The Evangelical Age of Ingenuity in Industrial Britain

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Joseph Stubenrauch
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The question of evangelical Christianity’s relationship to industrializing society has long consumed historians of religion in modern Britain. In The Evangelical Age of Ingenuity in Industrial Britain, Joseph Stubenrauch provides a new paradigm, suggesting that evangelicals at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century embraced the modern age with open arms. Using the archives of the Religious Tract Society [RTS] as his main source, Stubenrauch demonstrates how British evangelicals employed material culture in novel ways to propagate the Christian gospel.

By the end of the eighteenth century, evangelicals had shifted away from their high Calvinist heritage towards either a moderated Calvinism or Arminianism, and were thus able to reconcile human agency with divine grace. While traditionally the “means of grace” had been limited to such ecclesial institutions as preaching and the sacraments, these evangelicals developed a novel theology of “means” in which a much broader set of instruments could serve as channels of grace. The new missionary societies that sprung up in the 1790s claimed that God’s promised evangelization of the nations could not be completed without Christians working to expand the kingdom of God worldwide. Missions required “means and instruments,” which included not only the missionaries themselves, but also mission bureaucracies, money-raising networks, and many other secular adjuncts—mass print, transportation networks, international trade, and popular consumption.

Stubenrauch explores the world of popular religious tracts to demonstrate the ways in which evangelicalism employed “means.” He opens by introducing us to the evangelical Anglican clergyman, Legh Richmond, whose tracts were wildly popular in the early nineteenth century. Richmond wrote in a sentimental mode, one which seemed to come naturally to evangelicals. It prioritized conversion, and employed the stories of real people as inspiring or cautionary tales for readers. It also imbued certain places, especially pastoral scenes, graveyards, and domestic relics with evocative religious power. Richmond’s tracts, set in his bucolic parish on the Isle of Wight, cultivated a range of reader responses, including pilgrimages to his characters’ homes, villages, and gravestones. Evangelical Anglicans also created a cottage industry of consumer products, including jigsaw puzzles, broadsides mounted to a cottage wall, stereograph images, and miniature books. Reinforcing the work done by Americanists such as Colleen McDannell and David Morgan, Stubenrauch demonstrates the existence of a mass market of Protestant material goods.

It turns out that the RTS, from its foundation in 1799, had adopted a plan to inundate the market with cheap print in a bid to replace the bawdy chapbooks that were the standard fare of hawkers. Viewing savvy dealing in the market as a use of “means,” they went beyond the methods of earlier religious book distributors like the Society for the Promoting Christian Knowledge, who tended to use preexisting church networks. For the RTS, the free market was a God-given instrument, and an invitation to innovations such as granting tickets for paupers to select free tracts for them to sell and adding sensational woodcuts. Through the process of selling tracts, the prominent evangelical philanthropists of the RTS became commercial entrepreneurs.

The expanding cities, replete with slums, vice, and poverty, seemed even more averse to evangelization than the world of cheap print. Yet Stubenrauch demonstrates that evangelicals saw in urban Britain, especially in the ever closer interconnection created by transportation networks, a millennial promise of universal gospel distribution. Strolling the new city to distribute tracts in opportune locations was a favorite leisure activity of pious evangelicals. The RTS became obsessed with the possibilities of harnessing inns, ships, canals, turnpikes, coaches, and even urban park gatekeepers as “means” for evangelism. By distributing tracts to people located at the interstices of social and transportation networks, evanglicals could become mobile evangelists, extending the reach of the RTS far beyond its own membership. At the same time that they penetrated these public networks, RTS leaders sought to infiltrate the working-class home, initiating campaigns to purge superstitions such as the notorious “Saviour’s Letter,” and replace them with orthodox Protestant alternatives.

Hidden beneath the British evangelicals’ excitement about transportation was a certain postmillennialist fantasy of technology. The sentimental novelist Henry Brooke saw canals themselves as channels for social reform. The popular science writer Thomas Dick foresaw a future of globetrotting televangelists when he envisioned ministry by hot air balloon, telephone-like “acoustic tunnels,” and voice-extending microphones. In many ways, pointing to this excitement is the main thrust of the book. Evangelicals were not simply driven by a “chiliasm of despair,” as E. P. Thompson put it; nor were they dour and otherworldly, as many novelists at the time implied. Evangelicals were active and engaged participants in an urbanizing, industrializing, commercializing world. Stubenrauch’s final chapter, set at the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, demonstrates that even at a time in which historians see evangelicalism’s power as on the wane, groups like the RTS and the British and Foreign Bible Society demanded booths that were meant only for industrial manufacturers. They considered their own project just as innovative as those of the great technological inventors of their day.
The Evangelical Age of Ingenuity in Industrial Britain is a welcome intervention in the field of British religious history, making an evocative book and compelling case that evangelicals were innovators in the age of improvement. Nonetheless there are flaws. The first chapter on “means” would have benefited from a more extended and historically exact exploration of the “means of grace” in traditional Protestant theology. The author overplays the influence of both anti-missionary high Calvinism and Jonathan Edwards’s theology. We get little sense of the traumatic political upheavals in either Britain or on the Continent. Stubenrauch and Thompson are largely talking past each other in that the kind of evangelicals who might have experienced a “chiliasm of despair” are not the same evangelicals Stubenrauch is concerned with. “Evangelical” is a proxy here for a certain kind of middle- to upper-middle-class Protestant. Working-class people are normally the objects of RTS efforts; rarely do they have agency themselves.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas E. I. Whittaker is a Ph.D. candidate in the history of Christianity at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
May 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph Stubenrauch is assistant professor of history at Baylor University.


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