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Ward, W. R.
Early Evangelicalism. A Global Intellectual History, 1670–1789.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006. VI, 220 S. gr.8º. Geb. £ 48,00. ISBN 978-0-521-86404-6.
Mark A. Noll
For more than a quarter of a century, W. R. Ward (emeritus professor of history at the University of Durham) has contended that reforming Protestantism of the 17th and 18th centuries should be treated as one integrated history taking in all of Europe (and the American colonies).
W.’s perspective is illustrated by how he positions the Inspirationist movement whose followers eventually established the communal Amana Colonies in Eastern Iowa in the United States. The founders of the Inspirationist movement were Eberhard Gruber and Johann Friedrich Rock from the Wetterau region in Hesse. In the early 18th century these earnest reformers absorbed teachings from French prophets and German mystical pietists that decisively shaped their own inspired utterances (or Weissagen), which in turn created a community that exemplified some of what 17th-century Anabaptists, Quakers, and Labadists had advocated and also anticipated some of what Zinzendorf’s Moravians would later attempt. Influences on Gruber and Rock came from Pierre Poiret, who had published mystical sources for Protestant use; Gottfried Arnold, whose church history equated true religion with separated and communal religion; and Gerhard Tersteegen, who through hymns, prayers, letters, and a winsome personality fostered revival among the German Reformed. In turn, Arnold and Tersteegen contributed essential elements to a reforming impetus that provided concrete inspiration for English-speaking reformers like the Wesleys, the American Presbyterian Gilbert Tennent, the Anglican itinerant George Whitefield, and the New England intellectual Jonathan Edwards.
It is difficult to find strong enough adjectives of commendation for the body of work in which W. has developed this interpretation of evangelical history. Early renditions appeared in a book of essays, Faith and Faction (London 1993), and then in several monographs – The Protestant Evangelical Awakening (Cambridge 1992); Christianity under the Ancien Régime, 1648–1789 (Cambridge 1999), and Kirchengeschichte Großbritanniens vom 17. bis zum 20. Jahrhundert (Leipzig 2000). Now in Early Evangelicalism W. provides a full-scale intellectual history to broaden and deepen his earlier arguments.
The key here is W.’s definition of »a sort of ... hexagon« (4.93) that constituted a cohesive system existing from the 17th century into the late 18th century, when it then »splinter[ed] ... into often unharmonious fragments« (193). The six elements were a firm animus against Aristotelian types of theological system, a vitalist understanding of nature, an openness to mystical Christianity, the practice of small-group religion, an eschatology emphasizing the return of Christ in the middle distance, and an »experiential approach to conversion« (4).
Scholars may differ on the meaning of these six factors, and they might question whether these elements were ever so cohesive as to constitute a movement with clear boundaries and clearly related personnel. But W.’s great achievement in identifying these elements is to cast fresh light on several important aspects of 17th- and 18th-century religious history.
First, for politics, W. demonstrates 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 describes as the revivalists’ resistance to state-ordered assimilation, led him to find central European beginnings for such essential evangelical themes as the opposition of »true Christianity« to formulaic orthodoxy and to small-group enclaves as the necessary medium in which »true Christianity« could flourish. Second, for continuity, W. has shown how necessary it is to connect 18th-century evangelical thought back to the era of the Reformation and Catholic Reformation. Reformers like Spener returned to Luther where pietists of all sorts discovered precedents that also mark evangelicalism. Even more, W. has shown 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. Third, for European history, W. has 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 has obscured those thick inter-national connections, W. insists that history as it actually developed deserves precedence over history as it has come artificially to be perceived.
Much more could be said about the scope and range of W.’s research, which receives a stunning summary reprise in Early Evangelicalism, but the most important thing is that W.’s herculean effort to define 17th-century central European history as constitutive of 18th-century Anglo-American evangelicalism is one of the most impressive achievements in all of modern historical scholarship.