Evangelicalism was a movement in Protestantism during the 18th century in the English-speaking world. There was a similar movement in German-speaking Protestantism called “Pietism.” This movement has had tremendous intellectual, social and political consequences. Although it was in many ways contrary to the spirit of the Enlightenment, it was also part of the Enlightenment. It was opposed to the Enlightenment in that it maintained a Christian focus on the supernatural activities of God, but it shared with the Enlightenment a similar idea of knowledge and progress. Evangelicals, like Enlightenment thinkers emphasized the importance knowing things through observation and experience in contrast to tradition and authority. Both Evangelicals and Enlightenment writers believed that new knowledge would bring rapid progress in human affairs.
The single most important figure in the history of Evangelicalism was John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists (which between the Civil War and World War II was the largest Protestant denomination in the United States). John Wesley (1703- 91) was the evangelical movement’s most effective spokesman and organizer. It is calculated that during his long life he traveled over 225,000 miles and preached some 40,000 sermons, most of them in the open air. He was an ordained minister of the Church of England, but he declined to settle down as a rector of a single church. Instead, he traveled constantly, preaching the urgency of conversion. England was already changing in the 1740s, when he began to preach. The industrial revolution was just beginning, and new towns built around mines, textiles manufacture, and trade with the American colonies, were growing up in the north of England. Not surprisingly, Wesley was most successful there, where traditional farming communities were breaking up and cities growing up with relatively few official churches or clergymen to serve them.
Social change and a new style of religion can be threatening as well as invigorating, and Wesley was often confronted with hostile crowds, sometimes assembled by the local aristocrats. Wesley succeeded, however, in persuading many to join him because he seemed to address the personal experience of his listeners. One who heard him reported that “his countenance struck such an awful dread upon me before I heard him speak, it made my heart beat like the pendulum of a clock, and when he did speak I though his whole discourse was aimed at me.” This again is the secret of evangelical religion: it is deeply personal. And it is also very hopeful. Wesley’s message, in the briefest of terms, was that God promised everyone can escape the burden of sin immediately, if God’s grace was allowed to work in your soul. The rewards of faith were both great and immediate. This he called “present salvation.”
The religion that Wesley preached was the dramatic transformation of life. Nothing was to be the same; every aspect of life changed. Instead of waiting for the death and for heaven, Wesley preached that a new life could begin now. This transformation was supposed to be clearly observable both through feelings and actions. The proof of God’s transforming grace was in the very tangible transformations of one’s heart and of one’s life. This is what Wesley called “experimental faith” –in other words the growing freedom from sin is found in one’s everyday personal experience. The Methodist societies were organized according to this experience. Those who had not experienced conversion met together in classes for “penitents.” Those who had felt a spiritual renewal, but were just starting their journey to holiness meet in classes called “bands.” Those more advanced members met in so-called “select societies.” These classes provided fellowship among similarly minded people, and the basis for testifying, singing, Bible reading and praying. This Methodist system helped to make Methodism the largest of the evangelical organizations (and provided the original model for today’s array of self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous).
We have two Methodist documents that attempt to explain how this transformation of the soul–or conversion–takes place. The first is a hymn written by Charles Wesley, John’s brother and collaborator, “Come, O thou Traveller Unknown.” How would you describe the mood and plot of this song? We will listen to musical settings of these lyrics to see how the music expresses it. What can be learned about evangelical faith from this piece?
The second document, An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, comes from John Wesley’s early career, in 1743. As a straight-forward argument, it contrasts with his brother’s hymn, and makes for a good comparison. As the title indicates, he was addressing non-Methodists in the age of the enlightenment, and attempting to explain that reason was at the foundation of Methodist faith. How can this be? Is not the emotional piety of Methodism the opposite of cool reason? First he defines knowledge as John Locke and Enlightenment philosophers defined it: it is gained through the impression on the mind of sensory experience. Wesley explains then how one gains knowledge of the divine. Voltaire might agree with that way Wesley argues, but would not agree that there is any such thing as an “eye of faith” or an “ear of faith.” In other words, Voltaire would disagree that there is a supernatural world beyond the natural one.
In spite of their focus on God and grace, Wesley and all evangelicals thought of their faith as quite practical, that is to say it was to have real, concrete results. He emphasized philanthropy–doing good to your neighbor as both a spiritual discipline and a sign of the increasing sanctification of the soul. In 1772, in the wake of some important trials concerning the status of slaves in Britain, he was one of the first evangelicals to denounce slavery and advocate its abolition. For Wesley, personal renewal spilled into social activism.
To summarize, we can identify three key traits of Evangelical thought:
- salvation is personal. There is, as in the Enlightenment generally, a focus on personal experience of truth. Each person is expected to test the truth for him or herself.
- salvation is present It begins immediately to turn the sinner away from sin, resulting in the complete transformation of that person’s life in every aspect. Like Enlightenment thinkers, Evangelicals were more concerned with this world and this life than they were with the life after death.
- salvation is practical. Evangelical faith was expected tochange the world as well as the sinner. Social sins such as slavery were attacked as well as personal sins. Like Enlightenment thinkers generally, Evangelicals believed that the potential of new knowledge would lead to both personal and social progress.
This is the kind of faith that ignited the anti-slavery movement in Britain and the United States, and then a whole chain of reform movements thereafter, all conducted in the spirit of a mission: temperance and prohibition, anti-gambling, the women’s rights, civil rights, and peace movements.
The current version of evangelicalism took shape at the beginning of the 20th in reaction against the increasing tendency of evangelical churches such as the Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, to emphasize social activism at the expense of personal religion. It was also a reaction against the conditions and pressures of the urban, industrial world. Contemporary evangelicalism is thus conditioned by a need to resist change rather than make it. An older emphasis on progress is replaced with an emphasis on the traditional. Earlier in the last century, evangelicals emphasized personal religion and avoided political action. In the last generation, this has changed. Evangelicalism has once again become politically active, although in a mirror opposite way to the past. Instead of representing an optimistic vision of progress, the new politics is one of resistance to changes they oppose. The pessimism of the new evangelicalism (society and intellect are going in the wrong direction) distinguishes the new evangelicalism both from their past and from the spirit of the Enlightenment. One old link between Evangelicalism and the Enlightenment has been broken.
The age of the Enlightenment was also the age of Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism, as represented by John Wesley and his brother Charles, was a reconfiguration of Protestantism in the age of reason and industry. Although Voltaire and Wesley would not agree about the existence of the supernatural works of God, they would agree that Europeans must seek new knowledge verified by personal experience rather than traditional authority, and they would agree that this new knowledge will transform society and generate human progress. Ironically, the Evangelicals were first into the field of social change by igniting the anti-slavery movement. The Enlightenment would later have an even larger impact in shaping the American and French Revolutions.