After my post about John Wesley a couple of days ago I thought I’d post a few more articles about the spirituality of the early Anglican evangelicals. I’ve excerpted them from a lecture I gave on the subject a few years ago, editing a bit here and there for clarification purposes. In this post, I thought I’d say a bit about what this term ‘evangelical Anglican’ (or ‘Anglican evangelical’, if you prefer it) means in its historical context.
Let me say immediately that ‘evangelical’ is not the same as ‘evangelist’. Evangelists are people who have a particular gift for sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and helping people to respond to it by putting their faith in Christ. Many of the early evangelicals did that, but so have many other people throughout Christian history who would not claim the title ‘evangelical’.
‘Evangelical’ is a description of a particular theological approach which claims to be rooted in the ‘evangel’, the New Testament Gospel, and especially in the Reformation interpretation of that Gospel. Evangelicals are children of the Reformation in their belief in two fundamental doctrines. First, they believe that the Holy Scriptures are the supreme authority for Christian faith and life. Secondly, they believe in the doctrine of justification by faith: which they understand to mean that we are accepted by God, not because of any good works that we do, but because of the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross, which we appropriate for ourselves by our faith in him. Evangelical theology is therefore atonement theology: that is, it focusses on Jesus and his Cross.
But the eighteenth century evangelicals added a third emphasis: their belief in the importance of personal conversion. They lived at a time when Christian beliefs and attendance at Christian worship were widely accepted as part of the makeup of English society. However, they were well aware that the Christian experience of perhaps the vast majority of people fell far short of the New Testament vision of the normal Christian life. Their diagnosis of this problem was that many people had been formally and sacramentally initiated into the Christian faith (i.e. baptised, and perhaps confirmed), but had never been challenged to make a personal response to the Gospel by putting their faith in Christ. Therefore, in their preaching and in their pastoral work, evangelicals then and now have called on people to make this response.
One more characteristic of these early evangelicals was their love for simple forms of worship. They had a distrust for what they saw as excessive ritual, and this caused them to be deeply suspicious of the Oxford Movement when it began a century later. They saw the danger of an outward participation in ritual without an inward spirit of worship in the heart; they felt that too much ritual could be a distraction from the genuine encounter with God which is at the heart of true worship. G.R. Balleine, in his book A History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England, talks about their kinship with all ‘who have learned to love a simple worship and a spiritual religion’.
In the next post on this subject, I’ll say a bit about the condition of the church in England before the eighteenth-century evangelical revival.
 G.R. Balleine: A History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England; London; William Clowes and Sons; 1908, 1951. p.1.