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The age of Enlightenment

21 May 2012

Revival and mission were in that century’s air, says Alec Ryrie


The Church in the Long Eighteenth Century
David Hempton

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IT IS a dull title for an exciting book. The “long eighteenth century” (by which David Hempton means c.1680-1820) is one of the great hinges of Christian, indeed of all, human history. Doing justice to it in a book of 200 pages is a tall order. Hempton, whose back-ground is as an outstanding historian of Meth­odism, succeeds with panache.

The book’s scope is impressively broad (hands up, everyone who knew about the Russian Orthodox missions in Alaska), but Hempton resists the temptation to cover everything. The century has two main, interlinked themes in his eyes: first, the transformation of Western Christianity into a global religion, and, second, the nexus of revival and Enlightenment.

Both of those are impossibly big subjects in their own right, but Hempton, like the best historical writers, is a storyteller at heart. Throughout, he uses extraordinary individuals, some famous, some unknown, to show us the worlds they lived in. So we meet Rebecca Protten, the ex-slave and Moravian preacher who was forming cell groups in the Caribbean before John Wesley ever thought of the idea; or Marie Guyart, the Qué­bécoise nun who rescued her con­vent’s records from a fire, saw her own handwritten spiritual auto­biography with the other papers, “hesitated for a moment, touched it, and then . . . calmly left it to burn”.

As befits a story with such vivid characters, this is a broadly sym­pathetic account. Hempton is well aware of the dark side of the mission fields, from cultural im­perialism through slavery to geno­cide, but he wants to point out that there is more to the story. The missionary impulse was neither liberating nor oppressive; indeed, in one sense it was not principally about the people being evangelised at all, but about the missionaries. Through overseas mission they hoped to redeem the sins of their own civilisations.

Mission allowed both Protestants and Roman Catholics to play a part in the cosmic drama of salvation. For Catholics, the newly interiorised spiritual disciplines of the Jesuits and other missionary orders meant that every missionary carried his own portable (and exportable) monastery within him. For Protes­tants, the “dynamo” of pietistic religion drove those who knew that they were the worst of sinners to embrace mission all the more joy­fully.

There is a parallel story within Europe itself, centring on the emer­gence of pietism, or “heart-religion”. It was a cross-confessional pheno­m-enon, but more Protestant than Catholic, and Hempton sees a deep global shift of initiative from Cath­olicism to Protestantism from the 1730s onwards. And he refuses to oppose revival to the Enlighten­ment: it must and can only be a part of it.

I would have liked to see more about that interaction. In particular, economic change — in the long term, perhaps the 18th century’s biggest story — is given very short shrift here. Hempton’s priority, however, is to get under the skin of Protestant revivalism: a movement that “thrived on anxiety”, but that also partially reunited the divided Protestant brethren, spanning Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, and even the radicals. The result was Methodism, “an unsettling move­ment led by unsettled people”.

Part of what made it, and all heart-religion, so unsettling and uncontainable was its structure: voluntaristic, networked (he takes letter-writing as a symbol of the whole movement), egalitarian, and, indeed, feminised. At last, Protes­t-antism had found a structure whose energies could match those of the Catholic missionary orders.

Hempton’s book begins with a hoary device: the Martian professor of comparative religion, whom we follow on a trek around the 18th-century globe to see Christianity in all its many varieties. But in fact, if you should meet such an interplan­etary visitor, you could save it a lot of mileage simply by giving it this book.

Dr Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University.

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