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Mark Noll and Bruce Hindmarsh


Rewriting the History of Evangelicalism

W. R. Ward, 1925-2010

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By insisting on the importance of 17th-century politics and 17th-century European religious history for all later evangelical history, Ward, thirdly, also showed how necessary it is to connect events in the 18th century back to the era of the Reformation and Catholic Reformation. Reformers like Spener returned to Luther for inspiration; in him Spener and like-minded Pietists discovered precedents that would come to mark all evangelicals. Even more, Ward showed that complex lines of influence continued to link mystically minded Catholics and pietistically inclined Protestants straight through the 17th and 18th centuries, and that those links can be best explained by common patterns of reaction to the orthodox state-church establishments that defined European religion after the Reformation.

Fourth, Ward insisted that reforming, revivalistic, anti-statist, and small-group Protestantism was always and everywhere a pan-European phenomenon governed minimally, if at all, by national and linguistic boundaries. If the later development of national historiographies and the sad myopia of historians working only with materials in their mother tongues have obscured those thick international connections, Ward insisted that history as it actually developed deserves precedence over history as it has come artificially to be perceived. In his vision, there should be many books in French treating the Puritans because of how widely Puritan devotional literature was read by French- and German-speaking believers in the 17th century and because of how much English-speaking evangelicals were encouraged by Madame Guyon and Francois Fénelon. Studies today of German-English-American evangelical connections, in Ward's perspective, only return to what for Wesley, Theodore Frelinghuysen, and even Jonathan Edwards was their standard spiritual purview. The challenge to monoglot history here is sharp. While American historians were debating whether the whole notion of the Great Awakening might be an "interpretive fiction" or "invention" created largely by 19th-century historians, Ward responded with a characteristically dense account of evangelical religion across the whole North Atlantic region that made this conversation look provincial.

Finally, Ward's revised history of early evangelicalism includes an account of the evangelical mind. He argued that in its origins, evangelical piety was typically hostile toward Aristotelian scholasticism, especially when such intellectual system building was used to buttress power, privilege, and territory among the Lutheran or Reformed orthodox, leaving the man and woman in the pew literally without a prayer. This anti-Aristotelianism, which worked its way into the intellectual character of evangelicalism as it emerged after the wars of religion in the 17th century, meant that evangelicals often also had an affinity for mysticism and were attracted to vitalist or typological understandings of nature. Early European evangelicalism, like other more esoteric movements in the period, explained the relationship of nature to human nature in Paracelsian terms of macrocosm and microcosm. At places like the Pietist University of Halle there were efforts to do serious scientific research within this intellectual outlook. It was difficult, however, for evangelicals to sustain a coherent intellectual framework for interpreting nature and history, and the 18th century's new mechanical philosophy would leave the world disenchanted. What Jonathan Edwards had tried to do through history and typology, Wüttemberger Pietists had tried to do through a "unitary science of reality" based on the old principle of "life." In the end, both were fighting rearguard actions against the rise of materialist science. The result was that by the end of the 18th century, evangelicalism was a fragmented movement, and its piety, once embedded in a more comprehensive worldview, would now express itself in more limited terms within a modern intellectual framework.

In at least these five ways, Ward changed the historiography of early evangelicalism. He turned the globe back a quarter turn toward Europe and turned the calendar back a century toward the post-Reformation era. Single-handedly, his herculean scholarship reconstituted 18th-century Anglo-American evangelical history in terms of 17th-century Central European history. This is one of the great contributions in all of modern historical scholarship.

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