by Randall S. Frederick
With the arrival of Jonathan Edwards in America, we begin to recognize the elements necessary for the creation of Evangelicalism.
Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758) was a North American revivalist preacher, philosopher, and Congregationalist Protestant theologian. He is widely regarded as one of America’s most important and original philosophical theologians as his work is broad in scope. He was rooted in Reformed theology, the metaphysics of theological determinism, and the Puritan heritage. For example, recent studies have emphasized how thoroughly Edwards grounded his life’s work on conceptions of beauty, harmony, and ethical fittingness, and how central The Enlightenment was to his mindset as his work is laced with the concerns of Englightenment thought. Edwards played a critical role in shaping the First Great Awakening, and oversaw some of the first revivals in 1733–35 at his church in Northampton, Massachusetts, where his theological work gave rise to a distinct school of theology known as the New England theology.
In Europe, Evangelicalism built on the history of Christendom coming out of the Reformation, multitudinous manifestations of God’s presence in diverse ways, which is to say it was a loose collective with many understandings held together by tradition and order. Even today, the Evangelicalism of Europe follows this tradition and brings together Catholics as much as Anglicans, continuing to emphasize predictability and tradition with little change. Anglicans and Catholics are able to interchange and comingle because of the many similarities in worship, belief, expression, and society that they share.
Greg Goebl of the website Anglican Pastor, notes that “Most American evangelicals experience a church world that is either protestant/reformed or catholic. You have to be one or the other. For many ‘catholic’ means “Roman Catholic”; ‘reformed’ means “calvinist”; ‘Protestant’ means “Not Roman Catholic’” with Orthodox churches “kind of silently off to the side in most of these schemes.” He explains further
The British Isles are the isles where the Anglican church was originally planted (Anglican comes from the Germanic tribe the “Angles”). Christianity came to these Isles at some time in the late first or early second century, possibly along with the Roman army, or through some early eastern/Celtic missionaries. Later, Pope Gregory sent Augustine (Bonus fact: not Augustine of Hippo) to evangelize the British Isles in A.D. 596. Point is, the church in that part of the world came into communion with the catholic (i.e. worldwide) church at that time, but had previously existed. So when we say we are Catholic, we are saying that our church is a continuation of the church in those early days in which the Christian Church was undivided and universal.
Skip ahead a thousand years. Now it is the Reformation. The Church in England went through a reformation period, initiated in full by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, that was influenced by both Geneva (Calvinists) and Germany (Lutherans). This, plus the next hundred years of arguments, persecutions, wrangling, and disputes shaped a Reformed and yet still Catholic Anglican church. Rather than leaving behind the Catholic faith and becoming only Protestant, the Anglican Reformation ended up reforming the existing Catholic Church in England. This is why bishops [and priests] were retained… along with sacramental theology and liturgy. It is also why (eventually) communion with the Roman church and the Orthodox churches was sought, alongside continuing fellowship with Protestant churches… In some phases of its history, the Anglican church has emphasized its Protestant or Reformed reality and de-emphasized its Catholic nature, such as the Evangelical revivals of the 18th century. At other times, such as the 19th century Oxford Movement, there has been a revival of the Catholic spirituality or vision. But both of these influences have remained.
So the Anglican church is a reformed catholic church. We don’t see a fundamental conflict between the words evangelical and catholic or feel the need to choose between our Catholic ancestors and our Reformational ones. This can really mess with the mind of a person who has always thought of these things as polar opposites.
While there are theological differences, Evangelicalism remains remarkably consistent throughout Europe, whether the church or faith community identifies as Catholic of Protestant. Even as foreign interests begin to influence Europe, such as the nascent success of Australia’s Hillsong “expansion” into the Mother Country, there remains resistance to, even suspicion of Australia exporting to them what was once exported to Australia from America because it is derivative of American Evangelicalism. Even recently, ACC Liverpool, a leading conference center in England, canceled a summer evangelism tour by Franklin Graham because “Over the past few days we have been made aware of a number of statements which we consider to be incompatible with our values. In light of this, we can no longer reconcile the balance between freedom of speech and the divisive impact this event is having in our city. We have informed the organizers of the event that the booking will no longer be fulfilled.” Europe, even Evangelicals in Europe, actively resist the confusion of American Evangelicalism and their denigration of truly Evangelical interests like respect, kindness, and critical thought.
It is American Evangelicalism then with which this essay is concerned, primarily because of the need to track how the American community abandoned the Christian faith and can no longer be accurately called Christianity. Instead, American Evangelicalism shares more in common with New Religious Movements than anything else because of lip service for a sacred text that they routinely set aside, because of the emphasis on individual interpretation and expression, because of the cult-like behavior of Evangelicals around “celebrity” pastors and political actors, and because of the chaotic and questionable circumstances that often surround their fellowships.
To unpack this, we begin with the “higher thought” of Jonathan Edwards, whose work was an extension and “Christianization” of the Enlightment in contrast and symptomatic of Christian thought of the time to the emotionalism and the subjective experience promoted by John and Charles Wesleys which ran counter to the Evangelicalism of Europe. In many ways, American Evangelicalism not only abandoned but then later bastardized and finally eventually butchered historical Evangelicalism and Christian witness. These developments can be traced back to the Wesleys, who would be aghast at how far removed from godliness Evangelicals have become.
In the 1730s, Evangelicalism emerged as a distinct phenomenon coming out of religious revivals that began in Britain and New England. While revivals had occurred within Protestant churches in the past, the Evangelical revivals of the 18th century – those of the Wesley brothers – were intense and radical, full of emotion and individual “experiences” or “encounters” with God. This experience of Evangelical revivalism imbued ordinary men and women with confidence and an enthusiasm for sharing the gospel and converting others outside of the control of established churches, a key discontinuity with the Protestantism of the previous era, according to David Bebbington in his Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (1993: 74). Edwards emphasized a natural theology highlighting and even reassuring believers of God’s existence in the progress of humans in relation to the wonders of the New World. Specifically, it was the development of the doctrine of assurance that differentiated Evangelicalism from what had gone before. Bebbington says, “The dynamism of the Evangelical movement was possible only because its adherents were assured in their faith.” Previously, in his Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (1989), Bebbington noted
Whereas the Puritans had held that assurance is rare, late and the fruit of struggle in the experience of believers, the Evangelicals believed it to be general, normally given at conversion and the result of simple acceptance of the gift of God. The consequence of the altered form of the doctrine was a metamorphosis in the nature of popular Protestantism. There was a change in patterns of piety, affecting devotional and practical life in all its departments. The shift, in fact, was responsible for creating in Evangelicalism a new movement and not merely a variation on themes heard since the Reformation (43).
The first local revival on American soil occurred in Northampton, Massachusetts, under the leadership of Congregationalist minister Jonathan Edwards. In the fall of 1734, Edwards preached a sermon series on “Justification By Faith Alone”, and the community’s response was extraordinary. Signs of religious commitment among the laity increased, especially among the town’s young people who were enthralled with the broad scope of Edwards’ emphasis on a God recognizable in the world around them. The revival ultimately spread to 25 communities in western Massachusetts and central Connecticut until it began to wane by the spring of 1735, according to Mark Noll in The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys (2004: 76-78). Edwards was heavily influenced by Pietism, so much so that historian Richard Lovelace stressed that Edwards single-handedly created “American Pietism” in his The American Pietism of Cotton Mather: Origins of American Evangelicalism (2007). One practice clearly copied from European Pietists by Edwards was the use of small groups divided by age and gender, which met in private homes to conserve and promote the fruits of revival. At the same time, students at Yale University (at that time Yale College) in New Haven, Connecticut, were also experiencing a revival. Among them was Aaron Burr, Sr., who would become a prominent Presbyterian minister and future president of Princeton University. In New Jersey, Gilbert Tennent, another Presbyterian minister, was preaching an Evangelical message and urging the Presbyterian Church to stress the necessity of converted ministers.
The spring of 1735 also marked important events in England and Wales. Howell Harris, a Welsh schoolteacher, had a conversion experience during a communion service in May of that year. He described receiving assurance of God’s grace after a period of fasting, self-examination, and despair over his sins. Sometime later, Daniel Rowland, the Anglican curate of Llangeitho, Wales, experienced conversion as well. Both men began preaching the Evangelical message to large audiences, becoming leaders of the Welsh Methodist revival. Something must account for these circumstances when salvation seemed to be so widespread, a unique series of events that deserves further explanation.
Specifically, John Wesley, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards all record instances of people “experiencing God” while entering states of ecstasy, others entering semi-comatose states after physically collapsing during their ministries. During the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, Peter Cartwright and Charles G. Finney also recorded similar behavior. Chronicles of these highly individualized experiences record one individual claiming they saw God while another said they felt God, another that they heard God, still others saying they felt an emotional release. There were instances of individuals running or “yipping” like a small animal. Phenomena like this should not be considered indicative of the Awakenings as a whole, but an undercurrent of ostentation within the revivals, an uncoupling from the quiet and contemplative piety of traditional church experience.
Marvin Gorman, a former Executive Presbyter of the Assemblies of God, wrote in his 1983 Slain in the Spirit, that the revivalism of the 18th century and particularly the Welsh Revival were precursors to the Pentecostal “explosion” that took place a century later in Kansas and Los Angeles, where similar spiritual experiences were recorded. There, as with the Great Awakening, there were peripheral accounts of individuals “falling out” or “falling under the power” of God, even “resting in the spirit” as they too entered a religious state of ecstasy and immediate state of repose on the ground “before God.” This charismatic experience, commonly referred to in Pentecostal, Full Gospel, and Charismatic circles as being “slain in the Spirit” (hence the title of Gorman’s defense) were prevalent and provide precedent, if not direct evidence, of God “moving” away from traditional religious expression. Accounts were consistently attested to by witnesses, even if the description of the experience between those emerging from the semi-comatose state (or “slaying”) differ between one another. Historian Margaret Poloma, in her 1989 Assemblies of God at the Crossroads: Charisma and Institutional Dilemmas writes that the revisionist history of academics as well as religious leaders who seek to validate contemporary experience should be viewed critically, even skeptically. Researchers and other historians must acknowledge that the individuals who recorded their own experiences were sharing similar events but referred to it in unique ways; this acceptance, however, should be seen as a positive challenge for historians who seek understanding rather than a setting aside of critical thought and engagement with the records as they conduct historical research. Two people experiencing the same event will speak of it differently, using different words, and recalling things differently even as they agree on key indicators of the event itself. More, because of their faith tradition, they will speak of it in often conflicting ways – one insisting that God “lifted their soul upwards” even as another will emphasize the physical “knocking down” of the flesh.
Even within the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination with Methodist roots, there exists a “tension that such persons may experience over what they regard as the inauthenticity of the larger organization” that promotes spiritual experiences even as denominational leaders deny their reality and historical precedent. “The experience of being slain in the Spirit” for example, “does evoke the skepticism of some pastors, and in the past… [religious] leaders have been known to be openly critical of its occurrence” even as others “openly defend [it] as an authentic manifestation of God’s power” (272). Those seeking to dismiss and set aside this reading of events are often, Poloma notes, “academics and scholars” who ultimately cannot reconcile accounts of religious fervor with a staid presentation of religious figures. The politics of their position and efforts to present their faith system as legitimate demand that they homogenize, explain, or dismiss questionable behavior. In other words, there is a tendency to clean up the ecstatic for something more presentable to the masses. Many Christians who question this will
remain but struggle with what they regard as the resistance of the denomination to modern critical thought. What I have observed with some regularity is the tension between faith and reason that remains the curse (or the blessing) of such thinking persons. Those who remain… particularly if they are in a subordinate position to the hierarchal structure and/or lack a pastoral power base, demonstrate a certain level of cynicism about the larger organization as well as what they regard as excessive emotionalism. Many of those who remain appear to have found comfortable niches within what I have termed the “non-expressive/non-traditional” type of congregation.
This relates to Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley because it was the First Great Awakening that impacted Protestant Europe as well as Britain’s American colonies in the eighteenth century during the formative and foundational decades. It is these kinds of experiences with which we come to understand the latitude with which Wesley allowed for individualism – expression, experience, and understanding – in his ministry. Even now, there are records for which historians must account, experiences that occurred during the Awakenings that will set the course for misunderstandings, misinterpretations, resistance to authorities and scholarship, and ultimately a revisioning of origins with which we begin to assemble a legion of narratives that do not resemble one another. Evangelicalism today must begin to reconcile itself to false starts, half starts, and differences that are embodied by the supposed “manifestations of God” during the Awakenings. Such testimonies by John Wesley and his immediate followers had, for example, already become a prominent and controversial part of Protestant revivalism. Supporters of the revivals within various denominations, including Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Methodists, argued that trembling, groaning, screaming and falling to the ground “as dead” were signs of divine power in those who were becoming aware of their own sinfulness and that this bodily agitation, as well as the problem of sin and guilt, was resolved through a conscious conversion experience marked by peace and joy. In particular, John Wesley, according to Jeffrey Williams in his Religion and Violence in Early American Methodism: Taking the Kingdom by Force (2010), considered falling down and other bodily movements to be natural (not supernatural) human responses to the supernatural “testimony” or “witness” of the Holy Spirit in conversion. Occasionally though, Wesley attributed bodily movements to Satan’s attempt at disrupting the conversion process.
Poloma and Gorman note in their respective works that revisionist history on the part of church historians cuts both ways. Some historians generously account for the difference in personal experience by emphasizing shared commonalities or common descriptions though different verbiage, while other historians characterize personal revelations and the unexplainable (or incongruent) as evidence of fraudulence. If they didn’t say it a certain way, it does not meet the criteria of contemporary scholarship, and must therefore be dismissed and forgotten.
This matters because it is, ultimately, an important question for the origins of Evangelicals in America. Are the origins of Evangelicalism evidence of diverse manifestations of God, an epidemic of confusion, or Satan’s attempt at disrupting the orderly flow of God?
Gorman, a pastor of a large Assemblies of God congregation in New Orleans during the Congress on the Holy Spirit and World Evangelization in 1987, recalled that he received warnings and even threats from religious leaders within his denomination for promoting ecstatic religious experiences. According to them, the supposed manifestations of God that he emphasized – rather than the safety Evangelicals wanted to emphasize as they sought power in national politics at that time – were “demonic” and “evil.” Leaders from other denominations, Gorman said, threatened him at the Congress on the Holy Spirit because it wasn’t enough that he encouraged people to experience God in unique ways, but worse, he portrayed key figures in their denominational histories as “emotional,” an indicator that revisionist history remains an issue within the Evangelical community, especially as Evangelicals continue to insist on legitimacy and respectability in their origins as they seek power today. Unlike the safe, “natural” and philosophical approach of Jonathan Edwards, it is hard to make a case for naturalness when the ecstatic is inherently supernatural.
Nevertheless, however one defines these ecstatic experiences that were widely commented, remarked on, and chronicled by the founders of American denominations – like George Whitefeld, like John Wesley, like Jonathan Edwards, who would in turn influence the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Methodists – there is evidence that Americans wanted a religious experience unlike that of Europe. They required more from God than the practicality and hard work with which they had begun the American enterprise. They demanded a blessing of some kind to validate God’s continued existence and investment in their lives.
At about the same time that Harris experienced conversion in Wales in 1735, George Whitefield was converted at Oxford University after his own prolonged spiritual crisis. Whitefield later remarked in his autobiography A Short Account of God’s Dealings (1756), “About this time God was pleased to enlighten my soul, and bring me into the knowledge of His free grace, and the necessity of being justified in His sight by faith only.” Whitefield’s fellow Holy Club member and spiritual mentor, Charles Wesley, reported an evangelical conversion in 1738. In the same week, Charles’ brother and future founder of Methodism, John Wesley was also converted after a long period of inward struggle and it was during this spiritual crisis that John Wesley was directly influenced by Pietism.
Two years before his conversion, John Wesley had traveled to the newly established colony of Georgia as a missionary for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. He shared the voyage with a group of Moravian Brethren led by August Gottlieb Spangenberg whose faith and piety deeply impressed Wesley, especially their belief that it was a normal part of Christian life to have an assurance of one’s salvation. Wesley recounted the following exchange with Spangenberg on February 7, 1736 in his journal:
[Spangenberg] said, “My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” I was surprised, and knew not what to answer. He observed it, and asked, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” I paused, and said, “I know he is the Savior of the world.” “True,” he replied, “but do you know he has saved you?” I answered, “I hope he has died to save me.” He only added, “Do you know yourself?” I said, “I do.” But I fear they were vain words.
Wesley finally received the assurance he had been searching for at a meeting of a religious society in London. On May 24, 1738, while listening to a reading from Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans, Wesley felt spiritually transformed:
About a quarter before nine, while [the speaker] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
There is significant evidence in all of this that Evangelicalism, at this juncture, had taken a turn towards something new and radical in direct contrast to and antagonistic toward the ritual and tradition offered by the Church. The private experience mattered, a foundational belief of Protestantism now “recovered” from the stuffy and high-mindedness of church leadership who seemed out of touch with their parishioners. Pietism continued to influence Wesley, who had translated 33 Pietist hymns from German to English even as numerous German Pietist hymns became part of the English Evangelical repertoire as a result of his efforts. By 1737, Whitefield had become a national celebrity in England where his preaching drew large crowds, especially in London where the Fetter Lane Society had become a center of evangelical activity. Whitfield joined forces with Edwards to “fan the flame of revival” in the Thirteen Colonies in 1739–40. Soon the First Great Awakening stirred Protestants throughout America.
Here, finally, we must scrutinize John Wesley’s character, for in him we see the framings of what Evangelicalism in America would become as a result of his evangelistic efforts. Collecting together John Wesley’s letters and journals, Percy Livingstone Parker inserts the following story as part of the Journal of John Wesley he edited in 1951.
In April, 1749, after the marriage of Charles Wesley to Miss Sarah Gwynne, daughter of a Welsh magistrate, his brother writes, “It was a solemn day, such as became the dignity of a Christian marriage.” At this time, John Wesley was himself looking forward to a happy marriage. During August of the previous year, while he was preaching at Newcastle, he had been nursed through a brief illness by Grace Murray, a widow thirty-two years of age and an outstanding Christian woman. She was a native of Newcastle, but had moved to London. There she met and married a sailor, the son of a prominent Scotch family. Sorrow over the death of her young child had led Mrs. Murray to hear the Methodist preachers. At first her husband strongly opposed her in her new belief, but she succeeded in winning him to the same faith.
After her husband’s death at sea in 1742, Grace Murray returned to Newcastle, where she later took charge of the Orphan House. Her willingness to expend herself in looking after the hundred members in her classes, meeting a “band” every day of the week, and traveling to the nearby hamlets to read and pray with people, called forth John Wesley’s high praise: “[She was] indefatigably patient and inexpressibly tender; quick, cleanly, and skillful; of an engaging behavior, and of a mild, sprightly, cheerful, and yet serious temper; while, lastly, her gifts for usefulness were such as he had not seen equaled.”
When he proposed to her in August, 1748, she answered, “This is too great a blessing for me; I can’t tell how to believe it. This is all I could have wished for under heaven.” Since she did not want to be separated from him, he took her with him on a trip through Yorkshire and Derbyshire, where “she was unspeakably useful both to him and to the societies.” But she remained for a time in John Bennet’s circuit, at Bolton. Bennet was also in love with Grace Murray, so much so that she wrote Wesley that she thought it her duty to marry Bennet. However, she later went to Ireland with Wesley and was not only a worker among the women—forming women’s bands, visiting the sick, and praying with the penitent—but was also an adviser to Wesley in matters of his own behavior. Daily his love and esteem for her increased, and when in Dublin they made definite plans to be married.
Back in England again, they found they could not lightly dismiss John Bennet and his concerns. Bennet presented himself to Wesley at Epworth saying that Grace Murray had sent him all Wesley’s letters. Being convinced then that she should marry Bennet, Wesley wrote her to that effect; but she vacillated again and declared that Wesley was the one she really loved. They might have married then, but Wesley wanted first to satisfy Bennet, gain Charles’ approval, and tell the Methodist societies of his plan. Charles Wesley was perturbed by the thought of his brother’s marrying one who had been a servant; he first hastened to persuade John from a course which he said would cause their preachers to leave them and the societies to be scattered. John assured him that he was not marrying Grace for her birth, but for her own worth. Unsuccessful in changing his brother’s mind, Charles determined to persuade the lady herself. Meeting her at Hineley Hill, he greeted her with, “Grace Murray, you have broken my heart!” He prevailed upon her to ride with him to Newcastle; there she fell at Bennet’s feet and begged forgiveness for treating him so badly. Within a week she married him.
The loss of Grace Murray was Wesley’s deepest personal sorrow. The following letter reveals his heart:
Leeds, October 7, 1749
My dear Brother,—Since I was six years old, I never met with such a severe trial as for some days past. For ten years God has been preparing a fellow laborer for me by a wonderful train of providences. Last year I was convinced of it; therefore I delayed not, but, as I thought, made all sure beyond a danger of disappointment. But we were soon after torn asunder by a whirlwind. In a few months the storm was over; I then used more precaution than before and fondly told myself that the day of evil would return no more. But it too soon returned. The waves rose again since I came out of London. I fasted and prayed and strove all I could; but the sons of Zeruiah were too hard for me. The whole world fought against me, but above all my own familiar friend. Then was the word fulfilled, ‘Son of man, behold, I take from thee the desire of thine eyes at a stroke; yet shalt thou not lament, neither shall thy tears run down.’
The fatal, irrevocable stroke was struck on Tuesday last. Yesterday I saw my friend (that was) and him to whom she is sacrificed. I believe you never saw such a scene. But ‘why should a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins?’
I am, yours affectionately,
Wesley did not see her again until 1788. Bennet separated from him shortly after his marriage, speaking bitterly of him and even accusing him of popery. He became pastor of a Calvinistic church at Warburton, where he died at the early age of forty-five.
Again we refer to Henry Moore for a word about the last meeting of Wesley and Mrs. Bennet: “The meeting was affecting; but Mr. Wesley preserved more than his usual self-possession. It was easy to see, notwithstanding the many years which had intervened, that both in sweetness of spirit, and in person and manners she was a fit subject for the tender regrets expressed in his verses. The interview did not continue long, and I do not remember that I ever heard Mr. Wesley mention her name afterward.”
Had Wesley married Grace Murray, he would have escaped the matrimonial disaster that overtook him when he married Mrs. Vazeille, wealthy widow of a London merchant. The most charitable construction that can be placed on her malicious, unreasonable behavior is that she was at times mentally unbalanced. She took papers and letters from his desk, changed the wording in his letters, then put them into the hands of his enemies or had them published in the newspapers. She is known to have driven a hundred miles in a jealous rage to see who was traveling with him. One of Wesley’s preachers, John Hampson, said, after observing one of her tantrums, “More than once she laid violent hands upon him, and tore those venerable locks…..”
One of Charles Wesley’s biographers, Jackson, states that Wesley’s letters to his wife show “the utmost tenderness of affection, such as few female hearts could have withstood; and justify the opinion that, had it been his happiness to be married to a person who was worthy of him, he could have been one of the most affectionate husbands that ever lived. Those who think that he was constitutionally cold and repulsive utterly mistake his character.”
Even in his domestic trials, the man who “did not remember to have felt lowness of spirits for one quarter of an hour since he was born” saw the bright side. He believed that even this worked out for his good: had Mrs. Wesley been a delightful companion, he says, he might have neglected his work at times to please her.
As a study in contrast, the calm and theologically grounded philosophical approach of Jonathan Edwards is entirely at odds with the work of John Wesley, whose passions extended beyond his theological concerns.