The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism

True Religion in a Modern World

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D. Bruce Hindmarsh
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


D. Bruce Hindmarsh’s latest book sets out to analyze early evangelicalism within the broader context of intellectual and philosophical developments of 18th-century Europe. “It seems to me important,” he writes, “that the rise of evangelicalism occurred in tandem with the rise of modernity and in the midst of a hugely consequential turn away from transcendental frames of reference to the authority of ‘nature’ in multiple fields” (ix). At the core of The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism is a central question: How did 18th-century Christians partial to revivalism modify religion in the midst of a modernizing world? Hindmarsh makes his case for an answer. At a time when changes in economics and law helped adjust conceptualizations of individual agency and when the “new science was remaking the face of nature,” leading evangelicals like George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and the Wesleys devoted their efforts to “spreading a more directly personal experience of Christianity” and popular engagement with “true religion” (3). 

By Hindmarsh’s definition, evangelical religion relied on a conviction about the unum necessarium, or, “the one thing necessary”—the democratized pursuit of the new birth (3). Hindmarsh notes, like others before him, that the evangelical could be known by his or her emphasis on personal faith and a conversion experience among all believers. This was the goal of the movement’s star theologians, preachers, and advocates. It was a form of Christianity molded for the 18th-century’s “mobile social order of a voluntary society,” a restorationist school of “traditional Christian spirituality that emerged” at a time when long-standing paradigms and knowledges about nature took on more natural descriptions (4, 9, 276). According to Hindmarsh, evangelical figureheads accomplished this by looking to the past and the present. 

Early evangelicals, already outward proponents of a devotionalism predicated on the “life of God in the soul of man,” embraced modern philosophies to adapt to their 18th-century milieu (104). Perhaps the best example of this is Jonathan Edwards. Hindmarsh, like Perry Miller before him, effectively shows how the Northampton minister leaned on modern thinkers and naturalized evangelical religion. Ever the reverent perambulator of fields, Edwards often wrote of having an “exquisite sense of God’s conjoined meekness and majesty” while touring his father’s property (131). Edwards’s consumption of Newton’s mechanical physics helped him formulate a natural philosophy and typology that divinely enlivened nature. For Edwards, “Nature was transfigured. Every tree was a burning bush, and every cloud a pillar of fire.” God was revealed in the finest parts of creation, and the world’s natural processes always required a transcendent God to be present (134, 134, 139). Similarly, James Hervey, an Oxford Methodist, wrote that all should view the world through an “Evangelical Telescope,” confident that such a view of nature would surely be a “most powerful Means of enkindling our Love, and strengthening our Faith” (150). To the early evangelical and reader of new science, all of nature’s accoutrements served as signposts to Christ’s work on the cross. But proponents of the new birth also found value in the words of their predecessors. 

The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism is at its best when focused on the sources and practices of evangelical devotion. “New evangelical devotion,” Hindmarsh argues, was “not cut off from the Christian past [but] depended upon it.” The Wesleys and Whitefield repeatedly looked to writers like medieval Catholic Thomas a Kempis (d. 1471) or German Lutheran Johannes Arndt (d. 1621) for “ancient” examples of piety and true religion. Here, evangelicals often found devotional reflections that aided the movement’s endearing “protest against the idea that adhering to Christian civil society as a nominal Christian was sufficient for salvation” (94-95, 100). Though an innovative stream of Christianity that emerged alongside the modernization of various sciences and philosophies, evangelicalism, in many ways, functioned to heal what believers determined to be injured parts of the Church. One of Hindmarsh’s greatest examples of this is his discussion of the young George Whitefield’s unpublished personal diary (1735/6) and its coded narrative about his early thoughts on personal piety and Oxford Methodism. Made a cipher for modern readers because of its extensive use of abbreviations, Hindmarsh’s translation of Whitefield’s manuscript diary illustrates the young evangelical’s stringent, daily devotional process and system of self-evaluation, highlighting his routine of private prayer, meditation, and scripture reading (16-17). Given how scarcely used unpublished writings of Whitefield are, this is a gift from Hindmarsh as such vivid details about Whitefield’s personal devotion and public service point toward the convictions undergirding his later ministry, showing how the “punishing schedule he kept up over three decades as he travelled, preached, counselled, corresponded, and published was sustained in large measure through habits of self-management, spiritual practices, and religious ideals that were established when he was a young person” (21).

Hindmarsh’s argument about the importance of 18th-century scientific thought, alongside art, law, and commerce, is impressive and convincing. The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism is model scholarship in its research and follow-through. That is not to say there are not weaknesses. In focusing on early evangelicalism’s “intellectual representatives” and “educated leadership,” he, like Thomas Kidd, Mark Noll, and Harry Stout, produces a history of evangelicalism determined by exceptional individuals. In this reviewer’s opinion, that cannot be automatically counted as a fault, but it does come with a certain set of questions. Why were Whitefield and Edwards “representative” of their traditions or followers? Did a Northampton farmer care about Newtonian physics and natural philosophy? Historians of popular religion in early America, such as David Hall and Douglas Winiarski, have convincingly pursued such questions about representation in far more detail elsewhere. Regardless, by the end of the work Hindmarsh has made a persuasive case for further study of Europe and North America’s early evangelicalism, showing that it was at once a protest and advocate of modernizing forces.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tucker Adkins is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

D. Bruce Hindmarsh holds the James M. Houston Chair of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver. A past president of the American Society of Church History, he has published and spoken widely to international audiences on the history of early British evangelicalism. His previous books include John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition and The Evangelical Conversion Narrative, both by Oxford University Press.


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