Mark Noll and Bruce Hindmarsh
Rewriting the History of Evangelicalism
The British historian William Reginald (Reg) Ward, who died on October 2 of last year, accomplished more in his retirement than most scholars accomplish in their entire careers. We shared in a special session at the American Society of Church History in Washington, D.C., in January 2008, honoring him as one of the most distinguished religious historians of the past half century. It was one of his last appearances at an academic conference, and at 82 years of age he was still in good form. Ward's responses to the panelists displayed his characteristically droll sense of humor, his pleasure in defending controversial positions, his vast erudition and delight in the arcane, and, always, his unparalleled command of early modern European history. It was a great occasion.
That was a meeting of specialists, though, and it may be a little while yet before the insights of Ward's scholarship make their way into the textbooks. His scholarship is dense, and his writing does not suffer fools gladly. (Mark once offered Bruce $10,000 to translate Reg from English into English.) Above all, what readers of Books & Culture will want to know is that Reg Ward decisively changed the way historians understand the origins of evangelicalism. No longer can the history of modern evangelicalism be told as an Anglo-American story, beginning with, say, John Wesley's strangely warmed heart in London in 1738, or the phenomenon of revival in Northampton, Massachusetts, under Jonathan Edwards, a few years earlier. There is an Anglo-German axis that is every bit as important as the Anglo-American; once those Central European roots of evangelical religion are understood, the entire tradition takes on a fresh appearance.
It is difficult to find strong enough adjectives of commendation for the body of work in which W. R. Ward developed this fresh, creative, and deeply researched rendering of evangelical history. Essays from the 1970s and 1980s, many of which were gathered in his 1993 collection Faith and Faction, anticipated the key arguments. They were then given full airing in three magisterial books: The Protestant Evangelical Awakening (1992); Christianity under the Ancien Régime, 1648-1789 (1999); and Early Evangelicalism: A Global Intellectual History, 1670-1789 (2006). Ward's pan-European reconstruction of early evangelical history also informs, to a less obvious degree, the massively learned and often deliciously humorous annotations that he provided for seven volumes of the new critical edition of John Wesley's Works. The books and editions we've just mentioned (along with others) were all published in less than two decades, and all after Ward had "retired" from his longtime post in the history department at the University of Durham.
Never from within the Anglo-American community of historians working on the modern history of Christianity has there been such an encompassing challenge to received historiography, nor such a well-documented appeal to reorient evangelical history away from the narrow precincts of the North Atlantic to the broad plains of Central Europe. The challenge that Ward's scholarship mounted for the rest of us very ordinary historians was extraordinary. Ward's achievement provided what not even German scholars have attempted, which is a general interpretation of the history of evangelicalism from within the standpoint of German history and German historical scholarship.
The Central European roots of evangelical religion have changed perceptions of evangelical origins in at least five ways. First, by situating evangelical history against the backdrop of 17th-century European political history, Ward demonstrated that distinctly evangelical beliefs and practices emerged in response to political pressure from powerful states, such as those in the Habsburg empire, or powerful state-churches, both Protestant and Catholic. What he summarized as "the almost universal history of revival as resistance to assimilation" led Ward to Central European beginnings for such essential evangelical themes as the opposition of "true Christianity" to formulaic, systematic, or imposed orthodoxies; and to small-group enclaves as the necessary nurturing medium in which "true Christianity" could flourish. By showing how the political power of nation-states and state-churches played a defining role in the earliest evangelical movements, he showed all scholars the often covert political protests found in almost all evangelical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries, and probably later as well.
Second, Ward insisted on the foundational significance of 17th-century events and circumstances for evangelical history. By so doing he made a convincing case that accounts of Anglo-American evangelicalism are necessarily stunted if they do not include figures like Johann Arndt, Jakob Böhme, and Pierre Poiret (who are almost never mentioned) as well as those like Philip Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke (who occasionally appear as mere anticipations of what came later).
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.
Bruce saw Reg once more in June 2009 in Manchester. At 84 years of age and with cancer, Reg had taken the train up from his home at Petersfield near Portsmouth on the south coast to attend a lecture. They got to spend a couple of hours together on a sunny bench, him with his rosy cheeks, leaning on his cane, talking by turns about the 18th century and eminent German atheists. As always, it seemed that he had read everything. Among those of us who knew him, he shall be remembered fondly for his spirited, contrarian opinions, expressed always with a twinkle in his eye, and for his kind and generous manner on occasions like that—as well as for the way he spent his retirement re-writing the whole history of early evangelicalism.
1. Journals and Diaries, ed. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, vols. 18-24 of The Works of John Wesley (Abingdon, 1988-2003).
Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. Bruce Hindmarsh is James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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