Early Evangelical Anglican History – the Backdrop

This is a follow-up post to ‘What is an Evangelical Anglican?‘ which I posted in May 2011. In the earlier post I defined historic evangelical Anglicanism in terms of four convictions: (1) the supreme authority of Scripture, (b) justification by faith, (c) a belief in personal conversion, and (d) a love for simple forms of worship. I ended the earlier post by promising to say a bit about the condition of the church in England before the eighteenth-century evangelical revival. So let me now try to give a picture of church life in general in the eighteenth century as the evangelical movement began.

The seventeenth century had been a time of violent and often bloody conflict in Christian Europe, much of it fuelled by the theological controversies of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. The eighteenth century reacted to all this with a deep suspicion of controversy and of what it referred to as ‘enthusiasm’. The spirit of the age was one of moderation and of what is sometimes referred to as ‘sweet reasonableness’. The eighteenth century Church was gifted with people of fine intellect and deep piety. One thinks of Bishop Joseph Butler, of William Law, and even of old Doctor Samuel Johnson. But despite the quality of people such as these, there were enormous problems in the life of the Church.

The Church of England was in many respects an instrument of the English establishment. Bishops were appointed by the government, and were expected to repay the favour by spending much of their time in the House of Lords voting in support of the government which had appointed them. There was enormous inequality in the level of income received by both bishops and clergy. The Archbishop of Canterbury was paid £7,000 a year, the Bishop of Winchester £5,000, but Oxford only £500 and Bristol £450. The only way of earning a translation to a wealthier diocese was by faithful political service. Clergy incomes reflected a similar inequality. Over half the livings in the country paid less than £50 a year; many smaller churches paid between £5 and £20, and in Colchester there were two churches that paid respectively £3 and £1 1 shilling a year (figures taken from Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648-1789, pp.123-126).

Another, and perhaps a related, problem was pluralism: that is, the practice of clergy holding more than one living at the same time. What often happened would be that the rector might hold a living, for which he might receive perhaps £300 a year, but because he was also the dean of a cathedral far away, he might pay a curate perhaps £20 a year to actually do the work. Gerald Cragg quotes the example of John Hoadly, who was at the same time chancellor of the Diocese of Winchester, a prebendary in another cathedral, master of the Hospital of St. Cross, and rector of six widely flung parishes! (Cragg, p.125)

Obviously this situation had a negative effect on the quality of pastoral care offered in the parishes. It’s also fair to say that few clergy of the time had much sense of a divine call to their work. Holy Orders were seen as a secure source of income, and there was little sense of obligation to do much actual work beyond leading Sunday worship. Standards for ordination were very uneven; a man who had taken a degree from a university might never have studied theology, but could still be ordained on the strength of his degree, and there was very little real supervision after ordination.

Parish life at the local level would seem to us today very non-sacramental. In Essex in 1763 only 20 of the 310 churches had a monthly communion service; the most common frequency was three or four times a year (G.R. Balleine, A History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England, London, 1906, p.3). Morning or Evening Prayer was the standard fare for Sunday worship. Most of the music consisted of the singing of the parts of the service, with perhaps a metrical psalm. Sunday Schools were unknown, and sermons, as Cragg says, were ‘rational rather than mystical in tone, ethical rather than dogmatic in content’ (Cragg, p.116).

Beyond the doors of the church there was much immorality and scepticism in the country. Gin drinking was the curse of the working classes and drunkenness was so common as to be for the most part unremarkable. Among the educated classes, as Thomas Secker, subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote, ‘Christianity is now railed at and ridiculed with very little reserve, and its teachers without any at all’ (Cragg, p.127). This is the background against which the early Anglican evangelicals did their work.

In the next post, I’ll turn to the strange story of the ‘Holy Club’ that started at Lincoln College, Oxford, in 1729.


One thought on “Early Evangelical Anglican History – the Backdrop

  1. Pingback: The Holy Club | Faith, Folk and Charity

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