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330 pages
Apr 2004
InterVarsity Press

The Rise of Evangelicalism

by Mark A. Noll

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Political, Ecclesiastical, Spiritual

The geography of the English-speaking world changed significantly over the course of the eighteenth century because of both political change in the British Isles and the expansion of Britain’s first overseas empire. These and related developments— as much in ecclesiastical and spiritual geography as in physical and political geography—exerted compelling influence on the emergence of evangelical Christianity.


The extent of political change can be suggested by alterations in colonial holdings and the naming of nations between 1660, when Charles II was restored to the English throne, and 1815, when the final victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo ended what some historians have called the “Second Hundred Years’ War” between the French and the British. In 1660 the monarch ruled over a united kingdom embracing England and Wales. England’s king was also the monarch of Scotland, but the Scots, with their own parliament, their own legal code and their own Presbyterian Church, were very conscious that they constituted a separate nation. Similarly, Ireland also remained a sister kingdom, with England’s monarch as its ruler. Much more than Scotland, however, Ireland and its heavily Catholic population was a source of constant frustration to English rulers as they tried to work their will on the island, including two invasions of reconquest in the years 1649-1652 and 1689-1691.

By 1815 Scotland and Ireland had lost whatever independent status they once enjoyed, and both were joined with England and Wales into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Union with Scotland was implemented in 1707; it represented a trade-off in which the Scots lost their political independence and their own parliament in exchange for the liberty to trade and move freely in the rapidly expanding British empire. The latter provision proved especially important for evangelical history when energetic religious figures from Scotland and the north of Ireland became important leaders in new-world evangelical movements. Union with Ireland in 1801 represented the culmination of a more tragic history. In 1798 Britain had violently put down an uprising of “United Irishmen” that was led by both Protestants and Catholics who were inspired by the examples of the American and French Revolutions. The full political incorporation of Ireland shortly thereafter was intended by the British parliament to secure Ireland against such disorder in the future. The promise held out to Ireland’s majority Catholic population—that union would lead to much fuller civil rights—was not, however, entirely fulfilled. As with the earlier Scottish union, so too did Ireland’s incorporation into “Great Britain” play a significant role in later religious developments, since Irish versions of evangelicalism tended to be more assertive, more eschatological and more missionary- minded than their English counterparts. These distinctives would reecho around the world when, in the decades that followed, great tides of immigration rolled out of Ireland.

Change was also evident in developments outside the British Isles. In 1660 England was casually overseeing a small collection of colonies in North America (Newfoundland, New England, the Chesapeake Bay) and the West Indies. Settlers in these colonies sometimes held out great hopes for their growth into strong centers of commerce and civilization, but England’s rulers were more concerned about the colonies’ value for new-world competition against the French, who were colonizing in Acadia (later Nova Scotia) and to the north of the St. Lawrence River; the Dutch, who maintained a colony stretching up the Hudson River from New Amsterdam (later New York City); and the Spanish, who had already established extensive holdings in Florida and the Caribbean islands as well as in Central and South America. In 1660 there were more English colonists in the West Indies, with Barbados and Jamaica as the largest settlements, than in either New England or the Chesapeake (Virginia and Maryland).

By 1815 colonial relationships had been doubly transformed. The first transformation occurred in the thirteen colonies that stretched from Massachusetts to Georgia on the North American mainland, since from 1776 these settlements were no longer possessions of Great Britain but the constituent parts of a new United States of America that had successfully fought Great Britain for their independence. The second transformation was a byproduct of the century’s intermittent wars with France and served as partial compensation for losing the thirteen colonies. It involved the strengthening by both settlement and conquest of British rule in Canada and the West Indies and its extension into a hodge-podge of new territory: coastal regions of Central and South America, the west coast of Africa, the Cape Colony on the far southern tip of Africa, the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the southern and eastern coastlands of the Indian subcontinent, and the southeastern corner of Australia. By the end of the Napoleonic wars the English-speaking world included two separate nations (the United Kingdom and the United States) as well as a number of British colonies sprinkled throughout the rest of the globe. Signifi cantly, wherever the British and the Americans traded, colonized or explored, evangelical religion was there as well.

As dramatic as were the changes in political boundaries, so also was the sharp rise in population (see table 1). Population growth was most rapid in the outlying regions with, for example, the number of people in the thirteen colonies that became the United States multiplying by more than twenty times over the course of the eighteenth century alone. Still, it is as important to remember, for religious history as for political or economic history, that in this century the center of the English-speaking world remained England. As an indication of comparative size (as also of wealth, influence and visibility), the population of Wales was greater than the population of the mainland North American colonies until sometime early in the century. The city of London alone, which already by 1700 stretched over four densely packed miles from east to west, had more people than all of the British colonies in 1700, more people than the mainland thirteen colonies until roughly 1725 and about as many people as all of New England as late as 1800. Even with the loss of the American colonies, the population of Britain and its empire nearly doubled in this hundred-year period, with the most rapid growth in the second half-century. What this unprecedented population expansion meant for evangelical religion was a constantly rising reservoir of recruits as well as a social landscape stressed, strained and, in some urban locations, overburdened by a burgeoning supply of people.

As fast as British (and American) populations were growing, it is important to remember that throughout this entire period France remained far and away the largest nation of western Europe. This fact helps explain why Protestant fear of France—and its Roman Catholic religion—remained so important for all regions of the British empire.

For a history of evangelicalism it is also pertinent to note the ethnic and linguistic make-up of the “English-speaking” world. Naturally the majority of individuals in the British Isles and in British settlements overseas spoke some variety of English. But various Celtic languages—Cornish in the far southwest of England, different kinds of Gaelic in the Scottish Highlands and Ireland, and Welsh in Wales—remained in use as well. There was also a very significant population of native-born speakers of West African languages or their children and grandchildren. In 1800 about 10 percent of the approximately 22 million people in Britain, its colonies and the United States were of African descent, with slightly more than half of these in the United States and the remainder heavily concentrated in the British West Indies. A wide variety of Native Americans also constituted a significant population in North America. At the same time, there were also in the American colonies-become-states thousands who spoke Dutch as their mother tongue and tens of thousands who spoke German. In Canada (better known then as British North America) there lived about 200 thousand French speakers. With the exception of the French Canadians, who remained overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, each of these minority linguistic populations would at some point in the second half of the eighteenth century show a greater openness to evangelical preaching, conversion and practice than the general population of the “English-speaking” world.


For a history of evangelicalism, ecclesiastical geography is just as important as the physical geography of the nine separate English-speaking areas (England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the American South, the West Indies and Canada). In the early eighteenth century it was at once a very simple and a very complex picture. The simplicity lay in the nearly universal deference to the principle of tax-supported, church-state religious establishment. The complexity lay in the undertow of dissenting movements that resisted these establishments and in the fact that different establishments existed in different parts of the British empire.

Evangelicals would emerge among both establishmentarians and those who dissented from the establishments. In fact, almost as soon as distinctly evangelical emphases appeared, they functioned as bridges for fellowship and cooperative action between Dissenters and establishmentarians. Nonetheless, the shape of the eighteenth-century ecclesiastical landscape was vitally significant for thedevelopment of evangelicalism. Precisely because the stress on personal religious experience, warm-hearted Christian fellowship and individual interpretation of the Bible was so powerful among all evangelicals, the evangelical movement by its very existence acted as a solvent for hard-edged definitions of the church. As it emerged successfully in an ecclesiastical landscape divided between state churches and dissenting churches, evangelicalism had the effect of relativizing all questions concerning the nature, role and spiritual status of the church itself.

For this entire period the Church of England was the legally constituted and tax-supported established church in England and Wales, Ireland and the West Indies. Until the American War for Independence, it was also the established church in the southern colonies of the North American mainland. Throughout the eighteenth century it enjoyed a quasi-established position in the Maritime colonies of eastern Canada. The status of non-Anglicans varied considerably in these different regions. In the early eighteenth century about 6 percent of England’s population adhered to Dissenting churches descended from the Puritans or other protest movements from the reigns of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and James I (1603-1625). The Presbyterians made up slightly more than half of English and Welsh dissenters, but there were also substantial numbers of Independents (or Congregationalists), Baptists, Quakers, and a tiny, closely monitored Roman Catholic population. Toleration of Protestant Dissenters had been won officially with the Glorious Revolution in 1689 and was confirmed, after some uncertainty, in the last years of Queen Anne’s reign (1702-1714). So long as Roman Catholic descendants of the ousted James II enjoyed French support for their efforts to recapture the British throne, England’s Roman Catholics encountered much more official opposition than Protestant Dissenters.

Denominational proportions were reversed in Ireland where the Anglican Church of Ireland, though relatively wealthy, enjoyed the support of only a small fraction of the island’s population. The great majority of the Irish remained Roman Catholic, even though the United Kingdom legislated (and occasionally enforced) a series of harsh penal measures in the effort to restrain the Catholic presence. By contrast, the regime treated the substantial number of Irish Presbyterians, who were descended from Scottish and English settlers inthe seventeenth century and who were increasingly concentrated in the northern province of Ulster, with a great deal of leniency. From 1672, the Irish Presbyterians even received an intermittent regium donum, or royal gift, from the English monarch. This gift became larger and more regular after the Ulster Presbyterians supported first William III in his successful conflict (1688- 1689) with the ousted James II and then the new line of Hanoverian monarchs who in 1714 succeeded to the British throne. Throughout the eighteenth century, approximately 75-80 percent of the Irish population remained Catholic. The remainder was divided almost entirely between Church of Ireland Anglicans, who probably made up a slight majority of Protestant Ireland, and Presbyterians, who predominated in the north.

Other variations of Anglican establishment were present in the colonies. In Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, Anglicans defended their rights as the established church more fiercely than in the mother country. In these states, non-Anglicans were treated with great harshness as late as the 1770s. In Virginia, Samuel Davies succeeded in founding a network of evangelical Presbyterian congregations in the late 1740s and early 1750s, but only after the most careful preparatory negotiations with the colony’s government and only after he had distinguished himself by vigorous support of the colony during the French and Indian War. In the West Indies, Anglicanism was not only the established church but virtually the only church until the middle of the eighteenth century. (There were eleven parishes in Barbados by 1700 and fifteen in Jamaica, although the construction of church buildings and the placement of rectors always lagged behind the formal designation of parishes.) InNova Scotia, early provision was made to favor the Anglican Church, but by contrast to the West Indies, Congregationalists, Baptists, Lutherans, other Protestants and a sprinkling of Roman Catholics competed with the Church of England right from the beginning of settlement. The result was a limbo where Anglicans, and sometimes the Nova Scotia government, acted as if the Church of England was established, but non-Anglicans did not.

It is important to recognize, however, that the Church of England was only one of the established churches in the first British empire. Since the Reformation, Scotland had maintained a Presbyterian state church, though with frequent periods during which this establishment was challenged by the crown in league with local Scottish Episcopalians. But when the northern nation declared its support for the new monarchs, William and Mary, during the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689, and when it joined Great Britain through the Act of Union in 1707, Presbyterianism won unequivocal recognition as Scotland’s established church. North of the River Tweed, in other words, Episcopalians became Dissenters. By the 1730s small dissident movements began to break away from the established Presbyterian Kirk, but these groups were themselves Presbyterians whose leaders held that the Kirk was not living up to true Presbyterian ideals. The Highlands offered a different kind of dissent, for its poor, isolated and Gaelic-speaking population was mostly Catholic, Episcopal or functionally pagan.

In New England the Puritan settlers had established a Congregational state church, which throughout the seventeenth century probably enjoyed the loyalty of a larger proportion of the local population than any other established church in the empire. By the early eighteenth century a few Baptists and Quakers had established a foothold and from the 1720s there also existed a handful of Anglican churches. But the Puritan colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire treasured their “New England Way” and only reluctantly relaxed commitment to the principle of establishment (vestiges of state support for the Congregational churches lingered in Connecticut until 1818 and in Massachusetts until 1833).

Another form of de facto establishment was added to the empire when in 1763 at the end of the French and Indian War (or Seven Years’ War as it wascalled in Europe), France ceded Quebec to Britain. Official British policy was aimed at turning the very French and very Catholic Quebecois into good British Protestants, but that policy never had a chance. Britain periodically acknowledged this reality. The Quebec Act of 1774, for instance, strengthened the tax-supported, state-sponsored centrality of Quebec’s Roman Catholic Church; in exchange, the Catholic bishops kept their people out of the rebellion of the thirteen colonies to the south of Quebec.

Finally, as yet another variation on church-state patterns, the mid-Atlantic colonies on the North American mainland somehow managed to get along without any established churches at all. Rhode Island in New England also survived without a state church, but from its earliest days under Roger Williams, this tiny colony was widely perceived as an eccentric deviant into which all sorts of nonconforming dregs could be safely flushed from the more respectable colonies. New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were different—rapidly growing, economically prosperous and well supplied with churches—but with churches of different kinds. By the early eighteenth century, the possibility of establishing one statechurch in these colonies was ruled out by the simple sweep of events that brought into this region Anglicans, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Jews, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Dutch Reformed, Mennonites, Moravians, German Reformed and smaller numbers of several other religious bodies.

Evangelicalism would eventually flourish best in the kind of de-regulated religious environment witnessed in the American middle colonies. In the eighteenth century, however, evangelical impulses were strongest in the established churches of England, Scotland and New England, though with a different flavor depending on whether the establishment was Anglican, Presbyterian or Congregational. It would mark an important transition in evangelical history, as well as in the history of the United States, when the new American Constitution of 1789 prohibited the national government from favoring any particular denomination as an established church (this provision left the individual states free to act as they pleased). Where in the eighteenth century evangelical history was dominated by members of established churches, and Dissenters played only a secondary role, that situationwould be reversed in later centuries when nonestablishmentarian evangelicals moved into prominence and evangelicals from established churches became less important.


The spiritual health of the English-speaking world on the eve of the evangelical revivals has always been a subject for controversy. Debates over where spiritual life was decaying, where it was ripe for renewal or where it was ticking along smoothly have never stopped since the first organized revivals of the 1730s. Once self-conscious evangelical groups emerged, it was only to be expected that they would paint a dark picture of spiritual conditions before evangelical awakeners arrived on the scene. It came naturally to Jonathan Edwards, for instance, to describe the residents of Northampton, Massachusetts, before its remarkable revival of 1734-1735, as being “very insensible of the things of religion” and of experiencing “a time of extraordinary dullness in religion.” Similarly, evangelicals would later quote with approval the judgment offered in 1736 by the Irish bishop and philosopher George Berkeley that the realm was threatened by the impiety of its magistrates, which in turn was being communicated rapidly to the masses of its people:

Our prospect is very terrible and the symptoms grow stronger every day. . . . The youth born and brought up in wicked times, without any bias to good from early principle or instilled opinion, when they grow ripe must be monsters indeed. And it is to be feared, that age of monsters is not far off.

The claim that spiritual life was flagging during the eighteenth century would be made in even stronger terms by proponents of the High-Church Oxford Movement in the 1830s. But partisan judgments must not be allowed to frame the whole discussion. More impartial judges have concluded that the actual state of religion was not as decrepit as later evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics perceived it. Still, even objective evaluators have recognized that confident religious life, persuasive preaching of the gospel and effective Christian pastoring were in relatively short supply during the first decades of the eighteenth century.1


Conditions in the Church of England were of special importance for the whole English-speaking world since this church was tied so closely to Parliament, the British crown and the empire. Not only was Anglicanism the official religion for well over half of the English-speaking population, but it was also the dominant reference for Dissenters in England, Wales and Ireland, as well as for the empire’s other established churches.

Because of its size and centrality, it was significant for later evangelical developments that the Church of England was laboring under serious difficulties in the early eighteenth century. Although its bishops and parish clergy were usually not simply time-serving hacks consumed by a desire for status—as they were once routinely depicted—the widespread practices of pluralism and nonresidence did undercut Anglican effectiveness. When a local church’s formally installed rector did not live in that parish (nonresidence), a curate might be supplied, but not always. Nonresidence was linked to pluralism, because when a minister secured the rights to another parish—or to a post in a cathedral or university—the holder of plural benefices could not be in more than one place at a time. A different kind of nonresidence hampered the twenty-seven Anglican bishops of England and Wales, for they held seats in the House of Lords and were expected to attend the annual meetings of Parliament. Some of the weaknesses of the Anglican parish system can be excused as a result of inadequate funding or simple structural defects, but whether the problem was greed or something more benign, the result was the same: Anglican attention to thecare of souls was not keeping pace with the growth of population or the spiritual needs of English, Welsh and Irish parishioners.

The Church of England had also been seriously disturbed by political turmoils in the early decades of the century. Especially dramatic was a furor over charges made in 1709 by Henry Sacheverell, a High-Church Tory, that Dissenters, Whigs and Low-Church Anglicans were a pernicious threat to the realm. Then in 1715 a similar uproar occurred when Whigs and Low- Church Anglicans accused Tories and their High-Church allies of assisting the French-backed army that invaded Scotland with the aim of restoring the monarchy to the Roman Catholic son of the ousted James II. In 1717 there was another great kerfuffle when Benjamin Hoadly, the bishop of Bangor, and a Low-Church Whig, blasted away at Tory and High-Church principles for promoting ecclesiastical and civil tyranny. Public agitation in London and elsewhere reached extraordinary heights during these controversies; the net effect was to sacrifice interest in day-to-day religious belief and practice to the convulsions of political controversy.

The Church of England seemed also to be fertile ground for latitudinarian ideas that troubled serious believers of whatever sort, including the early evangelicals. In reaction to what they regarded as the overzealous enthusiasm of Puritanism and the coercive tyranny of Roman Catholicism, a considerable number of Anglican intellectuals were proposing a calmer, more selfcontrolled, more reasonable religion. The sermons of Archbishop Tillotson, which were read widely in Britain and the colonies for more than a generation after his death in 1694, stressed duty, human effort and common moralitymuch more than original sin, a substitutionary atonement and the work of the Holy Spirit. The impressive weight of John Locke’s writing—especially his Letters Concerning Toleration (1689-1692), Essay on Human Understanding (1690) and The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695)—amounted to an influential commendation of human reason over any traditional religious authority. When in 1712 the clergyman Samuel Clarke published his Scripture-doctrine of the Trinity, which leaned toward a Unitarian interpretation of the Bible, he was roundly attacked, but the church did not force a retraction. To alarmed defenders of traditional Christian orthodoxy like Samuel Wesley, the father of John and Charles, the latitudinarian drift in Anglicanism seemed headed straight toward deism. Deism was never a formally organized movement, but rather a catchword for the ideas of several well-placed individuals who wanted to replace traditional Christianity with a religion of mere morality and a very distant god. Concern about Deism rose steadily in response to manifest public disdain for the supernatural (John Toland, Christianity Not Mysterious, 1696), disrespect for the Christian ministry (Anthony Collins, A Discourse of Free Thinking, 1713), denial of the miraculous (Thomas Woolston, Six Discourses on Miracles, 1727-1730) and denigration of Christianity’s unique status (Matthew Tindal, Christianity as Old as the Creation, 1730). Orthodox apologists like Bishop Joseph Butler (The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature, 1736) and Bishop William Warburton (The Divine Legislation of Moses, 1737-1741) did a credible job of defending Christian teaching against such deist works. Yet by the 1730s, lingering doubts raised by deist contentions and the concentration of orthodox responses on rational arguments were prime factors in both England and far- flung outposts of empire preparing the way for new efforts at promoting a more emotionally satisfying Christianity.

To many under the care of the Church of England, however, its greatest problem was not so much failure at responding to specific intellectual challenges as its general torpor—slow to reform itself, slow to find a healing voice in the tangled politics of the era, slow to provide churches for the new urban populations, slow to evangelize the unreached at home and the non-Christian masses in new foreign possessions like India. To be sure, defenders of active Christianity were never lacking in the church. William Law, for example, ably defended Christian traditions in his Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor (1717), refuted Matthew Tindal’s deism in his Case of Reason (1732) and inspired many with his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1738). But such influences were comparatively rare, and the revival of Anglicanism they sought seemed remote.


English Dissent looked even less promising as a source of religious renewal. The Dissenters could boast outstanding academies where local ministers offered training in the classics, theology and modern science to Nonconformists excluded from Oxford and Cambridge by the requirement that undergraduates subscribe the Thirty-Nine Articles and participate in Anglican worship. The most notable of these academies was conducted by Philip Doddridge (1702- 1751) in the center of England at Northampton as a school serving Dissenters of all varieties from England as well as some students from Scotland and Ireland. Doddridge’s warm personal piety, his eager promotion of Bible distribution and missionary societies, his theology of “mere Christianity” that followed the ecumenical ideals of Richard Baxter from the seventeenth century, and friendly contacts with the Wesleys and George Whitefield marked him as one of the most important forerunners of the later evangelical movement. Not the least of his contributions were his hymns, like “Hark the glad sound! the Saviour comes” and “O happy day, that fixed my choice / On thee, my Saviour and my God!” In his efforts, Doddridge joined the other great leader of early-eighteenth-century English Dissent, Isaac Watts (1674-1748). As one of the Christian church’s greatest hymnwriters, Watts provided much for later evangelicals to sing in countless venues and with stupendous effect: for example, “Come ye that love the Lord,” “Join all the glorious name,” “When I can read my title clear,” “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun” and “When I survey the wondrous cross.”

Yet despite the signal contributions of Doddridge, Watts and a few other Dissenters like the Welsh Baptist preacher Enoch Frances, Nonconformity was declining as a movement and weakening as a theological force. Estimates vary about the magnitude of the decline, but most observers have agreed that the Dissenters were not even maintaining their former numbers despite a rising general population. Worried leaders eventually published substantial books appealing for a turnaround, like Doddridge’s Free Thoughts on the Most Probable Means of Reviving the Dissenting Interest (1730) and Watts’s An Humble Attempt Towards the Revival of Practical Religion Among Christians (1731).

The most worrying development among Dissenters in the early eighteenth century concerned doctrine, in particular the creeping advance of Arian views. In February 1719 a substantial gathering of over one hundred leading Presbyterian, Congregational and Baptist ministers deliberated at length in London’s Salters’ Hall over a momentous question.19 That body had received a formal appeal for advice from Dissenting ministers in Devon and Cornwall who were at wits’ end dealing with local ministers who, after reading Samuel Clarke and other advanced thinkers, refused to subscribe the traditional trinitarian confessions of their churches. The technical issue was whether it was enough for ministers to promise to follow only the Scriptures. The real issue was whether these traditionally trinitarian denominations had room for Arians, who regarded Christ as more than man but also as distinctly less than fully God. The vote at Salters’ Hall was close (57-53), but went against the confessional trinitarians. From that time Arian views advanced rapidly among the English Presbyterians and General (or Arminian) Baptists. They also grew in strength among Presbyterians in Ireland and, somewhat less rapidly, in the Scottish Kirk. Even Isaac Watts in has last years began to doubt the adequacy of traditional Trinitarian formulas. This doctrinal indecisiveness, when combined with the Dissenters’ slippage in many English and Welsh localities, offered anything but a welcoming climate for robust evangelical religion.


The uncertainties of Christianity in England at the center of the empire were reflected to one degree or another at the empire’s margins. In Wales, Ireland and the Scottish Highlands tensions remained high between the speakers of English who exercised power and majority populations who spoke the Celtic languages. Resentment against the established churches did nothing to prepare the way for spiritual renewal in the Celtic regions. The Anglican Church of Ireland, which was forced to exert its place as a tax-gathering established church against a much larger Catholic population and a rapidly growing Presbyterian presence, was just as unpropitiously situated for renewal because of its preoccupations with maintaining power.

The groundwork for revival was more securely in place among Presbyterians in Scotland and the north of Ireland where stronger currents of historic Calvinism survived. To these currents was also sometimes added the fervent piety of the “communion season”—celebrations of the Lord’s Supper that involved several Sundays of preparatory sermons followed by an intense weekend of concentrated preaching and then communion. These seasons had sparked notable local revivals as far back as the 1620s. Both the flow of immigration—from Scotland to Ireland and then from Ulster to the colonies—as well as ongoing communication with other Calvinist churches in England, Europe and New England kept Scottish and Ulster Presbyterians alert to the ebb and flow of renewal among international Calvinists. The published sermons of the English Puritans circulated widely in those networks, and so did concern for conversion, concentration on divine grace and convictions about the need for daily holiness.

More obvious in both the Kirk of Scotland and Irish Presbyterianism, however, were trends moving at cross purposes with evangelical piety. In Scotland, an act of parliament in 1712 defined the terms of the Treaty of Union (1707) by restoring the rights of patrons to appoint (or sometimes merely nominate) ministers for the local churches. Dissatisfaction with this system would simmer continuously for the next two centuries; occasionally it boiled over into scalding controversy and schism. Whatever the merits of arguments for and against patronage, the Scots’ enduring fixation on the legal and property rights of patrons, ministers and congregations had the effect of distracting the whole nation from innovative steps aimed at spiritual renewal.

Irish Presbyterians, who were Dissenters over against the Church of Ireland but who functioned as a quasi-establishment in Ulster, mostly avoided the Scottish imbroglios over patronage. Yet with their Scottish colleagues they were influenced by the spread of Enlightenment opinions that undercut the force of traditional Calvinism. In the early eighteenth century, the Scottish Church twice put on trial their main theological teacher at the University of Glasgow, John Simson (1667-1740). The charge was that Simson diluted the Westminster Confession by incorporating too much of Isaac Newton’s mechanistic science, relying too much on rational argumentation in the struggle against Deism and inching much too close to Arianism. The trials produced an inconclusive result: Simson was eventually suspended from his teaching duties but kept his status on the faculty of divinity. Those who worried about the fate of Presbyterian orthodoxy were not reassured when a growing number of Irish ministers objected to subscribing the Westminster Confession on the grounds that such an action required inappropriate deference to a merely humanly constructed formula. By the 1720s, these Irish “new lights” included some who seemed to be following the well-worn path toward Arianism.

The influential teaching and writing of Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) also seemed to be moving Presbyterians on both sides of the Irish Sea away from the evangelical aspects of their Calvinistic inheritance. Hutcheson was born in Ireland and ministered there after training at Glasgow under Professor Simson, but his real influence came as professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow, where he served from 1730 until his death. Against the traditional Calvinist doctrine of original sin, Hutcheson posited a natural moral sense, universally existing in all humans, that pointed the way to proper ethical behavior. His political values also linked him with radicals who treated traditional religion as well as the constraints of church-state public order as barriers to human happiness. Hutcheson did not specifically attack traditional Calvinist doctrines, but he clearly was pushing ideas of both human nature and the good life toward an aesthetic, refined ideal instead of toward traditional piety. By the 1730s, Presbyterianism in Scotland and Ulster occupied a position analogous to that of Anglicanism in England and Wales. Much confessional Christianity survived from earlier years, and space existed for fresh evangelical concerns. But liberalizing theology, along with widespread interest in property and propriety, seemed more powerful in the churches as a whole. These were the conditions that spurred at least a few ministers to suggest that only a special effusion of divine grace poured out for the conversion of sinners could rescue the gospel cause. John Maclaurin of Glasgow went public with such thoughts in 1723 (“The Necessity of Divine Grace to Make the Word Effectual”), but for many years his was a lonely voice.


The American colonies, which were much more sparsely populated than the British Isles, nonetheless shared at least some of the religious trends at work in the mother country. The growth of cities, the increase of commerce and the dispersion of population into frontier regions created a similar degree of social uncertainty as the industrialization of society was starting to bring to Britain. If few ties of religion, ethnicity or even trade connected the colonies to each other, they were all being drawn toward their British center in a common process of Anglicization whereby each of the far-flung colonial regions was linked more closely to the fashionable clothing, politics, speech and also religion of the mother country. Evangelical leaders would criticize the growing fixation on metropolitan fashion and London luxury, but they would also be among the prime beneficiaries when news of awakenings in London and throughout Britain was communicated to the colonies. Beyond the influence of British fashion, which was growing everywhere in North America, however, the colonial regions still pursued separate religious paths.

New England’s Puritan tradition was weakening but remained the most vigorous religious system in the colonies, and maybe in the entire British empire. Signs of weakness included the very fact that ministers were using fast days called by local officials to bemoan the passing of true godliness. An upstart worldling like Benjamin Franklin could satirize treasured Puritan traditions, which he did as a sixteen-year-old in 1722 for his brother’s Boston newspaper. Ministers outside of Boston were worrying about the construction of elegant church buildings and the general lust for luxury in that metropolis, while in his pastorate along the Connecticut River Valley Jonathan Edwards was concerned that Arminian ideas were beginning to influence the biblical expositions of his fellow pastors. Yet the Puritan sense of duty as well as the Puritan sense of living under the direct inspection of God left New England a religiously tender place. Ministers might be issuing imprecations aimed at inducing guilt rather than comfortable words promising grace. Yet even more than in Scotland—the region which New England most closely resembled as a local Calvinist establishment with a vigorous clerical corps within an Anglican British empire—the same resources of faithful preaching, a living theological inheritance and earnest religious sensibility lay close at hand for the purposes of religious revitalization.

The situation was quite different in the mid-Atlantic colonies of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania where churches struggled to meet the needs of populations extending westward into the raw wilderness and where in settled regions numerous denominations competed against each other. Gospel emphases were always present among Presbyterians and Baptists, as well as some Quaker, Dutch Reformed, German Reformed and German sectarian bodies. In particular, middle-colony Presbyterians sustained active connections with fellow Calvinists in Scotland, the north of Ireland, New England and even in Europe. These connections primed Presbyterian leaders like Gilbert Tennent of New Brunswick, New Jersey, for news of revival. But the variety of peoples, backgrounds and churches—at the time, unprecedented in the whole world— meant that ministers and the laity were making things up as they went along. Outside the emerging metropolises of New York and Philadelphia the struggle to provide education, civic guidance and regular pastoral ministry to a thinly inhabited terrain absorbed most of the churches’ energies. In retrospect, the middle colonies, like New England, also seemed prepared for revival, but in their case it was because of unrealized religious longing created by an avalanche of new experiences rather than because of a unified religious tradition with strong evangelical elements.

Frontier regions of all colonies south of New England resembled the situation in Canada, the Scottish highlands and the West Indies. Churches in these areas were for the most part so preoccupied with basic problems of survival, or so caught up in this-worldly pursuit of gain, that there was not much response to the early stages of evangelical outreach.

The southern regions of North America offered particular challenges to formal religion of any variety. Population was rising rapidly in the original Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland, and serious settlement was also taking place in the newer colonies of North Carolina (chartered 1663), South Carolina (divided from North Carolina in 1712) and Georgia (1732). But dictated by the requirements of a producer economy featuring the growing of tobacco, settlement tended to be dispersed along rivers or scattered in small coastal communities and in backcountry homesteads. Anglican ministers were harder working and more faithful to Christian traditions than their opponents portrayed them, but their tasks were immense. The physical scope of ministerial responsibilities was beyond British imagining—many southern clergy were responsible for more territory than many English bishops. The absence of a bishop on the American side of the Atlantic meant that candidates for ordination had to make the long, dangerous voyage to England and return. The system of African American slavery, which was firmly in place by the 1690s, added further strain. Slave society encouraged a culture of violence that brutalized blacks and whites, a division of moral responsibilities that left religion to be looked after by women in the home, and a fixation by white males on questions of personal honor. Southern blacks as well as whites would eventually respond with real fervor to evangelical preaching, but southern society as a whole contained more elements inimical to evangelicalism than any other colonial region.


Finally, the spiritual geography of the entire British empire was marked by two features that worked in different ways to ease the way for the spread of the evangelical message. First, with increasing ardor throughout the eighteenth century, loyal Britons experienced a sharpening sense of antagonism to the Roman Catholic Church. In the minds of many there was a natural affinity between freedom, prosperity, the King James Version of the Bible and faithful loyalty to the British crown, as opposed to a corresponding affinity between oppression, poverty, the Latin mass and craven loyalty to France. What historian Linda Colley has called “a vast superstructure of prejudice” against “Catholics and Catholic states” was a legacy of the past that grew even stronger over the course of the eighteenth century.

A second historical legacy was the common assumption that Britain constituted a confessional Christian state, not in vague or abstract terms but with specific reference to the Trinity of classical Christian theology. Throughout the eighteenth century, many challenges would arise to the belief that state churches were institutions ordained by God and that the basis of state-church religion should be the historic Christian faith. But both of those notions remained very strong throughout the whole extent of British rule. Neither active personal piety nor conscientious holy living were necessarily the consequence of holding these assumptions, but as assumptions they did not begin to give way for a long time. The result, as with Britain’s residual anti-Catholicism, was to maintain an acknowledged public framework for Protestant religion. Evangelical preachers might face the daunting task of breathing life into the corpse of Christendom, but at least from some perspectives, that task was less comprehensive than laboring for the creation of Christianity tout court and de novo.