Making Spirituality Safe for Evangelicals
By Brett Malcolm Grainger
When I teach evangelicalism to undergraduate students in my classes on American religion, I often start by playing them the Hank Williams classic, “I Saw the Light.” Sometimes, if the mood strikes me, I’ll even join Hank on the chorus, singing harmony.
I saw the light, I saw the light
No more darkness, no more night
Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight
Praise the Lord, I saw the light.
There are a few reasons I find Hank a helpful Virgil in the maze of the evangelical mind. The first is how easily he captures the dualistic cast of evangelical psychology: a person is either lost or found, slave or free, stumbling in darkness or walking in the light. Projected on the world, this riven psychology maps out a Manichaean cosmos, where Satan and Jesus tussle for the prize of the singer’s soul. Neutrality is obsolete. As Bob Dylan put it on his album Slow Train Coming, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Another reason I love Hank is for his simple way of communicating the evangelical sense of salvation as sudden, immediate, and total in its effects. One minute, you’re dead in trespasses and sin; the next, you’re reborn, a new creature. A lifetime of struggle, pain, doubt, and loss is telescoped in a flash of grace, a bolt from the blue, a flip of a switch. What follows such a singular, life-changing event? Hank knew. You tell the story. You tell it over and over again, in such a way as to inspire imitation. See the light; share the story; help others see the light; repeat. Evangelicalism still gets tagged as old-time religion, but it’s hard to imagine a more modern mode of viral religion: radically streamlined, personalized, and portable, perfectly suited to the entrepreneurial demands of the global religious marketplace.
If spiritualities are like cuisines, Roman Catholicism may be the epitome of slow-food religion: homely, domestic dishes of divine grace served up through the diurnal rhythms of ritual and festival. Starting with a common set of ingredients—the chief being an incrementalist, progressive model of sanctification—Catholics have developed a staggering variety of regional cuisines that serve believers from cradle to grave and represent a range of religious tastes and intensities. Evangelicalism, in contrast, often looks like fast-food religion, two thousand years of history and technique dropped in the deep fryer. In recent years, however, tastes have begun to shift. While earlier generations of evangelicals spurned spirituality as a species of New Age woo-woo or Catholic “works righteousness,” contemporary believers are working to reclaim it. Popular writers such as J. I. Packer and Tim Keller have pitched a recovery of Puritan spirituality, and evangelical publishing houses have rushed to repackage “spiritual classics” by John Bunyan, Henry Scougal, and Jonathan Edwards. In 2016, Paulist Press, the Catholic publishing powerhouse behind the popular Classics of Western Spirituality series, released a collection of primary sources in a volume titled The Emergence of Evangelical Spirituality: The Age of Edwards, Newton, and Whitefield, adding to earlier volumes on John Calvin, Jeremy Taylor, and John and Charles Wesley, among others. A kind of revivalist ressourcement is afoot.
The evangelical reversal on spirituality has happened alongside scholarly reappraisals. In recent decades, historians such as W. R. Ward (Early Evangelicalism: A Global Intellectual History, 1670–1789, 2006), Isabel Rivers (Vanity Fair and the Celestial City: Dissenting, Methodist, and Evangelical Literary Culture in England, 1720–1800, 2018), Tom Schwanda (Soul Recreation: The Contemplative-Mystical Piety of Puritanism, 2012), John Coffey (ed., Heart Religion: Evangelical Piety in England and Ireland, 1690–1850, 2016), and Phyllis Mack (Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotions in Early Methodism, 2012) have issued a torrent of insightful studies on the lived religion of early evangelicalism, looking into topics as diverse as dreaming, hymnody, emotions, attitudes toward nature, and the influence of Catholic spiritual traditions.1 Bruce D. Hindmarsh’s recent book, The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism, builds on these accomplishments, offering what is perhaps the most complete and far-ranging assessment of early evangelical spiritual life as it relates to contemporary developments in science, law, art, and literature. In some ways, the book functions as a companion to Hindmarsh’s The Evangelical Conversion Narrative, which explored traditions of spiritual autobiography in evangelical narratives of conversion. In this earlier volume Hindmarsh revealed how conversion often worked as a kind of viral outbreak within religious ecosystems. These sudden spiritual awakenings promoted novel forms of religious community built around the central ritual of narrating a personal experience of the new birth. The Bible played a crucial role in these spiritual practices. For early evangelicals, the Bible never constituted a divine download of impersonal dogma: scripture communicated a direct and personal message in God’s own voice to men and women willing to listen to it.
This new work offers a more expansive cultural account of the practical implications that flowed from making “true religion” a matter of transformative personal religious experience.
Another distinguishing mark of evangelicalism, Hindmarsh argued, was its historical liminality. The movement emerged, he wrote, “at the trailing edge of Christendom and the leading edge of modernity,”2 helping people move from collective identities rooted in church membership to stronger notions of the self, individual, and personal faith. If his previous work stressed the internal diversity of early evangelicalism—demonstrating the disparate constructions of selfhood that emerged among Methodists, Moravians, Anglicans, and Baptists—the new book sees more forest than trees. Evangelicals, regardless of their sectarian affiliation, Hindmarsh writes, perceived “one thing needful” in the Christian life: “the democratized pursuit of the new birth.” In other words, while conversion remains the focus of The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism, this new work offers a more expansive cultural account of the practical implications that flowed from making “true religion” (3) a matter of transformative personal religious experience.
As Hindmarsh describes the spiritual ambitions of early evangelicals, what emerges is something more intellectually substantive and expansive than “I saw the light.” (Sorry, Hank.) Evangelical spirituality encompassed the preparation for, experience of, and the practical repercussions that flowed from the relentless pursuit of what Henry Scougal called “the life of God in the soul of man.” It is hard not to hear echoes of the slow-food religion of Catholicism creeping into fast-food conversion strategies of evangelicalism. Hindmarsh focuses much attention on the intellectual leadership—what he calls the “four evangelists” of Anglo-American evangelicalism: George Whitefield, John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards. In the first chapter, Hindmarsh skillfully and exhaustively breaks down the early spiritual influences on Whitefield, offering him as an exemplary case of the eclectic sources that fed the spiritual ponds of early evangelicals.
Especially important were currents of late medieval mysticism, as received and recalibrated by English Puritans and German Pietists. From the ground floor of Lutheran justification by grace, these Protestant mystics built higher stories of sanctification. Henry Scougal’s eclecticism was matched or exceeded by figures like the Lutheran Johann Arndt and the early Methodist leader John Wesley. In an effort to slake the spiritual thirsts of his flock, Wesley reprinted devotional manuals from a surprising range of sectarian affiliations: Puritans and Pietists, Scottish Episcopalians, medieval mystics, Eastern Orthodox monks. His spiritual eclecticism contained an element of control. Wesley the editor was an inveterate expurgator, who sought to guide the reading of his followers in ways that sparked spiritual ardor without circulating doctrinal error. Wesley’s imprimatur was simultaneously lax and strict, depending on the metric applied.
Hindmarsh invokes his subjects’ fervent desire for a lively sense of the “immediate presence of God” with such frequency (as on p. 68) that one wonders at times why he chose not to speak of evangelicalism as a distinctive school of Christian mysticism. Perhaps the scent of the cloister still hangs too heavily about the word. If spirituality has been successfully rehabilitated for evangelical audiences, mysticism remains a bridge too far—that species of New Age woo-woo or Catholic “works righteousness.” In scholarly circles, however, “Protestant mysticism” no longer evokes a doubletake. Bernard McGinn, the leading historian of Christian mysticism, devoted the latest volume of his Presence of God series to early Protestants such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, the Radical Reformation, and early Lutheran Pietism.3
Hindmarsh’s reluctance to claim his religious subjects as full-throated mystics may rest in part on their novelty. Whatever their debts, there is something strikingly modern about evangelical spirituality. Evangelical devotion, he argues, emerged in the context of the eighteenth-century “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns.” The first generation of leaders fashioned a new conception of “true religion” in light of the new priority for natural knowledge, reshaping fields such as law, literature, science, and art. The driving question underlying such contests, Hindmarsh writes, concerned “what ‘spirit’ (or ‘spirituality’) means in a period newly preoccupied with ‘nature’ ” (4). Clearly, the Enlightenment presented problems for traditions of supernaturalism, raising the question of whether “invisible spiritual realities were to be regarded now as isomorphic, sealed off in another sphere altogether from material realities” (5). The fourth and fifth chapters focus on how evangelicals sought an answer that allowed them to harmonize devotion to the new science with corresponding devotion to God’s immediate presence in the natural world. Through case studies of John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards, Hindmarsh explores evangelical attitudes to the spiritual potentialities of nature, and a series of insightful studies of the “evangelical poetics and physico-doxology” (149) of James Hervey, Moses Browne, Anne Steele, and Phillis Wheatley demonstrate how engagement with natural philosophy in pulpit and pew was impelled less by fearful defensiveness than by fervent devotional ardor.
The final three chapters offer further evidence of the cultural creativity engendered by evangelicalism’s liminal location betwixt and between ancient and modern states. Chapters six and seven take up emergent spirituality in relation to eighteenth-century law, while the final chapter takes the hoariest of chestnuts from intellectual history—the Calvinist-Arminian debate—and delightfully cracks it open. In Hindmarsh’s skillful reading, an episode typically relegated to insider baseball is revealed to carry profound import for matters of lived religion. In pursuit of what he calls “the inner life of doctrine,” Hindmarsh moves past the hairsplitting argumentation by refracting the debate through the prism of a rivalry between two contemporary schools of painting, represented by Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Hindmarsh writes, “Just as Reynolds and Gainsborough had a principled disagreement about painting as striving for general intellectual truth versus painting as striving for truth to nature, so also the evangelical antagonists [John Wesley and George Whitefield] debated how best to understand the economy of God’s grace” (266).4 Hindmarsh convincingly demonstrates how Wesley and Whitefield belonged to a “common school of evangelical devotion,” while representing different styles within it: the arduous struggle of “Wesley Agonistes” versus the contemplative repose of the “Calvinist sublime.”
The new light of evangelical spirituality that flickers throughout Hindmarsh’s work suggests a model of “true religion” very much attuned to the modern world, if not always fully at home in it. Evangelical religion, we learn, is interior, personalized, and experiential, alert to questions of human agency, curious about the natural world, given to voluntary forms of social organization meeting in open, democratic public spaces, and connecting their small, cellular groups to one another by means of emergent globalizing networks of travel and communication. Yet, Hindmarsh invokes evangelicalism’s discontinuity with earlier phases of Christianity mostly in terms of its fluid social context—the medium rather than the message. At the level of the deeper animating seed or “spirit,” he mostly sees continuity with the past. Early evangelicalism, he writes, represents “a form of traditional Christian spirituality expressed under modern social conditions” (48). It’s the same old wine, poured into new wineskins.
Historians have always swung between the explanatory models of radical rupture and evolutionary development, and Hindmarsh has wisely sought to avoid either extreme. Whitefield and the Wesley brothers amassed an eclectic set of spiritual riches in their early searches, but then cut and tailored their spolia to fit the trim figure of a newly mobile movement of holy laypeople who were expected to embody the evangelical ideal of half-monk, half-evangelist. More than any other eighteenth-century figure, Whitefield furnished the exemplar for this new mode of spiritual life, and Hindmarsh demonstrates how the ideal was transmitted from educated leadership to rank and file. Yet, a quote from Whitefield used by Hindmarsh to open the first chapter—“I want to be a burning flame”—suggests both the hopeful possibility and destructive potential of “true religion.” The divine flame, the felt sense of the Holy Spirit, could warm the heart and kindle a desire for active service to others. But a burning flame, Hindmarsh writes, “could sometimes get out of hand. . . . There was a dangerously popular fire of devotion among those in Bristol who cried out in 1739 when John Wesley called upon God to confirm his word with signs and wonders; among those who ‘swarfed’ and swooned on the brae at Cambuslang in 1742; among the radical New Light followers of James Davenport who contributed their books to the bonfire on the wharf at New London in Connecticut the following year” (8).
The religious conflagration that Hindmarsh describes was known as “enthusiasm,” the religious fervor arising from divine inspiration. For early modern Protestants, enthusiasm was the shadowy twin of mysticism, the ghostly specter that Luther was thought to have exorcised from the body of Christ. Whitefield himself must have sensed he was playing with fire when he claimed enthusiasm as the common birthright of any true believer: “every Christian, in the proper Sense of the Word, must be an Enthusiast.—that is, must be inspired of God, or have God in him. For who dares say, he is a Christian, till he can say, God is in me?” (35).
While Hindmarsh regards James Davenport as a tragic misapplication of the fires of revival, others see him as a faithful disciple of Whitefield’s new mystical gospel. Douglas L. Winiarski has recently offered a quite different account of the “spirit” of early evangelicalism, a narrative heavy on discontinuity and rupture. The rise of evangelicalism, he argues, is not “a story of resurgent puritan piety but a tale of insurgent religious radicalism.” Mining the church records of eighteenth-century New England, Winiarski describes a religious landscape riven by conflict over two divergent models of the spiritual life: the “godley walkers” of the old Congregational (Puritan) order versus the “perfectionist seekers” of emergent revivalists. In the wake of Whitefield’s preaching tour of 1740, he argues, “a vibrant Congregational establishment was buried under an avalanche of innovative and incendiary religious beliefs.”5 Winiarski argues that the people called “New Lights” diverged from their Puritan ancestors in two major ways: in their preoccupation with Whitefield’s novel definition of the new birth and in their fascination with what he calls “biblical impulses,” in which individuals heard biblical voices in their heads command them to break off communion with the established Congregational church in order to found voluntary forms of “true religion.” Winiarski writes: “these critical factors set many Whitefieldarians on a course to embrace increasingly radical beliefs and practices, including the bodily presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit, continued revelation, dramatic visionary phenomena, and a strident desire to break fellowship with their kin and neighbors and worship with like-minded men and women who claimed similar experiences.” Many believers felt compelled by the spirit to perform “dramatic acts of ecclesiastical disobedience,” making Davenport’s New London bonfires a simple outworking of the demands of “true religion.”6 The revivalist outbreak spurred by Whitefield’s appeal to direct, personal experience of God rent apart the sturdy social fabric of the New England Way, leaving many churches and towns on the brink of total disintegration.
Winiarski obviously sees a far more troubling legacy of disruption and discontinuity in the modernity of evangelical spirituality than Hindmarsh. Yet, Hindmarsh’s exhaustive account of the eclectic sources of Whitefield’s early spiritual formation—in particular, his retrieval of late medieval mysticism, as mediated by Lutheran Pietism and English Puritanism—suggests deeper lines of continuity with the disruptive force of tradition itself. C. Scott Dixon has argued that the Lutheran Pietists who came over to America and participated in the Great Awakening “generally taught that the Reformation was not yet complete, that there was still need for a reform of life to match the earlier reform of doctrine. . . . As Johann Arndt put it, ‘Our worship in the New Testament is no longer external in figural ceremonies, statues, and obligations, but rather inward in spirit and truth, that is, in faith in Christ.’ ”7 In other words, early evangelical spirituality was deeply continuous with seventeenth-century Pietism or even the Radical Reformation, which made disruptive visionary or ecstatic experiences a commonplace. Despite the psychic trauma of the Münster rebellion, down through the eighteenth century, the radical mode worked a persistent tension with the magisterial reformation. The radicals, Dixon writes, “tended to reject traditional social and religious forms (especially when they were at variance with their own ideas of godly order) and gather together, voluntarily, as communities of the religiously qualified at some degree of separation from state and society. Religious order was based on a strict reading of the New Testament, read in the light of the indwelling Spirit, and salvation was sought through personal piety and ethical action rather than the ministrations of the public church.”8 Sound familiar? In other words, both Hindmarsh and Winiarski may be right to claim, albeit in different ways, that Whitefield’s fervent desire to become a holy flame represents the persistence of ancient patterns of Christian spirituality as well as their radical eclipse.
Modernity has always had its minority report: the freedom stolen through control and regulation of subaltern bodies, the treasures of interiority—mind and spirit—prized from the dungheap of matter, the authenticity earned by severing ancient ties with the living and the dead. The unifying evangelical emphasis on the new birth, the “one thing needful,” over older traditions emphasizing a gradualist, progressive vision of the spiritual life had the unanticipated consequence of further fracturing an already splintered church. One “true religion” implied a thousand false prophets. One minute you were walking in darkness, the next you’d seen the light. It made for a good song, it’s true. Hank knew. But modern modes of mystical certainty—whether liberal or conservative, it matters little—left little room for doubt. In this battle, you had to choose which side you were on. It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but sooner or later, you were going to have to serve somebody.
- See also David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (Yale University Press, 2005); Brett Malcolm Grainger, Church in the Wild: Evangelicals in Antebellum America (Harvard University Press, 2019); Russell E. Richey, Methodism in the American Forest (Oxford University Press, 2015).
- D. Bruce Hindmarsh, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2005), 32.
- See Bernard McGinn, Mysticism in the Reformation, 1500–1650, Part 1, Presence of God, vol. 6 (Herder & Herder, 2016).
- As Hindmarsh explains, Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough both painted the actress Sarah Siddons. In Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse, Reynolds included figures of Pity (with the dagger) and Terror (with the cup) behind her, illustrating his belief that art should treat exalted, intellectual themes. Gainsborough’s Mrs. Sarah Siddons, painted one year later, shows Siddons in contemporary costume. For Gainsborough, according to Hindmarsh, “the truth sought in a painting . . . was an empirical truth according to nature” (chapter 8, Kindle edition).
- Douglas L. Winiarski, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (UNC Press, 2017), 8–9.
- Ibid., 17, 19.
- C. Scott Dixon, Protestants: A History from Wittenberg to Pennsylvania, 1517–1740 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 193.
- Ibid., 7.
Brett Malcolm Grainger is assistant professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. His most recent book isChurch in the Wild: Evangelicals in Antebellum America (Harvard University Press, 2019).