16th Germany, “evangelical” meant someone who accepted the authority of the Bible to understand the gospel. “Evangelical,” after all, is just a Greek word for the gospel, for the good news. To this day, the German Lutheran Church is known as the Evangelische Kirche, the Evangelical Church. In the 19th century, something parallel went on. Although there were Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and many others, they were also still thinking of themselves very significantly as evangelical. Because, what united them was their commitment to the Bible, their commitment to the gospel, and their commitment to evangelism. So, almost no Protestants in America had much trouble with the label “evangelical.” Indeed, it was very, very positive because it was a way of giving expression to the unity of Protestants across denominational lines.