8-1 literary

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

8.1 (Winter 2008)


literature and faith



A Kinship Forgotten, A Rebellion Overlooked: Evangelical Influences on English Romanticism   (Part One)

Sean Trainor


’Tis this that draws the fire up to the moon,

The mover this, in hearts of mortal things,

This that binds up the earth and makes it one.

                        Dante, Il Paradiso, Canto I: 115-117


Stop, Christian Passer-by!—Stop, child of God

And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod

A poet lies, or that which once seem’d he, —

O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;

That he who many a year with toil of breath

Found death in life, may here find life in death!

Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame

He ask’d, and hoped, through Christ.  Do thou the same!

                                     Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Epitaph


I. A Brief Abstract

Evangelicalism was one of the eighteenth century’s most important religious and social movements.  Romanticism was the early nineteenth century’s most important literary movement.  Surprisingly, little scholarship has been devoted to exploring connections between the two.  Richard E. Brantley’s Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism and Frederick C. Gill’s The Romantic Movement and Methodism are among the few texts that deal with the evangelical-romantic relationship.  Both books focus primarily on proving that evangelicalism and romanticism were, in fact, related—that the presence of common themes in both evangelical and romantic expression cannot simply be coincidental.  This essay advances the discourse in several ways.

First, it attempts to explain how elements of evangelicalism found their way into early English romanticism.  It suggests that the empirical epistemology of John Locke underlay both the rationalism and the natural theology from which early romantics consciously drew inspiration, and which also provided the widely influential emphases of evangelicalism.  Building on a common empirical foundation, the early romantics could easily integrate elements of both rationalism and evangelicalism into their system of thought.

Second, the essay examines the reasons for romantic poet and theologian Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s turn away from empiricism.  It asserts that Coleridge’s theology, as expressed in 1825’s Aids to Reflection, should be regarded as an attack on the shared empirical core of both rationalism and evangelicalism.

Finally, it examines public reception of Aids to Reflection and attempts to explain a peculiar phenomenon: Coleridge’s readers are almost completely unaware of the extent to which his tract is an attack on both rational and evangelical epistemology.  The reasons for the public’s misunderstanding of Aids to Reflection’s themes and purpose shed light on English society of the early nineteenth century and help modern readers understand why it took nearly two centuries for scholars to recognize romanticism’s kinship with evangelicalism.

The section immediately following, however, will treat a subject far older than the works of Wesley and Coleridge.  A brief investigation of the composition of the New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke will provide a useful model for understanding both the way in which romanticism incorporated elements of evangelical thought and the reasons Coleridge’s public failed to recognize his implicit critique of evangelicalism.

II. An Illustrative Parallel; An Extensive Abstract

In 1890, Biblical scholar Johannes Weiss first used the word Quelle, German for “source”, to designate a text that he and other Biblical scholars believed to be imbedded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.[1]  The text was lost in manuscript form.  Now known as ‘Q’, it has been reconstructed by isolating passages in Matthew and Luke, absent in Mark, whose Greek wording matches nearly to the letter.[2]  These verbatim similarities strongly suggest that Matthew and Luke used a common written source.  As Jesus’ native tongue was Aramaic, scholars refused to accept that the authors of Matthew and Luke, working independently, could have translated Jesus’ oral traditions into the Gospels’ Greek with such a high degree of verbal agreement.[3]  Given, then, that Matthew and Luke were composed independently of one another, it was only logical to suggest that the parallel discursive material in Matthew and Luke, noticeably absent in Mark, had been derived from a shared written source.[4]   After nearly two centuries of scholarship, Biblical scholar John Kloppenborg and three co-editors have published The Critical Edition of Q, a brief collection of Jesus’ and John the Baptist’s sayings, parables, and discourses. Carefully hewn from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the message and theology of The Critical Edition of Q stand independent of the Synoptic Gospels. [5]

Neither the content of Q nor the way in which nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship reconstructed it, however, is nearly as important for current purposes as the fact of its disappearance.  Q was not merely lost; it was long lost.  Even the Church Fathers seem to have been unaware of Q’s existence.  Saint Augustine (354-430), insofar as he was willing to accept any literary dependence among the Synoptic Gospels, suggested that the Gospels’ canonical order also represented the order in which they were composed: Matthew first, followed by Mark and Luke, both of whom may have taken certain cues from the first Gospel.[6]  This understanding of the Gospels’ composition is not unique to Augustine.  Even the earliest Church Fathers’ Scriptural discussions are noticeably silent on the matter of a sayings source.

Q not only fell into disuse; even its record of existence disappeared.  Scholars have proposed several theories to explain this occurrence.  Some have suggested that the reading of Q—listing, as it does, sayings credited to Jesus without ‘authorized’ allegorical interpretations—proved dangerous to nascent Christian orthodoxy.  Perhaps imaginative ‘mis-readings’ of the text by communities outside the mainstream gave rise to or substantiated the claims of numerous heresies.  Others have proposed a simpler theory: that Q fell into disuse because it was unneeded by the Church.  The entirety of its content was replicated in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Why read the comparatively dull and confusing Q gospel when one could read Matthew or Luke?  The latter, after all, not only provide helpful explanations of many of Jesus’ parables and discourses, but place his words in the larger historical and theological context of his life, ministry, and mission.

While a better case can be made for the latter theory, proponents of the former theory do make an important point.  By replicating Q in the context of a semi-biographical narrative, Matthew and Luke significantly altered Q’s ostensible original meaning.  Many passages in Q, when read without Matthew and Luke’s allegorical interpretation, deal not with a coming apocalypse, but instead with this-worldly wisdom.  Neither does Q’s Jesus preach salvation through his sacrificial death; rather, the text suggests that Jesus’ messianic significance is related to the wisdom he brings.[7]  Most interestingly, Q mentions neither Jesus’ death nor his resurrection.  At the intersection of context and content, by way of Matthew and Luke’s adaptation, Q took on a different meaning.  A wisdom teacher’s words were put in the mouth of the apocalyptic Lamb of God.  While the text’s content survived, its intended meaning was transformed and its independence lost.  Unrecognized for centuries, Q survived only through contextual transformation.

The process of Q’s survival mirrors and illustrates, in simpler form, the complex process that is part of this essay’s subject: the survival of evangelical ideas, largely derived from John Locke, in early English romantic literature.  This essay will examine the way in which early romanticism, through contextual transformation, disguised its use of the empirical epistemology of John Locke that underlay evangelical thought.  It will discuss Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s critique of this shared empiricism and suggest several possible reasons for the British public’s failure to comprehend the full implications of Coleridge’s critique.


     Evangelical ideas formed a part of the intellectual system of the so-called “ Lake Poets ”, the three most influential and intellectually sophisticated writers of early English romanticism: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey.[8]  This relationship is effectively demonstrated by the groundbreaking research of Richard E. Brantley in Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism.  He notes, for example, their common emphasis on spiritual experience and inner life.  This relationship, however, does not necessarily imply direct influence.  Neither does it exclude the possibility.  Rather, and more broadly, it suggests intellectual kinship.  The exact nature of this relationship, as will be demonstrated later, is difficult to determine.  Whether early romanticism represents the begotten child of evangelicalism or its younger cousin is a concern of this essay.

The pitfall of Brantley’s approach is its ahistorical analysis.  He neglects to analyze the means whereby evangelical emphases arrived in the romantics’ work.  He discusses the general influence of Methodism founder John Wesley’s language and ideas, but fails to consider the ways in which these ideas could have “seeped” into the Lake Poets ’ consciousness.  Moreover, he fails to mention the content of the Lake Poets ’ early reading or their self-professed influences at the time of their early and defining work.  This brings us to a crucial point: none of the Lake Poets was a Methodist or evangelical.  As young men, they had little sympathy for organized religion generally, let alone for the formulations of Wesley or other evangelicals.  Their biographies and autobiographical writing, moreover, show little more than a general, “atmospheric” knowledge of evangelical religion.  Despite the ostensible kinship of their early work to evangelicalism, there is little evidence that the Lake Poets had anything more than a passing awareness of or concern with the thought of Wesley or his sympathizers.

During the years in which the Lake Poets composed the works that would make their reputations and set the tone for English romanticism, their literary and intellectual interests encompassed both a secular poetry of sentiment, the philosophy of Enlightenment rationalism, and Christian natural theology.  The sentimental sonneteer William Lisle Bowles and the “Graveyard Poets” Edward Young and Thomas Gray were influences on their poetic style and diction, while their thought was influenced not only by the “stodgy Aristotelianism” of their classical Oxford and Cambridge educations, but by radical British and Continental writers of the eighteenth century.[9]  Southey, for example, had come to Oxford in 1792 with “a heart full of poetry and feeling, a head full of Rousseau and [Goethe’s Young] Werther, and my religious principles shaken by [Edward] Gibbon.”  Here Southey refers to the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  He also read the work of democrats and radical Deists or Unitarians like William Godwin and Joseph Priestley, and that of the unorthodox Christian materialist David Hartley.[10]  Coleridge, too, shared an interest in Godwin, with whom he corresponded extensively; he admired Priestley, after whose immigration to the Susquehanna River Coleridge and Southey’s Pantisocracy utopian commune was modeled; he, too, was inspired by Hartley, after whom his first son, born in 1796, was named.[11]  In any case, the ahistorical quasi-Wesleyans Brantley describes were not the radical young Wordsworth and Coleridge who, in 1798, published Lyrical Ballads, or the Southey who, in 1797, published his Poems.  The core of their romanticism—an individually, imaginatively felt experience of a natural religiosity—was formulated long before the Lake Poets acknowledged their kinship with Wesley and the evangelicals.

This essay, therefore, posits a threefold explanation of early romanticism’s ostensible kinship with evangelicalism.  First, it suggests that both the content of evangelicalism and the philosophies of the various radicals read by the Lake Poets shared a common Lockean-empirical heritage.  The Lockean-empirical foundation of English rationalism—with its emphasis on observation, natural theology, and scientific reason—has been discussed extensively by a number of scholars, and Brantley’s Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism does a superb job of establishing the Lockean character of evangelical thought.  Second, it asserts that the evangelical revival, building upon Locke’s empirical philosophy, generated a popular interest in experienced spirituality and the inner life.  Not only were evangelical ideas ‘in the air’, but the revival had its counterpart in a poetry of natural and secular sentiment and experience.  This poetry, as noted above, was widely read by the early romantics.  Third and finally, it suggests that early romanticism moved freely between the self-conscious influence of rational philosophy and the popular, atmospheric influence of the evangelicals.  This movement was ultimately facilitated by the common Lockean heritage of both radical rationalism and evangelicalism.

Later in their lives, the Lake Poets would come to recognize and critique their kinship with both evangelicalism and rationalism.  Their disassociation from and critique of radical rationalism seems to have largely stemmed from the general reaction against democrats and radicals like Godwin, Priestley, Hartley and others in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleon Wars.[12]  Few public figures were eager to associate themselves with the despised “English Jacobins”, the bloodshed of the Terror, and the turmoil of the Napoleonic era.[13]  Their later relationship with evangelicalism is somewhat more complex.  While all three of the Lake Poets would renew their relationship with the Church of England, their opinions of evangelicalism varied.  In 1820, for example, Southey published his favorable Life of Wesley; and Rise and Progress of Methodism, about which Coleridge wrote:

How many and many an hour do I owe to this Life of Wesley; and how often have I argued with it, questioned, remonstrated, been peevish, and asked pardon—then again listened, and cried Right! Excellent!—and in yet heavier hours intreated [sic] it, as it were, to continue talking to me—for that I heard and listened, and was soothed, though I could make no reply.[14]

In 1833, moreover, Southey published the fifteen-volume Life and Works of the influential evangelical poet William Cowper.

Coleridge’s comment on Southey’s Life, however, is deceiving.  It masks a more critical understanding of both Wesley and evangelicalism that appears in Coleridge’s later theological writing.  In general, he seems to have grown uneasy with the empiricism that underlay both rationalism and evangelicalism.  In Dejection: An Ode, for example, Coleridge expresses concerns about the solipsistic possibilities of empiricism, its tendency to descend into a subjectivity so profound that it ultimately denies reality to all besides the self.  Several central lines question the source of the fervent natural spirituality that figures so centrally in the Lake Poets ’ early work.

Though I should gaze for ever

On that green light that lingers in the west;

I may not hope from outward forms to win

The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

O Lady! we receive but what we give,

And in our life alone does Nature live;

Ours is her wedding-garment, ours her shroud![15]

Had Coleridge received those early feelings of sublimity from nature, or had he merely painted his own ideas on the grand canvas of creation?  Was Nature alive but within himself?  These thoughts continued to plague Coleridge.  In what might be read as a corollary to Dejection’s solipsistic concerns, Coleridge noted that

the main and most noticeable difference between Leighton and the modern Methodists is to be found in the uniform Selfishness of the latter Not do you wish to love God?  Do you love your neighbour?  Do you think O how near and lovely must Christ be or but are you certain, that Christ has saved you, that he died for you—you—you—you yourself on to the end of the Chapter—this is Wesley’s Doctrine.[16]

     It was in light of these concerns that Coleridge’s growing Christianity began to take distinctive shape.  His interest in the materialist Hartley, in natural theology and Unitarianism, had given way by the second decade of the nineteenth century to an interest in Kant and German idealism, to Scottish divine Archbishop Robert Leighton (whose aphorisms form the early core of Coleridge’s theological tract, Aids to Reflection), to the Christian neoplatonic tradition and the Cambridge Platonists.  As this essay argues, he began to conceive of the English intellectual current as two forks of the Lockean stream, one branch of the stream representing the materialistic empiricism of the rationalists and many contemporary Anglican theologians, the other branch representing the spiritual empiricism of the evangelicals.  Between these two streams he attempted to stake out a sounder epistemological ground: one beginning with the evidence of the senses, but ending with the entirety of man’s being—with the possibility of more completely experiencing knowledge of the Divine.

This particular understanding of Coleridge’s epistemological development requires a rethinking of the purpose of both his theology and Aids to Reflection.  Typically, Coleridge’s theology has been understood as an attack on natural theology and Benthamite rationalism.  He termed the latter a “vaunted Mechanico-corpuscular Philosophy” that produced a “universe of death.”[17]  Instead, this essay suggests that Coleridge’s theology, and particularly that of Aids to Reflection, should be regarded as an implicit attack on any and all systems—including both rationalism and evangelicalism—that reduced man’s capacity for knowing to the information of the senses.

The great peculiarity here is that, in several dozens of responses to Aids to Reflection, Coleridge’s readers consistently fail to comment upon the author’s critique of evangelical empiricism.  According to its reception, Aids to Reflection retrieved many from the grips of materialism and Benthamite rationalism, but its implicit (and occasionally explicit) critique of evangelical empiricism seems to have gone almost completely unnoticed.  What could account for this failure of recognition?

First, it would seem that empiricism had come to be publicly regarded as more or less the sole domain of science and rationalism.  An understanding of the empirical thrust and Lockean-philosophical core of Wesley’s thought was lost to a general notion of Methodism and evangelicalism as altogether antithetical to science.  Many of Coleridge’s readers comment on Aids to Reflection’s criticism of scientific rationalism.  Several note that the author’s compelling, heartfelt arguments for Christianity retrieved them from a skeptical or rational irreligion.  Nevertheless, they remain silent on Aids to Reflection’s implicit criticism of evangelical feeling.

The notion of science and evangelical religion as unrelated intellectual poles is supported by the general characterization of evangelicalism, persisting into the twentieth century, as, to quote Claude Welch, “a system of feeling, or…  a theological mood and stance” rather than a system of thought.[18]  Insofar, then, as Coleridge’s readers take issue with his epistemology, it is from a rationalist perspective.  An empirical epistemology underlay nearly all English thought in the early nineteenth century, but an understanding of this intellectual genealogy remained uncommon among the larger part of Coleridge’s public.  Apparently, they could not fathom an argument that simultaneously attacked both rationalism and evangelicalism.

Second, among Coleridge’s evangelical readers, the religious movement seems to have been understood as a reform rather than intellectual or spiritual movement.  For many Englishmen, evangelicalism’s importance lay in its restoration of the Church visible and its dogma rather than in the movement’s promulgation of an alternative religious epistemology.  This may partially account for Welch’s negative evaluation of evangelicalism’s intellectual content.  While Wesley and other prominent evangelicals were tremendous theologians, their followers, especially in the Anglican branch of evangelicalism, were more concerned with the Church’s day-to-day life than with the Church invisible.  Theirs was an active faith; the reflective, metaphysical quality of Coleridge’s theology seemed irrelevant to their religious concerns.

At any rate, evangelicalism’s most important triumph among Coleridge’s readers, insofar as they were sympathetic to the goals of the evangelical program, was its restoration of the Christian doctrinal tradition.  The importance of this restoration is apparent in their commentary on Aids to Reflection.  Several of Coleridge’s readers commend his praise of several points of doctrine oft-maligned by rationalists and natural theologians, including original sin and the Trinity—doctrinal points of great concern to the evangelicals.  Nevertheless, they remain silent on the subject of his epistemology.  A reflective, intellectual theological text seemed irrelevant to their practical religious concerns.

Third and finally, Coleridge’s readers, many of them among the young Victorian literati, seem to have been without an overall evangelical or epistemological inclination.  The fullness of evangelical enthusiasm was apparently not at work in the larger section of British society that read and commented on Aids to Reflection.  Coleridge’s readers seem to have been generally effected by those elements of evangelicalism capable of institutionalization—doctrine and an emphasis on morality and will—but not by its emphasis on feeling and experienced faith.

It would be an overstatement to suggest that Coleridge’s readers were unconcerned with epistemology.  Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding was widely read in both complete and abridged forms in the eighteenth century.  In the same century, Samuel Johnson carried on a lively epistemological and ontological debate with George Berkeley.  Romanticism itself was, as much as anything, a poetry of epistemology—a literature that sought to understand how man knows the sublimity that resides in nature.  As noted above, however, English epistemological discourse was dominated by empiricism.  While this allowed for a number of variations—including Wesley’s evangelicalism, the Lake Poets’ romanticism, Paley’s natural theology, Bentham’s utilitarianism, and Hume’s skepticism—English epistemology remained essentially empirical.  England ’s epistemology had not been fundamentally challenged for more than a century.  Even the challenge of German Idealism had yet to have a major impact in England .

It would seem, then, that Coleridge’s readers simply failed to recognize the epistemological challenge of Aids to Reflection.[19]  Rationalists, evangelicals, natural theologians, and romantics had so thoroughly and unquestioningly integrated Locke’s empirical epistemology into their work that most of Coleridge’s readers utterly lacked the background or philosophical vocabulary to grasp and discuss the new footing upon which he had set religious knowledge.  The notion that the senses played a minimal role in the acquisition of knowledge was nearly as incomprehensible to Coleridge’s readers as it is to many modern readers.

At this point that we must return to the history of the Q Gospel.  Like Q and the evangelists, the Lake Poets, in their early work, had recontextualized and advanced the empirical epistemology already dominant in eighteenth-century England.  In doing so, however, they had disguised their kinship with evangelicalism.  Like Q, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, strands of Lockean-Wesleyan thought were present in romanticism, but their meanings were transformed and their independence lost.  While evangelical thought thrived independently of romantic literature, its kinship with and presence in the Lake Poets’ work went largely unrecognized—by the poets themselves and by their readers.  The evangelical project had come to be regarded as something distinctly separate from that of the romantics.

When Coleridge finally turned away from Lockean empiricism, the British public was, in the main, unprepared to recognize the novelty of his alternative epistemology.  Like modern readers of the Q gospel who are unable to separate Q’s theology from the Biblical context in which they first encountered it, the vast majority of Coleridge’s readers found it difficult to recognize the Lockean empiricism that underlay nearly all contemporary English thought.  Rationalism, evangelicalism, and romanticism did not present themselves to the English mind as kindred movements, but as the largely unrelated extremes of contemporary English intellectual life.  Epistemologically unversed and unaware of the common core of English thought, Coleridge’s readers failed to recognize the challenge his theology presented to both rationalism and evangelicalism.  This is the essay’s central thesis: that early romanticism, akin to both rationalism and evangelicalism, advanced empirical assumptions it ultimately came to reject.  The literate public, when confronted with challenges to these assumptions, was largely unprepared to recognize Coleridge’s novel epistemologyFinally, it argues that while Aids to Reflection retrieved many rationalists from irreligion, it largely failed in its attempt to combat evangelicalism’s empirical coreIts critique of evangelical epistemology went unrecognized.

The remainder of the essay will proceed as follows.  A third section (see immediately below) will discuss the content and general influence of Wesleyanism and evangelicalism and its shared Lockean character with other strands of eighteenth-century thought, while a fourth section will discuss the kinship of evangelicalism, rationalism, and the secular, sentimental poetry of experience to the early thought of the Lake Poets.  A fifth section will detail the Lake Poets’ self-professed early influences, the causes of their turn from rationalism, and the reasons for their (particularly Coleridge’s) turn towards a more orthodox Anglican Christianity.  It will also focus on the development of Coleridge’s religious thought, his attempt to set epistemology on firmer ground, and the theology of Aids to Reflection.  A sixth and section will deal further with the nature and content of Aids to Reflection’s public reception in both England and, to a lesser degree, the United States, and with possible reasons for the failure of Coleridge’s readers to recognize his implicit critique of evangelical empiricism.  A seventh section will conclude the essay and discuss the broader implications of its conclusions.

III . The Lockean Character of Evangelical Thought, the Evangelicals’ General Influence, and Lockean Currents in Other Eighteenth-Century Schools of Thought

Before discussing the evangelicals’ origins and progress, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by the term “evangelical”.  For current purposes, it refers (in the English context) to persons, Methodist, Anglican, and Dissenter, who defended the Christian doctrinal tradition against those in the Church of England who would do away with certain ostensibly irrational elements of the Christian heritage.[20]  This did not, however, place them in the camp of neo-Scholasticism, plumbing the recondite depths of Christian doctrine.  Like their German Pietist predecessors and counterparts, the English evangelicals believed that theology, “while it preserves the foundation of faith from the Scriptures,” to quote the German religious writer Philipp Jakob Spener, “builds on it with so much wood, hay, and stubble of human inquisitiveness that the gold can no longer be seen.”[21]  For the English evangelicals, the doctrinal tradition to be recovered from Christian rationalism was one of simplicity.  It was that of the Thirty-Nine Articles: of the Trinity, of Christ’s divinity, of the Fall and Atonement, of Grace and the Spirit’s testimony.  While these doctrines were established upon Scripture, they were to be confirmed by experience—by, as Claude Welch writes, “the inner and direct testimony of the Holy Spirit”. [22]  In the words of John Wesley, Christianity was to be validated by an “inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God immediately and directly witnesses to my spirit, that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me; that all sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.”[23]  One’s faith was ultimately to be experienced and internalized.  This internalization, however, was to have outer effects.  Wesley and other evangelicals insisted that, to quote Welch, “the inner religion of the heart be expressed in an outward and visible quality and shape of existence: Christianity consists rather in practice than in knowledge…  and specifically the practice of love.”[24]

Evangelicalism had its origins in both religious and intellectual traditions and historical conditions.  As briefly noted above, English evangelicalism was influenced by Spener and German Pietism, a seventeenth- and early-eighteenth century movement within Lutheranism.  Pietism emphasized “apostolic simplicity” and “active faith” (perhaps best understood as will), over knowledge and learned theology.[25]  Spener summarized the movement, stating in his Pia Desideria that “our entire Christianity consists in the inner or new man, and its soul is faith.”[26]  One strand of Pietism particularly influential among English evangelicals was that of the Moravians.  Wesley had been deeply impressed by a community of Moravians he encountered in transit to the American colonies in the mid-1730s, and it was after attending a Moravian service in May of 1738 that Wesley penned his now famous description of discovering “sure trust and confidence” in God: “I felt my heart strangely warmed.”[27]

English evangelicalism also drew upon the domestic philosophical tradition in its formulation of theology, particularly John Locke’s empirical epistemology as laid out in the Essay concerning Human Understanding.  This essay’s understanding of evangelicalism’s philosophical core, largely derived from Brantley, is opposed to many scholars’ understanding of the movement.  Claude Welch, for example, while otherwise quite impressive in his analysis, partly mischaracterizes evangelicalism as an intellectually empty religious movement.

Clearly, [evangelicalism] was no system of thought. Were it possible, one might speak rather of a system of feeling, or of a theological mood and stance as well as a religious revival, in which all attention was centered on the heartfelt character of true religion, on inner conviction and peace, on the intensity of feeling, on the affective and the emotional elements in experience.[28]

In fairness to Welch, his analysis is partly correct.  English evangelical thought was neither as original nor as systematic as the theologies promulgated by the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin.  With some exceptions (most notably Wesley’s eschewal of the doctrine of Election [Article XVII]), the evangelicals largely accepted the Calvinist Thirty-Nine Articles as they were received.[29]  To characterize their movement as a “system of feeling”, however, is a disservice to their memory and our understanding.  It also overlooks the particular way in which Wesley and others understood feeling.  When Wesley declared that “the most infallible of proofs [is] inward feeling,” he referred, not to the purely subjective operation of emotion, but instead to the subjective spiritual perception of the actually real.[30]  Wesley’s “feeling” is not the product of a cushy emotionalism but a spiritual empiricism; Wesley’s “feeling” is received by the “spiritual senses”.  As Brantley writes, “Locke’s rational empiricism (i.e. his epistemology of sense perception attended by induction and deduction) directly informs the religious ‘epistemology’ whereby Wesley claimed the saving faith he felt was his.”[31]  Wesley himself speaks of cultivating the “spiritual senses”, senses capable of making the rational, inductive leap from the physically observed to the spiritually observed.

[B]efore it is possible for you to form a true judgment of the things of God, it is absolutely necessary that you have a clear apprehension of them, and that your ideas thereof be all fixed, distinct, and determinate.  And seeing our ideas are not all innate, but must originally come from our senses, it is certainly necessary that you have senses capable of discerning objects of this kind: Not those only which are called natural senses, which in this respect profit nothing, as being altogether incapable of discerning objects of a spiritual kind; but spiritual senses, exercised to discern spiritual good and evil.  It is necessary that you have the hearing ear, and the seeing eye, emphatically so called; that you have a new class of senses opened in your soul, not depending on organs of flesh and blood, to be “the evidence of things not seen,” as your bodily sense are of visible things; to be the avenues to the invisible world, to discern spiritual objects, and to furnish you with ideas of what the outward “eye hath not seen, neither the ear heard.”[32]

     This connection between Locke and Wesley, however, is not altogether surprising.  Locke himself was a professed Christian.  In 1695, he published The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in Scriptures.  The Essay, moreover, to quote Brantley, “frequently acknowledges the Bible as [the] source of religious knowledge” while finding evidence of God’s perfection in the “general connexion” among “all parts of the creation.”[33]  That Locke’s empiricism provided the foundation upon which Deism and natural theology were built does not in any way undermine the evangelical possibilities of his thought.[34]

Apart from the experiential emphases of both Locke and Wesley, it is important to note stylistic similarities between the prose of the Empiricist and the Methodist.  To scholar George Lawton’s assertion that “Wesley’s prose is a stout three-fold cord having Scriptural, Classical, and colloquial strands interwoven,” Brantley adds a fourth strand: the Lockean.[35]  Like Locke, Wesley’s prose was clear, simple, and unequivocal.  “His predilection for similes,” writes Brantley, “rests on the fact that as ‘miniature proverbs’ ‘their basis is the facts of experience’; and it is specifically Lockean language of experience, as well as experiential language in general, which I think enabled him to raise his ineffable experience to grace.”[36]

Locke’s influence on eighteenth-century thought—including religion and spirituality—was nothing short of pervasive.  Not only did Wesley “derive a formal philosophic component from Locke’s appeal to the senses and to reason,” but non-Christian and unorthodox religious radicals and rational Anglicans (by 1800, the most prominent branch of orthodoxy) also founded their positions upon a Lockean epistemology.[37]  Whereas Wesley had enlarged the quasi-Cartesian dimension of Locke’s empiricism, focusing on the ‘spiritual sense’-based perception of the incorporeal, the radicals and the rational Anglicans emphasized (to varying degrees) the purely empirical aspect of the Essay’s epistemology.  This led the Deists to reject revelation and Christian doctrine as incompatible with human experience and reason.  Unitarians maintained the importance of revelation (though not its infallibility), while rejecting the doctrines of the Trinity, Original Sin, and other post-Biblical theological “contrivances”.[38]  Finally, the rational Anglicans, led by William Paley, promoted an empirical, natural theology of “evidences”, a stance perhaps best summarized by the title of Paley’s most important work, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature.[39]

This common Lockean-empirical heritage accounts for a number of important similarities between evangelicalism and, as it were, the English “Enlightenment”.  Both, for example, emphasized the importance of the individual.  Of course, as Welch points out, the evangelicals’ emphasis on the “interiorization” of Christianity was not the same as Enlightenment individualism, but “undoubtedly the concentration was on the individual self and its experience.”[40]  In any case, as one’s experience was, for both the evangelicals and the rationalists, ultimately the source of one’s knowledge, neither could but privilege the individual.

This common empiricism also manifested itself in an eighteenth-century’s emphasis on morality and behavior.  Whereas the evangelicals believed that a lived Christianity would alter one’s way of life, “enlightened” Englishmen stripped Christianity of its “superstition” and found but an ethical code.  Again, the stress was on living (experiencing) rather than contemplating one’s religion.

Perhaps the most important commonalities between the two groups were their tendency to blur the line between subjectivity and objectivity and, on a related note, their latent uncertainty about the realness of what they experienced.  On the former point, Wesley was in general agreement with Locke.  As Brantley writes:

Reality appears to the reader of the Essay as a balance between matter and mind, or rather, to borrow M. H. Abram’s words, as an “interpenetration” and “coalescence” of subject and object.  Wesley’s exclamation that “None can have general good sense unless they have clear and determinate ideas of all things” does more than simply paraphrase [Locke’s] discussion of the causes of confusion among men: Wesley surely signals, in his remark, his agreement with Locke’s argument that the mind [subject] forms a link with external reality [object].[41]

That both Locke and Wesley had an abiding faith in the objectivity of the world does not diminish the fact that Locke, as he himself admits in the Essay, and Wesley, as a faithful reader of Locke and a contemporary of David Hume and Bishop George Berkeley, both premised their systems on an epistemology that could easily lapse into solipsistic subjectivity, a subjectivity so profound that it denied any reality besides the self.  In Book III of the Essay, for example, Locke declares that “our faculties carry us no further toward the knowledge and distinction of substances [i.e., towards objective knowledge of things external], than a collection of those sensible ideas which we observe in them.”[42]  What then is to prevent the lapse into solipsism?

Nothing, apparently, as both Hume and Berkeley (in very different fashions) made mockeries of the empiricist’s ability to perceive an objective reality.  Hume, for example, suggested that we cannot be certain of subjective experience’s correspondence to an objective reality, and Berkeley asserted that, to quote Boswell, “nothing exists but as perceived by some mind.”[43]  In short, all inheritors of the Lockean epistemological heritage, whether evangelical or “enlightened”, were susceptible to the same criticism: that empiricism teetered perilously above the chasm of solipsistic subjectivity.  It was also this received Lockean heritage that allowed the Lake Poets to move so easily between its various strands and its susceptibility to uniform criticism that, among other factors, pushed them towards religion and a firmer epistemological ground.

The romantics’ engagement with the Lockean heritage, however, is not the issue currently at hand.  Rather, we turn at last to historical conditions that gave rise to English evangelicalism—conditions that made evangelicalism’s enormous influence possible.  “In England,” wrote the French philosophe Montesquieu, “there is no religion.”  “Christianity,” quipped Wesley’s early antagonist Bishop Butler, “is now at length discovered to be fictitious.”[44]  Religion, in early eighteenth-century England, was largely a system of patronage.  Livings, or fixed ministerial incomes attached to the land and tithes of given parishes, were dispensed without reference to the needs of parishioners, leaving some six thousand Church of England parishes with no resident priest.  For many, the Anglican Church simply failed to attend to important needs—whether material (in the form of welfare services) or spiritual.  In short, the Church was characterized by a neglect of the poor and a failure to inspire the wealthy and educated.[45]

It was to this spiritual and institutional void that evangelicalism was addressed.  For the dispossessed, Wesley and other evangelicals offered spiritual solace, community, and rudimentary education in the form of Sunday schools, private meetings and discussions (Methodist classes), and cheaply printed, popularly accessible but substantial books and pamphlets (including over two hundred abridgments) on everything from religion and philosophy to science.[46]  By way of this enterprise, Wesley helped popularize Locke’s empirical and experiential philosophy, as well as a language of philosophically informed, spiritual experience—perhaps the “language really used by men” of Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads.[47]  Particularly important in this regard were his empirical scientific text, Primitive Physick, “among the dozen or so most widely read books in England from 1750 to 1850”, his popularly accessible abridgements of Bishop Peter Browne’s The Procedure, Extent, and Limits of Human Understanding (“a theologizing of [Locke’s] Essay”), Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and his own writings on spiritual experience understood in light of Locke’s epistemology.[48]  The effect of all this was that philosophy ceased, for a moment, to be the domain of the learned elite.  Again, to quote Brantley:

Wesley’s philosophical theology…  represent a crucial point where theological history ceases to be a subspecies of the history of ideas and becomes a part of cultural history; on at least this one occasion, difficult philosophy indirectly and directly wrought its fascination upon the broad popular life of a country.[49]

     By the time of Wesley’s death, moreover, upwards of eighty-thousand people were paying a penny each week to attend a Methodist class, and by 1787, a quarter of a million young boys and girls in England were being educated in Methodist-founded Sunday schools.[50]  Nineteenth-century historian W. E. H. Lecky, “thinking in terms of social history,” declared that Wesley’s conversion “meant more for Britain than all the victories of Pitt by land and sea.”  In March of 1791, following Wesley’s death earlier in the month, The Gentleman’s Magazine noted that Wesley’s personal effectiveness “was greater, perhaps, than that of any other private gentleman in any country.”  Augustine Birrell, writing many years later, suggested that “no single voice touched so many hearts” as Wesley’s, that “no single figure influenced so many minds.”[51]  Along with Locke, Horace Walpole, and Samuel Johnson, Wesley was, without a doubt, among the most influential Englishmen of his century.

Even outside of Methodism, evangelicalism had a profound effect—especially its emphasis on the outward manifestation of an inwardly felt grace.  Anglican evangelicals lobbied for stricter morals, sobriety, proscriptions against Sabbath breaking, and the abolition of the slave trade.  By the early nineteenth century they had achieved many of their goals.[52]  Evangelicalism’s influence, in short, was nothing short of transformative.  Without resorting to so nebulous a term as Zeitgeist, it is nevertheless safe to say that the vocabulary and content of the evangelical message were, to quote Thomas McFarland, “in the air”.[53]  This pervasive influence, at last, entered the realm of art and literature—to be found in the hymns of Charles Wesley, the poetry of William Cowper and William Lisle Bowles, and other eighteenth-century artists and writers.  Summarizing several of the preceding pages and looking forward to the following section, John Beer, in his Romantic Influences: Contemporary, Victorian, Modern, noted that:

The failure of a “reasonable” religion to bring about moral improvement had led many preachers to adopt a more direct appeal to the language of the heart.  While Methodists and Evangelicals were working strongly on the feelings of their audiences, there also grew up a more private literature of sensibility that was to exercise a decisive influence on the nature of romanticism.  Poets, too, adopted the “appeal to the heart”, whether or not their poetry was written from a religious point of view.[54]


 continued in next issue


[1] John S. Kloppenborg et al., Q-Thomas Reader (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 1990), 3.

[2] Kloppenborg et al., Q-Thomas Reader, 10.

[3] Kloppenborg et al., Q-Thomas Reader, 9.

[4] The notion of Matthew and Luke’s compositional independence is widely supported by Biblical scholars. See Kloppenborg et al., Q-Thomas Reader, 9-10.

[5] That is Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so called because they can be arranged synoptically (i.e. in parallel columns that show their textual agreements and disagreements).

[6] Kloppenborg et al., Q-Thomas Reader, 8. See also Augustine’s De consensus evangelistarum.

[7] Kloppenborg et al., Q-Thomas Reader, 21.

[8] I do not, with this statement, mean to diminish the intellectual powers of William Blake. His immediate influence, however, was rather limited and does not figure prominently in the creation of an English romantic worldview.

[9] Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (New York: Viking, 1990), 36, 40-41, 62.  The term “stodgy Aristotelianism” is a direct quotation from a conversation about English university education in the late eighteenth century with Prof. Dewey D. Wallace, Jr., on 26 March, 2007 .

[10] Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, 62.

[11] Between 1800 and 1812, Coleridge and Godwin exchanged thirty-six letters. Earle Leslie Griggs, ed., The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1959); Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, 62; Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, 124.

[12] Clayton Roberts, David Roberts, and Douglas R. Bisson, A History of England , Vol. II: 1688 to the Present ( Upper Saddle River : Prentice Hall, 2002), 568.

[13] Homles, Coleridge: Early Visions, 45.

[14] See Robert Southey, The Life of Wesley; and Rise and Progress of Methodism, 3rd ed. with notes by the late S.T. Coleridge in Richard E. Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism (Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1984), 164.

[15] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Dejection: An Ode” in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol. 16: Poetical Works, Poems (Reading Text), I.2, ed. J.C.C. Mays ( Princeton : Princeton U P, 2001), 699.

[16] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol. 12: Marginalia, III , ed. H.J Jackson and George Whalley (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992), 528.

[17] Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Darker Reflections (London: Harper Collins, 1998), 548.

[18] Claude Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, Volume I: 1799-1870 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1972), 26-27.

[19] See, for example, Claude Welch’s discussion of the state of English theology in the early nineteenth century: “If we look more closely at the British theological scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century… [we will notice that] the Church of England was marked by an absence of intellectual vitality or excitement. What an earlier historian said about the latter half of the eighteenth century in England applies as well to the beginning of the nineteenth: ‘Theology was paralyzed. The deists railed no longer; and the orthodox were lapped in drowsy indifference. They boasted of the victory won by their predecessors; but were content on occasion to recapitulate the cut and dried formulas of refutation or to summarize the labours of the earlier inquiries’” (Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 109).

[20] Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 25.

[21] Philipp Jakob Spener, Pia desideria (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964), 46.

[22] Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 25.

[23] John Wesley, “The Witness to the Spirit: Discourse II,” in Wesley’s Standard Sermons: Vol. II, ed. Edward H. Sugden (London: The Epworth, 1956), 345.

[24] Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 29.

[25] Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 23.

[26] Spener, Pia desideria, 52.

[27] Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 23; John Wesley, The Journals of John Wesley (Belleville: Lion Publishing, 1986), May 24, 17 38 .

[28] Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 26-27.

[29] Clayton Roberts, et al., A History of England , 496.

[30] Wesley, The Journals of John Wesley, Jan. 8, 17 38 .

[31] Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 12.

[32] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley: Vol. 11, The Appeals to Men of Reason and Religion and Certain Related Open Letters (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 57.

[33] Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 8; John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding in Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 8.

[34] Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 9.

[35] George Lawton, John Wesley’s English: A Study of his Literary Style in Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 22.

[36] Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 22-23.

[37] Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 13; Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 110.

[38] Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 9.

[39] Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 110.

[40] Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 28

[41] Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 14.

[42] Excerpt of John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, in Jonathan Chaves, “Kicking the Stone and Viewing the Icon: Realist Epistemology Between Heaven and Earth” Praesidium 3.2 (Spring 2003), 5.

[43] Richard H. Popkin, “David Hume,” in The Columbia History of Western Philosophy, ed. Richard H. Popkin (New York: Columbia UP, 1999), 456; James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson ( New York : The Modern Library, n.d.), 924.

[44] Montesquieu and Butler quoted in Clayton Roberts, et al., A History of England, 494-495.

[45] Clayton Roberts, et al., A History of England , 493. Admittedly, this is something of an oversimplification. The recent scholarship of William Gibson, in The Church of England, 1688-1832, has challenged the conventional notion of eighteenth-century pastoral neglect. For a nuanced understanding of the historical conditions that gave rise to evangelicalism, see Gibson’s text.

[46] Clayton Roberts, et al., A History of England , 485-486; Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 118, 120.

[47] Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 118, 22; William Wordsworth, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” in The Complete Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Vol. X: Prefatory Essays & Notes (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), 7.

[48] Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 118, 29.

[49] Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 123.

[50] Clayton Roberts, et al., A History of England , 485; Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 121.

[51] See The Gentleman’s Magazine 69 (March 1791), 283 and Augustine Burrell, The Collected Essays & Addresses of the Rt. Hon. Augustine Burrell, 1880-1920, I:324-325 in Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 103.

[52] Clayton Roberts, et al., A History of England , 501-503.

[53] Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 127.

[54] John Beer, Romantic Influences, 111.


Sean Trainor holds a B.A. in History & Religion from The George Washington University.  The present essay is substantially the text of his Honors’ thesis for that institution, which was judged to be the year’s best.  Mr. Trainor has studied with Praesidium contributor Jonathan Chaves, who urged him to submit the essay to the journal.