Heart Religion

Evangelical Piety in England & Ireland, 1690-1850

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John Coffey
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Heart Religion: Evangelical Piety in England and Ireland, 1690-1850, is an engaging collection of nine essays that offer literary, theological, and historical interpretations of emotional religious experiences in diverse evangelical communities.  This thoughtfully crafted volume delivers on its promise to offer new approaches to the foundations for and growth of pietist movements in England and Ireland from the late seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries.  In this exploration of religious renewal as a conscious shift toward heart-centered religion, many questions arise: How do piety and doctrine overlap, intersect, and conflict in religious revivalism?  Despite doctrinal differences, did Wesleyans and Calvinistic Methodists have a shared ethos when it came to having personal experiences of God?  Where did evangelical revivalism originate, and under what cultural and spiritual conditions?  These and many other queries are considered in this volume, through the unique lenses of diaries, hymns, sermons, and personal conversion stories.

In its scope, Heart Religion encompasses a much larger geographic area, including Wesleyan interaction with Catholic Quietism in France, German Lutheran Pietism, the Scottish Episcopalian tradition, and Ulster Presbyterianism.  Though “roughly chronological in structure,” it is perhaps best looked at topically, as the related views of its authors become more apparent with each subsequent chapter (13).  This is illustrated in chapters like those by John Coffey and Tom Schwanda, who offer unique, but parallel studies of evangelical hymnology as an indicator of degrees of religious experience through the ebbs and waves of British religious revivalism.  With an eye toward the influences of this revivalism on the continent (and even briefly in North America), both authors present compelling arguments for hymns as means of expression for intensely emotional and personal experiences of the divine.

Because the worship styles, theological beliefs, and political tendencies of the varied religious communities covered in this volume differ, the inclusion of essays focusing on converts (Andrew R. Holmes), nonconformists (David W. Bebbington), and the perceived dangers of revivalism (Isabel Rivers) are especially relevant and apt.  Continuing to challenge traditional views about continental origins for pietism, these authors delve further into lay religious expression and agency.  From the role of the Holy Spirit in conversions of the heart, to deathbed preparations for entry into heaven, and concerns about outward expressions of inward holiness, sanctification is shown to play a central role in the evangelical “divine love story” (6).

Heart Religion also offers intimate views into the religious lives of the well-known English preacher George Whitefield (David Ceri Jones), and like-minded German Pietist chaplain Anthony William Boehm (Daniel L. Brunner).  Through a close reading of Whitefield’s sermons, Jones paints a vivid image of the popular preacher’s early evangelical leanings as a “‘boy parson’” in his early twenties, and in the following years as his revival movement took shape.  Through an itinerant ministry and joyful conversion process, Whitefield’s experience was, in many ways, far less formal than the German theological tradition from which Boehm came (95).  For Boehm, activism and conversion were the products of generations of reflection on pietistic theology, though with very similar outcomes with regard to the importance of personal paths to holiness.

Phyllis Mack and Patricia Ward extend the scope of this conversation with their respective essays about the influence of Enlightenment era empiricism and Roman Catholic Quietism in the pursuit of evangelical models for sanctity.  In these essays, religious contemplation and dreams offer new perspectives into the transmission of pietism between otherwise seemingly diverse institutions and populations.  Whether in a quest for perfectionism through physical purification, or the salvational interpretation of dreams, the divine presence of God was sought by evangelicals in all aspects of life.

Although this volume approaches “heart religion” from a distinctive stance, the essays within it successfully contest the assumption that, for Wesleyans, this type of religious experience was always opposed to “formal religion” (as in practice and liturgy), “intellectualized religion” (with orthodox doctrine, but lacking emotion), and “legalistic religion” (focusing on personal agency through “good works,” but without an intimate connection with God) (9).  This is decidedly one of its greatest strengths. 

As an edited compilation of essays stemming from the annual conference proceedings of the Dr. Williams Centre for Dissenting Studies in London, it likewise comprehensively addresses the “ecclesiastical and confessional boundaries” so often placed on this type of religious experience (27).  Should a future edition or companion volume be produced, an extended view of the influence of this early English and Irish pietism on Wesleyan religion outside of the British Isles and continent (especially along missionary paths) could expand this conversation to one that is not only transatlantic, but even more comprehensive in scope and possibility.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Emily Bailey is Assistant Professor of Christian Traditions and Religions of the Americas at Towson University.

Date of Review: 
November 3, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Coffey is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Leicester.


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