“IN ORDER to grapple with the meaning of Evangelicalism, and to see it whole, we need to see it in its beginnings,” Bruce Hindmarsh states.
Over the past 30 years or so, a group of distinguished historians, including Professor Hindmarsh, have shed much light on the origins and early development of the 18th-century Evangelical revival. We can now see the revival as part of a European and North Atlantic movement, and have access to the worlds of John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and other early leaders, through their diaries and letters, as well as their published journals and sermons.
These help us to understand the factors that led to their conversion experiences, and also to see the impact that these had on their lives, and their faith, and the urgent need that they experienced to convey that to others to deepen and renew their faith.
Having written his acclaimed John Newton study and The Evangelical Conversion Narrative, Hindmarsh has widened his perspective to examine early Evangelicalism in the context of the momentous cultural changes that happened in 18th-century society and created the framework of our modern world. He sets himself the simple question: “How was it possible for men and women to experience the presence of God in the modern world?”
He shows how seeing the Wesleys and Whitefield in that world of, for them, unprecedented change, including a consumer revolution, new media opportunities, improved travel and communication, new ways of socialising, the growth of celebrity, demographic change, migration, and urban growth helps us to understand how a distinctive form of Christian spirituality evolved that has become one of the most influential expressions of Christianity in the modern world.
He takes Whitefield’s experience, as a microcosm of the rise of Evangelical religion, to explore the influences and activities behind the first documented English Evangelical conversion experience.
He traces through Whitefield’s diary, how, while rooted in high-church Anglican devotion, and influenced by Francis de Sales, German pietism, and moderate English puritanism, Whitefield discovered the possibility of a direct experience of God. He notes that even Whitefield’s handwriting changed after his conversion, to a more confident hand, recording his sense of encountering God in holy communion, and enabling him to preach about receiving the Holy Spirit as a present reality available to all.
Succeeding chapters consider Evangelicalism in the context of 18th-century philosophy, science, law, especially criminal law, art, music, and literature. Particularly illuminating is placing Whitefield’s and the Wesleys’ preaching about condemnation by divine law in the context of 18th-century criminal-law procedures, especially penal law, and their prison visiting, the granting of pardons, and preaching at executions.
Based on deep knowledge of Whitefield’s and especially the Wesleys’ reading and vast output of writings and of the contemporary context, this book throws brilliant new light on the emergence and development of Evangelicalism, whose flame still burns bright. For anyone seeking to explore Evangelicalism, this is an admirable book and, at this price in hardback, a bargain.
The Ven. Dr William Jacob is a former Archdeacon of Charing Cross.
The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True religion in a modern world
D. Bruce Hindmarsh
Church Times Bookshop £20.70