David Hempton | Interview | The Church in the Long Eighteenth Century
David Hempton is the Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies at Harvard University. He was previously University Professor and Professor of Christianity at Boston University, and Professor of Modern History at Queen’s University, Belfast. One of the finest eighteenth-century church historians writing in English, his previous books include Methodism and Politics in British Society (1984), which won the Whitfield Prize of the Royal Historical Society, Religion and Political Culture in Britain and Ireland: From the Glorious Revolution to the Decline of Empire (CUP, 1995), Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (Yale University Press, 2005) – a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2006 which won the Jesse Lee Prize – and Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt (Yale University Press, 2008). Alex Wright, Executive Editor at I.B.Tauris, spoke to him about his new book The Church in the Long Eighteenth Century, which is published in the I.B.Tauris History of the Christian Church series.
AW: David, we’re delighted to be publishing your fine book in our series. And from a personal point of view, I’m delighted to work with you again after we collaborated on Religion and Political Culture in Britain and Ireland at CUP. In this latest book you adopt a consciously global perspective on the identity and manifestations of the church, and try to move beyond emphases and topics that are rooted mainly in Europe. Can you talk a little about how you feel the nature of ecclesiastical history has changed since, for example, the volumes of the Pelican History of the Christian Church first appeared in the ‘60s?
DH: The Pelican series has stood the test of time for half a century, but obviously much has changed since then. For example, Gerald Cragg’s excellent volume on The Church in the Age of Reason 1648-1789 deals mostly with the ecclesiastical history of Western Europe, and especially the intellectual challenges posed by the Enlightenment. Since then shifts in intellectual culture associated with post-colonialism, postmodernism and feminism, and changes in historical methods ushered in by the growth of social, cultural and global history have transformed the way we think about early modern religion.
AW: The intellectual and cultural shifts to which you refer remind me that ‘global history’ has become much more fashionable of late, with historians like Felipe Fernández-Armesto and David Abulafia concentrating on the importance of networks of political and commercial cross-fertilisation between continents and diverse cross-cultural encounters. Has their interest in a broad historical canvass affected and influenced your own work, and how would you assess its wider significance?
DH: Global history has indeed become more fashionable, not only through the influential works you mention, but also through the writings of polymath historians like Christopher Bayly and distinguished historians of global Christianity like Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh. But ultimately, these trends are not just a matter of fad or fashion. They indicate that it is simply not possible to write an adequate history of Christianity from a purely Eurocentric perspective.
AW: Talking of shifts and trends, how do you feel that your own ideas have changed and developed over the years, and are those changes reflected in the topics you address in the book? Can you also talk a little about how you managed to distill such a huge subject into 90,000 words, and what processes of selection you were obliged to make?
DH: I started as a social historian of English religion, and thought I had made quantum leaps when I was part of a generation that envisaged first British Isles History and then transatlantic history. Writing this book persuaded me that those quantum leaps were smaller steps than I realized. There is no question that trying to write a global history of Christianity in the long eighteenth century within a defined word limit was one of the most difficult intellectual challenges I have ever faced. I was determined not to compress the book into a mere encyclopaedia, or to write it with ordinary people left out. My strategy was to start with a clear and defensible structure based on the expansion of Christendom and the transformation of Christendom, and then tell stories and highlight important incidents and transitions that reshaped the Christian tradition. I also felt compelled to try to offer fresh perspectives on well-rehearsed topics such as the Enlightenment, the evangelical revival, the transatlantic revolutions, slavery, empire, secularization, and so on. But most important, I try to bring to life some of the lesser-known shapers of world Christianity in this period. Of course, in a project like this, one always has regrets about what is left out, but it is better to be bold and risk failure than settle for a safe conventional account. Part of the fun of a book like this is to provoke some disagreement about what is selected for inclusion and what is left out. One also has to accept, painful though it is, that ignorance is itself a regrettable mechanism of selection.
AW: Modest as ever, David! If I may pursue a more personal line for a moment, do you think your own background in Northern Ireland (necessitating engagement on a day-to-day basis with religious difference and plurality) has coloured the way you approach church history? If so, in what ways do you think personal experience of this kind has impacted on your understandings of ‘church’ in the sense of a worldwide community of believers? Can there ever be such a thing as a universal ‘church’, do you think, given the dispiriting conflict between different Christian traditions?
DH: I once thought that growing up in Northern Ireland during the ‘troubles’ was a bad break in life, but over time I have come to see it very differently. Living in a place where religious difference was a major component of civil conflict, taught me that religious history is both multifaceted and vitally important to understanding the contemporary world. Religion mattered in Northern Ireland in a way that it does not in many other parts of Europe. Having said that, I’m not sure if I fully agree that religious conflict is necessarily dispiriting or that some kind of bland ‘universal church’ is the most desirable option. Professor Ward, to whom my book is dedicated, once said that the conclusion of Christian ecumenism might be a church with impeccable theological credentials and no popular appeal whatsoever. We need to learn to respect difference and embrace diversity, not strive for uniformity.
AW: That’s extremely interesting, especially to someone like me who has family ties to Northern Ireland. On the subject of diversity, your book is full of rich anecdotes about remarkable and very different individuals, as well as fascinating material about institutional developments, in late-17th, 18th and early-19 th century church history. But for all their different characteristics and contexts, these individuals often made a similarly large impact on religious and cultural life. For example, you mention Moses Wilkinson, a blind, lame slave from Virginia who escaped from Virginia to Nova Scotia during the American Revolution and then sailed to Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1792. Wilkinson electrified the colony with his radical preaching, much to the nervousness of its colonial masters. How much do you think positive developments in the church are owed to charismatic figures on the margins of their societies, rather than to those supposedly at the centre of power like popes and bishops? And does this prophetic spirit still have a place in the modern church, do you think? If so, how and where?
DH: Having cut my teeth as a historian among the populist enthusiasts of the evangelical revival, particularly the Methodists, I have always had an interest in the ‘charismatic figures on the margins’. John Wesley seems to have believed that all great movements in the history of Christianity surged from below rather than from above, and there is great deal of truth in that. Really vibrant traditions of popular Christianity, such as modern Pentecostalism, are usually noisy, eclectic, messy and fragmented. I enjoy writing about those movements, and the people who forge them, more than investigating the power dynamics of more settled Christian traditions, but of course, I see the need for both.
AW: Can you talk a bit about Long 18th-century developments in the Americas? How did the clash of Christian empires, and jostling for new territory, affect society and culture in those regions? Can one be positive about evangelism of the native populations, or was it mainly a negative experience for non-Europeans? One thinks for example of Roland Joffé’s Palme D’Or-winning film The Mission (1986), which paints a very bleak picture of European expansionism, driven forward as it was by religion and Jesuit missions.
DH: This is a difficult subject to write about. The clashes of expansionist Christian empires and their impact on the Americas is a brutal tale of subjugation, extirpation and elimination. Horrible things were done and the consequences live on among the native peoples and cultures of the Americas. It also has to be said, however, that out of the carnage of imperial hegemony, resilient and popular traditions of Christianity emerged. There are always power differentials in the ‘encounters’ between European Christians and native peoples in the early modern period, but cultural historians show us that hybridized or creolized (or whatever metaphor of mixing one chooses) forms of Christianity emerge, often with surprising results. None of this justifies the brutality of the conquistadores, or the religious chauvinism of Protestant and Catholic missionaries, but ultimately the historian’s job is to explain what happened and why, not to sit in lofty judgment of everyone in the past. I guess the objective is to try to write with a humane sensibility rather than an inquisitorial moral zeal. This is hard to get right. Films face parallel difficulties. The Mission is a great movie with many insights, but it would be foolish to rely on it as an accurate account of the encounter between the Jesuits and the Guarani people.
AW: Your thoughtful reply – many thanks – brings me on to the contested question of secularization. We hear a lot about irreversible secularization in Europe, even while Christianity is flourishing in other parts of the world. Do you think Europe is an exception in this regard, and is Christianity likely ever to regain its previous hegemony over society?
DH: That is a big question for a short interview! When I was a graduate student the conventional wisdom on secularization was that it was an inexorable product of modernization and that societies would become more secular as they became more modern. Hence, Europe was the first domino to fall, but other regions would surely follow. That picture has changed dramatically in the past thirty years. In a recent article the distinguished American sociologist, Peter Berger, states that far from secularization being the inevitable product of modernity, its impact has been most obviously felt in Western Europe and among American elites. Hence, the problem to be investigated is not why secularization is so ubiquitous in the world, but what is there about those two examples that produced a different picture from the rest of the world. There are some recent signs that this ‘revisionism’ may have gone too far, but it is undoubtedly the case that European secularization is now regarded as a historical problem to be investigated not an inexorable trend to be assumed. In the book, I try to compare and contrast the differential trajectories of secularization in Europe and America dating back to the eighteenth century. I think this is a problem that is best addressed comparatively.
As for your question about whether Christianity will ever recover its past hegemony in Europe, I would have to say that historians are notoriously bad prophets, but there is an influential body of historical opinion as represented in the work of Callum Brown and others that there is no obvious way back for Christianity in 21st century Europe. All I would say is that jeremiad prophecies of Christianity’s doom are ubiquitous in the historical record and they have frequently been proved wrong. Only time will tell if things are different in contemporary Europe. At the moment, the signs are not very propitious.
AW: Finally, what do you think are the chief challenges for the church in the 21st-century and beyond?
DH: Historians of global Christianity make the point that whereas in 1900 about two thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and North America and a third elsewhere, those proportions are now reversed. The speed and scale of that transformation, which shows no sign of abating, will throw up a vast array of new issues that will reshape discussions of theology, ethics, economic resources, political power, relations with other great religious traditions, and much else besides. Meantime in the West, many of the issues thrown up by the Enlightenment and the scientific revolutions still have not been adequately addressed by Christian theologians. Where does authority lie in the Christian tradition? How do traditional Christian views of the ‘created order’ line up with the discoveries of evolutionary biology and cosmology? Has our enthusiasm for human flourishing, to use Charles Taylor’s phrase, rendered obsolete Christian emphases on supernatural categories? And, of course, how will Christianity and Islam, both expansionist religious traditions accommodate each other (and other great religious traditions) in a fast-changing world order with many old, and some new, fault lines?
AW: David, thank you so much for taking the trouble to respond to my questions. We’re very proud to be publishing the book, and think it will make a very significant contribution to our understandings of ‘church’, not only in the Long Eighteenth Century but in the modern era as well. ■
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