Review: Ryan Nicholas Danker, Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism (IVP Academic. Pp. 300. $26).
By Gareth Atkins
Historians of the 18th-century Church of England have long declared reports of its death to be exaggerated. But among contemporary Anglicans, even quite learned ones, that revisionist insight has been slower to catch on. Nineteenth-century caricatures of their predecessors as worldly squarsons who sought to control the poor and cultivate the rich to remain powerful. Just as detrimental to historical understanding, though, is the presentist urge to locate “authentic” Anglicanism at a particular time. The Hanoverian Church is usually consigned to oblivion by 21st-century commentators in search of more familiar names and more “relevant” theological pickings. There are two reasons why this is a shame. One is a matter of honesty: Anglicans need to engage wholeheartedly with all aspects of their past if they are to understand the present properly. But it also matters because, as Ryan Danker shows in this rich and nuanced monograph, when the 18th-century church is taken on its own terms it looks both more coherent and more compelling as a subject of study.
There has never been any shortage of books on John Wesley. Methodist historians and hagiographers have supplied a more or less constant production line since the great man’s death. Despite and indeed because of this, though, only fairly recently has Wesley’s churchmanship become the focus of serious scholarly attention. One of Danker’s strengths lies in his ability to pick apart and explain the diverse political and theological strands it comprised: the holy living tradition Wesley drew from his High Church upbringing; his reverence for patristic writers, refracted chiefly through Restoration divines; his Toryish, semi-Jacobite reverence for the royal martyr Charles I; his continental Pietism; and his admiration for Counter-Reformation saints. Here was a man who held strongly to inherited Reformation doctrines of original sin, the new birth, and justification by faith alone while also maintaining a very high view of the Eucharist, believing in baptismal regeneration and prayers for the dead, and advocating semi-monastic patterns of prayer and fasting.
None of this is entirely new, but Danker’s exposition of it may come as a surprise to anyone inclined to dismiss the Hanoverian Church as moribund and monochromatic. Contrary to Victorian caricatures, patristic study and sacramentalism were living traditions; nor were they the property of particular strands of churchmanship — not in the way that the Victorians would have understood it. Evangelicalism was born in the fruitful conjunctions and problematic tensions between these inheritances. The result was a dynamic piety whose energy, emotionalism, and experimentation rendered it impossible to control. Wesley and his contemporaries were, as Danker puts it nicely, “swept up into a larger movement that neither he nor they were ever able to grasp in its entirety” (p. 50).
Central to this book is its exploration of the divide between what was to become Wesleyan Methodism and evangelical churchmanship within the Church of England. Whereas the former ultimately chose with Wesley to make the world its parish, the latter — in John Walsh’s famous formulation — opted to make the parish its world. Danker’s originality lies in his demonstration of how crucial that divergence was to the identities of both groups. Initially they were almost indistinguishable from one another. But from as early as the 1740s, they began to differ on questions of “regularity”: adherence to ecclesiastical norms, obedience to episcopal discipline, and observance of parochial boundaries. The story of how this took place is pursued across chapters on the roots of evangelical piety; the beginnings of the evangelical movement; conversion; ecclesiastical reactions to evangelicalism; the political implications of separatism; the geography of the movement(s); attitudes to the Eucharist, the “Oxford expulsions” of 1768; and the contrasting theological priorities of the two strands.
There is important revisionism here. Whereas existing accounts tend to place explanatory weight on the increasingly bitter and public controversies of the 1760s over soteriology, which pitted Wesley’s Arminian perfectionism against the Calvinism of other branches of revival, Wesley and the Anglicans emphasizes ecclesiastical discipline as a ground of constant contention from a much earlier date. Because early evangelicalism was such a small, interconnected sphere, dominant personalities and divergent forms of churchmanship clashed. No personality was bigger than John Wesley, presented here as a spectacularly maverick High Churchman whose overriding commitment to preaching the gospel made him impatient with those who stuck to the ecclesiastical slow lane. Yet even “Pope John” found himself unable to control all the hares he set running. While he was initially sanguine about the army of lay evangelists he created, he was horrified when some of them took it upon themselves to celebrate the Eucharist, a risk that his much more ecclesiastically inclined brother Charles had vainly tried to draw to his attention.
There is revisionism, too, in Danker’s exploration of how and why evangelical clergy distanced themselves from Wesley and company. There were, he suggests, broad intellectual differences: Wesley’s High Churchmanship placed him at odds with evangelicals committed to restoring the “Old Divinity,” the theology of the English Reformers and Puritans. While this division is perhaps overdrawn given the eclecticism even of regular-minded evangelical clergy, it suggests that debates about soteriology were only skirmishes in a wider theological-historical clash. This can only be understood, Danker contends, against a backdrop of conservative reaction in church and state under George III that forced waverers to choose between latitude and loyalty. Fretful about their status and their pulpits, especially after the signal expulsion of six evangelical Oxonians in 1768, the “Gospel clergy” generally followed the advice of the Rev. Samuel Walker of Truro: “be very civil to the Methodists, but have nothing to do with them” (p. 243). By 1770, then, the two movements were on different trajectories: indeed, evangelicals were among Wesley’s sharpest critics.
While readers new to this period will find much to educate and interest them in this clear and well-contextualized book, there are insights to stimulate more seasoned students. Above all, there is an exhortation to think about how movements develop, in terms not just of thought or personal charisma but of politics and pragmatism too: considerations that became a hallmark of evangelicalism in “the Age of Wilberforce.” Notwithstanding excellent research in the last few decades, Methodists and evangelicals are still often discussed in the same breath, being lumped together, for instance, in J.C.D. Clark’s pathbreaking English Society (1985) as sharing a similar inheritance and political stance. This study comes as a good reminder that we need to look more closely.
Dr. Gareth Atkins is a bye-fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge.