Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 July 2014
Historians suppose that men are ultimately to be understood in terms of their own time. If the age in which people live makes no difference to the way we perceive them, then historical explanation becomes superfluous. The evangelical revival, however, is often regarded as a event that occurs out of its proper time. It is the step-child of eighteenth century studies. For Peter Gay it belongs not to the eighteenth century but to the twelfth. Leslie Stephen denied all affinity between the evangelicals and their enlightened contemporaries: “There could scarcely be said to exist even the relation of contradiction.” To be sure, an affinity with the age was not a claim that the evangelicals insisted upon. No one would wish to number Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley among the philosophes. The merit claimed by the evangelicals was the merit not of thinkers but of believers. Yet, like it or not, the revival is still one of the facts of eighteenth century history. It cannot be wished away or passed off onto some other period. It started in the eighteenth century and it prospered in the eighteenth century. In any census of the times, it is a fair presumption that the saints will out-number the sceptics. Moreover, the revival is something that has to be analyzed in contemporary terms. What John Maynard Keynes once said of ranting politicians in the twentieth century works for ranting preachers in the eighteenth: “Mad men in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” Faith, like thought, is an historical event that occurs in a specific historical context and ultimately it must be explained in terms of that context. It may be our deepest wish to think like St. Paul, but it is hard to do so in ways that St. Paul would have understood. Few men can insulate themselves against the intellectual influence of their time. In the case of John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, the recognition of that influence is critical for the interpretation of their thought.
An abridged version of this essay was read at the conference of the Southeastern Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, February 28, 1986.
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21 Ibid., pp. 266, 502, 479.
24 Ibid., 3:106, 110, 222.
32 Ibid., pp. 388, 370.
35 Ibid., pp. 125, 135.
37 Ibid., p. 374.
38 Ibid., pp. 278, 380, 392.
40 Ibid., p. 460.
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