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Joseph Milner and his Editors: Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Evangelicals and the Christian Past



Joseph Milner's ‘History of the Church of Christ’ (1794–1809) was the most popular English-language church history for half a century, yet it remains misunderstood by many historians. This paper argues that Milner's Evangelical interpretation of church history subverted Protestant historiographical norms. By prioritising conversion over doctrinal precision, and celebrating the piety of select medieval Catholics, Milner undermined the historical narratives that undergirded Protestant exceptionalism. As national religious identities became increasingly contested in the 1820s and 1830s, this subversive edge was blunted by publishers who edited the ‘History’ to be less favourable toward pre-Reformation Christianity.



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1 For Milner's life see Pollard, Arthur, ‘Milner, Joseph’, in Lewis, Donald (ed.), The Blackwell dictionary of Evangelical biography, 1730–1860, Oxford 1995, 776.

2 Milner, Joseph, The history of the Church of Christ, York 1794, i, pp. ixxi .

3 See Walsh, John, ‘Joseph Milner's Evangelical church history’, this Journal x (1959), 174–87.

4 See Hare, Julius Charles, The means of unity, London 1847, 47.

5 Milner goes unmentioned in Euan Cameron's survey of church histories: Interpreting Christian history: the challenge of the Churches’ past, Oxford 2005, 152. James Bradley misplaces Milner chronologically, arguing that he was surpassed by Mosheim when in fact Milner critiqued and revised the Lutheran historian, not the other way around: Church history: an introduction to research, reference works, and methods, Grand Rapids 1995, 13–14. Walsh, in contrast, recognises Milner's achievements in ‘Joseph Milner's Evangelical church history’. See also the excellent study by Darren Schmidt, who reads Milner's History as belonging to an Evangelical historiography characterised by revival and decline: ‘Reviving the past: eighteenth-century Evangelical interpretations of church history’, unpubl. PhD diss. St Andrews 2009, 30–1, 95.

6 Milner, History, i, pp. ix–x, 529.

7 While Milner appreciated Foxe's piety, he also criticised him: ibid. i, pp. xiin.; iii. 341. For Flacius see Milner's rebuttal on Boniface (675–754): iii. 200–1.

8 See idem, Gibbon's account of Christianity considered: together with some strictures on Hume's dialogues concerning natural religion, York 1781 .

9 Idem, History, i. 503.

10 As David Bebbington has argued, Evangelicals most clearly reflected Enlightenment ideals in their self-perception as moderates: Evangelicalism in modern Britain: a history from the 1730s to the 1980s, London 1989, 50–4.

11 Milner, History, iii. 503.

12 Ibid. iii, p. iii.

13 Ibid. i, p. xiii.

14 Ibid. iii, p. iv.

15 This study will focus on the first three volumes of Milner's History, both because his brother Isaac finished the fourth and because the primary interest is Evangelical accounts of pre-Reformation history.

16 For his treatment of Eugenius see Milner, History, iii. 366. For Celestine see iv. 36–7.

17 For Gregory see ibid. ii. 77. Anselm and Boniface are treated at iii. 332, 200–1. For Bernard see iii. 443. Milner also argued vigorously against Mosheim's criticisms of Cyprian and disparagement of Augustine's theological writings: i. 487–89; ii. 502.

18 Unlike Mosheim, Milner refused to call the twelfth-century dissenter Arnold of Brescia a true Christian, and mitigated Mosheim's praise for the Beguines and the Paulicians. For Arnold see ibid. iii. 504; for other persecuted sects see iii. 230, 407.

19 Dickens, A. G. and Tonkin, John, The Reformation in historical thought, Cambridge, Ma 1985, 190. See Barnett, S. J., ‘Where was your Church before Luther? Claims for the antiquity of Protestantism examined’, Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture lxviii (1999), 1441 at p. 41.

20 See Milner, History, iii. 161, 187; ii. 323.

21 Schmidt concludes that ‘Milner's decidedly optimistic coterie of medieval Catholic figures elevated as godly representatives was a striking revision of Protestant historiography’: ‘Reviving the past’, 30–1. For the anti-Catholic nature of Protestant historiography in Milner's day see Barnett, ‘Where was your Church’, 41.

22 Rose, H. J., ‘The Rev. H. J. Rose, in reply to the Rev. J. Scott, on Milner’, Christian Observer (1834), 619–21 at p. 621.

23 Hare, The means of unity, 47–8.

24 See Brilioth, Yngve, The Anglican revival: studies in the Oxford Movement, London 1925, 35; Walsh, ‘Joseph Milner's Evangelical church history’, 177; and Pollard, ‘Milner, Joseph’, 776.

25 Milner described both Lambert, a seventh-century bishop, and Bernard as characterised by ‘humility, piety, and charity’: History, iii. 157, 449.

26 Ibid. i. 327.

27 Ibid. ii. 273–5, 277–8.

28 Ibid. ii. 504.

29 Ibid. iii. 4, 7, 9.

30 Ibid. iv. 64.

31 Ibid. iv. 272.

32 See Schmidt, ‘Reviving the past’, 199; Walsh, ‘Joseph Milner's Evangelical church history’, 181.

33 For example see Milner, History, i. 448; ii. 272–3, 294, 490.

34 Ibid. ii. 490, 294.

35 Ibid. iii. 295.

36 Ibid. iii. 154.

37 Ibid. iii. 95, 341. Milner also criticised Mosheim's portrait of Catholic missionaries to Britain: iii. 128.

38 Ibid. iii, p. iv.

39 Milner first used this device in Gibbon's account of Christianity, 238.

40 Idem, History, i. 275.

41 Ibid. i. 489.

42 Review of new publications’, Christian Observer ii/10 (1803), 609. Unless otherwise noted, the reviews cited here are of Milner's original work or the edition corrected by his brother Isaac in 1800, which left intact Joseph's interpretations.

43 Review of new publications (continued)’, Christian Observer iii/1 (1804), 35.

44 To youth and parents’, Christian Monitor and Religious Intelligencer i/10 (1812), 159.

45 The common Christian's library’, Washington Theological Repertory viii/8 (1827), 353.

46 Bickersteth, Edward, The Christian student, designed to assist Christians in general in acquiring religious knowledge, London 1829, 518.

47 This is quoted in Milner, Mary, The life of Isaac Milner, London 1844, 334–5.

48 Last days of Bishop Heber’, Philadelphia Recorder viii/48 (1831), 192.

49 Milner's History was a staple on the library shelves of Yale, Andover and Brown. See Catalogue of books in the library of Yale-College, New Haven 1808, 57; Catalogue of the library belonging to the theological institution in Andover, Andover 1819, 96; A catalogue of the library of Brown University, Andover 1843, 294. For examples of periodicals extracting Milner see The Weekly Record (Chillicothe, Ohio), 27 Apr., 24, 31 May 1815, 10 Apr. 1816, and North Star (Danville, Vermont), 1 Aug. 1822, 30 Mar., 13, 20 Apr. 1824.

50 Maitland, S. R., A letter to the Rev. H. J. Rose with strictures on Milner's church history, London 1834, 10. Maitland published criticisms of Milner in 1834, 1835 and 1836.

51 Hare, The means of unity, 47.

52 Bibliotheca Sacra vii/25 (1850), 65–6.

53 Stephen, James, Essays in ecclesiastical biography, London 1849, ii. 158.

54 See Biographical sketches: V. Rev. Joseph Milner’, Christian Observer (1877), 317.

55 See Wood, Arthur Skevington, Thomas Haweis, 1734–1820, London 1957, 221.

56 See, for example, the article written by an anonymous American student, On some uses of ecclesiastical history’, Evangelical and Literary Magazine vi/3 (1823), 113. Contrast two American publications in 1836: the Episcopal Recorder praised Milner's History as excellent and instructive, while the Baptist Christian Review dismissed it as uncritical and only distinguished for its pious strain of feeling’: Episcopal Recorder xiii/44 (1836), 175; Christian Review i/3 (1836), 428.

57 This review was prompted by the second printing of the 1809 American edition of Milner: The Christian Disciple and Theological Review iv (1822), 307–9.

58 Cockin, John, Reflections after reading, London 1843, 131, 135.

59 See Martin, Roger H., Evangelicals united: ecumenical stirrings in pre-Victorian Britain, 1795–1830, Metuchen, NJ 1983, 165–6.

60 See ibid. 153–4.

61 This publishing initiative is described in Fyfe, Aileen, Science and salvation: Evangelical popular science publishing in Victorian Britain, Chicago 2004, 35, 48.

62 This is quoted in Martin, Evangelicals united, 165–6.

63 Milner, History, ii. 51, 231, 235.

64 Ibid. ii. 290.

65 Stokes, George (ed.), The history of the Church of Christ, previous to the Reformation, London 1826, ii. 461.

66 Ibid. ii. 304n.

67 Ibid. iii. 52.

68 Milner, History, iii. 58; Stokes, History, iii. 63.

69 For Boniface and Eugenius iii compare Stokes, History, iii. 125ff, to Milner, History, iii. 194–209, 247. For Anselm and Bernard compare Stokes, History, iii. 228, 241ff. to Milner, History, iii. 339–42, 358–9.

70 Milner, History, iii. 504; Stokes, History, iii. 271.

71 Milner, History, iii. 295.

72 Stokes, History, iii. 101.

73 Milner, History, iii. 95; Stokes, History, iii. 52, 91–5.

74 Milner, History, iii. 341.

75 Stokes, History, iii. 228.

76 See Colley, Linda, Britons: forging the nation, 1707–1837, New Haven 1992, 7.

77 For the Apocrypha controversy see Howsam, Leslie, Cheap Bibles: nineteenth-century publishing and the British and Foreign Bible Society, Cambridge 1991 . For anti-Catholicism in the RTS see Martin, Evangelicals united, 161.

78 List of new publications, with short notices’, Congregational Magazine x/26 (1827), 100–1.

79 The RTS noted that A very large number of this work has been sold’: The jubilee memorial of the Religious Tract Society, London 1850, 97. See also the RTS report given in Missionary Register, London 1842, 325.

80 John Wolffe argues that, from the 1830s, British Evangelicals were united by anti-Catholicism: The Protestant crusade in Great Britain, 1829–1860, Oxford 1991, 7. See also Norman, Edward, Anti-Catholicism in Victorian England, London 1968 ; Griffin, Susan M., Anti-Catholicism and nineteenth-century fiction, Cambridge 2004 ; and Wheeler, Michael, The old enemies: Catholic and Protestant in nineteenth-century English culture, Cambridge 2006 .

81 The definitive account of the ASSU's print initiative is found in Boylan, Anne M., Sunday school: the formation of an American institution, 1790–1880, New Haven 1988, 60ff. The ASSU's publishing output, according to Boylan (p. 168), represented one of the most significant means of religious education in the early republic. For the founding purposes of the ASSU see ASSU, First report, Philadelphia 1824, 18; ASSU, Ninth report, Philadelphia 1833, 20. See also Nord, David Paul, Faith in reading: religious publishing and the birth of mass media in America, New York 2004, 123, and Brown, Candy Gunther, The word in the world: Evangelical writing, publishing, and reading in America, 1789–1880, Chapel Hill NC 2004 .

82 In the 1831 report, it was noted that ‘that for many most valuable publications, the world is indebted to the London Religious Tract Society’: ASSU, Seventh report, Philadelphia 1831, 13. For the ecumenical statement see ASSU, Fourth report, Philadelphia 1828, 10.

83 See Boylan, Sunday school, 116–17.

84 ASSU, Letters on ecclesiastical history, Philadelphia 1832, i. 133.

85 Gregory is treated ibid. i. 172. For her accounts of the other three see i. 200–1, 258–9, 264.

86 The pedagogical tone was often explicit in reminders to keep the Sabbath, to attend to daily prayers, or not to neglect Scripture reading: ibid. i. 21.

87 Ibid. i. 77.

88 Ibid. i. 168.

89 Ibid. i. 253.

90 Ibid. i. 81.

91 Ibid. i. 95–6.

92 Ibid. i. 68.

93 On the growth of anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States from 1830 see Franchot, Jenny, Roads to Rome: the antebellum Protestant encounter with Catholicism, Berkeley 1994 ; Jody M. Roy, ‘Nineteenth-century American anti-Catholicism and the Catholic response’, unpubl. PhD diss. Bloomington, In 1997; and Massa, Mark Stephen, Anti-Catholicism in America: the last acceptable prejudice, New York 2003 .

94 Gjerde, Jon, Catholicism and the shaping of nineteenth-century America, New York 2012 .

95 ASSU, Letters on ecclesiastical history, i. 251. ‘p’

96 Brown, The word in the world, 40.

97 For an account of these secessions, and the anxiety that they produced in the Church see Carter, Grayson, Anglican Evangelicals: Protestant secessions from the via media, c. 1800–1850, Oxford 2001 . In 1834 Seeley published a defence of establishment that argued that secession was unjustifiable: Leslie Howsam, ‘Seeley, Robert Benton (1798–1886)', ODNB.

98 Seeley, Robert B., The history of the Church of Christ, London 1834, p. v.

99 Ibid. 524, 529, 537.

100 Ibid. 538.

101 Idem The Church of Christ in the Middle Ages, London 1845, pp. vivii , 2.

102 Ibid. 152–3, 291.

103 Ibid., 290–1.

104 In 1839 Seeley wrote an anti-Catholic treatise, Essays on Romanism, London 1839 , and, by the mid-1840s, was a vocal critic of the Tractarians.

105 See Bebbington, Evangelicalism in modern Britain, 100–2.

106 See Norman, Anti-Catholicism in Victorian England, and Lewis, Donald, Lighten their darkness: the Evangelical mission to working-class London, 1828–1860, New York 1986 .

107 Townsend, Jesse, The history of the Church of Christ, Utica, NY 1816; Eaton, Rebecca, An abridgment of Milner's church history, Andover, Ma 1817 .

108 Milner, Joseph, The history of the Church of Christ, ed. Nelson, Thomas, Edinburgh 1836 .

109 Idem, The history of the Church of Christ, ed. Grantham, Thomas, London 1847, pp. vvi .

110 Idem, History, iii, p. iv.

111 This decision is documented in Leonard Woods, History of the Andover Theological Seminary, Boston 1885, 188.

112 The Andover library, in 1819, boasted ten copies of Milner's History, one of Mosheim's and one Magdeburg Centuries: Catalogue of the library, 96.

113 Newman, John Henry C., Apologia pro vita sua, London 1864, 62.

114 Idem, Autobiographical writings, ed. Tristram, Henry, London 1956, 83.

115 Walsh, ‘Joseph Milner's Evangelical church history’, 174.

116 Griffin, Anti-Catholicism, 8, 5.

I would like to thank Bruce Hindmarsh and Don Lewis for their supervision of this project, as well as Sarah C. Williams, Craig Gay and Hans Boersma for their insight and instruction. Darren Schmidt generously shared his dissertation at a key stage in my research. Early versions of this article were presented at the American Society of Church History and the Baylor History colloquium, and both audiences offered helpful comments. I am especially grateful to Joe Stubenrauch, Elise Leal, Tim Grundmeier, Elizabeth Travers and David Bebbington for the careful and invaluable feedback that they offered on drafts of this article, to Beth Allison Barr and Thomas Kidd for their advice, and to Ryan Butler, Lynneth Miller and Paige Gutacker for their encouragement.

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