Jon Kennedy
Jon Kennedy

Jon Kennedy's 'C. S. Lewis overflow'
Jon Kennedy's latest book is The Everything C.S. Lewis and Narnia Book, due in stores in March 2008, from Adams Media, F&W Publications. This series of articles is thinking inspired by readings in Lewis's work that didn't fit into the book.

C. S. Lewis's evangelicalism

One of the most noticeable differences between the religious life of the United States and that of the United Kingdom ("England") is the role of the subset of Protestantism called evangelicalism. In the United States, evangelicalism is the dominant religious brand, with Baptists (especially the Southern Baptist Church) at the center, followed by independent "baptistic" and charismatic or what used to be called "Pentecostal" churches.* In England, secularism is the dominant religious brand, followed by the established church, the Church of England (the mother church of the Anglican communion, which is represented in the United States by the Episcopal Church).

It's ironic that such a division exists, as it was the English who sent the first evangelicals to America in the persons of John Wesley and George Whitfield. Both were reaching masses of people in England before the American Revolutionary War (mid-1700s) and were invited to come to America, which they did, to experience even more widely felt influence. Wesley is considered the founder of Methodism, but considered himself an Anglican, with his "methodism" just a way of applying Christian principles in personal life. Whitfield probably indirectly fanned the tiny spark of Baptist piety already alive in the American colonies at that time, and nurtured it into a fire that still burns and renews itself, much more than the Methodist churches have done.

I'm fascinated by the sociology of all of this, but it's beside my immediate point, which is that in England C. S. Lewis was not considered an evangelical, but by the American usages of the term, he was, and his strongest following is among American evangelicals, followed by Roman Catholics. In the only reference I've seen in Lewis's work to Baptists, he refers to them as "extreme," which I found laughable, and though his great-grandfather was an Anglican layman who became a Methodist preacher near the border of England and Wales, Lewis never acknowledges that branch on his family tree in the works I've read. His mother's father, a highly educated Anglican vicar in Belfast, Ireland, plays a much larger role in Lewis's autobiography of his early life, Surprised by Joy, though even that grandfather often embarrassed Jack (as C.S. Lewis was known to family and friends) and his older brother, Warren ("Warnie").

There are far fewer Protestant denominations and sects in the United Kingdom than in the United States, and though the evangelical movement there is strong but small, it is more akin to the narrow "right wing" of evangelicalism in the United States—the Protestant fundamentalists—than the evangelical "establishment" represented by Wheaton College, Fuller Theological Seminary, Christianity Today magazine and movements like the Pittsburgh-based Coalition for Christian Outreach. Lewis, though orthodox in belief, was critical of fundamentalists and as the best-known Anglican of his time and for generations later, he never fit into the British definition of evangelical. There was an evangelical presence at Oxford University in Lewis's time there, but they didn't identify with him (though they knew him by reputation), and he didn't identify with them.

But in the United States a large subsection of evangelicalism is that portion of the so-called mainstream denominations— Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Congregationalists (United Church of Christ) and several others—that strongly supports evangelistic outreaches and missions and fights, always as a minority, in the denominational conclaves for a more orthodox expression of the church than the leadership of these denominations support. Western Pennsylvania is home to two of the most noticeable of these subgroups, the Pittsburgh diocese of the Episcopal Church under Bishop Robert Duncan and its Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, and the Presbyterian Grove City College which has long been nationally known for turning out leading conservative thinkers.

Some of the best-known Americans are also known as evangelicals while being members of "mainline" churches, most notably President George W. Bush (Methodist) and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (Presbyterian). This is the kind of evangelical Lewis was: A member of a mainline Protestant church who believed the winning of converts to Christ and making His Gospel understandable by his generation were central requirements of the Christian life

Webmaster Jon Kennedy

*Though there are more names on Roman Catholic church rolls than evangelical church members in the United States, Catholics have a somewhat lower profile in national life. Though evangelicals are far from monolithic, Roman Catholics are even less so. (For example, while most well-known Catholic politicians are pro-choice, almost all evangelical politicians are pro-life.)

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