The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism:
True Religion in a Modern World.
By D. Bruce Hindmarsh
Oxford University Press. Pp. 376 $38.95
Review by Gareth Atkins
Among historians of evangelicalism it has long been an article of faith that the movement they study was an Enlightenment phenomenon. Rooting its self-examination in Lockean empiricism, its offers of salvation in consumer-driven individualism, and its optimism about an imminent millennium in notions of human progress, David Bebbington, David Hempton, Phyllis Mack, and others have situated early evangelicalism squarely within the wider Anglo-American and European intellectual universe. But has anyone else noticed?
Thanks to J.G.A. Pocock, J.C.D. Clark, and others, we no longer think of Enlightenment as the rise of modern paganism. Indeed, recent scholarship is coming to emphasize continuity: Enlightenment as late humanism, with the “new” philosophy sharing many of the concerns of the “old,” and borrowing many of its intellectual tools, too. Sermons remained probably the most popular single literary genre in a print sphere dominated by divinity. But even so, among social and cultural historians what may be termed the Roy Porter view predominates: that if religion still mattered it was because it hitched itself to the coat-tails of the political order; and that if it was still taken seriously intellectually it was because it was prepared to dilute itself with enough rationalism to make it palatable to polished literati. Enthusiasm was the province of a few extremists. And few were more enthusiastic than John Wesley, George Whitefield, and their ilk, who are therefore assumed, according to this view, to be fundamentally anti-enlightened. Exhibit A for exponents of the Porter view is William Hogarth’s Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism: A Medley (1762), which depicts an unhinged preacher – possibly Whitefield – ranting about witches and demons to a congregation of drooling misfits.
Bruce Hindmarsh’s magnificent new book underlines how misleading that over-reliance on hostile caricatures has been. “The rise of evangelicalism,” he states crisply at the outset, “occurred in tandem with the rise of modernity and in the midst of a hugely consequential turn away from transcendental frames of reference to the authority of ‘nature’ in multiple fields” (p. ix). Lockean sensibility, Newtonian physics, Shaftesburian politeness, and the growth of the public sphere, he argues, opened up fresh cultural and intellectual space for more personal, emotional and individualistic forms of belief, allowing and indeed impelling figures like Jonathan Edwards in New England and Whitefield and the Wesleys in Old England to pose an urgent question: “Is it possible to experience the presence of God in the modern world?” Their answer was urgent, disruptive and democratic, offering the possibility of spiritual rebirth to all, not as the result of incremental, ordered contemplation, but as an immediate, transformative and potentially explosive experience: “be born again”; “expect it now” (pp. 2-3). Wesley preached on the “one thing needful” more than fifty times, while Whitefield’s pious mnemonic, “one thing is needful,” scratched onto a friend’s window with a diamond, was still visible a century later (p.3). The simple but fervent piety thus produced overtopped denominational and national boundaries, as Methodists in England and Wales, “New Lights” in North America, evangelicals in the Churches of England and Scotland, Moravians, and evangelical nonconformists strove to experience God for themselves.
Ahe narrative is well-known. Yet in placing Enlightenment so centrally, this book opens up exciting new vistas. Far from demolishing faith, “modern” ways of thinking posed new and often constructive questions of it. If mechanical philosophy separated spirit and matter, it did not divorce them entirely: witness Isaac Newton’s suggestion that divine providence interposed occasionally to correct the motion of the planets, or the proposal of Descartes that the pineal gland was where mind and body connected (p. 5). Nor did “religion” and “science” take part in separate disciplinary silos. The Cambridge mathematician and evangelical Isaac Milner thought that a course of study in “natural philosophy” was the best preparation for the study of divinity, as well as inculcating an aversion to Jacobin utopianism and an attachment to the established order in church and state (p. 165). While a sense of wonder infused the observations of pious scientists, believers might equally describe the presence of God in the language of science: “I felt as if Lightning, or a slower ethereal Flame, had been penetrating and rolling thro [sic] every Atom of my Body” recalled one (p. 123).
Hindmarsh unfolds these themes in eight chapters: three on spirituality and devotion; two on sciences and the natural world; two on law (the first on evangelical engagement with the criminal justice system, the other on “law” in evangelical theology); and one on the visual arts. Evangelicals emerge not as survivors of Enlightenment but as active agents of it. To be sure, not everything was new. In their debt to seventeenth-century Anglican piety, puritan reformed ideas, pietism, mysticism, counter-reformation hagiography, patristics, and late medieval devotionalism, evangelicals were as much ancients as moderns.
In passing, then, this book makes an important contribution to a rumbling debate among scholars of evangelicalism about the movement’s continuities or discontinuities with early modern Protestantism: the answer, Hindmarsh insists, is necessarily both. Likewise, when it came to the natural sciences: although many became out-and-out Newtonians, some embraced Hutchinsonianism, while others opted for compromises like physico-theology. John Wesley’s wariness towards metaphysical abstractions was widely shared among his fellow believers: he tried his own medical treatments and carefully recorded their effects.
If Hindmarsh’s focus on the “four evangelists” — Whitefield, the Wesley brothers, and Edwards — is not new, his revisionism means that even well-versed readers will find much to intrigue them. As ever, Hindmarsh’s wide frame of methodological reference is exceptionally stimulating. He also draws on a broad supporting cast, ranging from the Black poet Phillis Wheatley to the London portrait painter John Russell. His fine-grained intellectual and psychological study of the devotional life of the young Whitefield, in particular, is brilliantly drawn, complete with detailed analysis of that simple-but-revealing spiritual tool, the diary of time spent (and wasted). Time and space are also evoked to telling effect elsewhere: brand new copies of Newton’s Principia and Opticks, donated by the author to Yale, were uncrated during Edwards’s studies there, fueling an inquiring philosophical mind (p. 127).
Probably the weakest chapter is that on art, whose discussion of evangelical aesthetics and the wider art world feels speculative and impressionistic. The book ends on a high — evangelicalism today is a thriving, global, transnational movement (p. 277) — but it leaves the reader hanging in mid-air. When did the evangelical Enlightenment end, and why? Should we follow Bebbington in emphasizing long-term continuities, or draw a sharp line, with Reg Ward and others, between the creativity of early evangelicalism and what it later became? The current cultural politics of evangelicalism make this question a pressing one.
Perhaps open-endedness is a virtue, but having relished Hindmarsh’s account of how those pioneers shaped their intellectual world, this reviewer is keen to know more about how, when, and why they began to diverge from it.
Dr. Gareth Atkins is fellow and tutor at Queens’ College, Cambridge.