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The Inner Life of Doctrine: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Calvinist-Arminian Debate Among Methodists

  • Bruce Hindmarsh

A number of years ago I spent time at the John Rylands University Library in Manchester reading the manuscript letters of lay Methodists. One of these was written on May 19, 1740 by a young single mother with two children, offering a moving account of her conversion to Charles Wesley. The writer's name was Margaret Austin. At the end of her letter, just below her signature she added an emphatic postscript that summarized her religious experience: “Awakened by the Reverend Mr. Whitefield: convicted by the Reverend Mr. Jn Wesley: Converted by the Reverend Mr. Charles; for the truth of whose doctrine in the strength of the Lord I am ready to lay down my life.”

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1 Surprisingly little has been written about the intersection of art and religion in the eighteenth century. Not only have religious historians paid little attention to visual culture, but so also art historians have for the most part neglected the religious contexts for the production and reception of art. Sally Promey notes that despite the renewed interest in the historical contexts of the practices of art, and the political and social histories of art, very little has been done to illuminate the obvious engagements of art and religion. “Speaking as an art historian, and from the perspective of my own discipline,” she says, “I raise the obvious question: Why?” (Promey, Sally M., “The Visual Culture of American Religions: An Historiographical Essay,” in Exhibiting the Visual Culture of American Religions, ed. Morgan, David and Promey, Sally M. [Valparaiso, Indiana: Brauer Museum of Art, 2000], 1).

2 For these debates, see further, Coppedge, Allan, John Wesley in Theological Debate (Wilmore, Ky.: Wesley Heritage, 1987). Isabel Rivers sees Wesley drawing further from Calvinism, later in life, and closer to latitudinarian Anglican moralism, q.v. Rivers, Isabel, Reason Grace and Sentiment, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 212213.

3 In 1777, the critic Henry Bate-Dudley reviewed the ninth annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in the Morning Post. The headline was “Thomas Gainsborough, R.A.,” with the initials “R.A.” standing for Royal Academician. Bate-Dudley began his article, saying, “As the pencil of this gentleman has evidently entitled him to the distinction, we have impartially placed him at the head of the artists, whose works we are about to review.” Bate-Dudley knew that he was throwing down the gauntlet, since it was customary to begin any review of the Royal Academy Exhibitions with the work of its president, Joshua Reynolds. Gainsborough, though a founding member of the Royal Academy, had never been as enthusiastic about the institution as Reynolds, who was president from its founding in 1768 until his death in 1792. Gainsborough had spent four years snubbing the summer exhibitions because he did not like how they hung his paintings. Now he was back and threatening Reynolds's position in the Academy. Moreover, Gainsborough differed sharply from Reynolds in style and substance. As one critic wrote, “It was inevitable therefore that the two artists became arch-rivals.” (Postle, Martin, Thomas Gainsborough [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002], 43).

4 Robert Wark further explains Reynolds's ideals: “Reynolds felt that the fundamental purpose of art was ethical and moral. Its aim was to elevate the thoughts of the spectator, to purge his mind of petty and mean considerations through the ‘contemplation of universal rectitude and harmony.’ The greatest art, accordingly, dealt with lofty themes of human and divine achievement. Furthermore, it employed a lofty style or manner in presenting these themes . . . . The accidents of nature, whether in the human figure or in the setting, were ironed away; the temporal and changing matters of dress and fashion were eliminated; the frivolous and decorative aspects of painting (especially where colors and textures were involved) were submerged in a desire for grandeur and solemnity” (Wark, Robert, The Revolution in Eighteenth-Century Art: Ten British Pictures 1740–1840 [San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 2001], 48).

5 See further, Rosenthal, Michael, The Art of Thomas Gainsborough (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999), 154. When Rosenthal compares the two portraits, he finds that all that they appear to share in common is the sitter herself—a complete contrast.

6 The best statement of Gainsborough's ideals in this respect come from a correspondence between Gainsborough and the Second Earl of Dartmouth (1731–1801), an important evangelical aristocrat. Dartmouth had complained that Gainsborough's painting of his wife, the Countess, was a poor likeness. Gainsborough offered to do the portrait over, but explained that contrary to Lady Dartmouth's taste, he would like to paint her in modern dress. He acknowledged the common objection that modern dresses too quickly go out of fashion and make a portrait seem dated, and he knew that Reynolds had argued for generalized clothing or drapery, but he countered that it greatly helps to capture a likeness to have the sitter in her own clothes. He says, finally, “I have that regard for truth, that I hold the finest invention as a mere slave in Comparison, and believe I shall remain an ignorant fellow to the end of my days, because I never could have patience to read Poetical impossibilities, the very food of a Painter; especially if he intends to be KNIGHTED in the land of Roast Beef, so well do serious people love froth” (April 8, 1771, The Letters of Thomas Gainsborough, ed. Woodall, Mary [London: The Lion and Unicorn, 1961], 53). This was a direct attack on Reynolds's philosophy, since it was Reynolds who described the highest forms of painting as poetry, and Reynolds who had been knighted in 1769.

7 Gillies, John, Memoirs of the Life of the Reverend George Whitefield (London, 1772), 276.

8 The Works of John Wesley, ed. Jackson, Thomas, 3rd ed. (1872; repr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1984), 6, 179–182. Charles Wesley felt deeply the loss of Whitefield and published an elegy he had written earlier, which included the lines: “the strife is past / And friends at first are friends again at last” (Quoted in Tyson, John, Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007], 132).

9 Reynolds, Joshua, Discourses on Art, ed. Wark, Robert (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1959), 252. The letter from Gainsborough, referred to here by Reynolds, includes the line: “I can from a sincere Heart say that I always admired and sincerely loved Sir Joshua Reynolds” (Reynolds, 252n).

10 Janson, H. W. and Janson, Anthony F., History of Art, rev. 5th ed. (New York: Henry N. Abrams and Prentice Hall, 1997), 620.

11 Gombrich, E. H., The Story of Art, 16th ed. (London: Phaidon, 1996), 468.

12 The similar social space for these movements in art and religion is described by Jürgen Habermas, who claimed that England provides a good case study of the emergence of a public sphere in the eighteenth century in the classic stage of capitalist growth, as the development of long-distance trade and the periodical press made it possible to imagine a new and more democratic space where issues could be debated and resolved through broad-based participation in rational discourse, rather than by the imposition of corporate hierarchies. In this, Habermas made special note of the importance of public debate about art in the press, saying, “in the institution of art criticism . . . the lay judgment of a public that had come of age . . . became organized.” It was precisely this sort of a public sphere that allowed for principled debate, and competitive proposals, to flourish among artists and among evangelicals, not as a symptom of deep pathologies and sectarian schisms but as a sign of the vigour of these serious and idealistic movements (The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Burger, Thomas [orig. German ed. 1962; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991], 41.

13 The modernity of evangelicalism, especially with respect to the consumer economy and the press, is described in Stout, Harry S., The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991), and Lambert, Frank, “Pedlar in Divinity”: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737–1770 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.)

14 On the Royal Academy, see Hutchison, Sidney C., The History of the Royal Academy 1768–1986 (London: Robert Royce, 1986). On the importance of the commercial market for transforming English painting, see Solkin, David H., Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993), and Pears, Iain, The Discovery of Painting: The Growth of Interest in the Arts in England, 1680–1768 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988).

15 Cooper, Anthony Ashley, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 2nd ed., 3 vols. (London, 1714), especially the philosophical rhapsody, vol. 2; Reynolds, Discourses. See further, Copley, Stephen, “The Fine Arts in Eighteenth-Century Polite Culture,” in Painting and the Politics of Culture, ed. Barrell, John (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 737.

16 Reynolds, Discourses, 171 (from Discourse 9, delivered October 16, 1780).

17 The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, vol. 24, Journals and Diaries VII (1787–1791), ed. Ward, W. Reginald and Heitzenrater, Richard P. (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2003), 118.

18 Russell was not short on evangelical zeal, either. His diary begins abruptly: “John Russell converted September 30, 1764, aetat. 19, at about half an hour after seven in the evening.” And he was well known for taking advantage of his sitters’ captive position to preach to them. After painting Lord Aylesford, Russell wrote in his diary, “We talked religion over tea. I perceived that he wanted me gone, but I thought fit to break through good manners rather than withhold any blessing from a child of God, and so staid four hours” (Russell's diary quoted in Rosman, Doreen M., Evangelicals and Culture [1984; repr. Brookfield, Vt.: Gregg Revivals, 1992], 156157). It is to Russell that we owe probably a good half of the iconography of early evangelical ministers and Methodist preachers: he seems to have painted them all.

19 This concern to comprehend the whole of life in a single moment in a work of portraiture is something explored in Simmel, Georg, Rembrandt, ed. Scott, Alan and Staubmann, Helmut (New York: Routledge, 2005).

20 On the parallels and contrasts between portraiture and biography in the period, see Wendorf, Richard, The Elements of Life: Biography and Portrait-Painting in Stuart and Georgian England (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990), 721.

21 I draw here upon the detailed reading of this painting in Solkin, Painting for Money, 274–276.

22 Reynolds, like his contemporary William Blackstone, used the phrase “a polite and commercial” nation. Paul Langford picks up on this in the title of his standard history of England in the eighteenth century: A Polite and Commercial People: England, 1727–1783, The New Oxford History of England, ed. Roberts, J. M. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990), but Langford, like Brandoin earlier, is skeptical of the culture of politeness. “In theory politeness comprehended, even began with morals, but in practice it was much more a question of material acquisitions and urbane manners” (Langford, 4–5). Again, “Politeness was primarily about the social control of the individual at a time of intense enthusiasm for individual rights and responsibilities” (ibid.).

23 Wilton, Andrew, The Swagger Portrait: Grand Manner Portraiture in Britain from Van Dyck to Augustus John, 1630–1930 (London: Tate Gallery, 1992).

24 I find the term “school” especially valuable and suitable here, since this is a term of art applied alike to traditions in philosophy, art and spirituality that are characterized in the three ways I have mentioned above. See further in the field of spirituality, Pouratt, Pierre, Christian Spirituality, vol. 3 (1927; repr. London: Newman, 1953), x-xii; Cunningham, Lawrence S. and Egan, Keith J., Christian Spirituality: Themes from the Tradition (New York: Paulist, 1996), 2223. As applied to the evangelicals, see Overton, J. H., The Evangelical Revival in the Eighteenth Century (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1886), 78, 59, 101, 104. In the field of art in the eighteenth century, the desire to establish an English school was championed in Reynolds, Discourses, 248 (Discourse XIV), and is described by Hoock, Holdger, The King's Artists: The Royal Academy of Arts and the Politics of British Culture, 1760–1840 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 67.

25 Hindmarsh, Bruce, John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 119168.

26 See Rivers, Isabel, “Shaftesburian Enthusiasm and the Evangelical Revival,” in Revival and Religion since 1700: Essays for John Walsh, ed. Garnett, Jane and Matthew, Colin (London: Hambledon Press, 1993), 3639.

27 Cooper, Anthony Ashley, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (London, 1714), 188. The poet-philosopher is a “moral artist” (Cooper, 1:207). See further, Rivers, “Shaftesburian Enthusiasm,” 35.

28 Hervey, James, Theron and Aspasio: or, A Series of Dialogues and Letters upon the Most Interesting Subjects, 2 vols. (1755; Edinburgh, 1796), 2:21–22.

29 Ibid., 2:34.

30 On the relationship between theology and landscape in the period, see Mayhew, Robert, “William Gilpin and the Latitudinarian Picturesque,” Eighteenth-Century Studies (2000): 349366, and Mayhew, Landscape, Literature and English Religious Culture, 1660–1800: Samuel Johnson and Languages of Natural Description (Houndsmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004).

31 Ashfied, Andrew and de Bolla, Peter, eds., The Sublime: A Reader in British Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

32 See further the excellent discussion of the Shaftesburian tradition in Rivers, Isabel, Reason, Grace, and Sentiment, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

33 Dionysius Longinus on the Sublime, trans. Smith, William (London, 1739), 85.

34 Reynolds, Discourses, 276.

35 Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, 2nd ed. (London, 1759), 119120.

36 The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, vol. 21, Journals and Diaries IV (1755–65), ed. Ward, W. Reginald and Heitzenrater, Richard P. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992), 196, 215–216.

37 William McCulloch, ed., “Examinations of persons under spiritual concern at Cambuslang, during the Revival in 1741–42,” 2 vols., bound MSS, New College, Edinburgh.

38 “The ‘grander apsects’ of nature, known more commonly as the sublime, also emerged in landscapes worthy of interest for religious reasons. Newton's vast sensorium had to reflect God's immensity, and analogically this was best achieved by the vast in landscape and nature” (Mayhew, Landscape, Literature and English Religious Culture, 42).

39 Romaine was also pictured, third from the left in the top row, in the print by John Smith of “Miss Macaroni and her Gallant at a Print Shop” [fig. 9].

40 The Works of the Late Reverend William Romaine, A.M, 8 vols. (London, 1796) 4:125, 148.

41 The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, 6 vols. (London, 1825), 4:263.

42 Toplady, Augustus, Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England, 2 vols. (London, 1774), 1:240.

43 Watts, Isaac, Discourses of the Love of God, and its Influence on all the Passions, 5th edn. (London, 1770), 223.

44 Ibid., 37.

45 Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. Smith, John E., vol. 2 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959), 95.

46 Jonathan Edwards, Letters and Personal Writings, ed. Claghorn, George, vol. 16 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998), 792793.

47 Lewis, C. S., The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), 3.

48 The Works of the Rev. John Newton, 6 vols. (London, 1808–1809), 1:185–186.

49 Cf. William Romaine who describes mature believers, saying, “It is the abiding sense of their wants, and faith in His promises to supply them, which leads them to be constantly looking unto Jesus.” Again the character of his spirituality is contemplative. His exhortation is repeatedly to look to Christ: “There is thy Object; look at Him” (Romaine, William, Treatises upon the Life, Walk and Triumph of Faith, new ed. [London, 1911], 61, 42).

50 Newton, Works, 1:186.

51 Winter, Cornelius, The Voice of Gratitude (Bristol, 1773), 18–19.

52 John Wesley had read Samson Agonistes and quotes from it in a letter to Miss Agnes Gibbes in 1785, quoted in Vickers, John A., “The Gibbes Family Of Hilton Park, An unpublished correspondence of John Wesley,” Methodist History (1968): 57. He also quotes from the oratorio by Handel in Sermon 73, “Of Hell,” Works of John Wesley, ed. Jackson, 6:389–390. Charles seems also to have read the poem by Milton. His debt to Milton is examined in Watson, J. R., “The Hymns of Charles Wesley and the Poetic Tradition,” in Charles Wesley: Life, Literature & Legacy, ed. Newport, Kenneth G. C. and Campbell, Ted (Werrington, Peterborough: Epworth, 2007), 361377.

53 The Hellenistic agon tradition and its use by Paul and in early Christianity is the subject of Pfitzner, Victor C., Paul and the Agon Motif (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1967).

54 The painting is analyzed in Hall, James, The Sinister Side (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 137142.

55 Shaftesbury, Characteristicks, 3:351.

56 Shaftesbury does not want to have Hercules depicted in the moment after he is won by virtue, since “there would be no room left to represent his Agony, or inward Conflict, which indeed makes the principal Action here” (Shaftesbury, 3:352).

57 John and Wesley, Charles, A Short View of the Difference between the Moravian Brethren, lately in England, and the Rev. Mr. John and Charles Wesley (London, 1745), 23.

58 Works of John Wesley, ed. Jackson, 5:411, 413.

59 The Sermons of Charles Wesley, ed. Newport, Kenneth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 134, 139, 144.

60 John and Wesley, Charles, Hymns and Sacred Poems (Bristol, 1742), 115118.

61 Wesley, Charles, Hymns and Sacred Poems, 2 vols. (Bristol, 1749), 2:75.

62 Toplady, Works, 4:265.

63 Mack, Phyllis, Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Hempton, David, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005); Brekus, Catherine, Sarah Osborn's World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2013).

64 Mack, Heart Religion, 295–296.

65 Wesley, Sermon 63, “The General Spread of the Gospel,” § 17, in Works, 2:493.

66 In contrast to the morally improving republic of taste, the evangelical ideals are reflected in Phyllis Mack's commentary on the Lives of the Early Methodist Preachers: “In story after story, an unregenerate sinner plagued by loneliness and emotional violence—brawling, swearing, bragging, whoring—is transformed into a member of a community who is energetic but not violent, loving but not unduly passionate, disciplined but not compulsive, resigned but not despairing, and, above all, even-tempered” (Mack, Heart Religion, 86).

I would like to thank Cindy Aalders for her work as a research assistant, especially with the art history sources for this article. I am also grateful for the opportunity to present an earlier version of this article in 2009 as the Manchester Wesley Research Centre Annual Lecture.

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Church History
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