Friday, 16 September 2011

Evangelicalism and the Enlightenment - the case of John Erskine

Much work has been done in recent years on the relationship between eighteenth-century evangelicalism and the Enlightenment. Henry Rack’s, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism (1989) portrayed Wesley as both a religious enthusiast and a man of Reason. Now Jonathan Yeager in his Enlightened Evangelicalism: The Life and Though of John Erskine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) has written an intellectual biography of the little known Scottish evangelical John Erskine, arguing that he too championed a form of ‘enlightened evangelicalism’. Based in Edinburgh for most of his life, Erskine was the leading evangelical minister in the Church of Scotland for much of the eighteenth century. ‘As a Calvinist, an evangelical, and an empiricist’, Yeager writes, ‘Erskine was teaching that all three belief systems complemented each other’ (p. 80).


Erskine was a disciple of John Locke, and in his espousal of Locke’s empiricism he became a champion of the Moderate Enlightenment, as opposed to the more radical perspectives of the wider Scottish Enlightenment. Erskine, though, was also a Calvinist immersed in the classics of Puritan divinity. Yet his Calvinism was of a variety that John Wesley struggled to understand. A far cry from the deterministic double predestinarian theology with which Wesley tarred all Calvinists, Erskine’s Reformed theology included a commitment to single predestination, a belief in both a limited and an unlimited extent to the atonement, which in turn led to a determination to preach the gospel indiscriminately (pp. 74 6; 201). It was a Calvinism shared by Whitefield and his Calvinistic Methodists, and finely attuned to the optimistic spirit of the age. The correlation between Erskine’s evangelicalism and his enlightened attitudes are dealt with by Yeager in a chapter analysing five of Erskine’s major theological works. In his writings on covenant theology, ecclesiology, faith and the administration of the Lord’s Supper, Yeager builds a picture of Erskine as a ‘polymath’, who drew on disciplines as diverse as theology, philosophy, biblical studies and history, producing ‘theological treatises [which] were bold, innovative, rational and consistent with Moderate Enlightenment epistemology, but they were also scriptural and loyal to traditional Calvinism’ (p. 111).

Erskine also had a more combative side, and was behind the discrediting of John Wesley in Scotland. Traditionally the strength of Calvinism in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland has been thought to be the main reason for Wesley’s lack of success in Scotland, but Yeager argues that it was Erskine’s opposition to Wesley, in the aftermath of Wesley early successful evangelistic incursions into Scotland, that was the real reason. Erskine entered into public dispute with Wesley in his lengthy preface to a new edition of Aspasio Vindicated (1764), a response to Wesley’s A Preservative against Unsettled Notions in Religion (1758), which was itself a response to James Hervey’s Theron and Aspasio (1755), a spirited defence of the Reformed doctrine of imputed righteousness. In his preface Erskine argued that Wesley had deceived his Scottish Methodist followers, and was hostile towards many of the key tenets of Presbyterianism. ‘Mr Wesley’ Erskine asserted ‘is by no means so orthodox as they have hitherto imagined’ (p. 117). His polemic, suggests Yeager, was decisive in preventing any further Wesleyan success north of the border. According to Yeager, in Erskine’s opinion ‘the smooth-talking Methodist seemed more like a disreputable salesman than a genuine friend to Protestant religion’ (p. 139).

However, Erskine’s key contribution to the Evangelical Revival lay in his role as a disseminator of literature (p. 165). A supporter of the American revolutionaries, Erskine used his links with trans-Atlantic evangelicals to strategic effect. An early correspondent of Jonathan Edwards, he regularly supplied him with the latest theological literature, and later secured the rights to publish a number of Edwards’ key posthumous works. But those who benefitted from his patronage were scattered around the North Atlantic world, and following the American Revolution he paid particular attention to providing books for the new Republic’s main colleges of divinity. The books they received included the predictable works of Reformed and Puritan divinity, but also the latest volumes from the more unorthodox writers of the day, including Joseph Priestley and Theophilus Lindsey. His aim was to ensure that his recipients were familiar with the latest theological literature, so that they would be able to ‘strengthen evangelicalism and spread the gospel message’ (p. 197). Like Whitefield before him, Erskine was a religious entrepreneur in the evangelical cause.

Jonathan Yeager has produced an excellent study of the hitherto little known John Erskine. While the study is based on the author’s doctoral thesis, and at times reads like a typical first book, there’s much here that will repay careful reading and thought. Far from being the preserve of Wesley, eighteenth-century evangelical Calvinists were also moulded by the Enlightenment. In their recasting of aspects of Calvinism, Erskine and others breathed fresh life into Reformed theology, attuning it to the more buoyant spirit of the long eighteenth century.

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