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Church Going

We do not have free will, Edwards believed, although how does one achieve the Great Awakening of the 1740s without the will to a personal repentance, a bit of Arminianism in the hope of reprieve?

Jonathan Edwards’s revivalism in Northampton, Massachusetts, the conversions there, surprising, displayed in their mode many of the symptoms, in multiplication, seen in the random tent revivalism later and on the screen today. The sudden apprehension of God’s will can perhaps find no other visibility and embodiment than weeping, writhing, shouting, and so on. The Great Awakening died away as enthusiasm will unless shrewdly maintained by organization, by propagating methods that Edwards abhorred and that were alien to his studious manias for doctrine. Mistakes were made, and the early revival suffered local embarrassments, a bit of scandal and distress in the community. A respected person committed suicide, after being thrown into despair by Edwards’s unrivaled command of Hell rhetoric—this was a Mister Joseph Hawley.

The nineteenth-century Evangelical Reform Movement in England was summed up by the powerful Wilberforce when he said God had made his aim in life the abolition of the slave trade and the reform of manners, by which he meant the reform of the vices of the Established Church among other things. Note the announcement of Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice when he arrives to assume his churchly “living” in the neighborhood of the Bennet family and of others more important:

Having received ordination at Easter, I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honorable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish, where it shall be my earnest effort to demean myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship, and be ever ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England.

The Anglican clergy’s obsequious pursuit of the titled and the landed gentry who controlled many of the appointments and could offer them by will or whim, the neglect of parish duties, the worldliness of the “fox-hunting parson,” and George Eliot’s “two-bottle” man, the hours at the whist table, the greed in the absorption of church revenues: all of this appears in the English novel, and was, of course, a representation of the decay of English clerical practice that led to the enthusiasm for reform.

The prominent English evangelicals remained for the most part in the Established Church, becoming “low church,” like most of the American Episcopal community. They were pious Christians, many of them wealthy and outstandingly philanthropic, much concerned with the evident spread of vice in the lower and upper classes, the falling away from the true Christianity “of the heart”; with the dreadful illiteracy and disease in the cities and in the countryside, the need for foreign missions to the heathen, and, above all, with the abolition of the slave trade in the English colonies. When, in 1807, the Act of Abolition was passed, the House of Commons rose to its feet, giving the evangelical parliamentarian Wilberforce “an ovation such as it had given to no other man.” Slavery itself was not abolished until 1833, shortly before the death of Wilberforce.

The Reform Movement occasioned societies and subscriptions, both particular and general and in such great numbers one can imagine the volunteer, the subscriber, fatigued by the mere choice at hand. Societies for employing the female poor, for the Benefit of Gentlewomen of Good Family; hospitals for lunatics, for people afflicted with venereal disease, for impoverished married women lying-in; the National Truss Society for the Relief of the Ruptured Poor; orphanages, Bible societies, the London Society for the Conversion of the Jews, the YMCA, the Royal Humane Society, the Society for Returning Young Women to Friends in the County, the Society for the Preservation of Public Morals by Providing Temporary Asylum for Prostitutes. (Prime Minister Gladstone grew up in the evangelical world, but did not persist within the group. Perhaps his early atmosphere accounted for his great determination on the reclamation of prostitutes, a determination so pressing that some thought he might be Jack the Ripper.)

This period in brilliant detail is examined in Ford K. Brown’s book, which he calls Fathers of the Victorians, and indeed his scholarship justifies the line of descent. The Clapham Sect, philanthropic and reforming, settled in the village near London, counted among its leaders the father of the historian Macaulay and the father of Leslie Stephen. De Quincy’s mother was an evangelical; the rich and public-spirited Mr. John Thornton was the father of Marianne Thornton, the great-aunt of E.M. Forster. The families of Elizabeth Barrett, Benjamin Jowett, Samuel Butler, and, of course, that of Edmund Gosse maintained pietistic households marked by a restriction of animation. Macaulay, taken as a child to live in Clapham, remembered the village and the church with affection. “I love the church for the sake of old times,” he said. None of the great figures of the second generation remained caught up in evangelical practices, but there is no doubt that the movement, along with scripturally more rebellious Dissenters and Methodists, transformed English society.

The horrors of the Brontë sisters at the charitable, evangelical Clergy Daughters’ School are remembered with vivid lamentation in Jane Eyre; the school, by its rigors, hastened the deaths of the tubercular younger sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. George Eliot knew well the spread of the evangelical commitment in the countryside. Dinah Morris, the Methodist street-preacher in Adam Bede, is seen in a plain but celestial light; Mr. Bulstrode, in Middlemarch, is the deformed side of the evangelical—philanthropic in a manipulative way, but sanctimonious, cold, dishonest, looking upon most of his fellow beings as a “doomed carcass” which would feed him in heaven. The liberal enthusiasm in the early movement, the high concern for the welfare of the English people, was a wind of much charm and attractive sentiment, but it blew where it would and in lopping off the branches of excess, hypocrisy, and indifference it left a badly shorn tree ready for a fresh growth of respectability, conventionality, and hardy self-righteousness. The Bleak Age is Professor Brown’s name for the period that followed the genial reformers.


Nowadays, in America, in most of the small New England villages, someone has bought the parsonage and “fixed it up.” “It’s awful to reflect how many sermons must have been written there,” Hawthorne stated as he moved into the old manse. The churchly melancholy of the pastor and his troupe, wife and children, going of a Sunday through the back door of the white clapboard Unitarian Church, next to the green and the Civil War soldier in his little stone cap, is scarcely a memory as the present pastors “cover the territory,” servicing this reduced parish and that. If the church and its steeple are handsome it is a popular photographic object and inside, at the usual times, the latitudinarian meetings survive to offer much the same pleasant and trustworthy satisfactions of a poetry reading. The bereft downtowns of middle-sized cities find the not very old mustard-colored brick of the churches dozing in its ordained routine. Hanging on, watching the figures of the old endowment, and in the big cities wondering if the sale of air rights to towers dimming the old dome and steeple might not solve the problem of endurance. The smaller urban Roman Catholic churches open the doors of their dusty baroque to find the Irish fled from their old residential concentration, replaced by the shorter, dark-skinned parishioners from Salvador, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic.

Still there is a repercussive loyalty hanging about the “normal” churches. Perhaps a bit cool and distant since in many places it is doubtful that the people gathering know each other. The serene repertory of hymns, the Doxology, the organist pedaling hard during the “Offering,” perhaps at a transcription from Mendelssohn. The Episcopal churches so often attract those who have a baffled, somewhat embarrassed belief that “exposure” is good for the children. There is, there is, after all, the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-Third Psalm and the Creed. “I believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”—better than nothing, education somehow, a pinch of tradition.

The modesty of the claims of the general Protestant churches, the humbleness of their techniques of propaganda and propagation, the long shadow of relativism lying on the moral ledger, the inscrutable confusion about the Good, with each case to be adjudicated on an infinity of special conditions far more exhausting than Sin or Evil. Going on year after year, the clearest, the happiest moral decisions are the soup kitchen, the gathering of old clothes, the AA nights, and the performance of cantatas during the liturgical season. Yet there is a remaining sanctification to the mild, permeable doctrine and for some of the older ministers perhaps the memory of student nights, a glass of sherry, and the challenge of Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the shady Paul Tillich. The churches are here, on their plots, institutions with some still-echoing claim beyond utility; “If only that so many dead lie round,” as Philip Larkin ends his ironic poem “Church Going.”

The Sabbath comes around and what are we to call the surging preachers on the television screen? The baldly modern fishermen; fishermen, yes, the bait more congruent than the guiding shepherd’s staff. With their confidence in the instrumental, the electronic, they are fantastical intrusions into the individual soul, into family values and Christian education. There is, or was, the Reverend Pat Robertson, maintainer of his marbleized, polished, imperturbable fatuity, a smiling cavalier, gliding here and there over the span of doctrine, from Baptist, to Charismatic healer and tongue-twister and miracle worker, until at last, by the prudence recommended in pursuit of public office, no preacher at all, just a Christian businessman, sliding away from his record of follies, presumptions, and predictions.

A student of religious manners might in a side step come upon a Dr. Eugene Scott, who says God loves a hilarious giver and is himself a hilarious emanation from California, a sort of brawler on the Gospel circuit. Scott is a monologist and stares rather thuggishly into the camera, without any reassuring stagecraft. He has no church except the scruffy temple of himself. He is well-fed and sometimes wears a sort of truck-stop cap and then again a wide-brimmed, vanilla-colored purchase. He adjusts his glasses on his nose to have a dip into the Scriptures. But most of all he projects what might be called his evangelistic logo—a large, wet cigar which he keeps in his mouth. “If the cigar offends you, turn the damn television off. The hell with you.” Scott offers, as he says, rugged Christian individualism. “I’m not a clinic. I’m not running one of those schools where you don’t meet the world or those little Christian colleges where you don’t get an education.” The weak give Scott a pain.

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