Tuesday, March 13, 2018

D. Bruce Hindmarsh's "The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism"

D. Bruce Hindmarsh holds the James M. Houston Chair of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver. A past president of the American Society of Church History, he has published and spoken widely to international audiences on the history of early British evangelicalism. His books include John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition and The Evangelical Conversion Narrative.

Hindmarsh applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World, and reported the following:
From page 99:
[Jonathan] Edwards introduced his 343 pages quarto on the Religious Affections (1746) by declaring that there was no question whatsoever of greater importance to all humankind that this: “What is the Nature of true Religion?” In the middle of the century Sarah Osborn wrote The Nature, Certainty, and Evidence of True Christianity (1755); at the close of the century William Wilberforce published his Practical View of ... Real Christianity (1797). “Genuine piety,” “true Christianity,” “true religion,” “real Christianity”—all of these terms signal what was the central preoccupation of the leaders of the evangelical movement, namely, that men and women who had a merely formal relationship with the church come to a real experience of Christian faith.
This quotation appears in the midst of a discussion of the sources for the rise of evangelicalism in the eighteenth century. The principle by which the leaders selected their reading from the past was simply whether a book might foster the experience of “true religion.” Here, I simply drew from a range of evangelical books to illustrate how widely they emphasized this theme.

The page 99 test works well in my book (“the whole will be revealed to you”), since “true religion” really is the central concern of my whole exposition. The essence or “spirit” of early evangelicalism was the quest for a personally meaningful faith in the modern world where materialist science and modern social conditions made it increasingly possible to live as if God did not exist.

Evangelical devotion emerged as a potent force in the middle third of the eighteenth century amidst consequential changes in the wider culture. In retrospect we can identify these cultural changes as both modernizing and naturalizing.

It was in this period that the notion of modernity itself arose in the “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns,” and this provides a framework in the first part of the book for assessing the relative novelty of the evangelical religion that seemed to appear at first as a “surprising work” and a socially disruptive force. Some of the social dynamics of the movement were genuinely new, but others reprised older themes in the history of Christianity. True religion was, however, as the early evangelicals often said, “the one thing needful.”

It was also in this period that there was a new understanding of nature and regard for its authority, first in natural philosophy, and then in moral philosophy and the arts. And so, in the second part of the book I show the significance of “true religion” for a number of evangelical writers as they responded to developments in science, law, and art with a vivid sense of the immediate presence of God.

Modernity, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution—these were the conditions for the rise of evangelicalism as a quest for “true religion” in a changing world.
Learn more about The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue