Recent academic use of the word “evangelical” in American history has been surprisingly static. Drawing upon scholars of “evangelicalism,” historians have been tied to an “essentialist,” or doctrinal, definition of evangelicalism that stretches unbroken from the early eighteenth century to the present. Such ahistorical readings, however, obscure a far more interesting and complex reality. This essay argues that from the Protestant Reformation through the early twentieth century, to be “evangelical” was most often a Protestant-inflected way of being in the world, which at times could have multiple, changing, and contested doctrinal associations. It was a flexible and dynamic idiom, intended to communicate a relative biblical authenticity by those who wielded it. In particular, this essay seeks to recover three overlooked dimensions of the use of the word “evangelical”: first, the firmly Protestant and even anti-Catholic implication of the term that spanned the history of Protestantism from the 1520s to the twentieth century; second, the relative authenticity, “true-Christian” usage, which contained within it a strong “primitivist” impulse with reference to New Testament Christianity; and third, the contested nature of the word, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when “evangelical” identity supposedly started to become more recognizable.
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