Book Review: ‘The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World’ by D. Bruce Hindmarsh

In Matthew 13, Jesus tells his disciples that “every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (v. 52).

According to D. Bruce Hindmarsh, professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver, early evangelicals in Great Britain and North America (circa 1730–1780) were also making use of old and new treasures alike. Out of their storerooms came an old-fashioned reliance on devotional classics from deep within the Christian tradition but also a strikingly new way of emphasizing the immediacy of God’s presence in a world that was increasingly abandoning God.

In The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism, Hindmarsh skillfully surveys the origins of the evangelical movement through its engagement with science, the Enlightenment, law, and the arts. The result is a remarkable study which gives us a vivid portrait of the devotion, intellect, and personalities that accompanied the rise of evangelicalism. In important ways, they are like current evangelicals today.

A New Expression of Traditional Faith

Hindmarsh’s book examines the “spirit”—that is, the devotional history or spirituality—of numerous early evangelicals such as John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and many others. While they are known today as great theologians (Edwards), preachers (Whitefield), and founders of major evangelical movements (the Wesleys), what is often overlooked is the fact that they all were voracious readers of the devotional classics of the Western Christian tradition. Hindmarsh argues that their enduring appeal derives in part from their extensive reflection on these works.

Early evangelicals studied an eclectic variety of devotional texts. Two of the most widely read titles were The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, the medieval Catholic leader of the Brethren of the Common Life, and The Life of God in the Soul of Man, by 17th-century Scottish Anglican Henry Scougal. Other works included William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, Johann Ardnt’s True Christianity, and Philip Doddridge’s The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. One does not have to look very long at this list to see its breadth and diversity. Medieval Catholics, traditional Anglicans, Lutheran Pietists, as well as Puritan dissenters—all were common staples of the devotional reading of early evangelicals. Hindmarsh’s point is that the early evangelical “spirit” was basically traditional Christian devotion repackaged for early modern believers. In this sense, evangelicalism was not exactly a new movement.

At the same time, there was much that was new to be found among early evangelicals. As Hindmarsh notes throughout the book, evangelicalism was a “new expression” of traditional Christianity, a movement which emerged at the onset of modernity and proved highly responsive to the conditions of the emerging modern world. That responsivity can be seen in many areas: in the way early evangelicals required a personal testimony of faith for church membership, in the way they bypassed hierarchical structures of traditional Christianity, and in the way they proclaimed the message of God’s immediate presence in salvation.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today