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Response to Review no. 367

In accepting the opportunity to reply to Dr Ditchfield’s generous review of my book I shall concentrate on his criticism of my treatment of the concept of the ‘Evangelical Revival’. The basic concept of the Evangelical Revival comes from ecclesiastical or church history, and presupposes an orthodox Christian view of history in which the first and last word are with God, and the idea of divine interventions in the course of history cannot be dismissed out of hand. Dr Ditchfield, who has written on the Evangelical Revival himself, defends the Revival against my criticism of it as a myth, according to which (as I put it), ‘from about 1730 . a dramatic, divinely inspired return to true Christianity balanced the moral budget of the British people . The instruments of this divine intervention were John Wesley and his followers, the Wesleyans or Methodists’. Dr Ditchfield says that in putting it like this I am tilting at windmills, that serious historians do not advance claims of this nature about Wesleyanism in the eighteenth century. He leaves me uncertain as to what claims about the Revival he would accept himself. I agree that one has to be cautious. I imagine that Dr Ditchfield would agree that much that has been written, even in recent years, on the subject of Christianity in Britain in the eighteenth century, has been written from the ‘church-historical’ point of view, however nuanced. My own experience of twentieth-century history has not encouraged me to accept the idea of divine intervention in current affairs, and I agree with Dr Ditchfield that historians who are not ‘church historians’ are unlikely to have such a structure at the back of their minds. They accept the presence of organised Christianity in the eighteenth-century pattern, but they do not use a religious approach to interpret it. Whether this makes them more or less ‘serious’, I don’t know.

The way in which they summarise the occurrence of the Evangelical Revival is sometimes another matter. Wilfred Prest, for example, in Albion Ascendant: English History 1660-1815 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) said that in about 1740 ‘the emergence of a new breed of evangelical mass missionaries’ was ‘the visible manifestation of a Protestant religious revival sweeping simultaneously across Britain, Continental Europe and North America’, (p. 141). There is a not dissimilar summary in Jeremy Black’s Eighteenth-Century Britain 1688-1783 (London: Palgrave, 2001), where he describes Methodism as part of the ‘Great Awakening’, which he says was a widespread movement of Protestant revival in Europe and North America. Doreen Rosman, in The Evolution of the English Churches 1500-2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), speaks of a spiritual revival, which reinvigorated the existing Churches and changed the whole religious landscape:

the knowledge that similar events were taking place in other lands gave the English revival impetus and reinforced participants’ sense that they were sharing in a great outpouring of God’s spirit. (p. 151)

 And to go back a little in publishing time, W. A. Speck in his book, Stability and Strife: England 1714-1760 (London: Edward Arnold, 1980), summed up what has become a traditional picture of religion in eighteenth-century society in this way:

But religion of any kind probably sat lightly on the labouring poor before Wesley and his itinerant preachers addressed them. Among the masses superstition flourished long after the decline of magic had set in among the educated classes . The only members of the lower classes that the revival failed to touch in any significant way were farm-workers . Where the prevailing religion of the upper classes hardly measured up to Wesley’s criteria for nominal religion, being little more than a code of good manners, Methodists were consumed with a burning conviction that man was sinful and that only a new birth in Christ could wash his sins away. (pp.115-117)

    There is more than a trace of balancing the moral budget of the British people there. All the passages which I have quoted can be defended, and language of this kind does not, I agree, appeal directly to the church historian’s theological understanding of human history. But it does echo the way in which church historians present the period, and one ground, therefore, for calling the story of the Evangelical Revival a myth, is that it has tended to become what everybody says about English religion in the eighteenth century and that this does not encourage a re-examination of the part which religion, Christianity, and the so-called Evangelical Revival in particular, played in England in the eighteenth century.

    Part of the problem has been the tendency to conflate ‘religion’ and ‘Christianity’, as though the second term exhausted the possibilities of the first. This means that Deism is not thought of as ‘religious’, and that David Hume’s atheism is described in a philosophical rather than a religious context. In this world-view a ‘religious’ revival would have to be a revival of Christianity. At the same time, as my quotation from W. A. Speck suggests, it has been common to distinguish between religion/Christianity and the ‘superstition’ of the lower classes, among whom, agricultural workers apart, Wesleyanism was supposed to have flourished. And this is why I think that one needs a closer examination of the idea of ‘religion’, before one turns to the question of what the constant reference to an ‘Evangelical Revival’ implies.

 It was for this reason that I introduced the concept of ‘primary religion’. I wanted to look at the religious behaviour of the poorer part of the population without having to do so through the controlling lens of Christian theology. I wanted to test the assumption that the best explanation of the emergence of early eighteenth-century Wesleyanism was in terms of the response of George Whitefield and the Wesleys to what they believed to be divine inspiration. The idea of ‘primary religion’ also freed me from the assumption that the prior beliefs of those who came to hear the revivalists preach could be summed up as superstition, folklore, and magic. There has been a tendency to invent a ‘folk-religion’ as ‘a residue of pagan magic and superstition which in some areas exercised a powerful hold over the minds of the common people well into the nineteenth century’.(1) Dr Ditchfield summarises what I say about primary religion but makes no comment, apart from his statement at the end of his review that ‘none of this is sufficient to confirm . that there was no evangelical revival’. But I am presupposing that in any century the poor, and in practice not only the poor, are anxious, uncertain about the nature of existence and the chances of the future, and are willing to believe in at least the possible existence of some source of extra-human power which can be invoked in the hope of limiting illness, poverty, insignificance, suffering and fear. We have ample evidence of this kind of behaviour in contemporary Western societies. People accept what I have called secondary theological systems as part of the price that they have to pay for supernatural power.

    In such a context one needs to redefine what happened when the Wesleys and Whitefield began their itinerant preaching. Once one perceives that the process was two-way it becomes difficult to talk about ‘the Evangelical Revival’ as a simple entity, whether one means a Christian religious movement directly inspired by God, or one indirectly inspired by God, which is perhaps the more usual way of describing it nowadays. In the context of a meeting of primary religion and secondary theology, one in which, to my mind, primary religion was initially dominant, one needs a new name for the phenomenon which does justice to both sides. Further to this, however, I notice that when Dr Ditchfield says that my text does not confirm my critical view of the idea of an Evangelical Revival, he does not mention what I say about a more general Protestant recovery, which did take place in the eighteenth century, not only in England but in Europe, and which may be seen as the matrix of Methodism. This recovery was primarily military and political, symbolised in England by the development of the new Hanoverian state from a fortified island to an aggressive power, capable of absorbing the loss of the American Colonies and setting up a new empire in their place. It is important to see the rise of the Wesleyan societies and the expansion of Dissent as part of this process. In the early eighteenth century England was still recovering from the religious conflicts involved in the seventeenth-century Civil War and from the long wars caused by Louis XlV’s determination to dominate Europe. Britain, as part of a Protestant axis, had survived the ordeal by battle but was scarred socially and emotionally. As Linda Colley has shown, a fierce British Protestant nationalism, more political than religious, expressed the unity of what was a new state. The energy of the official forms of Protestantism went into the achievement of theological self-confidence and social power. It was not surprising that the energies of primary religion became detached, or that new religious groups sought to respond with what was wanted. We need, it seems to me, less emphasis on the idea, or myth, of an Evangelical Revival, and more analysis of the varieties of religious behaviour to be found in the eighteenth century.

Dr Ditchfield does not take up this point, but instead says that a successful vindication of my position would require ‘a consideration of the nature of, and the criteria for establishing, the nature of revivalism itself, as undertaken, for instance, in the work of Richard Carwardine.’ I am not clear what Dr Ditchfield means in asking for a discussion of the nature of revivalism. Like Richard Carwardine, I have myself written on that subject at some length:  in particular, in my Holding the Fort: Studies in Victorian Revivalism (London: Epworth, 1978). Originally, whether the word was used to describe the internal excitement of a late seventeenth-century New England congregation as it tried to save the souls of its children, or whether it was used to describe the spread of the Wesleyan movement across England throughout the eighteenth century, ‘revival’ meant an event which was thought of as the direct, and above all, unpredictable work of God. It was an allegedly supernatural phenomenon, which could be prayed for but which could not (it was assumed) be induced by human means, and this basic view is in accord with what I have said above about the nature of the myth of the Evangelical Revival. In practice, between 1660 and 1730 this American kind of small, congregational ‘revival’, which was designed to extend the life of an existing local gathered church for another generation, hardly occurs in England. The Wesleyan movement of the 1740s had little in common with these ‘revivals’, so that to speak of a Wesleyan ‘revival’ is to use the word in a different sense. Local churches were the end-product, not the take-off point, of the Wesleyan movement, and for years Wesley himself was not very enthusiastic about their formation. A new phase of American revivalism started in the 1790s, and by the 1830s professional revivalists were blurring the distinction between revivals as the work of God and revivals as the normal result of using the correct methods – and there is a long, long trail from there to Billy Graham and the Religious Right, one which the main Wesleyan tradition in England was reluctant to follow. I think that serious historians should be cautious about using the phrase ‘Evangelical Revival’ and look instead at the detail of eighteenth-century religious behaviour as a whole.

This brings me to a final point. Dr Ditchfield comments on my dismissal of the possibility that Methodism prevented revolution in Britain in the early nineteenth century that he wonders which serious historians now maintain that it did. I agree, in the sense that E. P. Thompson’s Marxism led him into arguing that an early nineteenth-century working-class revolution ought to have happened, and that therefore one had to explain why it did not take place and that this led him, and others, astray. But ‘serious’ historians still face the question of the extent of Methodist influence on the new industrial working classes, and their answers still seem to me to take forms similar to Thompson’s, though without the Marxism. One can see this in John Rule’s Albion’s People: English Society 1714-1815 (London: Longman, 1992), for example. Rule emphasised that Methodism inculcated in the working-class the virtues of middle-class Utilitarianism, and that through the process of religious conversion and its reinforcement in the class-meetings these attitudes were deeply instilled. In my summary of the claims made for the Evangelical Revival I suggested that the movement was thought to have balanced the nation’s moral budget. This seems to me to be the claim that Rule is making here, in that Wesleyanism transformed the moral behaviour of a section of the population, especially the working classes. Thompson would have said that this process deprived them of much of their capacity to dissent, to resist, and to form or adopt an aggressive political ideology. Either way, the myth of the Evangelical Revival distorts our reading of recent English history.


1. C. Haydon, S. Taylor, and J. Walsh eds, The Church of England 1689-1833: from Toleration to Tractarianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 26.