Mid-Nineteenth Century Europe: A Resource for Twenty-First Century America?

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In the current climate of uncertainty in America, along with the peculiar self questioning and decline in confidence of theologically conservative Christians, the time may well be ripe for American Christians to study the events of the 1830s and 40s in Europe.  True, the world of iPads and smartphones seems a long way away from that formed by the Treaty of Vienna of the Industrial Revolution but there are a number of constructive parallels.

It is surely interesting that a number major European churches experienced significant internal turmoil or even divisions during the 1830s and 40s.  The Dutch church had its afscheiding in 1834; the Anglican Church gave birth to the Oxford Movement in 1831 and saw two of its most high profile figures, Newman and Manning, eventually convert to Catholicism; and the Church of Scotland divided in 1843, when Chalmers led a group out of the establishment to form the Free Church of Scotland.

In different ways, these crises represented the death throes of the confessional state.  Since the Reformation, European states had been defined in large part by their confessional commitments, with state and state churches working together to maintain social and political stability.  This situation worked well whilst the interests of the state and the relevant confessional churches were essentially consonant with each other.  With the rise of immigration and emigration which heavy industry helped to fuel, the growing economic and financial strength of those not involved in the various state churches and the general pressure on Christian belief from other secularizing forces, state and church started to drift apart.  The strains manifested themselves in various ways.  In England, assertion of Parliamentary power over the church in the suppression of Irish sees led to the protest of the Oxford Movement; and the issue of patronage in Scotland became a major point of church-state conflict in the same decade and culminated, after the Ten Year's Conflict, in the Disruption of 1843.  Internally, too, the churches witnessed struggles and not just between obviously different parties: the early to mid-nineteen century had also witnessed a growing fissure with the ranks of the evangelical parties in Anglicanism as some focused on conversion and a form of other-worldly experiential pietism and others started to move towards seeing the gospel as involving social transformation.

It is hard not to see parallels with the current situation in America.  A long tradition of American exceptionalism in historical analysis, of course, perhaps blinds us to points of similarity.  Europe's struggles were those of states turning into nations and redefining the nature of the church-state relation.  America has long been a nation; and she has no established church.  Yet the dominance of Christianity in American life until recently has arguably meant that Christianity was, functionally at least, the established religion.  Certainly the mythology of America as an Edenic Christian nation before her fall into social liberalism would suggest this.

With the much-touted `death of Christendom' in America, the USA surely faces a parallel situation to that of Europe in the 1830s and 40s (and I suspect those decades were far more significant for the fate of the European churches than any book published later by Darwin).  Conservative politics fractures and secularises as libertarianism trumps social conservatism, just as nineteenth century liberalism trumped High Toryism; and thus the churches lose their power at the polls.  Evangelicalism fragments as the cultural transformationists, experiential conversionists and spirituality of the church types move apart ideologically even as they are still (perhaps only just) contained within the same ecclesiastical bodies; and thus evangelicalism loses whatever veneer of unified substance it ever possessed.  Science once again makes demands that theologians rewrite their creeds to accommodate its findings and the church is divided over how to respond (Newman, unimpressed by such scientific imperialism in the nineteenth-century, declared ''If "the Spirit of God" is gas in 1850, it may be electromagnetism in 1860').

In this context, I wonder if the calls for Christians to return to study of the early church or the Reformation might not be supplemented with a further suggestion: the study of the secularizing forces in Europe in the 1830s and 40s and the various reactions and responses offered by the churches and church leaders of the time?  It is interesting that even these show at least superficial parallels with today: for example, the Oxford Movement attempted to reassert the spiritual power of the church and was also greatly preoccupied with aesthetics and a return to a romanticized, mystical medieval past (candles and all), albeit painted in pre-Raphaelite hues and tones.  Nobody, I hope, would ever place the minds of Keble, Pusey and Newman on the same level as the emergent brains trust; but the cocksure triteness of the latter group might well be the soundbite age's response to a situation of social, political and theological uncertainty parallel to that which a more sophisticated and erudite group faced in another time and another place.  The European churchmen of the nineteenth century, often neglected, nonetheless offer fascinating paradigms of response to an age of secularization and science.

Posted August 22, 2011 @ 10:29 AM by Carl Trueman

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