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Enchantment and Disenchantment in the Evangelical Tradition
Those, like George Eliot, who were idealists often repudiated dogma.
Consider the following two accounts of evangelicalism, one written anonymously and the other under a pseudonym, but both in fact written by the same person. They were published within only a few years of one another in the later 1850s, which is conveniently about the halfway mark between the rise of evangelicalism among the displaced and persecuted Protestants of central Europe in the late seventeenth century and its remarkable global expansion in our own time. The author of both accounts is the English novelist Mary Ann Evans, alias George Eliot. The first is a blistering critique of a metropolitan Calvinist preacher called Dr. Cumming, minister of the Church of Scotland in London’s Covent Garden, and the second is taken from Eliot’s first full-length novel, Adam Bede. Eliot’s searing attack on Dr. Cumming was first published in the pages of a liberal periodical, the Westminster Review, in 1855:
Given a man with moderate intellect, a moral standard not higher than the average, some rhetorical affluence and great glibness of speech, what is the career in which, without the aid of birth or money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English Society? Where is that Goshen of mediocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egoism as God-given piety? Let such a man become an evangelical preacher; he will then find it possible to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morale with a high reputation for sanctity. Let him shun practical extremes and be ultra only in what is purely theoretic: let him be stringent on predestination, but latitudinarian on fasting; unflinching in insisting on the eternity of punishment, but diffident of curtailing the substantial comforts of time; ardent and imaginative on the pre-millennial advent of Christ, but cold and cautious towards every other infringement of the status quo. Let him fish for souls not with the bait of inconvenient singularity, but with the drag-net of comfortable conformity. Let him be hard and literal in his interpretation only when he wants to hurl texts at the heads of unbelievers and adversaries, but when the letter of the Scriptures presses too closely on the genteel Christianity of the nineteenth century, let him use his spiritualizing alembic and disperse it into impalpable ether. Let him preach less of Christ than of Antichrist; let him be less definite in showing what sin is than in showing who is the Man of Sin, less expansive on the blessedness of faith than on the accursedness of infidelity.
The second account of evangelicalism written by Eliot requires a little more scene setting. Adam Bede is set in a small English village at the end of the eighteenth century. The novel opens with some good-natured, but pointed, banter about religious faith among a group of rough carpenters in a village workshop. One of these village artisans is a Methodist who advertises to the others the impending visit of a Methodist preacher who, as it happens, turns out to be a young woman. Variously referred to as a prophetess, a Methodiss, and a preacher woman, Dinah Morris, a character based on Eliot’s aunt, came to preach an outdoor sermon on a picturesque village green serenely bathed in evening sunlight. Eliot, who wants the reader to be in no doubt about Dinah’s superior character, describes her demeanor as serene and completely without self-consciousness, much to the surprise of one skeptical observer who previously knew of only two types of Methodist, the ecstatic and the bilious. Dinah chooses as her sermon text the words attributed to Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.” Dinah tells the assembled crowd that she first heard these words not from the lips of Jesus in a dream, as some Methodists claimed, but from the mouth of an old white-haired saint when she was only a little girl. As the novel is set back in the 1790s, this reference is to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who was also a countercultural facilitator of lay and female preaching. Dinah’s opening prayer and hour-long sermon are devoted to preaching good news about a suffering and compassionate savior who came to the earth’s poor with a message of love and forgiveness. She finishes, in the best traditions of Methodist field-preaching, with a stirring evangelistic appeal:
“Dear Friends,” she said at last, “brothers and sisters whom I love as those for whom my Lord has died, believe me, I know what this blessedness is; and because I know it, I want you to have it too. I am poor, like you: I have to get my living with my hands; but no lord nor lady can be so happy as me, if they haven’t got the love of God in their souls. Think what it is—not to hate anything but sin; to be full of love to every creature; to be frightened at nothing; to be sure that all things will turn to good; not to mind pain, because it is our Father’s will; to know that nothing—no, not if the earth was to be burnt up, or the waters come and drown us—nothing could part us from God who loves us, and who fills our souls with peace and joy, because we are sure that whatever he wills is holy, just, and good.
“Dear friends, come and take this blessedness; it is offered to you; it is the good news that Jesus came to preach to the poor. It is not like the riches of this world so that the more one gets the less the rest can have. God is without end; his love is without end. . . .”
The outdoor meeting ends, as most Methodist gatherings did, with a hymn. The sun goes down to the communal harmonic sounds of the Methodist faithful whose voices rise and fall “in that strange blending of exultation and sadness which belongs to the cadence of a hymn.”
Eliot then has her readers take leave of this charming village scene, but in the best traditions of Victorian didacticism, she, the author, does not take leave of the Methodists. After serving the conventions of the Victorian novel by having Dinah turn down the marriage proposal of Seth Bede, because she is already married to the ministry of the gospel, Eliot goes on to draw a romantic distinction between the old Methodism of rough men and weary-hearted women drinking in a faith, which she calls a “rudimentary culture,” and its tacky Victorian successor characterized by low-pitched gables up dingy streets, sleek grocers, sponging preachers, and hypocritical jargon. Dinah was of course a representative of Eliot’s romanticized old Methodism who
believed in present miracles, in instantaneous conversions, in revelations by dreams and visions; they drew lots, and sought for Divine guidance by opening the Bible at hazard; having a literal way of interpreting the Scriptures, which is not at all sanctioned by approved commentators; and it is impossible for me to represent their diction as correct, or their instruction as liberal. Still—if I have read religious history aright—faith, hope, and charity have not always been found in a direct ratio with a sensibility to the three concords; and it is possible, thank Heaven! to have very erroneous theories and very sublime feelings.
With that comment Eliot is able simultaneously to satisfy her preference for old Methodism over the new with her enlightenment sensibilities about the absurdities of all species of religious enthusiasm. To her what mattered most was not what people believed, but who they were, and what they did. Charming eccentricity when mediated by faith, love, and charity was much more to be admired than evangelical zeal when mediated by self-interest, sanctimoniousness, and hypocrisy.
What then has all this to do with evangelical enchantment and disenchantment?
George Eliot was herself enchanted with evangelicalism as a teenage girl under the influence of an Irish evangelical schoolmistress, and became disenchanted for complex reasons that included her disappointment with evangelical social ethics and her growing familiarity with the unsettling religious and theological ideas of German higher criticism. Eliot’s portrayals of the heroic Dinah Morris and the hapless Dr. Cumming, allowing for the different genres and conventions within which they are written, are essentially her own enchantment and disenchantment narratives. One is about a middle-aged man, the other a young woman; one is a Calvinist spokesman for the elect, the other an Arminian advocate for all of God’s poor; one is a stalwart Victorian supporter of established churches, the other a romantic young religious revolutionary preaching for the dissenters; one preaches in a metropolitan pulpit in grimy early Victorian London, the other in an amphitheater of rolling hills in William Blake’s Jerusalem, “England’s green and pleasant land” (1804); one prints his sermons in lilac and gold for the Sabbath reading of genteel ladies, the other preaches extempore sermons with “sincere, unpremeditated eloquence” to rough artisans and domestic servants; one uses the Bible as a blunt instrument to beat the heads of infidels, the other uses it compassionately to draw others to a loving savior; one is obsessed with prophetical speculation about the end times, the other is focused on the pressing needs of the here and now; one is well-educated and holds a doctor of divinity degree, the other has a rudimentary education but an angelic disposition; one is romanticized and set in an idyllic rural past, the other is fiercely realistic and set in what was then the world’s largest city. Above all, in Eliot’s aesthetic framework, the words of one produce moral mendacity and tribal self-interest of a distinctively evangelical kind, the words of the other lift people’s imaginations “above the sordid details of their own narrow lives, and suffused their souls with the sense of a pitying, loving, infinite Presence, sweet as summer to the houseless needy.” It scarcely needs pointing out that the skeptical George Eliot thought that both Dr. Cumming and Dinah Morris preached about things that may not be true, but their respective errors had very different pathologies and outcomes. Whatever one makes of Eliot’s treatment of her two characters, one overtly fictional and romanticized but based on a real person, the other based on a real person but with a heavy interpretive gloss, there is no doubt that she put her finger on some of the most important reasons why evangelicalism has produced both enchantment and disenchantment among its adherents.
Explaining the rise of evangelicalism from small and fragile religious societies to a worldwide movement of many hundred millions is of course a complicated historical task which has absorbed most of my career as a scholar, but here I want to consider just three aspects of evangelical enchantment identifiable from Dinah Morris’s village sermon. The first is the offer of a fresh start, or in evangelical parlance, a new birth; the second is its offer of a disciplined spirituality for both individuals and communities; and the third is its mobilization and transmission by lay agency and its emphasis on hymn singing. All three have been opened up to fresh interpretations and new insights in recent years.
The evangelical worldwide empire for more than 300 years has been built on the enduring appeal of religious conversion and a newly imagined life of purpose and meaning. No accident then that Dinah Morris’s evangelistic address to George Eliot’s fictional English villagers ends with a fervent appeal for her audience to accept the blessedness of a new life. So ubiquitous are conversion and conversion narratives in the evangelical tradition that “born againism” has become a central component of almost all definitions of evangelicalism and is used currently by the polling agencies to try to determine exact numbers in an otherwise inexact tradition. But conversion narratives are not straightforward texts. With their roots in seventeenth-century Puritanism, the appearance of distinctively evangelical conversion narratives can be dated quite precisely to the 1730s, when the leaders of the evangelical revival published their inward experience for both public consumption and emulation. In an important recent book, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England, Bruce Hindmarsh suggests that evangelical conversion narratives appeared along with new conceptions of the self at what he calls “the trailing edge of Christendom and the leading edge of modernity.” According to Hindmarsh the Renaissance made people more aware of themselves as individuals while Reformation Protestantism made them more aware of themselves as sinners. Penitential traditions of Christianity, with their emphases on anxiety, awareness of sin, and guilt, were thus brought into contact with modern conceptions of the self arising from commercial individualism and Lockean empiricism.
The result of this encounter was to produce modern selves with increased awareness of sin and guilt to which the evangelical message brought new possibilities of release, reformation, and refashioning. This is complicated stuff, because different traditions of evangelicalism—Methodist, Moravian, Calvinist, Dissenting, and Anglican—have different taxonomies of religious conversion depending on their theological and ecclesial traditions. For example, Moravian conversion narratives, as befitted the roots of the tradition in late medieval piety, are more quietist and less agonistic, more preoccupied with the bodily suffering of Christ, and more shaped by liturgical rhythms than those of the other branches of evangelicalism. Methodist conversions by contrast are more characterized by charismatic joy and spontaneous ecstasy, and are often recorded again and again as the Methodist faithful sought entire sanctification and the peace that came with holy dying, which was the ultimate demonstration of the durability of the new birth. Calvinist conversions were recorded within a framework of biblical and catechetical literacy, reformed covenanting theology, and Presbyterian ministerial oversight which sometimes edited out unpresbyterian experiences such as dreams and visions.
To emphasize ecclesial variety is only to scratch the surface of the complexity of conversion narratives. Further levels of analysis are required to show the differences between personal descriptions in private journals and those published for public consumption, which inevitably represent important time lags between experience and recorded experience. Similarly, one has to explore the gender dynamics at work in a movement led by, and edited by, men, but which almost always had a majority of women. Gender, memory, power, consumption, convention, and expression are all unstable variables within which early modern conversion narratives need to be interrogated. But when all is said and done, there remains the stubborn reality that very large numbers of women and men, slave and free, and black and white, across the North Atlantic region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries claimed they had experienced a new birth as a gateway to a new life. The joy of the experience and the compulsion to tell it to others is the fuel propelling evangelical expansion.
But the story does not end there, for Hindmarsh has shown that when the great Protestant missionary societies cranked up their global apparatus in the nineteenth century, evangelical conversions of the Western penitential kind (anxiety, awareness of sin, guilt, and joyful release) could not be reproduced in the same way in non-Western societies where centuries of catechetical and ecclesial indoctrination about sin had never happened. Native Americans, Africans, and Pacific Islanders in limited numbers could be brought to embrace Protestant Christianity of an evangelical stripe, but their conversion pathologies did not fit the prescribed European grids. Native Americans were prone to describe conversion in terms of deliverance from conjuring and alcohol abuse; Pacific Islanders could not be brought to emotions of abject misery before conversion, despite being practitioners of the grossest sins of cannibalism and infanticide; and African slaves were prone to see conversion to Christianity as part of an exodus-like journey from bondage to freedom. Therefore, religious conversion in the classic evangelical sense of an awakened introspective conscience producing anxiety and guilt relieved only by surrender to God resulting in a joyful new birth is really a product of a distinctive confluence of cultural circumstances in the eighteenth-century English-speaking world. But what is enchanting about evangelical conversion narratives, apart from the sense of joy and excitement with which they are recounted, is the fact that they brought together in a dynamic synthesis a person’s past religious tradition, his or her present experience, and the future aspiration to live a new life up to and including death itself. For example, November 2007 saw the 200th anniversary of the death of John Newton, slave trader and libertine, and the author of black and white evangelicalism’s most famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Newton’s religious conversion, recounted in his Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars (1764), is part picaresque adventure and part Damascus Road experience, but it did lay the foundation for a very different kind of life, succinctly expressed in his own epitaph. “John Newton clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.”
As both Newton’s epitaph and Dinah Morris’s sermon make clear, the invitation to receive Christ and experience religious conversion was but the entry point to a life of faith and service of others. But how was that faith to be nourished and experienced? More particularly, what did early evangelical spirituality look like and what lessons can be drawn from it by the contemporary evangelical churches? In their efforts to mark out a distinctive spirituality and communal loyalty for their followers, early evangelical leaders went to extraordinary lengths to condense, edit, filter, reproduce, and disseminate spiritual classics of the Christian tradition. Within only a few years of the birth of Methodism, John Wesley, Dinah Morris’s white-haired saint, had issued more than 40 abridged and inexpensive editions of spiritual classics.
What is remarkable about Wesley’s list is its eclecticism. Among the authors represented in his reprints are the Roman Catholic mystics Thomas à Kempis and Gaston de Renty; the English Puritan John Bunyan; the Hallesian Pietist August Hermann Francke; the Moravian founder, Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf; the Scottish episcopalian Henry Scougal; the Anglican high churchman William Law; and the American Congregationalist Jonathan Edwards. A decade later Wesley completed his collection of texts in 50 volumes issued as A Christian Library: Consisting of Extracts from the Abridgements of the Choicest Pieces of Practical Divinity which have been publish’d in the English Tongue (1749–55). Nor was Wesley unique among evangelicals in these endeavors. Philip Doddridge supplied similar reading lists for younger clergy, and Joseph Milner later issued his influential five-volume history of the Christian church with an even wider net of Christian spiritual heroes, such as Ambrose and Augustine, Anselm and Bernard, Hus and Wycliffe, and Luther and Calvin. The point of all this was not merely to supply elite texts for the educated evangelical cognoscenti, but also to issue affordable and well-thumbed pocketbooks for the evangelical populace.
Of course all sorts of caveats need to be issued about this material. It was issued partly out of self-interest and competitive advantage to control a voluntary movement and guarantee its survival. He who controlled the tradition controlled everything. Moreover, he was “he,” because the ratio of men to women in the exemplary lives issued by John Wesley was 5:1, whereas the sex ratio in eighteenth- century Methodism was 3:2 in favor of women. This powerful asymmetry of male power and prescription and female following has been one of the most enduring, and disagreeable, features of the evangelical tradition.
However appropriate are the criticisms that need to be offered about evangelical attempts to connect the eighteenth-century revivals with the past, it was nevertheless a remarkable exercise in earthing a new movement in a surprisingly inclusive history of Christianity. Evangelical spirituality, with its roots in conversion, the Bible, the cross, and the Christian tradition, and with its characteristic emphases on discipline, testing, discernment, sanctification, and mission, was a powerful instrument of character formation for ordinary people. In the words of one recent writer, populist evangelicals employed spiritual discipline as an instrument of self-fashioning, freedom, and modernity. They employed spiritual discipline not as an instrument of self-repression, as Marxist historians like E. P. Thompson once alleged, but rather as a way of producing the necessary self-control within which personal agency could work more effectively. Far from being an oxymoron, therefore, evangelical spirituality drew from a surprisingly eclectic range of Christian sources and served as a means and a way to a better life for those who subjected themselves to its disciplines.
After calling her hearers to a new life, and a new set of spiritual disciplines, Dinah Morris, who as an awakened, lay-preaching woman was also the medium of her own message, finished her discourse by announcing a hymn. It has long been recognized that the most distinctive, characteristic, and ubiquitous feature of the evangelical message, indeed of the entire evangelical revival, was its transmission by means of hymns and hymn singing. If one were to choose a single artifact of eighteenth-century evangelicalism to lock away for posterity that would somehow capture its essence, one defensible choice would be John Wesley’s 1780 Collection of Hymns, for the Use of the People Called Methodists. For a movement that has attracted far more abuse than praise from scholars, the Collection of Hymns has commanded almost universal admiration. Bernard Manning described it as “a work of supreme devotional art by a religious genius”; Rodney Flew called it “a liturgical miracle”; Ernest Rattenbury considered it to be “a Methodist manifesto . . . a splendid summary of Methodist devotion”; and Carlton Young viewed it as one of the most beautiful pieces of “lyrical theology” ever written.
John Wesley was an inveterate collector and publisher of hymns, beginning with A Collection of Psalms and Hymns, published in 1737 for the use of the infant Anglican colony in Georgia. It was the first Methodist hymnbook, the first Anglican hymnbook, and probably the first hymnbook published in America for use in public worship. (The most recently published hymnbook in America is the new hymnbook of the Memorial Church at Harvard, in which Charles Wesley and his fellow eighteenth-century evangelicals have by far the largest representation.) The Wesley brothers issued more than 30 hymnbooks: some with tunes, some without; some intended for special occasions, some for more general consumption; some intended for all “real Christians,” some only for Methodists. John was the selector, organizer, editor, and publisher; Charles was the prolific poet, writer, and lyricist. It is estimated that he composed some 9,000 hymns and sacred poems, some of which are classics of devotional literature, many of which are truly dreadful and easily forgettable. The point is that well before the 1780 Collection of Hymns, Methodism was a movement distinguished by its devotion to sacred songs.
Why was there such a mania for singing? The 1780 Collection of Hymns offers a way into this question. John Wesley’s preface is instructive. After carefully delineating the market objectives for the new volume (“a collection neither too large, that it may be cheap and portable, nor too small, that it may contain a sufficient variety for all ordinary occasions”), Wesley stated that the volume contained “all the important truths of our most holy religion, whether speculative or practical; yea to illustrate them all, and to prove them both by Scripture and reason. And this is done in a regular order. The hymns are not carelessly jumbled together, but carefully ranged under proper heads according to the experience of real Christians. So that this book is in effect a little body of experimental and practical divinity.” In Wesley’s words poetry was to be “the handmaid of piety” in quickening devotion, confirming faith, enlivening hope, and kindling or increasing the Christian’s love of God and humankind.
What is striking about the hymns as a body is the relative absence of systematic doctrine and their concentration instead on the Christian life as a pilgrimage, a journey from earthly despair to heavenly blessing. They are filled with personal pronouns, active verbs, and intense struggles. They are more winning than threatening, more appealing than damning. Hymns transmitted complex theological ideas in accessible language; they reached deep into the will and the emotions of believers through meter, rhyme, and melody; they defined for Methodism a religious content and style of a more vibrant and populist kind than was available through confessions of faith or chanted liturgies; in short, they supplied a poetic music of the heart for a religion of the heart. The medium and the message were in perfect harmony.
So far I have attempted to use George Eliot’s favorable portrayal of Dinah Morris as a window to open a conversation about some enchanting aspects of the evangelical tradition, namely, its emphasis on the new birth and the new life, its surprisingly eclectic spirituality, and its most characteristic form of expression, hymn singing. What then of the other side of the story? It is time now to return to the second of George Eliot’s accounts of evangelicalism, to what I have called her disenchantment narrative—her verbal rant against Dr. Cumming, published in the Westminster Review.
Dr. Cumming was minister of the Crown Court Church in London’s Covent Garden. Crown Court Church was one of the few Presbyterian churches in England claiming an affiliation to the Church of Scotland and was in a perilous state when Cumming was ordained to its ministry in September 1832. Cumming’s ministry in central London lasted for almost 50 years, and the Crown Court Church thrived for most of that period. Cumming, who had enjoyed a reputable academic career at Aberdeen University, was a devoted pastor, a prolific author, a fervent preacher, a formidable anti-Catholic polemicist, and a determined advocate of prophetical interpretations of the Bible, which were often placed in the context of a pessimistic interpretation of current events in Britain and the rest of the world. He was the Hal Lindsey and the Tim LaHaye of his generation.
This brand of evangelical Protestantism played out well in early Victorian London. Cumming attracted to the Crown Court Church a distinguished clientele, including a number of aristocratic families with Scottish connections. While at the peak of his powers, Cumming’s London citadel drew large crowds, and Cumming became a notable feature of London’s ecclesiastical landscape. The focus of Eliot’s attack on him was not so much his theological method, which she scarcely enjoyed, as it was the moral and spiritual implications of his writings, which she positively despised. According to Eliot, Cumming’s mind was not of the “pietistic order,” there was not the “slightest leaning toward mysticism in his Christianity,” his way of salvation was forensic and schematic, not experiential and redemptive, and his view of the world, and of his opponents, was relentlessly judgmental, often savagely so. “But of really spiritual joys and sorrows,” she writes, “of the life and death of Christ as a manifestation of love that constrains the soul, of sympathy with that yearning over the lost and erring which made Jesus weep over Jerusalem, and prompted the sublime prayer, ‘Father, forgive them,’ of the gentler fruits of the Spirit, and the peace of God which passeth understanding—of all this, we find little trace in Dr Cumming’s discourses.”
Comparing Cumming’s Calvinistic Protestantism with the enthusiastic Methodists, she states that while the Methodists were made amiably gullible by their “pietistic feelings” directed toward God’s glory, Cumming’s reliance on the doctrine of verbal inspiration of the Bible was a mental caste with more unfortunate moral consequences: “what is for them a state of emotion submerging the intellect, is with him a formula imprisoning the intellect, depriving it of its proper function—the free search for truth.” The mental habit of counting as truth only that which fits the grid of verbal inspiration, combined with an emotionally charged belief in personal salvation based upon propositions derived from scripture, was for Eliot somewhere near the heart of Cumming’s evangelical disease: “So long as a belief in propositions is regarded as indispensable to salvation, the pursuit of truth as such is not possible, any more than it is possible for a man who is swimming for his life to make meteorological observations on the storm which threatens to overwhelm him.”
Eliot’s real complaint is not against Cumming’s theology, but against the grim moral implications of his teaching. She gives three examples. The first is a deficiency of love manifested in party spirit and a kind of evangelical tribal loyalty. She states that the larger proportion of what he had published was in reality a diatribe against Roman Catholics and infidels of all types, including skeptics and Muslims. The Christian love that he enjoins is, according to Eliot, “the love of the clan [fellow evangelicals], which is the correlative of antagonism to the rest of mankind.” In this way “Dr Cumming’s religion may demand a tribute of love, but it gives a charter to hatred; it may enjoin charity, but it fosters all uncharitableness.”
Eliot’s second example of Cumming’s moral perfidy comes from the results of his obsession with prophecy. The idea that God and Satan were playing out some cosmic game in which the human actors were moved around like chess pawns in order to serve some grand providential purpose was particularly offensive to Eliot. So too was Cumming’s attempted demonstration, based as it was on an evangelical interpretation of political and social events, that the second coming was imminent. Cumming’s preoccupation with the premillennial Advent was, according to Eliot, merely the “transportation of political passions on to a so-called religious platform.”
Eliot’s third example of the moral flaw at the heart of Cumming’s theological system is his insistence on the eternal punishment of unbelievers. According to Eliot, Cumming appeared to believe in eternal punishment, not out of heavy-hearted reluctance, but out of partisan belligerence. Not for him mere resignation to “the awful mystery of eternal punishment,” Eliot writes, nor even a search for refuge in the possibility of “annihilation for the impenitent,” but rather a full-blooded assertion of a gruesome doctrine: “Do we object, he asks, to everlasting happiness? Then why object to everlasting misery?—reasoning which is perhaps felt to be cogent by theologians who anticipate the eternal happiness for themselves, and the everlasting misery for their neighbours.”
For Eliot, all comes down eventually to an argument about the character of God and the nature of humanity. While Cumming insists that God cannot be pleased except by acts done for his glory alone, thereby rendering morally useless those acts occasioned by fellow-feeling for others, Eliot asserts that human beings who act out of love, sympathy, charity, affection, or devotion are contributors to the moral good of humanity in their own terms and for their own sake.
Although Eliot’s optimistic humanism probably sits less well with readers who have just endured the ravages of a grimly violent twentieth century than with the liberal readership of the Westminster Review in early Victorian England, there is no denying that Eliot’s verbal attack on the unfortunate Dr. Cumming reads as one of the sharpest pieces of polemical prose in the English language, justifying George Henry Lewes’s opinion that Eliot had thus demonstrated her potential to be a truly great writer. Moreover, it is difficult to read Cumming’s work, the same corpus to which she had access, and not agree with most of her conclusions. Cumming’s printed sermons reek of unctuous self-righteousness, and are riddled with the crassest of stereotypes of Jews, Roman Catholics, Muslims, and atheists. His rhetorical affluence and anecdotal style, whatever their merits in pulpit delivery, do not translate well into cold print. What then accounts for a figure like Cumming, and why was he such a successful author among his evangelical constituency, and possibly beyond?
What marks out his published work from the generality of printed sermons in Victorian Britain is his relentless emphasis on biblical prophecy, and his ability to relate ancient writings to contemporary events. Cumming was obsessed with the second coming of Christ, and was persuaded by current events that the time was near. In an attempt to mark out the timetable of Christ’s return, Cumming matched the prophecies of the Book of Daniel with key events in world history, such as the appointment of Pope Boniface II as universal head of the church in 607 CE and the demise of papal powers during the French Revolution. In this way Cumming was able to fuse anti-Catholicism, disillusionment with the world order, and verbal inspiration of the Bible to produce a timetable for the wrapping up of time. It was this combination of world-weary pessimism and eager millennial anticipation that most annoyed Eliot.
We know from other sources that however lamentable some of Cumming’s published works were, he was not quite the moral monster of Eliot’s imagination. What accounts for Eliot’s bile is not so much the life and teaching of Cumming but her own disenchantment from a religious tradition that had shaped her youth. Cumming was the expression, not the cause, of her disenchantment, the complex reasons for which go beyond the scope of this paper. Indeed, disenchantment narratives, if not as ubiquitous as conversion narratives, are certainly not absent from the annals of evangelicalism. It is scarcely surprising that a religious tradition which attracted the loyalty of millions of people worldwide should have failed to sustain the faith of some of its own converts or capture the imagination of some of its own children. Many of its most famous leaders have experienced the shock and grief caused by the alienation from the tradition of their own children. Charles Wesley, the greatest poet and hymn writer of the evangelical revival, penned some of his most melancholic verses in response to his son Samuel’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. Even the first great generation of English evangelicals associated with the Clapham Sect seemed unable to produce family dynasties of evangelical longevity. “There is some pathos,” writes Ford K. Brown, “in the departure from the Protestant Reformation ranks of so many of the sons of the leaders—in the Protestant Evangelical families or among those sons and daughters of the Evangelicals who were brought up to write their names in England’s records, almost all. They were brought up with Christian love and confidence that they would take their place in the front line.” Yet the list of casualties is too impressive to be merely accidental:
In their university days, or before, or after, the children of the Clapham inner circle and the Evangelical directorate elsewhere, and the children of the lesser known or unknown Evangelical families who were also to become eminent Victorians, depart steadily for High Church, Roman Catholic Church, or no church: Macaulay and De Quincey, the sons of Babington and Gisborne and Stephen, the four sons of Wilberforce, the three daughters of Patrick Brontë, Marian Evans who called herself George Eliot, John Henry Newman, the son or sons of Charles Grant, Lord Teignmouth, Buxton, Lady Emily Pusey, Benjamin Harrison, Sir James Graham, John Gladstone, Sir Robert Peel and William Manning.
Brown’s explanation for this great familial exodus is that the upper-crust leaders of the evangelicalism of the Clapham Sect, as befitted their social position, valued elegance, cultivation, and style as cohabitable companions with virtue, piety, and holiness. The evangelical generation that followed theirs, however, was dominated by the rising ranks of earlier populists who had an altogether different style. Having neither aristocratic panache nor rustic charm, the new generation of evangelical leaders, according to Brown, was altogether less appealing to the well-educated children of the Clapham Sect. As evangelicalism lost its style, the stylish lost their evangelicalism.
Over the last several years I have made a study of evangelical disenchantment through the lives of some of its most eminent and creative representatives, including the writers George Eliot and James Baldwin, the artists Vincent Van Gogh and John Ruskin, the social crusaders Theodore Dwight Weld and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the public intellectuals Francis Newman and Edmund Gosse. These are but the most notable examples of a tradition that has always recruited adherents vigorously and over time silently lost some of them to other traditions. It is my experience that the seminaries, divinity schools, and religious studies departments of the Western academy are full of ex-evangelicals.
The common themes and shared characteristics of disenchanted evangelicals not only reveal a good deal about the nature of the evangelical tradition—from an admittedly unusual direction— but also illuminate some of the common causes and consequences of disenchantment. Perhaps the most obvious point to emphasize is that the disenchanted were once enchanted by what they found in the evangelical tradition. Most were enchanted, and some remained enchanted, with the person of Jesus Christ and with his emphasis on love, forgiveness, and sacrifice. Most were led to this position through the influence of a mentor or a friend who not only pointed them to Jesus and the Bible, but who also exhibited qualities they admired. As evangelicalism moved beyond its first and second generations, it is not surprising that many of its adherents fetched up in positions that enabled them to influence and inspire the young. Schoolmasters and mistresses, clergymen and preachers, editors of periodicals and organizers of voluntary associations, leaders of classes and teachers of Sunday schools, college teachers and university professors all show up in the conversion narratives of young evangelicals. It is a tribute to the quality of those exemplary lives that earnest young people like George Eliot and Francis Newman were inspired to follow their example. Of course there are any number of hypocrites and egotists in the evangelical tradition, in both life and fiction, but they were more often at the margins than at the center of the tradition.
In most cases conversion was accompanied by a strong commitment to the person of Jesus Christ and an idealistic determination to make a difference in the world. Not only did the story of Jesus represent a compelling example of sacrificial love, Christianity itself also offered a model of empowerment, a way of escaping from the drab humdrum of families, localities, and social conventions. Disenchantment, on the other hand, often followed from the growing realization that evangelical Christianity was not only about following a heroic savior into a needy world, but also carried with it an inheritance of doctrines and dogmas, and precepts and propositions. Among the more serious converts, such as most of those represented in my study, conversion was followed by serious Bible reading and self-examination. This is where a degree of cognitive dissonance opened up, for they discovered that the Bible is not only a book of love and forgiveness, but also contains violence, judgment, and notions of eternal punishment. Some scholars have shown how Bible reading could be, ironically, a secularizing dynamic in the lives of Christians who were unable to square the love that attracted them to faith with the hard sayings of the biblical narratives. Among some thoughtful evangelicals, moral repudiation of biblical ethics preceded and was often more important than difficulties presented by biblical criticism and Darwinian evolution. These intellectual challenges did not so much cause doubt and infidelity as inform, rationalize, and justify them.
Hard sayings and hard doctrines were often more difficult to accept for creative and intuitive personalities who chafed against theological systems. The more unappealing the doctrines, the more difficulties they presented. Some were challenged because of their perceived intellectual implausibility, and these included the doctrine of the Trinity, biblical inerrancy, and miracles. Some were challenged because of their perceived ethical mendacity, and these included substitutionary atonement, predestination, eternal punishment, and selective salvation for evangelical Protestants alone. Still others were challenged because they seemed to limit the sphere of human action in this world, and these included the various millennial schemes that treated life on earth as a mere warm-up act for the life to come. Nothing dimmed the ardor of young evangelical idealists more than the proposition that the earth was a failed experiment headed for divine elimination.
If the realization that fidelity to evangelicalism carried with it a necessary embrace of an unwelcome dogmatic system was perhaps the most troubling issue faced by the disenchanted, the unhappy relationship between evangelicalism and structures of power followed close behind. For those who became evangelicals partly out of an idealistic desire to reform “social evils,” the unpleasant reality that evangelicals were as likely to be on the side of the demons as the angels was hard to bear. Whether the issue was slavery, racial or gender inequality, or simple ethical probity in relation to sex or money, it seemed to many of the disenchanted that evangelicalism was as much collaborator as it was critic of the great social evils of their time. Nothing eroded the confidence of evangelical idealists more than the sober reality that many of their coreligionists were regrettably on the other side of what for them were the great issues of their time. The fact that their opponents defended their positions on slavery, race, gender, and sexual identity by an appeal to the Bible merely added insult to injury. One of the most consistent factors in disenchantment is the alignment of evangelical leaders of seminaries, churches, and voluntary organizations with what were regarded as reactionary forces.
Most of the people represented in my study were idealists. From Francis Newman’s desire to redeem Islam for Christ, to Theodore Dwight Weld’s campaign to end slavery in the United States, and from Sarah Grimké’s repudiation of the fecklessness of Southern plantation culture to Frances Willard’s desire to rid the world of alcohol, evangelicals were those who wanted to make a difference. That these aspirations are typical, not atypical of the tradition, can be deduced from many important books on evangelical social activism. But what happens when the desired goal is either perceived to be unobtainable, or is made more, not less, unachievable by evangelical means? Disappointment and frustrated idealism then became the midwives of evangelical disenchantment. So, too, were bad experiences with fellow evangelicals. George Eliot emptied her spleen on the hapless Dr. Cumming, Theodore Dwight Weld was outraged by the sexual scandals of some of the evangelical ministers he knew, and James Baldwin was less than enamored with some of the black preachers (including himself and his father) in his acquaintance. Nothing bred disenchantment faster than profound disillusionment with the lives, characters, and opinions of fellow evangelicals.
Given the artistic sensibilities and intellectual distinction of many of these figures, it is not surprising to discover that the closer evangelicalism sailed to dogmatism and exclusivity, the less acceptable it became to them. The evangelical tradition has always contained a diverse spectrum of adherents and opinions. Scholars have found it difficult to map and describe that spectrum without using anachronistic or inappropriate terms. Perhaps it is better not to think of a single spectrum but to think rather of a set of overlapping spectrums, some of which have to do with social class, style, and culture, while others relate to doctrines, denominations, and scriptural hermeneutics. Moreover, these spectrums are not fixed, but shift in response to cultural changes. Generally speaking, the more evangelical traditions feel under pressure from the surrounding culture, the more likely they are to adopt conservative and defensive positions, whether in theology, politics, or social behavior. In that sense evangelicalism has displayed fundamentalist proclivities long before, and long after, the term itself was used in the second decade of the twentieth century to describe those reacting against modernist theology and the implications of biblical criticism. In the lives of many disenchanted evangelicals there is no doubt that the narrower, more dogmatic, more sectarian, and more exclusive evangelicalism became, the less it appealed to those on the creative edges of the tradition. In short, those who embraced evangelicalism because of the openness of its message of love and forgiveness were just as likely to repudiate it for its emphasis on dogma and the letter of the law.
These polarities within evangelicalism have been addressed in an important recent book by W. R. Ward. He suggests that early evangelicals, deriving from the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment, were broadly united in their embrace of a hexagon of religious ideas: experiential conversion, mysticism, small-group religion, vitalist conceptions of nature, a deferred eschatology, and opposition to theological systems. He also shows how profoundly nineteenth-century evangelicals departed from the tradition they claimed to inherit. Biblical inerrancy, premillennial dispensationalism, propositional systems of all kinds, and bureaucratic denominationalism all eroded what was once an engaging intellectual culture. An infallible text read with wooden literalism, an instant millennium, an absence of mystery, a lack of interest in nature, priestly personality cults, and modernist soteriological systems are not what the early evangelicals had in mind.
These significant shifts within the evangelical tradition are precisely those which informed George Eliot’s inner civil war between the enchanting and disenchanting aspects of evangelicalism presented in her contrasting portraits of Dinah Morris and Dr. Cumming. How Eliot tried to resolve these tensions in her own life would require another paper, but perhaps the closest one can get to the settled religious convictions of the mature Eliot comes from a letter to Françoise D’Albert Durade in 1859. Partly mellowed by the critical acclaim she received from the publication of Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede, partly occasioned by the personal happiness she found with George Henry Lewes, and partly out of a desire to make amends for her earlier vitriolic antagonism toward the evangelicalism that helped educate her teenage moral sensibilities, Eliot writes:
I think I hardly ever spoke to you of the strong hold Evangelical Christianity had on me from age fifteen to two and twenty and of the abundant intercourse I had with earnest people of various religious sects. When I was in Geneva, I had not yet lost the attitude of antagonism which belongs to the renunciation of any belief—also, I was very unhappy, and in a state of discord and rebellion towards my own lot. Ten years of experience have wrought great changes in that inward self: I have no longer any antagonism towards any faith in which human sorrow and human longing for purity have expressed themselves; on the contrary, I have a sympathy with it that predominates over all argumentative tendencies.
In this way, George Eliot, the slayer of Dr. Cumming, her very personal evangelical dragon, came to lie down, if only in fiction, with the lambs of Dinah Morris’s compassionate Christianity and the winsome religiosity it so engagingly represents.
- George Eliot, “Evangelical Teaching: Dr Cumming,” Westminster Review 64 (October 1855). Although published anonymously, this essay appeared subsequently in George Eliot, Essays and Leaves From a Note-Book (William Blackwood and Sons, 1884), 145–199.
- George Eliot, Adam Bede (first published in two volumes; Blackwood, 1858), chap. 2, “The Preaching.”
- D. Bruce Hindmarsh, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2005), 32.
- This epitaph is written on a plain marble tablet in the Anglican church of St. Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London, which is a baroque church built by Nicholas Hawksmoor.
- This section on John Wesley’s editing of texts and book inventory benefited from presentations made by Bruce Hindmarsh at the 2007 “Henry Luce III Fellows in Theology” conference and by Isobel Rivers and Vicki Tolar Burton at the “John Wesley: Life, Legend, and Legacy” conference in 2003. See also John Walsh, John Wesley 1703–1791: A Bicentennial Tribute (Friends of Dr. Williams’s Library, 1993), 9.
- This taxonomy of evangelical spirituality is the framework for Bruce Hindmarsh’s research and forthcoming book on early evangelical spirituality. I am grateful to him for sharing these insights.
- This is the approach Phyllis Mack takes in her book Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
- The most authoritative volume on the content and practice of Methodist worship in the United States is Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, American Methodist Worship (Oxford University Press, 2001). The best critical edition of Wesleyan hymns is now Franz Hildebrandt and Oliver A. Beckerlegge, A Collection of the Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, vol. 7 of The Works of John Wesley (Abingdon, 1983). See Bernard Lord Manning, The Hymns of Wesley and Watts (Epworth, 1943); R. Newton Flew, The Hymns of Charles Wesley: A Study of Their Structure (Epworth, 1953), 10; J. Ernest Rattenbury, The Evangelical Doctrines of Charles Wesley’s Hymns (Epworth, 1941), 72–74; and Carlton R. Young, Music of the Heart: John and Charles Wesley on Music and Musicians (Hope Publishing Company, 1995), 191. For a fine modern collection of essays on Charles Wesley’s manifold writings, see S. T. Kimbrough, Jr., Charles Wesley: Poet and Theologian (Abingdon, 1992).
- The Works of John Wesley, vol. 7, 73–74.
- R. Buick Knox, “Dr John Cumming and Crown Court Church, London,” Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 22, no. 1 (1984): 57–84.
- Eliot, Essays, 151–152.
- Ibid., 159.
- For a more extensive treatment of Charles Wesley’s poems and hymns of suffering, including those composed around the time of Samuel’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, see Joanna Cruickshank, “Charles Wesley and the Construction of Suffering in Early English Methodism” (PhD diss., University of Melbourne, 2006), 21, 49.
- Ford K. Brown, Fathers of the Victorians: The Age of Wilberforce (Cambridge University Press, 1961), 517.
- Ibid., 518.
- These studies have resulted in a book, Evangelical Disenchantment (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2008).
- See Howard R. Murphy, “The Ethical Revolt Against Christian Orthodoxy in Early Victorian England,” American Historical Review 60 (1955): 800–817.
- See, for example, Kathleen Heasman, Evangelicals in Action: An Appraisal of Their Social Work (Geoffrey Bles, 1962).
- W. R. Ward, Early Evangelicalism: A Global Intellectual History, 1670–1789 (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 4.
- The George Eliot Letters, ed. Gordon S. Haight (Yale University Press, 1954), 3:230–31.
David N. Hempton is the first full-time Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School. This essay is adapted from an address he delivered in longer form on November 29, 2007, at HDS, to celebrate the endowed chair.