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.
Read it all.