Experimental Theology in America: Madame Guyon, Fénelon, and Their Readers
Baylor University Press, 2009
296 pp., $44.95
Patricia Ward's meticulously researched history uncovers a surprisingly extensive vein of Protestant (usually, evangelical Protestant) engagement with the mystical piety of late 17th-century French Roman Catholics. An early leader of that engagement was John Wesley, who attended to the French mystics carefully on the question of assurance and who later excerpted works of Madame Jeanne Guyon and François Fénelon for the Christian Library he prepared so his Methodist itinerants could read while they rode. In the 19th century, appreciative readers included the Presbyterian minister William E. Boardman, the moral philosopher Thomas Upham, and the pioneering holiness preacher Phoebe Palmer. In the 20th century, A. W. Tozer included several poems of Madame Guyon in his anthology, The Christian Book of Mystical Verse, and Moody Press was one of several evangelical publishers who kept her works in print. What these appreciative readers found in works like Madame Guyon's Short and Easy Method of Prayer was a much-welcomed God-centered alternative to the activity, busy-ness, rush, and drive that has always characterized so much of Anglo-American religious life.
Ward's book is noteworthy for her careful research in the lives of Madame Guyon, Fénelon, and the often tumultuous circumstances in which they offered their vision of the Christian life to the world, but even more for the care with which she has tracked down Protestant appreciation for these French quietists. For explaining how Madame Guyon, writing mostly for lay people at a time when such public expressions by women were almost equally rare in Protestant and Catholic circles, and Fénelon, a well-respected intellectual and highly placed cleric, could cooperate in promoting their distinctive vision of the Christian life, and why that vision has been so attractive with so many for so long, this book is ecumenical history at its best.
Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author most recently of The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (InterVarsity Press).
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