Where Evangelicals Came From

  • 2017-04-27
  • The New York Review of Books

Every few years, it seems, conservative religious groups, quiescent or unnoticed, come blazing back onto the national scene, and the secular press reacts like the bad guy in the 1971 western Big Jake who says to John Wayne, “I thought you were dead.” Wayne drily answers, “Not hardly.” Now, in The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, Frances FitzGerald answers the recurrent question, “Where did these people [mainly right-wing zealots] come from?” She says there is no mystery involved. They were always here. We were just not looking at them. What repeatedly makes us look again is what she is here to tell us.

“Evangelicals” is an elastic term, and FitzGerald intermittently shrinks or stretches it. But she does direct us to the right starting point, to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Great Awakenings, major religious events in our early history when the word “evangelicalism” came into wide American use. Evangelical religion is revival religion, that of emotional contagion. It can best be characterized, for taxonomic purposes, by three things: crowds, drama, and cycles.