I took this weekend to review a book that has been sitting on my desk for months, The Church and the Age of Reason 1648-1789. The review is posted here and on the book's Amazon site.
In 1648 the Treaty or Peace of Westphalia brought to a formal end a three decades struggle that produced millions of causalities across Europe. Although the term “religious wars” is often applied to these hard times, the rise of nationalism and a revolution against the civil order had much to do with this catastrophe. By 1648 much of Europe was exhausted in every sense of the word, and from the time of the treaty up to the French Revolution in 1789, the various leaders, thinkers, and churchmen stepped back to examine what had happened and what the future might hold.
“The Church and the Age of Reason: 1648-1789” focuses on this 150 years of relative peace that permitted a maturing, one might say, of post-Reformation theology and practice, a coming to grips with the diminishment of a papal centralization that had held various facets of life together, and the blossoming of both scientific and philosophical speculation on the meaning of religion, human experience, and civil society. The era covered in this 284-page work discusses the emergence of trends and thought that would long survive future periods of upheavals—from the philosophers including Berkeley, Hume, Locke and Kant, to religious animators such as John Wesley and his Methodist impulse.
This work is the fourth in a series of Church History narratives published by Penguin (originally Pelican) through the mid-20th century under the editorial guidance of the great historian Owen Chadwick. It originally appeared in 1960 but has been reprinted as late as 1990. It goes without saying that a half-century of subsequent work by other scholars has taken the material here of Gerald R. Cragg to new levels of analysis and discovery, but all the same our work at hand is an excellent introduction to a significant age.
Cragg, as do other authors in this series, writes from a position I would call “high Protestant,” with an ecumenical respect of Roman Catholic and evangelical efforts of the age. In one sense this benign treatment of all Christian faiths signals the author’s discouraged belief that the intellectual enlightenment of the period was gradually rendering all denominations irrelevant. Cragg quotes Voltaire’s observation that the Enlightenment offered emancipation from “prone submission to the heavenly will.” (p. 12) Cragg is not pleased with such developments, but he also understands their inevitability. And while he examines several aspects of the age, it is the intellectual currents that, in the final analysis, make the greatest impact for better and worse.
After an insightful introductory chapter, Cragg turns first to France and Louis XIV. At the beginning of this age the French Crown faced challenges on two fronts: Protestants living and practicing within its borders, and the reaction of the French hierarchy to this toleration. Left to his own impulses, Louis would have tolerated Protestants under certain conditions. Cragg is not precise throughout the book when speaking of which “Protestants;” my understanding is that French Protestants of this time would have been Calvinists, whose theology holds the necessity of civil government in maintaining religious morality.
On the other hand, the French Catholic hierarchy found Protestant toleration untenable, and demanded strong action against a group they deemed heretical. What would emerge has come down to us as Gallicanism, a state of affairs in which the king would become the ultimate ruler in affairs of state and religion. This is not the same as Henry VIII’s English situation where an official state religion was recognized. French royalty and bishops (and other nations of this era) saw themselves as defenders of the faith, but without papal influence.
Chapter Three, “The New Age and Its Thought: 1648-1715,” begins with the scientific revolution initiated by Bacon and particularly Rene Descartes. It was Descartes who famously taught, “I think, therefore I am.” The Cartesian approach to knowledge—coming, fittingly enough, from a mathematician—maintained that all truth must stand the test of verifiable sense and logical proof. It does not require much imagination to picture the potential for havoc among all Christian denominations, resting as they do on faith and the metaphysical.
Chapter 5, “The Watershed in English Thought: 1660-1714,” describes the English effort to mellow, philosophically speaking, the hard edge of disunion among the churches, with particular attention to the “Cambridge Platonists” who sought God in and through nature, not beyond it. Cragg considers John Locke one of the significant luminaries of this age of interfacing belief in God with humanist philosophy and scientific inquiry.
Chapter 9, “The Hanoverian Age in England,” sets the table for changes to come as it discusses the byzantine relationship of crown, parliament, and clerics within an “established religion” society. Cragg observes that parish life might be formal but seldom dead (p. 133). That said, dissention was hardly dead, either, and it moved along multiple tracks: intellectual, political, and devotional. It is a fact that after two centuries of doctrinal conflict, there was throughout Europe a hunger for religious experience of piety and enthusiasm. In Roman Catholicism such hungers might be addressed in-house in the new devotion to the Sacred Heart, or out-of-house with the Jansenist movement. In England, Cragg devotes Chapter 10, “Methodism and the Evangelical Revival,” to the Wesleys and their remarkable preaching crusade through England beginning in the 1740’s. Wesley combined a reforming spirit, a spiritual social structure, a passionate concern for the lot of the poor, and a Tory’s unflinching loyalty to church and crown in such a way that some commentators credit Wesley’s religious megalith with warding off a revolution similar to France’s in 1789.
Cragg writes from the comfort of his island, and though he surveys the rest of the continent, the story line never wanders too far from Mother England. This is not really a serious flaw in the eyes of this reviewer; though Cragg’s is a self-contained work, it is a jumping off text leading the reader to pursue more post-Westphanian works on such diverse figures as Louis XIV to Bach.
On My Mind