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Christianity Through the Ages by Kenneth Scott Latourette

Richard Heard, M.A., M.B.E., M.C., was a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge and University lecturer in Divinity at Cambridge (1950). Published by Harper & Row, New York, 1965. This material was prepared for Religion-Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 9: The Shock of Augmented Revolution, A.D. 1750-1875

The decades of transition from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries were marked by an acute stage in the revolution which had begun to emerge in Western Europe in the fourteenth century. The new stage was a climax of movements and trends long present but now exploding in the intellectual, religious, political, and economic life of Western Europe. By processes already recounted, Christianity had become intertwined, seemingly inextricably, with that structure of Western European civilization which the new stage in the revolution undermined. Such apparent identification arose from inherent vitality in the faith and the ability to survive and to grow in potency in the successive eras of Western European civilization. But because of the close association of Christianity with that civilization as it existed at the mid-eighteenth century, the emerging stage in the revolution threatened the existence of Christianity. The challenge was the more thought-provoking because it arose in part from currents issuing from Christianity, and especially from its Protestant form.

An important aspect of the challenge was what was called the Enlightenment, with its strong emphasis on reason. A major contribution to the Enlightenment was Deism. Deism had many forms, but in the main it held to "natural religion." It maintained that a rational view of the universe and of man is that God exists, that He created the universe, that the universe is governed by laws inherent in its structure, and that these laws do not permit the departure from them which is seemingly implied in miracles and the Christian revelation. Deism held that God should be revered, that virtue and piety are essential to true worship, that men should repent of their sins, and that there is a future life with rewards and punishments for deeds done in this life. The more ardent Deists labeled revealed religion the product of self-interested priests. Deism was first formulated in England in the seventeenth century by laymen, members of the established church, but by the middle of the eighteenth century its influence in Britain had begun to wane. Deism had repercussions on the Continent, where its most popular advocate was Voltaire (1694-1778). By his pungent wit and caustic literary style he helped to give it wide circulation. The philosophers who produced the Encyclopédie (1751-1765) were mostly Deists or atheists and their seventeen volumes gave currency to their convictions. Rejecting the view of human nature which held to the depravity of man, they insisted that by experience and the use of reason men could achieve a perfect society. The emphasis on reason was widespread in Germany and Scandinavia and was popular in aristocratic circles in Russia. Deist views penetrated university circles in Germany, began a questioning, critical view of the Bible, and became influential in the erstwhile Pietist center, the University of Halle. Deism spread to the English colonies in North America and had exponents in such influential figures as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The trend in churches in Europe, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, was to emphasize reason and a morality based on reason, Warmth of religious experience and expression was decried as "enthusiasm."

Before the end of the eighteenth century trends in philosophy were beginning to discredit Deism, but not necessarily to the advantage of Christianity. Thus David Hume (1711-1776) challenged a basic conviction of Deism that natural religion and a belief in God can be supported by reason. Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804), who was to have an even greater influence in philosophy, argued that God must exist, said that Jesus Christ is the highest example of conformity to God’s will, and held to immortality, but in his Critique of Pure Reason he maintained that the grounds on which the Deists sought to establish the existence and character of God were intellectually indefensible.

The churches were in poor condition to face the political phases of the revolution. For the most part they seemed inseparable from institutions that were either swept aside or profoundly altered. In France the bishops were from the aristocracy and spent much of their time at court. A social and economic gulf separated them from the parish clergy. As in France, so elsewhere, whether in Roman Catholic or Protestant states, the monarchs had succeeded in controlling the Church. Many of the intelligentsia were convinced that Christianity was outmoded and would soon disappear.

The political phases of the revolution had expression in the Thirteen Colonies in the War of Independence and the birth of the United States of America. In the agitation for independence and the formation of the new nation democratic ideas were nourished by the radical Protestantism prominent in New England and Pennsylvania and stimulated by the writings of John Locke. Locke, it will be recalled, was a child of Puritanism.

The first rumblings of a more spectacular explosion were heard in France in 1789. As the revolution mounted, the monarchy and the associated aristocracy were shattered and such of their representatives as escaped the guillotine fled to other countries. A republic was created. Ecclesiastical property was nationalized and some of it was sold to support the paper money of the State. Many monasteries and religious congregations were dissolved; monastic vows were declared to be no longer binding. By the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) the Catholic Church was ordered reorganized, and that in spite of Papal condemnation. Pope Pius VI died as a prisoner of the French. At the height of the radical phase a young woman was enthroned in Paris in the Cathedral of Notre Dame as the Goddess of Reason. Napoleon Bonaparte claimed to be furthering the French Revolution. Catholic by profession but from political expediency, he sought to use the Church for his own ends, insisted on appointing the bishops, and brought Pope Pius VII to Paris for his coronation as Emperor -- but placed the crown on his own head and that of his Empress. Napoleon declared the Papal States annexed to his empire. Because Pius VII excommunicated those who carried through the annexation, Napoleon ordered him taken captive. Partly before Napoleon came to power and partly under his rule drastic alterations were wrought in the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical structure in Germany. Among other changes, the princely archbishoprics in the Rhine Valley lost the status which had been theirs for eight centuries.

While the political face of Europe was being altered, what ultimately was fully as significant for the entire world was under way, but was not at first as spectacular. The Industrial Revolution was beginning. Its initial appearance was in Great Britain. From there it spread to the Continent, but not until after 1815. Even before that year its challenge to Christianity in Great Britain was becoming apparent.

Concurrently with the shocks to the old order in Europe and the threats to Christianity, on the geographic frontiers of the faith the gains of the preceding two centuries were shrinking. The waning of the vigor of Spain and Portugal affected adversely the missions in their possessions. The expulsion of the Jesuits from Portugal (1759), France (1764), and Spain (1767) and from their colonial possessions, followed by the Papal dissolution of the Society (1773), deprived the Roman Catholic Church of its chief missionary agency. In spite of the fact that other orders attempted to fill the gap, the enterprises once staffed by Jesuits suffered greatly, as in Paraguay, or expired, as in China. In China the persecution of Roman Catholics was accentuated. The French Revolution prevented all but a few reinforcements from being sent to any country, and the gaps in missionary staffs due to death were seldom filled.

While the blows being dealt by the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and related movements were threatening the very existence of Christianity, here and there less spectacular developments were indications of a fresh tide of life which was to make that religion more potent in mankind as a whole than ever before. They were seen in the Roman Catholic Church but, were more marked in Protestantism.

In the Roman Catholic Church evidence of continuing and renewed vitality appeared within a decade of the height of the climax of the anti-Christian tide in France. Most of them were in France, and it was in France that the anti-Christian trend was most pronounced and had its radiating center. So resistant to attempts at de-Christianization did a loyal Catholic constituency prove to be that the necessity of some kind of accommodation to the Church became obvious. In July, 1801, a concordat with Rome was signed. Although the agreement gave the State fully as great control over the Church as had existed under the monarchy, one effect was to knit the Roman Catholic Church in France more firmly together and to increase its dependence on the Pope. In 1802 a book by Chateaubriand appeared which enjoyed a wide circulation. Of the nobility and a refugee, formerly infected with the scepticism which had been rife in his class, by a succession of personal experiences Chateaubriand had been led to return to the faith of his youth. Now, in the Génie du Christianisme, ou Beautés de la Religion Chrétienne (The Genius of Christianity, or the Beauties of the Christian Religion) he set forth a rhapsodic apologetic of the faith. His book was read by thousands, including numbers of the younger generation, and to many was convincing. In 1801 the Society of the Sacred Heart, a congregation of women, opened its first convent, in Amiens. Its purpose was, by teaching, to revive the faith by reaching the young. In 1800 the founder of the Picpus Fathers took the vows which dedicated him to the life of religion. The new congregation combined perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament with missions at home and abroad.

Signs of awakening appeared in other countries. The indignities inflicted on the Popes aroused the sympathy of millions and tended to bring to the occupants of the Papal throne and to the office itself a loyalty which had been either dormant or lacking in the years when the popular image of the See of Peter had been one of luxurious impotence.

The year 1802 saw the founding of the Christian Brothers of Ireland to care for the destitute orphans in Waterford. Eventually it had a marked growth not only in Ireland but elsewhere as well. The Society of Jesus was restored. In 1801 the Pope approved its existence in Russia, where, since that country was not in the area where Papal bulls were binding, it had been continued after its dissolution had been ordered by Rome. In 1814 Pius VII authorized its full reconstitution. The United States witnessed the first stages of the growth of the hierarchy which in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to be one of the most striking developments in the history of Christianity. In 1784 John Carroll, a former Jesuit and member of an old and distinguished Maryland family, was appointed prefect apostolic for the new nation. In 1790 he was consecrated bishop and in 1804 he was made archbishop with jurisdiction over the entire country. He founded (1789) a college for the training of clergy and was indefatigable in travels to strengthen his church in the young republic. The cession of Canada to Great Britain (1763) and the toleration accorded by the new masters helped to make the Roman Catholic faith the symbol and tie of the incipient nationalism of the French inhabitants and so to keep the latter from being infected by the scepticism which was sapping the Church in France.

In Protestantism several movements were mounting. Not all were new, but those which dated from before the mid-eighteenth century were assuming larger dimensions. Pietism was putting forth fresh shoots in Germany and the Netherlands. Moravianism was having wide repercussions. For example, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), whose writings were to be a milestone in Protestant theology, received part of his education in a Moravian school and in his later years declared himself still to be a Moravian. His first important book, (Ûber die Religion. Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern (Discourses on Religion to the Educated among Those Who Scorn It), was published in 1799. In it he sought to make Christianity intellectually respectable, especially to members of the younger generation. Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771-1824), a layman, during eight years of preaching (1796-1804) gave rise to an awakening in Norway which had a continuing and increasing effect.

The tides of life in Protestantism were running especially strong in England, and chiefly through Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism was spiritually akin to Pietism for, like the latter, it stressed the newness of life which comes through full commitment to the Gospel. From it issued efforts to give wider currency to the Gospel and to remove or at least combat some of the collective ills of mankind. Its roots were in Puritanism and in dissent from the established church. lt. gave rise to a new denomination, Methodism, quickened some of the dissenting bodies, and was potent in the Church of England. The phase of Evangelicalism which issued in Methodism had as its chief figure John Wesley (1703-1791) and was also deeply indebted to Charles Wesley (1707-1777), a younger brother of John, and George Whitefield (1714-1770).

The Wesleys were sons of a clergyman of the Church of England who had a difficult rural parish. They owed more to their mother than to their father. Both their father and their mother were from dissenting stock. John and Charles went to Oxford. There, with Whitefield, they were members of a deeply religious group whose members fasted twice a week, had frequent Communion, and sought to help prisoners in a local jail. In 1735 the two brothers went to the newly founded colony of Georgia as missionaries of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. On the outward voyage they came in contact with the Moravians and were impressed by their quiet peace and inward assurance of salvation through Christ. In 1738 to both Charles and John, now back in London, came the joy which they had seen in the Moravians. From their earlier development and that experience came Methodism. Charles made his chief contribution through hymns which became part of the English-speaking Protestant tradition. John traveled extensively through the British Isles preaching and bringing converts together in societies. During his lifetime the societies remained within Angelicanism, but to provide them with clergy to administer the Communion where clergy were not available, he, a presbyter and not a bishop, ordained some of his preachers. By the time of his death the societies were said to have about 71,000 members. They continued to grow and eventually broke with the Church of England. By 1815 they had been planted in the West Indies and the United States. In the latter country, under the leadership of Francis Asbury (1745-1816) they began the remarkable growth which was to make them one of the major religious bodies of that nation.

Both the Independents and the Baptists were stirred by the surging Evangelicalism. Their numbers grew, new chapels were erected, additional ministers were recruited and trained, and lay preachers multiplied.

In the Church of England the Evangelical awakening had a marked influence. That influence did not reach beyond a minority, but the minority grew. From it came notable preachers and hymn-writers. Several wealthy Evangelicals clustered about the parish church of Clapham, a suburb of London, and were active in social reform. Chief among them was William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who as a member of Parliament obtained legislation (1807) abolishing the slave trade in the British Empire. The Clapham group fought for long-overdue reforms in elections to Parliament, for legislation to protect laborers in the factories which were burgeoning as a result of the Industrial Revolution, for the relief of boys who swept chimneys, and for more humane penal and game laws. Another of the Clapham circle, Hannah More (1745-1833), helped by her sisters, initiated and multiplied schools to counter the vice, poverty, and ignor- ance among miners and farm laborers. The Sunday School movement which in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries swelled to major proportions had as its chief pioneer Robert Raikes (1735-1811).

From Evangelical dissenters came other movements for improved social conditions. John Henry Howard (?1726-1790) early used his hereditary wealth to erect model cottages and to provide elementary education for children, but his chief contribution was in prison reform. At his initiative Parliament enacted legislation (1774) designed to remedy some of the worst features of the incredibly bad conditions in the jails. He extended his activities to the Continent.

The new life affected Scottish Christianity. As yet it was limited to small groups, some of whom broke with the established Church of Scotland.

The United States was the scene of awakenings closely akin to Evangelicalism. In the 1790’s they rose to larger dimensions than in the Great Awakening. Camp-meetings, with highly emotional features, characterized the westward-advancing frontier. In the older states revivals took place. Methodism grew, and two bodies, the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical Association, Methodist in spirit and structure but centering on the Germans, came into being. A new denomination -- the Disciples of Christ or Christians -- arose on the frontier from Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) in Kentucky and Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) in Western Pennsylvania. Yet by 1815 less than one in ten of the population of the United States were church members.

Out of the Evangelical and Pietist awakenings came efforts to carry the Gospel to other lands. Although they had precursors, now for the first time the movements arose in Protestantism which in the nineteenth century swelled to major proportions. In 1792, from the vision and resolution of William Carey (1761-1834) the Baptist Missionary Society was organized. Under it Carey went to India, and there, in the Danish trading center at Serampore, near Calcutta, he and his colleagues translated and printed part or all of the Bible into several languages and established a school which continued to be outstanding in the education of Indian clergy. In 1795 Evangelicals --Nonconformists, Methodists, and members of the Church of England organized the London Missionary Society, later to draw its support chiefly from the Congregationalists. In 1799 Evangelicals in the Church of England founded what was eventually called the Church Missionary Society. The same year saw the formation of the Religious Tract Society. The year 1804 was marked by the beginning of the British and Foreign Bible Society, and in 1810 Evangelicals created the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Partly inspired by the London Missionary Society, in 1797 the Netherlands Missionary Society was born. On the Continent Pietists were training missionaries, and in 1815, from Pietist circles, an institution for preparing missionaries was founded in Basel which was to have a long and distinguished history. Significantly, all these Protestant organizations for carrying the Gospel to other lands arose from small minorities while Europe was racked by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

As we move into the nineteenth century we shall see the same contrast, but heightened, between forces which threatened Christianity in the geographic center of its strength and movements which made that faith more a factor in mankind as a whole than in any earlier century.

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