Forging Britain’s Gospel Era

THE EVANGELICAL MOVEMENT in eighteenth-century England, which emphasized a “new birth” in Christ and an active ministry of outreach, was overwhelmingly an Anglican phenomenon. From George Whitefield to biblical commentator Thomas Scott, to John Wesley, who declared his determination to live and die a member of the Church of England, the movement’s leading clergy were members of the Established Church.

So, too, were the movement’s leading laity, including men like Admiral Barham, the organizer of the British Navy, and the influential Earl of Dartmouth. There were also women like author and educationalist Hannah More, and Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, who devoted her considerable private fortune and formidable organizing ability to spreading the revival, especially among the leaders of English society.

What, me separate?

When viewed from a twenty-first century perspective, it seems inevitable that the congregations organized by Whitefield would become Independent Calvinist churches and that 80,000 of John Wesley’s followers would leave the Church of England in the 1790s. It is easy to lose sight of the movement’s Anglican context.

When viewed from the perspective of the 1730s, too, it must have seemed exceedingly improbable that evangelical strength would emerge from within the Church of England. The inheritors of the Puritan tradition, which in America gave birth to the evangelical revivals, were in England to be found primarily in small dissenting churches such as the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Independents (Congregationalists).

The clergy of the Established Church, by contrast, had largely rejected reformed theology, which was widely associated with political, ecclesiastical, and moral anarchy during the civil wars of the 1640s and the military dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell.

The dominant theological trends in Anglicanism in the early eighteenth century took two distinct forms.

First, an emphasis on the benevolence of God and the practice of self-conscious moderation (as opposed to religious enthusiasm) and practical virtue on the part of Christians—a program easily evolved into mere moralism.

Second, a rigorous High Churchmanship, stressing the exclusive claims to religious authority of the Established Church and encouraging its followers to a determined pursuit of personal holiness (often most visible in extended periods of self-examination and preparation before receiving Holy Communion). It also emphasized practical charity and good works.

The latter could be seen at its most intense in the religious societies that grew popular after 1700. These were small groups usually made up of young men meeting under clerical supervision for mutual encouragement in the practice of piety—like the Holy Club, established by John and Charles Wesley in Oxford.

Born-again pioneers

It was against this apparently unpromising background that a number of Anglican clergy, starting in the 1730s, began to articulate an experience of conversion (the “new birth"). Their routes to this experience were varied. For John Wesley, whose heart was famously “strangely warmed” while attending a meeting of a religious society, a rigorous High Church piety that stirred a desire for personal holiness, which it apparently failed to satisfy, seems to have been a major factor.

Thomas Scott, a close friend and neighbor of John Newton, converted gradually over a period of at least two years in the mid 1770s. It was dissatisfaction with the rationalist tendencies of Anglican moderation and with his own pastoral laxity as curate that provided the starting point.

Others, like John Fletcher, a friend of Charles Wesley, might catch the contagion from an established evangelical. Charles Simeon, later the most influential of the evangelical parish clergy, experienced grace in preparing to receive Holy Communion while a student at King’s College, Cambridge in 1779.

A divided reformation

Evangelical clergy within the Established Church were not numerous before 1800—probably around 300–500 out of a total of 10,000 Anglican clergy at the turn of the century. Neither were they united.

From the beginning there were differences over theology, especially over whether salvation was best understood within a Calvinist or Arminian framework. Notable Arminians included John Wesley; John Fletcher, the incumbent of Madeley in Shropshire; and John Crosse, the blind vicar of Bradford in Yorkshire. Notable Calvinists included not just the maverick George Whitefield, but more conventional clergymen including Thomas Scott and Augustus Toplady, the author of “Rock of ages, cleft for me.”

Each of these camps itself, however, comprised a broad spectrum of views.

Some Arminian evangelicals, for example, accepted Wesley’s characteristic doctrine of Christian perfection; others, like Thomas Adam, did not.

Similarly, among the Calvinists there could be found both moderates like John Newton and extremists like Robert Hawker, minister of Charles Church near Plymouth. He refused to preach the necessity of holiness of life and was labeled by his opponents a hyper-Calvinist or Antinomian, but he nevertheless exercised a considerable influence on evangelical clergymen in the West of England.

At times these differences could flare up into serious controversy, as in the 1770s when a flurry of pamphlets by such authors as Toplady and John Berridge on the Calvinist side, and Fletcher and Wesley for the Arminians, threatened to create a deep, acrimonious division in the evangelical world.

Relations, however, never entirely broke down, and there were always moderate figures such as Richard Conyers and Henry Venn who maintained an appeal to both camps.

Gospel affinity

Although there were significant clusters of evangelical clergy in the West country, parts of Yorkshire, and London, their relatively low numbers and thin spread across the country should warn us against any assumption that they formed a kind of party within the Church with a clearly worked-out body of doctrine or program. Anglican Evagelicalism, at this stage, was much less hard-edged than this—more of an affinity than a party. This was rooted in a shared spirituality (especially an emphasis on the new birth) and shared attitudes to ministry (especially an emphasis on the importance of Gospel preaching). Many issues, including apparently central doctrines such as the nature of the inspiration of Scripture, remained yet to be argued over and worked out.

Something of this process of the making of the evangelical mind can be glimpsed in the surviving records of the clerical societies founded by evangelicals to draw together like-minded clergymen for mutual counsel and support. The most famous of these were the Elland Society, which was founded by Henry Venn in 1767 and catered for Yorkshire evangelicals, and the Eclectic Society, which was based in London and to which Newton belonged (p. 40).

God’s irregulars

Although theological difference provided the most prominent source of division among evangelicals, more significant in the long term were to be differences in their approaches to ministry. At one end of the spectrum were the “irregular evangelicals,” like Wesley and Whitefield, who abandoned the traditional Anglican parochial model in favor of free-wheeling itinerancy.

This disregard for church order might be driven primarily by a pragmatic interest in evangelistic effectiveness, but it could also reflect underlying theological concerns. As Wesley famously noted, “In plain terms, wherever I see one or a thousand men running into hell . . . I will stop them if I can . . . were I to do otherwise, were I to let any soul drop into the pit, whom I might have saved from everlasting burnings, I am not satisfied God would accept my plea, ‘Lord, he was not of my parish.’”

Perhaps rather more numerous in the second half of the eighteenth century were the semi-regulars—men who combined settled pastoral ministry in a single parish with a more limited local or occasional itinerant activity, often described as “Gospel rambles.” Prominent semi-regulars included not just John Newton during his period at Olney but also Henry Venn, who set aside a portion of each year to itinerate, and the indefatigable John Berridge, who on a weekly basis travelled around 100 miles and delivered an average of 10 sermons in other parishes in his own and adjacent counties. By 1780, however, Venn, who had moved to become Rector of Yelling, near Cambridge, had abandoned limited itinerancy for what was to become the dominant pattern of evangelical practice—that of regular parochial ministry.

Fishers of parishes

Some evangelicals, like Thomas Adam of Wintringham or Samuel Walker of Truro in Cornwall, had followed this pattern of ministry from the beginning. While less immediately spectacular than irregular ministry, the working of a parish—especially if it were large or heavily populated—was often equally strenuous.

Such evangelical pastors regularly exceeded the customary requirements for the number of services and sermons held in their parish churches, but this was only the beginning of their labors. They would be assiduous in visiting their flocks and in teaching the basics of the faith to children, first by catechizing and later by the establishment of Sunday schools—an evangelical pastoral innovation of the 1780s.

For the more advanced in the faith they might, like Conyers at Helmsley, establish domestic prayer meetings and occasions for private exposition of Scripture, or, like Walker at Truro, establish religious societies for mutual conversation and encouragement.

Regular evangelicals might also adopt measures more commonly associated with their less regular colleagues. William Grimshaw, for example, faced with the difficulties of ministering to the large moorland parish of Haworth— whose people lived in a multiplicity of scattered settlements—supplemented his ministry at the parish church with a form of itinerancy within his own parish, preaching at 12 different places on a monthly basis.

A hierarchy running scared

Exemplary, devoted, innovative, and effective parochial ministry did not necessarily render the evangelical clergy popular with the leaders of local society or with the Church authorities. The threat to church order and especially to the stability of the parish system represented by irregular and semi-regular ministries tended to blacken the reputation of the movement as a whole.

Suspicion of evangelical theology and “enthusiasm” also remained strong throughout the century. In 1764, for example, the Archbishop of York, who had heard Conyers preach, told him, “If you go on preaching such stuff, you will drive all your parish mad. Were you to inculcate the morality of Socrates, it would do more good than canting about the new birth.”

Despite the opposition, it was as a regular parochial movement with a new generation of leaders (like Charles Simeon among the clergy and William Wilberforce among the laity) that Anglican evangelicalism was to secure its place within the Established Church, face up to the challenges of the industrial revolution and claim a role in shaping the great Victorian expansion of the Christian world. CH

By Mark Smith

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #81 in 2004]

Mark Smith is lecturer in the modern history of Christianity, Kings College, London.
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