Monday, December 10, 2007
THE ROOTS OF EVANGELICALISM
Mysticism. The Kabbalah. Alchemy. Paracelsianism. These aren't subjects that one usually associates with evangelicalism. But according to W. R. Ward, emeritus professor of Modern History at Durham, historians will have to master a new vocabulary if they want to understand the rise of the global evangelical movement in the 17th century. In his pathbreaking book Early Evangelicalism: A Global Intellectual History, 1670-1789, Ward offers a bold new genealogy of evangelicalism that transforms our understanding of its intellectual roots. Although he modestly describes his book as a "set of compass-bearings" rather than a full, textured history, it is one of the most ambitious books about evangelicalism ever written. Surveying the 17th- and 18th-century history of evangelicalism across the globe, he proposes a new framework for understanding the early movement.
In his opening pages, Ward argues that the scholarship on the evangelical movement has been marked by three shortcomings: it does not date the origins of evangelicalism early enough; it focuses on England and America to the exclusion of the rest of the world; and it does not offer a coherent picture of "evangelical identity." Building on his earlier work,1 he argues that evangelicalism was a global intellectual movement whose influence extended from Germany to Great Britain, Silesia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the American colonies. In contrast to historians who have equated the birth of evangelicalism with 18th-century revivalism, he argues that the roots of the evangelical movement extend all the way back to the 1670s, when Lutherans in Germany and Reformed Protestants in Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands struggled to replace a dry, rational orthodoxy with a more vital, heart-centered religion. In his most original contribution, Ward argues that the earliest evangelicals drew on an eclectic assortment of religious ideas in order to offer answers to the most pressing religious problems of their day. Early evangelicals, he argues, were linked not only by their hostility to systematic theology but by their interest in Paracelsian thought, their organization of small groups, their postponement of the apocalypse to the "middle distance," their mysticism, and their fascination with the Jewish Kabbalah.