- The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World by D. Bruce Hindmarsh
There could scarcely be a more satisfying perspective on North Atlantic evangelicalism than Hindmarsh's triple play: full definition, demographic sweep, and interdisciplinary skill. Eighteenth-century evangelicalism, for this professor of church history, was an "engaging [End Page 200] pattern of Christian living earnestly concerned" with what Henry Scougal (1650–1678), a Church of Scotland minister, called "the life of God in the soul of man," or the better-known Philip Doddridge (1702–1751) termed "the rise and progress of religion in the soul." While featuring four leaders—Whitefield, the Wesleys, and Edwards—Hindmarsh choreographs a cast of hundreds: Methodists in England and Wales, New Lights in America, evangelicals in the Churches of England and Scotland, English Moravians, and evangelical nonconformists. He places this "true" revival phenomenon in its "cultural moment" of transition from a transcendental to realistic world picture and highlights how evangelical religion intersected with the secularizing tendencies of natural and moral philosophy. His argument thus interweaves many different historical threads.
Although this book answers how all these evangelicals reflected tradition, the keyword in its title is Modern. What this means for Whitefield can seem murky in that his diary draws on the likes of Ignatius Loyola, Jeremy Taylor, and William Law. The diary, though, constitutes an "extinction burst" of ancient piety "just prior to the advent of all things modern." Whitefield's ministry qualifies as an edgy case study of "evangelical spirituality in the making." In 1733, Charles Wesley introduced Whitefield to Hermann Francke's Nicodemus: Or, a Treatise against the Fear of Man (1706), which proclaimed that "A single man setting aside the Fear of Flesh and Blood, and venturing in the Name of the living God, hath frequently been a Means of saving a whole Nation." This gave Whitefield the courage to "break free" of "the suffocating social pressures of Augustan propriety"; by 1739, Hindmarsh continues, "the Holy Spirit's working" was not just a matter of "the private spirituality of the diary," but of "the very public piety of the marketplace." By underscoring how Whitefield democratized mysticism, Hindmarsh also emphasizes his modernity. One might add what he never quite says: if Whitefield ranks as a Scougal-like mystic, then something unmystical—empirical—nonetheless inheres in the written opinion of this pioneer of transatlantic revivalism—that is, the soul "perceives" the Holy Spirit "as really as any sensible impression."
To describe all this evangelicalism as "something new" is no mere species of "retrospective historiography" because, as Hindmarsh demonstrates, the revival was recognized at the time as "remarkable," "surprising," and "extraordinary," or modern in the Latinate sense of modo, "just now." For example, conversion was decidedly of the moment. Or so John Wesley expounded Paul's text, which reads not "ye shall be" but "ye are saved through faith" (Eph. 2:8; Wesley's emphasis). Their very choice of genres, moreover—diaries, letters, case studies, and histories—associates evangelical writers with "the inbreaking and the new." Confirming, finally, Peter Berger's 2009 idea of "a symbiosis between unfolding modernity and developing Evangelicalism," Hindmarsh aligns himself not with J.C.D. Clark's 1985 insistence on the "perdurance" throughout the century of "ancien régime principles," but with Habermas's 1989 theory of "the bourgeois public sphere" as "a radical change in the structure of eighteenth-century society." What Hindmarsh stresses as "the modernity of evangelical social organization" emerged from "voluntary gatherings," distinct from "the traditional, territorial, and hierarchical parish." As Wesley informed his followers in 1745, "Another peculiar Circumstance of your present situation is, that you are newly united together: that you are just gathered … out of all other Societies or Congregations" (Wesley's emphasis).
An especially striking aspect of Hindmarsh's argument, given the antipathy of today's [End Page 201] evangelicals toward evolutionary science, is the affinity of yesterday's for science in general, albeit with a religious twist. Young man Edwards was a budding entomologist but recoiled from...