Religion in Enlightenment England

An Anthology of Primary Sources

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Jayne Elizabeth Lewis
Documents of Anglophone Christianity
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , July
     420 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Roughly the first third of Jayne Elizabeth Lewis’s pleasingly comprehensive Religion in Enlightenment England: An Anthology of Primary Sources arranges texts around the major branches of Protestant Christianity, including the Anglican, Dissenting, Methodist, and Freethinking traditions. One finds, as well, a thoughtful balance within these categories. For example, Anglican writers include the Latitudinarian John Tillotson, the High Anglican Mary Astell, and the nonjuror William Law. The remainder of the book is organized topically, under the subjects of nature, visions, miracles, spirits, devotion, hymnody, and autobiography. Women authors are well-represented in a variety of traditions by the works of Mary Astell, Margaret Fell, Anne Conway, Jane Lead, Elizabeth Singer Rowe, and Anne Dutton. With substantial and beautifully written introductions to each major section and to individual authors, the whole of the volume is contextualized in light of the significant changes in scholarship on English religion in the last thirty years. Religion in Enlightenment England lends considerable support to scholars such as Donald Greene, Donald Davie, Jeremy Gregory, B. W. Young, and J. C. D. Clark, who have argued that English Christianity in this period was thriving and that a thoroughgoing secularization was, at the earliest, a 19th-century phenomenon. And while there is ample evidence here of heterodox beliefs, particularly in the later thematic sections of the book, the older, teleological views of Leslie Stephen, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and Gerald Cragg, which celebrated a future that inevitably belonged to progressively attenuated forms of faith, are further discredited. In correcting earlier views, this book clearly illustrates the vitality of a distinctly Christian enlightenment, both with respect to its interpretation and the texts themselves. 

Lewis’s introductions and commentary comprise altogether about one hundred fifty pages of text, making the book a significant monograph in its own right. Lewis is unusually sure-footed with respect to the historical context of each document. Her integration of complex themes over a ninety-year period is extraordinarily well done and captures just the right level of generalization, even for ancillary (though important) topics such as English Catholicism, the Protestant succession, and the Act of Union. Lewis’s deft, perceptive handling of individual historical authors is also impressive. For example, the treatment of Richard Baxter, a difficult author who at times contradicted himself, captures both the depths of his insights and the breadth and influence of his enormous output. The bibliographies for each main section and the individual documents are both extensive and up-to-date, with guidance for students who wish to follow up with the complete texts found in online sources. 

Many of the sources are focused on “practical divinity,” or the practices of the Christian life in terms of meditation, worship, and prayer. While these aspects of religion seem on the surface to be merely traditional, Lewis’s close analysis recognizes in them a component of “enlightened Christianity” that was moving away from the earlier emphasis on doctrine and polemical theology. William Law, whose works were perhaps the most widely re-published of all the authors, sought to reconcile devotion itself as an exercise in reason with the warmth and fervor natural to the genuine love of God. The workings of the invisible world above (or below) the devout individual also receive attention. The interest in spirits both good and evil actually increased in the period 1660-1750, likely in reaction to the new emphasis on reason. To be sure, newer, more empirical standards of evaluation were applied to paranormal phenomena, as when Joseph Glanvill appealed to the testimony of “thousands of eye and ear-witnesses” to substantiate his belief in spirits. Religion in Enlightenment England possesses a nice coherence in that several authors return to the stage in later scenes and the connections, for example, between Mary Astell and her mentor John Norris are illuminating, with the influence of the latter on John Wesley duly drawn out. Helpful contrasts as well as comparisons are made. The different mental worlds of the ecstatic visionary Jane Lead and the Freethinker John Toland could hardly be greater, but each are understood better by reference to the other. 

Throughout the book, Lewis demonstrates a fine grasp of the interactive, subtle play between the new scientific understanding and more traditional religious sensibilities. For example, Lewis offers us a fascinating exploration of visionary experiences in light of the new mathematical and mechanical categories of Sir Isaac Newton’s discoveries. Accordingly, Thomas Traherne enlists the imagery of new scientific instruments to explain his interior vision of the soul and its progress. Lewis provides a close, insightful reading of the ways in which traditional Christian views accommodated the changing standards of reason and verification, without, in most cases, compromising conviction. Hence, the idiom of Christian expression was clearly changing and adapting, but the substance remained and transcended the challenges of science. 

In any anthology, of course, choices have to be made, and with the emphasis on practical divinity the political aspects of religion and enlightenment are somewhat subordinated, particularly the themes of toleration and the new value attached to civility in public discourse. Students might wish to examine the distinctly religious contribution to the tempering of Parliamentarianism leading up to the Act of Toleration (Douglas Lacey, Dissent and Parliamentary Politics in England, 1661-1689, Rutgers, 1969); the religious component to the early legitimization of political parties and pluralism, both local and national (Pasi Ihalainen, The Discourse of Political Pluralism in Early Eighteenth-Century England, Suomen Historiallinen seura, 1999); and the emergence of multi-denominational permanent lobbying bodies (N. C. Hunt, Two Early Political Associations, Oxford, 1961).

Finally, on the controversial topic of John Locke’s reputed Deism, which is still a widely held view supported more or less through guilt by association, students should consult Alan P. F. Sell’s John Locke and the Eighteenth-Century Divines (Wales, 1997). Locke was a minimalist in Christian doctrine, but neither a Deist nor a Socinian. On a related but different note, a detailed examination of the connections between Locke and Methodism can be found in Richard Brantley’s Locke, Wesley and the Method of English Romanticism (University of Florida Press, 1984). On Samuel Clarke’s supposed Arianism, Thomas C. Pfizenmaier’s The Trinitarian Theology of Dr. Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) (Brill, 1997) is an important, newer study that corrects earlier misperceptions. And lastly, the debate of the Nonconformists at Salters Hall in 1719 was not, at bottom, about whether or not one believed in the Trinity, but about whether subscribing to the doctrine should be required of Dissenting ministers. These few suggestions for further reading do not, however, diminish in the least my high estimation of this book and its importance.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James E. Bradley is Geoffrey W. Bromiley Professor Emeritus and Senior Professor of Church History at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jayne Elizabeth Lewis is professor of English at the University of California, Irvine.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.