Bishop Travis B. Sipuel: A Pentecostal Survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

During my research on the history of the Pentecostal movement in Tulsa, I discovered the story of a Church of God in Christ pastor, Bishop Travis B. Sipuel, who survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. His story we know because of his daughter Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, the famous Oklahoma Civil Rights leader. This is his story.

Bishop Travis B. Sipuel (1877-1946)

In 1917, Elder E. M. Page was commissioned by Church of God in Christ founder and Senior Bishop, Charles H. Mason, to be the State Overseer for Oklahoma churches. Page moved to Oklahoma to establish a church in Muskogee and then came to Tulsa.[2] Page saw that leadership was needed for the fledgling COGIC church in Tulsa invited a young pastor from Arkansas, Bishop Travis B. Sipuel, to move to Tulsa with his wife Martha. Bishop Sipuel rented a house on North Greenwood and leased a building for the North Greenwood Church of God in Christ.[3] The building was located at 700 N. Greenwood (presently OSU Tulsa), on the North end of the thriving Black Wallstreet. Sipuel helped to grow the church to 40 people during his time there. Sipuel believed that the beautiful community of Greenwood in Tulsa was the best place to raise a family and build a church.

Home near by where the Sipuel’s may have lived.

When the horrific events of 1921 broke out May 31st, 1921. Sipuel’s family was not immune to the horrific violence. On June 1st , when the mob violence turned to Greenwood, Bishop and Martha Sipuel saw their beautiful house burned by looters. Bishop Sipuel was taken by the Tulsa militia, along with the thousands of black men hands held high, and was marched to an “concentration camp” for black residents in McNulty Park, Tulsa’s ballpark. Meanwhile, Sipuel’s wife was left to watch helplessly and alone as their beautiful house burn to the ground in front of her. One of the white militia men stopped by her as she watched and told her she “better get out of town.”[4]

Photo Credit: Tulsa Historical Society

Although everything they owned was destroyed , thankfully Bishop Sipuel and his wife survived the Race Massacre. They decided to leave town and instead settled in Chickasha, Oklahoma, where he pastored the COGIC church and eventually became a state overseer. His daughter, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, was born in Chickasha and decided to try to enter the University of Oklahoma Law School. When she was denied, she became a civil rights pioneer when her case went all the way to the Supreme Court. She eventually won and graduated and eventually became a law professor at Langston University. In 1992, Lois Sipuel Fisher was appointed to the OU Board of Regents and a garden was named in her honor.

Ada Sipuel with Justice Thurgood Marshall

Despite the tragedies of 1921, the Church of God in Christ and black Pentecostal community in Tulsa survived and continued to grow. Just one year later, in 1922, the North Greenwood COGIC  was said to have grown to 250 people; no doubt the community had turned to the church for hope.[5] The Greenwood Community would eventually rebuild and once again became a center for black commerce in Tulsa. Bishop Travis Sipuel led an distinguished career as a COGIC pastor and leader in Oklahoma.

There are more stories to tell about the black Pentecostal church in Tulsa, which I hope can I uncover and tell. But to me, Bishop Sipuel’s story makes this event all the more real and makes me more passionate to uncover all I can about the history of the black Pentecostal church in Tulsa.

(For related research, see my post about Oral Roberts and the story of Beno Hall being reclaimed for racial reconciliation)


[1] Polk Hoffine’s Directory Co.’s Tulsa City Directory (1922), 16.

[2] Church of God in Christ Yearbook, (1926), 67.

[3] Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, Matter of Black and White (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 10. The Polk-Hoffhine Directory Co.’s Tulsa City Directory (1922) notes this as the second COGIC church in Tulsa, although it is hard to know how the two churches were related.

[4] Fisher, Matter of Black and White, 12.

[5] Polk Hoffine’s Directory Co.’s Tulsa City Directory, 1922, 16.

How Pentecostals Responded to the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic

(Note: This blog was also published in Influence Magazine and can be viewed on their website https://influencemagazine.com)

Hear a podcast about this topic with Steve Strang of Charisma Magazine.


 

Right now the whole world is feeling the effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic.  It seems like every institution in our society is closing down to protect people from the spread of this virus. Many people have been commenting on the church’s response to this current crisis from different angles. Yet, every day, more and more churches are deciding to close down and provide services online. How should people of faith and who believe in healing handle this crisis? Should we cancel church? Should we stop ministry in the midst of a pandemic?

What is interesting about this current pandemic is that it is just over 100 years ago that the world was overtaken by the Spanish Influenza. During 1918-1919, an estimated 500 million people contracted the virus and 50 million died as a result. Knowing that this was in the early days of Pentecostalism, I decided to look back to how Pentecostal believers in the Assemblies of God reacted to the Spanish Flu pandemic. Turns out, Pentecostals had a lot to say about the topic.

Beginning in 1918, tales of influenza and the Spanish flu filled the pages of the AG’s newspaper, The Christian Evangel (later known as the Pentecostal Evangel). In Springfield, Missouri, where the AG and Pentecostal Evangel headquarters had recently re-located, a great outbreak took place. The paper recorded all the Assemblies were closed.

It is interesting to note that Churches and ministers  complied with Health Department mandates to close their meetings and quarantine this who are sick. They recognized that they needed to protect people in the cities they lived in.  On several occasions, revivals had to be canceled as the Influenza was spreading across the town. Some saw it as the direct resistance to the great work God was doing. Even so, they viewed the painful reality of human mortality as a greater impulse to reach the loss.

Yet, these believers also went to the homes of those who were sick to pray and saw many answers to prayer. They weren’t afraid to pray for the sick. In some cases, they ministered to them even in death, as is illustrated below.

The paper had many accounts from ministers, but also included on the last page of the paper a list of prayer requests, many of which were of people asking for prayer for themselves or their children because of the virus. Sadly, I am sure many of these died.

Yet, there were also stories of triumph of Pentecostal saint who made it through. One particularly important testimony was that of E.N. Bell’s wife, who contracted the Spanish Flu but was healed. She testified, “The Spirit Himself interceded for me” and she made it through.

On another occasion, the notable early leader, Robert Craig of San Francisco, shared this testimony that although many died in the city, not one in their mission died from the influenza.

Some of the hardest hit areas were global, particularly India. Accounts of the tragic loss of life filled the paper. One in particular article even describes the progression of the sickness, recording that a person would die in as little as three days.

Sadly, many missionaries also died from the Spanish Flu.  One in particular, named Nellie Andrews Norton, died because of her ministry to people with the Spanish Flu.  The tribute records, “When the Influenza came into our midst last month, she did not spare herself, but worked night and day caring for the sick until she herself came down with the disease.”  But accounts like these always acknowledged that for the believer, death was a “promotion” to heaven for sacrificing their life here on earth.

How Should Spirit-empowered Believers Respond Today?

As believers (particularly as Spirit-empowered believers) are considering how we should response to the current crisis, I think there is a couple things to take away  from this example. First, Early Pentecostals endured the worst pandemic of the flu to that point in history. Although they believed in healing, they didn’t promise that their faith in God would protect them from the disease. Many people caught it; many people died. Yet, they also testified that God was also a healer and many were preserved through it or were healed from it. In either case, it was their faith in God and prayer that got them through.

Second, their worship and ministry was interrupted by the crisis. Missions were closed. Revivals were canceled. Even the paper was delayed in being printed. Yet, they followed the guidelines of the city or health department and closed their churches and missions when instructed to. They were not careless with the lives of people during the pandemic. They were willing to stay home and pray, knowing that that was just as valuable in the crisis.

I don’t know how long churches will be canceled, stores will be closed, or people will suffer with this virus. But I know that people of faith have endured in the past and made it through. There may be tragic losses, but there may also be dramatic testimonies of healing as well. What I do know is we need to pray for one another. We need to encourage one another. We may even need to visit one another if God leads us.  But most of all, I think churches need to follow the example of those who went before us to keep safe, keep praying, and obey the guidelines that keep others safe. If we can do this, I know we will make it through.

Reclaiming Racial Spaces in Tulsa: Oral Roberts and Beno Hall

In the aftermath of the 1921 Race Massacre in Tulsa, many of the residential areas surrounding the Greenwood District were still in ruins. Into one of those spaces, the Tulsa KKK built a giant white building in 1923 at 501 N Main called Beno Hall.  The new building that housed the 3,000 member klavern served as a constant reminder to the black community of Tulsa’s racial supremacy. From there, Klansmen terrorized the traumatized black citizens. It was also here that the “Tulsa Benevolent Society,” a front group for the KKK, oversaw the supposed rebuilding of the Greenwood area.

In the early 1930s, the building was sold and became several other businesses until in God’s providence, a revival tent was set up next door at 601 N. Main.

In a vacant lot under the shadow of Standpipe Hill, Pentecostal Holiness pastor, Steve Pringle, set up a revival tent and began conducting services. He invited a popular young evangelist named Oral Roberts to conduct meetings in May of 1947.  There, in the shadows of Tulsa’s past, Roberts reclaimed lives for the gospel. During the nine week campaign, Oral Roberts made front page headlines when a man shot at him during a service. From that point, crowds swelled to over 2,000 a night.  Roberts meetings were so popular that Pringle began to think of a permanent home for his new converts. Naturally, he had his eye on the large building next door, the infamous Beno Hall.  Pringle worked to remodel the 1,800 seat building and named it “Evangelistic Temple.”

Evangelistic Temple (Pentecostal Holiness Church)

Some who have told this story believe that the white Pentecostal congregation would be perfectly at home in a building that was once a symbol of white supremacy. But this  certainly misses the providential power of this moment. The reclaiming of Beno Hall through the popularity of Oral Roberts is not coincidental.  Over the next few years, Roberts became a pioneer in racially integrating his healing meetings around the US.  As a report from a 1949 Tacoma Healing Crusade comments, “They came, old and young, white and colored, from all portions of the tent.”  But when he was home, Evangelistic Temple became the Roberts’ home church.  From this home base, as pointed out in my recent article in Spiritus: ORU Journal of Theology, Roberts used his position to challenge racial predjudice in American and in Tulsa.

By the mid-1960s, Evangelistic Temple had moved south to 53rd and Peoria and the old white building was eventually torn down. Today, it is a vacant lot. Whereas Beno Hall was erected as a symbol of white supremacy’s power to tear down a black community, today that vacant lot is a monument of the power of the gospel to tear down prejudice and reclaim spaces.

(The view north on Main. The empty lot  is where Beno Hall/Evangelistic Temple once stood. The building in to the north is where the tent crusade took place in 1947. To the right is Standpipe Hill. To the south is Cain’s Ballroom.)

Read more about Oral Roberts’ legacy of racial reconciliation in Tulsa “Healing for All Races” in Spiritus: ORU Journal of Theology  here.

 

 

Oklahoma’s Pentecostal History: Lamont

A  tiny town of 500 in north-central Oklahoma was at one time responsible for the Pentecostal revival’s spread across many parts of Western Oklahoma from 1907-1908. That tiny town was Lamont, Oklahoma. This video tells the story of Lamont and the revival of 1907-1908 that impacted the Pentecostal Movement in Oklahoma.

Lamont was the location  for the Fire-Baptized Holiness Association of Benjamin Harden Irwin in Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century. Irwin was a holiness revivalist that taught there were three experiences: salvation, sanctification, and a fire baptism in the Holy Spirit. in 1902, the FBHA disbanded and the Lamont church was left without a group to associate with.  In 1907, Glenn A Cook left the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles to come to Lamont to hold meetings. There he found a group of Holiness believers (likely FBHA believers) who were hungry for the Pentecostal experience. Cook stayed two weeks with great success.  After Cook left, several other early Pentecostal leaders also came including J.H. King and G.B. Cashwell.  During the next two years, believers from all over Oklahoma came to Lamont to experience the power of the Holy Spirit. The revival moved elsewhere by 1910, but the little town of Lamont certainly made a big impact.

Here is Cook’s report from the January 1908 issue of the Apostolic Faith Newspaper.

Were Early AG Leaders Anti-Intellectual?

From the beginning, the Pentecostal movement had a careful relationship with theology and the pursuit of education. Even today, many of my educated AG pastor friends are often frustrated with the way in which people within our fellowship are suspicious of education.  Roger Olsen speaks of the these attitudes.  He says, ‘Endemic to Pentecostalism is a profoundly anti-intellectual ethos. It is manifested in a deep suspicion of scholars and educators and especially biblical scholars and theologians.’[1] Some early Pentecostals rejected the need for education because they believed the Holy Spirit and the power of God was a greater validation of ministry than human approval. Elizabeth Sisson, a veteran missionary and evangelist who joined the AG in 1917, rejected the notion that she needed any credentials, education, or degrees to validate her ministry. She remarked,

You might hold all the offices of the church, and append to your name all the letters of the alphabet bestowed by all the universities of Europe and America, but these things of the power and learning and intellect of man will not release the demon oppressed, will not heal the sick, etc. But praise God, through the simple believer, under the power of the Holy Ghost, these things are wrought.[3]

Sisson’s application for credentials with the AG reveal this sentiment. When asked ‘have you been ordained and by whom?’ on the application, Sisson responds, ‘By the Lord.’

The problem with education for many Pentecostals was not the pursuit of knowledge; it was education at the expense of simple faith in Jesus and the Scriptures. The main concern was the way in which seminaries were indoctrinating its clergy in Higher Criticism. Denominational seminaries were believed to be guilty anti-supernatural bias the sought to ‘tear the blessed Book of Life to pieces’.[8]   A.G. Jeffries, a British AG evangelist, describes the situation.

For fifty years the American people have been cursed with head, and starved for heart preaching. Many churches have demanded of their ministers a classical education before ordination, and have made little or no demands of them along spiritual lines. It has been all head and no heart, and this very thing has brought on a spiritual dearth that has been and is appalling indeed.[4]

The return to heart Christianity over head Christianity was part of the lure of the Pentecostal faith.  Because of this, many late 19th Century evangelicals turned to the Bible School model where they emphasized spiritual formation as well as knowledge. Many early Bible schools boasted of having ‘No book but the Bible’ and ‘No teacher but the Holy Spirit.’

The reaction to modernism and education did not necessarily mean that Pentecostals were anti-education.  This is certainly the case when one looks at  Assemblies of God leaders.  Some of the most prominent early leaders of the AG were themselves educated in colleges and seminaries. These were not lay-theologians who were articulating a populist Pentecostal theology. [5] E. N. Bell, a well-educated Southern Baptist Pastor, held a bachelors degree from Stetson University and a seminary degree from Theological Seminary in Louisville  as well as spent 3 years at University of Chicago. J.R. Flower was not trained in theology but spent two years preparing for law career in Indianapolis. S. A. Jamieson was a ‘scholarly’ Presbyterian minister who spent nine years in Wabash College and Lane Theological Seminary.[6] Arch P. Collins did his training at Baylor University. T. K. Leonard spent two years at Findlay College, a Church of God institution. P. C. Nelson was trained at Denison University and later Rochester Theological Seminary where he trained under Augustus H. Strong.[7]

The first AG Bible school where subjects were taught including OT and NT interpretation, Church History, and Homiletics.

The relatively high level of education in many of the early AG leaders was vital to the preservation of the fellowship through several theological debates that took place in the first decade. These leaders had to formulate a doctrinal statement, defend the orthodox views of the Trinity, and articulate their Pentecostal distinctive.  Their ability to articulate sound theological views was greatly helped by the education they brought with them into the fellowship.

While some  still have the attitude that education is detrimental to Pentecostal Spirituality, there is a legacy in the AG of educated ministers and a commitment to higher education. In a future post I will share a bit about AG education and the origin of AG Bible schools. Hopefully this post is a reminder that attitudes about Pentecostals should always be understood in context.  While it is true that anti-education sentiment was part of early Pentecostalism, it certainly was not the whole story.  The AG benefitted greatly from the education level of many of its founders and early leaders.  It is part of our history. It is a part that I am grateful for and hope will continue to be important for this generation.

 

[1] Roger E. Olsen, ‘Pentecostalism’s Dark Side’ Christian Century (Mar 7, 2006), p. 27. See also Paul Lewis, ‘Why have Scholars Left Classical Pentecostal Denominations?’ AJPS, 11:1 (2008), pp. 69-86; William W. Menzies, Anointed to Serve (GPH 1971)p. 141.

[2] Sisson’s application for credentials reveal this sentiment. When asked ‘have you been ordained and by whom?’ on the application, Sisson responds, ‘By the Lord.’

[3] Elizabeth Sission, ‘The Coming Glory’ PE, (Nov 26, 1927), p. 2.

[4] A.G. Jeffries, ‘The Limit of Divine Revelation’ PE (Mar 18, 1916), p. 6.

[5] Spittler argues that ‘The tradition survives, however, in classical Pentecostal circles of esteemed pastors and church leaders producing doctrinal expressions.’ Spittler, ‘Theological Style,’ pg 299.

[6] S. A. Jamieson, ‘How a Presbyterian Preacher Received the Baptism’ PE (Jan 31, 1931) p. 2, Brumback, Like A River, pg 136.

[7] Gary B. McGee, ‘Nelson, Peter Christopher’ in Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements Ed. Stanley Burgess & Gary B. McGee (Grand Rapids, MI: 1988), 636-637.

[8] PE (Jan 20, 1920), p. 8.

[9] ‘Announcement of Bible School’ CE (Feb 24, 1917), p. 14.

[10] PE (Jan 10, 1920), p. 8; PE (Jul 10, 1920), p. 2; Brumback, Like A River, p. 87.

[11] ‘Pentecostal Bible Schools’ PE, (Mar 19, 1921), p. 9.

The AG and Black Heritage

During the month of February, I have read several great articles on Pentecostalism’s black heritage. Vinson Synan wrote about William Seymours’ role as the father of Pentecostalism.  Darrin Rodgers highlights 10 African American ministers that were in important to the AG and the Pentecostal movement.  David Daniel’s highlights what happened to the racial diversity in the Pentecostal movement.

color line

Leaders of the Azusa Street Revival

When you read these articles you realize just how diverse the Pentecostal movement was and how it began as a multi-racial movement.  Blacks and whites worshiped, prayed and ministered together.Many of the earliest leaders were African Americans.    The Assemblies of God owes a great deal to the African American leaders of Pentecostalism. There would be no AG without C.H. Mason and the Churches of God in Christ.  After Charles Parham was disgraced, members of Parham’s Apostolic Faith network needed to reorganize around new leaders.  Around 1910, several of those leaders such as Howard Goss and E.N. Bell approached C.H. Mason about offering COGiC credentials to their ministers.  For the next 3 years, several hundred white ministers held COGiC credentials and became the nucleus of what would become the Assemblies of God (See Word and Witness Dec 20, 1913, p. 4). Bishop Mason even attended several early AG General Councils.

bishop-c-1-h-mason-709x1024

Bishop C.H. Mason, founder of the Churches of God in Christ

Despite all of this, the AG has been predominantly made up of white Pentecostal ministers.  Why didn’t the AG stay COGiC?  Why has the AG been predominantly white?   Was it racially motivated?  Some have suggested that the AG was made up of  people associated with Charles Parham and some of his racist ideology. However, most of those who came out from Parham were the same ones that sought out Mason for credentials.  Some suggest that the strong presence of black pentecostal groups like the COGiC church in the midwest made it hard for the AG to be diverse. Some believe the AG was a group subject to its time and the cultural conditions and the racial relations in the midwest.

I can’t say race hasn’t been an issue in the AG.  I am sure it has played a part. But my research into the AG has left me with a couple of other factors that I think people overlook that I believe also may have contributed to the AG becoming predominantly white:

  1. In all my research through over 100 years of AG periodicals, I have yet to read anything that would suggest that the separation between black and white was intentional.  If there were racial motivations for leaving the COGiC or intentionally being a white Pentecostal group, they didn’t admit it.  Of course, I haven’t found anything about advocating for racial diversity either. Perhaps they avoided that issue all together because of the social tensions of their day.
  2. Prior to the AG, many of the AG founders were followers of William Durham and his ‘finished work’ orientation of just salvation and baptism in the Spirit.  Holiness groups believed in three experiences (salvation, sanctification and baptism in the Spirit).  Durham started preaching against holiness teaching on 3 works of grace which caused a bitter controversy between the finished work (which became AG) and other holiness Pentecostals. Mason’s COGiC church was a holiness organization.  This controversy began AFTER these men began issuing credentials to members of the Apostolic faith network.  It is likely that as the divide between the finished work and non-finished work grew, they grew more and more uncomfortable with being under a holiness organization.
  3. Mason’s COGiC church had a different polity than the AG wanted to have.  The AG was founded as a cooperative fellowship that desired to have no ruling governance (which of course was not sustained).  Each AG church was to be sovereign and independent.  Mason’s church had a presbyterian government with ruling bishops like many other holiness Pentecostal groups.  It is likely their founding of their own organization was as concerned with polity as anything else.

In the last 100 years, the AG has taken steps to become more diverse.  There are more African American ministers and fellowships in the AG today.  Progress has been made and there is more to do.  I am proud of what our General Superintendent George Wood has done to partner with COGiC leaders to foster greater racial empathy and understanding.  He has a worked to help our fellowship understand how we are to share in the conversation on race and culture. 

As we look back this month, I am thankful there was a group of men who were not afraid to reach out across racial lines to a Black Pentecostal leader in C.H. Mason for help when they needed it.  I am also thankful that Mason was willing to help those men, though it appears he gained nothing in return.  Even though they eventually parted ways, this is part of the AG story. I am thankful the influence of Black Pentecostal leaders. I am proud to be part of a movement that has honored our differences but encouraged the multi-ethnic vision of the Spirit being poured out on all flesh. I pray we will continue to work towards this vision.

 

What is an Evangelical, anyway?

Evangelical

There is a lot of discussion during the political season about what “evangelicals” will do as a voting block.   How do you know if you are an evangelical?  The reality is that the term ‘evangelical’ is a very difficult term to define.  It has historical, theological, political and social meanings.  My study of Pentecostalism has required me to try to understand the meaning behind the word.   I thought I share a somewhat simplistic guide to understanding some of the history of the term.

Prior to Protestant Reformation, there was basically only one church; The Roman Catholic Church.  The Protestant Reformation of Luther and Calvin was able to point believers back to the Bible as the source of faith and back to grace as the means of salvation.  The greek word for gospel is “evangellion.” In this sense, the Protestant Reformation was an evangelical reformation. Personal salvation and the Word of God were primary emphases.

 

A couple hundred years later, Protestantism had enjoyed periods of rise and decline.  In the mid-1700’s  a wave of revival came to Britain and America.  Revivalists such as WB-preaching-in-tentCharles Finney and John Wesley brought spirituality back to the declining church that had become too doctrinal and formal within protestant denominations.  This led to a revival  that once again emphasized conversion experiences and emphasis on biblical forms of Christianity.   During this time Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Congregationalists were all emphasizing personal salvation, holiness, Spirit empowerment and the expectation of the return of Jesus.  They also emphasized social action through the gospel. Many evangelical missions, orphanages, hospitals, inner city ministries, abolitionist, women’s voting rights and welfare programs were begun during this time.  Historian David Bebbinton characterized evangelicals during this period as:

  1. Bible centered – they emphasized the primacy of scriptural authority
  2. Christ centered – They emphasized the saving work of Jesus Christ
  3. Conversion Centered – they emphasized the born again experience of faith
  4. Action Centered – They emphasized the active work of the believer through holiness and social engagement.

By the end of the 19th century, nearly all the major denominations had an evangelical emphasis that included the sanctifying and empowering work of the Spirit, holiness and divine healing.  In the late 1800’s, Evangelical leaders like D. L. Moody, A. J. Gordon (Baptist), A. T. Pierson (Presbyterian), and A. B. Simpson (Presbyterian turned founder of Christian and Missionary Alliance) were all calling the Protestant church to embrace a ‘higher life’  evangelical spirituality.   Many of these leaders were writing books about being baptized in the Holy Spirit, Healing and Sanctification. They worked together across denominational lines, shared their various beliefs at Bible conferences, and engaged in social issues issues. Yet, they were still differentiating themselves from other Christians that they thought were less than committed to the Bible.

Now at this point, you would probably be comfortable with the label “evangelical.”  But wait, it gets more complicated moving forward.

At the start of the 20th Century, a great revival broke out among Wesleyan Holiness people that began to emphasis the Spirit, healing, miracles and speaking in tongues.  The Pentecostal movement was essentially an outgrowth of this Evangelical movement.  Though the theology differed between more Wesleyan holiness Pentecostals and more Reformed/Baptist Pentecostals, they all saw themselves in this stream of set apart evangelical believers who were called to bring people out of the formal churches and into a living faith with Jesus. Once this new Pentecostal movement began, many Evangelicals were forced to decide if they were going to accept these new tongue talking revivalists.  Many did.  But by 1910, some Evangelicals were already beginning to reject Pentecostalism’s claim that tongues were the evidence of the baptism in the Spirit.   Although Pentecostals thought of themselves as Evangelical, Evangelicals were not so favorable toward Pentecostals.  Rhetoric against Pentecostals grew in popularity as evangelicalism became less revivalistic and more cerebral.

Descent_of_the_Modernists,_E._J._Pace,_Christian_Cartoons,_1922Concurrent to the beginning of Pentecostal movement was the rise of Modernism within academia.  Evangelicals reacted to the Modernist method of denying of miracles of Jesus, the salvation experience and their adoption of evolution rather than believing the book of Genesis. To put in today’s language, modernists were what people today label as ‘liberals.’    In 1910, a group of evangelical scholars wanted to defend biblical christianity against the rise of modernism and liberalism by publishing a series of books called The Fundamentals that they sent free of charge to every church and minister they could reach.  This group of conservative evangelicals became known as “Fundamentalists” in the 1920’s.  However, the more this group emphasized correct doctrine, the more they pushed others away, including the ‘fanatical’ Pentecostals.  Whereas Evangelicalism had diverse opinions and tried to maintain unity, Fundamentalism became an ultra theologically conservative (primary Calvinistic), non-inclusive movement that retreated to isolationism from the growing secularism and modernism influencing the culture.  In the mid-1920’s, Fundmentalists officially rejected Pentecostals.  They were no longer welcome in the evangelical/fundamentalist family.  (For more on this check out this article). Whereas 19th century evangelicalism engaged culture and promoted the work of the Spirit, early 20th Century evangelicalism rejected the Spirit and isolated from the culture.  The list of heretical Christian groups began to grow and they rejected anyone who didn’t agree with them and labeled them with the liberal-modernist label.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s a resurgence of American identification with Christianity led a movement of many denominations with varying degrees of ties to fundamentalist sympathies began to join together to be more unifying and influential in American culture. The result was the National Association of Evangelicals.  Their goal was to agree on what was essential to Christian doctrine and principles. They also sought to recover America’s Christian identity. They affirmed basic Protestant doctrine but unlike Fundamentalism they allowed room for outliers such as the Pentecostals.  In fact, Pentecostals became a large part of the NAE.   They tried to distance themselves from the “fundamentalist” label because of the negative and combative connotations of the name.   Evangelical once again became a term that meant protestant Christian.  However, many of the mainline (more liberal) denominations did not join. So the divide between conservative and liberal remained.

time_evangelicalsIn the 1980’s there was a resurgence of political activism among Evangelicals.  Once again, they were ready to engage in a cultural battle with “liberals” and attempt to bring America back to the Bible.  The 1980’s saw the rise of the Moral Majority, Right to Life,  Conservative Christian Colleges, mega churches and influential Christian leaders like Pat Roberson, Jerry Fallwell, James Dobson who were conservative theologically and emphasized political activism above social activism.  During this decade, so called evangelicals (born again christians) were mobilized to issue oriented voting which eventually culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan.  With Reagan, the Evangelical vote became the central block of the Republican party.   Prior to 1980, evangelicals could be found within both Republican and Democrat parties.   However, now Evangelical came to mean “politically conservative Christian voter”.  Candidates for office at local, state and national level had to assure the public they were ‘born again.’  That continues today as Republican candidate Donald Trump courts the Evangelical vote by assembling his team of evangelical leaders and the recent news that Trump has been “born again.”  No Republican candidate today can win without the so called ‘evangelical’ vote.

As you can see, today the label has become less theological and more political in orientation. It still means ‘born again’ protestant believer, but it means more than that.  Many theological traditions that made up 19th Century Evangelicalism are no longer welcome in that category because of political positions, even though they may still have evangelical theological positions.  Today that term has been reduced to simply a political categorization.  This is way many (primarily younger Christians) have rejected this label and are critical of evangelicalism.

As you can see, the name ‘evangelical’ has gone through many different shades of meaning.  Perhaps you might find yourself more or less comfortable with the label.  Of course the history is much more complex than I am able to describe here. Even so, I hope this description at least helps you understand the term better so you can decide for your self if you are in fact an ‘evangelical.’