B. B. Warfield Was Already Lamenting the Death of the Term ‘Evangelical’ in 1915

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In their helpful survey essay, “Evangelicals and Evangelicalisms: Contested Identities,” Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones dig out some quotes from 1915, where Princeton Theological Seminary professor B. B. Warfield on the death of the term evangelicalism.


Addressing the students at Princeton Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, in September 1915, Benjamin Warfield mourned the death of important theological such as ‘Redemption’, ‘Christianity’, and ‘Evangelical’. Taking his cue from the battlefields of the First World War, he declared:

The religious terrain is full of the graves of good words which have died from lack of care—they stand as close in it as do the graves today in the flats of Flanders or among the hills of northern France. And these good words are still dying all around us.

There is that good word ‘Evangelical’.

It is certainly moribund, if not already dead.

Nobody any longer seems to know what it means. Even our Dictionaries no longer know.

For example, the Standard Dictionary (1893) defined an evangelical as someone hold ‘what the majority of Protestants regard as the fundamental doctrines of the gospel’, or alternatively as ‘spiritually minded and zealous for practical Christian living’.

Warfield asserted that ‘there never was a more blundering, floundering attempt ever made to define a word’.

Furthermore, to identify German Protestantism as the Evangelische Kirche had dragged the name ‘into the bog’ and robbed it of all its meaning, he lamented.

Likewise, surveying America, he asked:

Does anybody in the world know what ‘Evangelical’ means, in our current religious speech? The other day, a professedly evangelical pastor, serving a church which is certainly committed by its formularies to an evangelical confession, having occasion to report in one of our newspapers on a religious meeting composed practically entirely of Unitarians and Jews, remarked with enthusiasm upon the deeply evangelical character of its spirit and utterances.

‘But the dying of the words is not the saddest thing which we se here’, Warfield concluded.

‘The saddest thing is the dying out of the hearts of men of the things for which the words stand.”


Source: Benjamin B. Warfield, “‘Redeemer’ and ‘Redemption,'” Princeton Theological Review 14 (April 1916): 198.

Cited in Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones, “Evangelicals and Evangelicalisms: Contested Identities,” The Routledge Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism, ed. Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones (London/New York: Routledge, 2019), 2–3.

In the months ahead, we’ll have more to say about this topic as we look forward to Thomas Kidd’s forthcoming volume from Yale University Press entitled, Who Is an Evangelical? (September 2019).

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