Kevin Wright and I were having a good discussion of what an evangelical is under my Thursday post. He has already listed several important resources on the subject, one of the most important of which is David Bebbington's Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s and more recently The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody. You can see his full treatment now on his blog, where he engages with the key literature.
Bebbington gives four basic characteristics of an evangelical: 1) biblicism, 2) activism, 3) conversionism, and 4) cruciformism (or something like that--I'm doing it from memory). Obviously this is not my area, so I welcome some help on some questions I have.
First, I know that the German word for Protestant is evangelisch (which in Germany basically means Lutheran). German universities until recent time had sharply divided theology faculties--katholisch and evangelisch. In that sense, I strongly suspect that English-speaking Christianity that strongly identified with the Reformation might have considered itself "evangelical."
Here are some questions I don't know the answers to:
1. Did Jonathan Edwards ever refer to himself as an evangelical? In what context? How central a self-description was it?
2. Did George Whitfield ever refer to himself as an evangelical? In what context? How central a self-description was it?
3. Did John Wesley ever refer to himself as an evangelical? In what context? How central a self-description was it?
4. Did Phoebe Palmer, Luther Lee, Orange Scott, William Booth, Phineas Bresee, B. T. Roberts, Seth C. Reese, Martin Wells Knapp, or any of the holiness "fathers and mothers" ever refer to themselves as evangelicals? In what context? How central a self-description was it?
Obviously evangelisch cannot be translated evangelical, for we wouldn't consider all Protestants or even all Lutherans to be "evangelical" in the sense of the word today. In fact, if memory serves, the Wesleyan Theological Society has engaged in serious debate in the past as to whether Wesleyan-Arminians should consider themselves evangelical at all. Certainly most mainstream "evangelical" writing looks at Arminian theology as less than truly evangelical.
In fact, wasn't this part of the reason for the founding and existence of the Wesleyan Theological Society, because the Evangelical Theological Society tends to define evangelical as Calvinist? Some Wesleyans (e.g., Gary Cockerill) feel very comfortable in ETS. My sense is that most Wesleyan theologians (e.g., Randy Maddox, Don Thorson) don't or feel marginalized.
Note: I recognize neither of these individuals are Wesleyans (UM and FM respectively), but the Wesleyan Church doesn't yet have a recognized theologian (John Drury is our best candidate currently).
In the end, I think the discomfort I feel with measuring the present by the past "evangelical" measuring rod is that the meaning of a word is how it is used. When I describe someone today as an evangelical, I personally mean a neo-evangelical, someone in continuity with the rise of evangelicalism in the 40's among people like C. F. H. Henry and Ockenga. It was an attempt to find a middle way between the fundamentalists of the early 1900's and the liberals of the same period.
Perhaps we might date it to the time the National Association of Evangelicals was founded. While the popular media today is tending to lump evangelicals and fundamentalists together, they are not the same sociological group, despite some similarities. When the president of the NAE had to resign a few years back, Jerry Falwell told a puzzled interviewer from the media that he had nothing to do with this group. He was a fundamentalist, not an evangelical.
In biblical studies, I think of people like F. F. Bruce as the first generation of evangelical biblical scholars. Others like I. Howard Marshall and Gordon Fee (the token Pentecostal) are the retiring second generation. Would people like N. T. Wright, Doug Moo, and Simon Gathercole be the third generation?
I sit in relation to these people a little like I perceive James Dunn to. They are some of his principal dialog partners, but he doesn't let theology set the boundaries for interpretation in the way I feel they all have to one extent or another.
I would say that the Wesleyan Church is evangelical in much the same way it holds to inerrancy--these are very general terms without much serious reflection attached to it. We are conservative, we belong to the NAE. But most Wesleyans don't know the history, or why this group was started to distinguish itself from the fundamentalism of the time, while not being liberal. So in terms of recent times, to call oneself evangelical has been to distinguish oneself from being a fundamentalist.
In this light, I strongly object to Noll's description of fundamentalists as revivalists, Pentecostals, and dispensationalists. J. Greshem Machen was a fundamentalist, my gold standard in fact for that era. He was no revivalist or Pentecostal. I doubt seriously that he was a dispensationalist (in fact wasn't there a massive split between Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and Dallas Theological Seminary over dispensationalism?). I strongly object to Noll's characterization of revivalists and Pentecostals as fundamentalists.
If I were competent to write on this subject and had been in play 10 years ago, I would have skewered him for this sloppy history writing. It serves his purposes to distance ideal evangelicalism from fundamentalism and to lump in more affective and pietist traditions in with it. But they don't go together--especially not as defective evangelicals.