Bruce Hindmarsh is the James M. Houston professor of spiritual theology at Regent College, Vancouver, and the author of books such as John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition and The Evangelical Conversion Narrative. I recently interviewed him about his new book, The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press).
[TK] You note at the beginning of the book that “the rise of evangelicalism occurred in tandem with the rise of modernity.” What does that mean and how might this change the way we view the early years of the evangelical movement?
[BH] Yes, the subtitle of my book is “True Religion in a Modern World.” The significance of this form of Christian devotion emerging “in tandem” with the modern world is central to my account of the rise of evangelicalism.
The gospel (or “evangel”) as the good news of Jesus Christ to needy sinners transcends time and place. God’s decisive word has rung out for all time: “This is my beloved Son: Listen to him.” The gospel is, as Luther said, “nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to him.” Yet a new episode in the history of Christian spirituality came about 300 years ago as the gospel was preached afresh under the conditions of a newly modernizing world. What do I mean by this?
As you and I go about our day-to-day lives, participating in the modern world, driving a car, warming up coffee in the microwave, buying our groceries, voting in the election for the local school board, or reading an online blog—as we do these everyday things we are receiving a kind of catechism about what it is to be a human being and what the world is like. Rapid transportation, long-distance communication, powerful technology, a ubiquitous media, the consumer economy, urban diversity and anonymity, democratic politics—these and other features of modern life speak to us the human being as mobile, capable, self-contained, sovereign, rational, and agential (the maker of choices).
In addition to these forms of modern life, there are also, of course, the messages of modern life that speak to us all the time, and more overtly, about the nature of human beings and the world. The combined effect of the forms and messages of the modern world is to drain anthropology and cosmology of any sense of transcendence. These cultural conditions, and their intellectual correlates, are what I mean by modernity.
In my book, I trace the emergence of these conditions to the early 18th century. It was not then the internet but the periodical press that was the first powerful modern media. It was not travel by car and jet airplane, but turnpike roads and the merchant marine. It was not modern democratic politics but the slow expansion of the franchise. It was not the advanced religious pluralism of today, but the first constitutional guarantees of limited religious toleration. It was not multiculturalism and globalization, but the beginning of large-scale people migrations and a transatlantic exchange of people and goods. It was not Coca-Cola, but Wedgewood pottery.
Slowly, the modern world was built from the bottom up, and the conditions that shape our imagination of what the world is like changed along with it. I pay particular attention to how these modern conditions emerge in three critical domains: science, law, and art. These represent, if you like, the naturalizing of the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Yet, right at this moment in history, there emerged a new form of Christian devotion that we call “evangelicalism.” The fiery ardour of a new evangelical spirituality first appeared among English-speakers in the middle third of the 18th century. Across the North Atlantic, evangelical devotion centered on the atoning death of Christ and the necessity of personal conversion, and it drew laypeople into practices of Bible reading, small group fellowship, extempore prayer, personal testimony, and hymn singing—all of which have remained central to evangelical spirituality throughout its history. The spiritual awakening that followed was international and interdenominational, and it was characterized above all by a focus upon “true religion” over against nominal affiliation to church establishments and a religion of law and custom.
So I try to show the significance of this evangelical drive for “true religion” in terms of both culture and ideas. Leaders such as Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley were keenly aware that the material world and human nature were being described in ways that increasingly marginalized any sense of God’s presence or agency in the world. And so out of their evangelical devotion they offered a considered and exemplary response to these conditions.
What is the “spirit” of early evangelicalism, in your book’s title?
At one level I mean “spirit” as the essence of something, as when we point not to the letter but to the “spirit of the law.” But then, more deeply, I am interested in what the word “spirit” means in a modern world newly preoccupied with nature and natural explanation. Are spiritual realities sealed off in another sphere from material realities? Is spiritual insight now a private sort of knowledge, separate from the publicly accredited truths of reason?
With the conviction that it was possible to know, as a fact of experience, what one of their favorite authors called “the life of God in the soul of man,” evangelicals pushed back against the marginalization of “spirit” in the modern world. Gospel was connected to life, message to experience, word to spirit. The promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit therefore became a great theme.
So at the end of my book I say that if you asked someone like Charles Wesley what was the spirit of early evangelicalism, he would have had a ready answer: it was the Holy Spirit. The indwelling Holy Spirit led countless women and men to see the world described by science differently. One came to see God in the world, and this led to a response of “wonder, love, and praise.”
Most treatments of the great revivalist George Whitefield focus, understandably, on his preaching. But you focus on his early spiritual life. Why?
Whitefield was undoubtedly one of the greatest preachers there has ever been, but I am interested in the years just prior to his emergence as the “boy parson” for the way they allow us to observe the making of evangelical spirituality. How did all the kindling come together? What was the spark? How did earnest young men in the early 1730s become the evangelical preachers of the late 1730s?
With some help, I was able to decipher Whitefield’s highly abbreviated personal diaries from the period in 1735 and 1736, when he was an Oxford student, and these proved immensely valuable for reconstructing the elements that came together to produce an evangelical spirituality. One of the surprises—and this is something that you first alerted me to, Tommy—was the growing centrality of the Holy Spirit in Whitefield’s early formation. This was ultimately the spark that lit the flame of evangelical devotion.
In recent years, there has been a lot of scholarly discussion about how much evangelical religion in the 1730s and ’40s represented a break from, or a continuation of, earlier Christian forms. What’s your take on this question?
I try to place this question in the context of the wider 18th-century quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. In the end I see evangelical devotion as a new, dynamic form of spirituality, highly adapted to the modern world, but take its message of salvation to be in direct continuity with the Reformation and Augustinian strands of the Christian tradition. The evangelicals themselves made this argument for continuity over and over again.
Additionally, in their concern for spiritual life, they were often happy to warm themselves at the fire of earlier Christian devotion from unlikely sources, such as Thomas à Kempis and other traditionally Catholic authors. I outline a process of simplification, naturalization, and democratization by which such texts came to stimulate a genuinely evangelical concern to experience the presence of God.
In your conclusion, you suggest that “the flame of devotion still burns bright” in evangelicalism’s contemporary forms around the world. In what sense is there continuity between the evangelicalism of the mid-1700s and the evangelicalism of today?
Historians and sociologists have traced both genealogical and theological continuities in the history of evangelicalism that would connect the dots between the early evangelicals and evangelicalism today, but it is a complex story, and there are certainly breaks and hiatuses as well as persisting themes. In my book I really only gesture toward some of these continuities, but I do think the desire to see the gospel message awaken spiritual life in individuals and communities is central. In the end, evangelicals are most themselves not when trying to be evangelical, but when seeking to live by gospel.