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History of Christianity: 18th Century
History of Christianity: The 18th Century
By the 18th century the Christian Faith appeared to no longer be "One Body of Christ" but instead a plethora of church bodies, confessions, and denominations, competitive and mutually exclusive. There was a fundamental consensus among Protestants but no such consensus existed between Protestantism, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy.
Eastern and Western Christendom finally began to realize the enormous costs borne by both sides from their alienation. The doctrinal differences between them did not affect individual salvation and so ought not have split the Church apart as they did.
An idea developed that it was not necessary to agree on dogma or doctrine to authentically participate in the Christian Faith. Simple obedience and genuine discipleship represented a path to salvation. What united all branches of the Christian Faith was the Nicene Creed.
August Hermann Francke wrote: "True Christianity consists in this, that one acknowledge the Lord Jesus as personal Savior and Lord."
Protestants vs Catholics
Protestants and Catholics had a major disagreement about the infallibility of the Pope. Protestants also disputed the Catholic reading of Matthew 16:18-19, which insisted Peter himself was the "rock" on whom Christ built the church. To Protestants these verses mean that the "rock" is the doctrine that Peter confessed.
As to what constituted the One True Church, Catholics believed this to be their visible institution and hierarchy, while Protestants believed it to be the invisible elect of God.
Protestants firmly rejected the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, while they noted it was never accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Meanwhile, the entire tradition of the Catholic Church about Mary continued to be attacked, in particular the doctrine of Immaculate Conception. For Catholics, Mary was "the living image of God" and "the chief work of his hands;" "the advocate of sinners," set apart from humanity. Mary was uniquely accessible to the prayers of sinners as "mediatrix" of grace and blessings; devotion to her was inseparable from devotion to Christ.
The Bible Canon
Catholics asserted that they had set the Canon of the Bible and therefore they had the authority to interpret it, and to establish new traditions as led to by the Holy Spirit. Protestants refused credit to the Catholic Church for the Canon, instead asserting that the Canon was in fact established by the Holy Spirit, not by mortal men.
All parties agreed that Scripture was divinely inspired. As Jonathan Edwards said: "The Spirit of God may reveal and dictate to him [a biblical writer] mysteries that otherwise would be above the reach of his reason."
There is nothing in the Bible that is contradictory, but biblical interpretations by men and various groups had begun to clash. To Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox teachers, this was proof that the authority of an infallible church was much needed.
Samuel Werenfels wrote: "The task of the theologian is not only to confirm true doctrine, but to refute errors that are opposed to the truth, above all if they are dangerous and pernicious. But the theologian must strive to do justice to the opposing position, not to caricature it, because nothing should be imputed to someone that he does not acknowledge in deed or in word."
Nikolaus Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf taught that the important issue about the Trinity is not to debate what Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are to one another, but "what they are to us."
Zinzendorf was quoted as saying the simplest Creed of a Believer is "I believe that God created me."
Zinzendorf later wrote: "We must all become acquainted with the Savior personally; otherwise all theology is for naught. . . . as soon as the Savior takes possession of the heart, he immediately tells it about the difference between right and wrong."
Barthelemy Durand made the observation that "Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him (not only in this life but especially in the life to come)."
The Huguenot evangelist Pierre Poiret defined faith as "believing and trusting in those things that God has told us about divine matters." Men should strive to align their wills with God's will. Grace is offered by God to all who hear the gospel. It is only by despising and rejecting this gift of grace that man excludes himself from living forever past the grave.
Roman Catholic Archbishop Fenelon described the state of grace as a state that "becomes real in the soul through the infusion of the Holy Spirit and through the total surrender of the soul and its activity."
August Hermann Francke contrasted persons to whom "eternal salvation is a matter of dead earnest" with those "wanting to have the kind of Christianity in which they can simultaneously please God and yet not displease the world."
Repentance is fundamental to salvific faith. Confession of sins to God must be, according to Francke, accompanied by "a heart filled with genuine repentance and true faith." "The study of theology is the cultivation of the soul, under the gracious guidance of the Holy Spirit."
Repentance is a radical change of mind and a coming to self-knowledge, the outcome, as Francke wrote, of "a true and earnest penitential struggle that has first taken place in the heart."
True divine knowledge only comes through divine illumination. The earnest and sincere observance of the state of one's soul is a continuing duty. Awareness of one's sins, accompanied by repentance and confession, is a religious and moral duty and a means of grace.
William Law stressed the importance of being "born again." "Nothing less than this great change of heart and mind" could "give anyone any assurance that he is truly turned to God."
Make Christ the King of your heart. All Believers are summoned to imitate Christ, but Law also emphasized that it was doubly important for clergyman, since they are engaged in a holy profession.
William Law: "The Son of God has redeemed us that we should live to the glory of God."
Gerhard Tersteegen wrote: "Our entire heart should become the heart of Jesus, so that he can impress his seal upon it and say: 'This is my heart.' "
August Hermann Francke added: "Christ exists, lives, dwells, and works within us through faith."
A Personal Relationship with God
In the 18th century, the Christians began to place more emphasis on preaching sermons extrapolated from Bible verses. There also came a new focus on the experience of repentance and the new birth.
The prayer of the heart is the most secret and intimate communication with God. Personal devotion can be cultivated by reading the Bible privately. As William Law wrote, "nothing is so likely a means to fill you with Christ's spirit and temper as to be frequent in reading the Gospels."
A shift seemed to occur from public worship to private devotion. Prayer is the way in which God communicates His Wisdom. This in no way disparages public preaching or the biblical admonition for the community of the faithful to meet together. Hearing the Bible was excellent; reading the Bible quietly was now seen as also excellent.
Protestant devotional writers exhorted adults and children to personally study the Bible. One should meditate on Scripture, in the hopes that, as Tersteegen wrote, it will be "as though God in this very hour were speaking about and to me, or about and to the present day."
Tersteegen added: "We can become participants in Christ's divine nature as he has become a participant in our human nature."
Private devotion and public worship should be mutually supportive, as are church and Scripture.
The Holy Spirit
The gift of the Holy Spirit is a divine gift. The specific source of that gift is God the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit consecrates us as the temples of his residence. The Holy Spirit works the contrition of the heart, grants believers the mind which was in Christ, and brings illumination to the human spirit.
Jonathan Edwards warned that "There are other spirits who have influence on the minds of men besides the Holy Ghost, including above all the devil as the evil spirit."
With a religious and moral commitment to discipleship, the Holy Spirit might convey visions and revelations to individual believers. Private revelations and ecstatic visions have never been absent from the life and experience of the church. Any purported new revelation must be measured against the authority of the revealed Word of God, which it dare not contradict.
Miracles had become a important topic of discussion in the 18th century. This was the first century in which serious doubt was cast upon the veracity of miracles in the Bible and post biblical miracles. A miracle was defined by Elias Meniates as a "transgression of the common order of nature" and "visible demonstration of divine power."
A miracle was an "extraordinary work of divine power, striking the senses and calling forth the astonishment of those who see it." To deny the existence of miracles was to deny the existence of God. Above all, it was important to confirm the Virgin Birth of Jesus and His Resurrection. Catholic apologists argued that all centuries had witnessed supernatural miracles.
John Wesley had this to say: "every answer to prayer is properly a miracle."
John Newton was born in London in 1725. His father was a sea captain. Newton was at one time a slave, to the black mistress of a slave trader off the coast of Africa. He would go on to work in the slave trade, but while at sea he began to study the Bible and Christian books. In 1764, he became convinced that slavery was wrong and began a new life as a minister in the Church of England. His autobiographical hymn is entitled "Amazing Grace."
Isaac Watts stood five feet tall and had a huge head. He is considered the father of English hymnody. Watts was born in Southhampton in 1674, the son of a devout Christian schoolmaster who was imprisoned twice for his faith.
Isaac Watts was rejected by women, ridiculed for his appearance, and always in poor health. When he died in 1748 he had written over 600 hymns. He put Scripture to song. One of his biggest hits is "Joy to the World."
In 1776, Augustus Toplady (1740-1778) wrote perhaps the greatest of all hymns: "Rock of Ages." He never knew his father, who as a major in the English army was killed in battle before Toplady was born. Toplady only lived to be 38 years old. His life was plagued with a frail body and tuberculosis.
George Frideric Handel was born the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685. His father was the town surgeon of Halle, Germany. In 1741, Handel completed his masterpiece Messiah.
The Unitarian denomination was founded in 1773. It specifically rejects the Trinity.
A small number of Christian radicals arose who expounded universalism: Since God loves people he would not sentence anybody to damnation, and therefore all people will go to heaven.
The Moravians were spiritual descendents of Jan Hus. They would become the first Protestant denomination to send out missionaries.
The 420 Presbyterian congregations in America were organized by John Witherspoon.
After the United States became an independent nation, the American branch of the Church of England changed its name to the Episcopalian Church.
As to all these denominations, Johann Salomo Semler wrote: "Where can the true Christian religion be, amid so many forms of religion? It is completely in the souls of all true Christians regardless of party."
The Baptists were among the fiercest of patriots in America. Baptist houses of worship in New England alone grew from 25 to 266 from 1740 to 1790. And there were by then 218 in Virginia as well.
Baptists were distinctive by their complete rejection of infant baptism as unbiblical. Only full immersion of adults was authentic and biblical.
The first modern missionary society was founded in 1792 by Baptists. Congregationalists followed suite in 1795. Mission churches were to be established around the world alongside mission schools and hospitals. They would aim to translate the Bible into native languages and missionaries were taught to learn the tongues and cultures of the native peoples. As soon as possible, native ministers and missionaries would be trained to take over so the original missionaries could move on to virgin territories. The foremost job was to take the Gospel message to peoples that had not heard it; to teach the true meaning, privileges, and responsibilities that come with the gift of salvation.
All of the early universities in America were founded by churches; to train ministers primarily, but also to produce Godly future leaders of the colonies. All education was presented from within a framework of the Christian Faith.
Harvard was founded by Puritans in 1636; William and Mary by Anglicans in 1693; Yale in 1701 by Puritans; Princeton in 1746 by Presbyterians; Columbia in 1754 by Anglicans; Brown in 1764 by Baptists; Dartmouth by Congregationalists in 1769; Rutgers by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1770.
The only university in America of the 18th century not founded specifically for Christian purposes was the University of Pennsylvania.
Father John Carroll
Father John Carroll was born in Maryland in 1736. He knew the Roman Catholic Church had enemies in America because of its long battles in England with Protestants. Most of all, Americans were suspicious of people who swore fealty to a monarch and court of Machiavellian cardinals in distant, decadent Rome.
John Carroll would become the first American bishop, and archbishop. He also founded Georgetown University as a Catholic school of higher learning, on land donated by a Protestant friend.
When Father John Carroll became bishop of America in 1784, there were 23,000 Catholics in the country and 24 priests. Catholics (like Methodists) chose Baltimore, Maryland as their home base.
John Carroll worked hard to cultivate "a warm charity and forbearance towards every other denomination." Under his guidance, the Catholic Church flourished in America, especially in the new District of Columbia. Catholic planters ceded most of the land where America's federal buildings now sit. The first mayor of "Washington City" was a Catholic.
Thanks to priests fleeing the French Revolution, the number of Catholic clergy grew rapidly in America. Holy orders were founded, one of the most famous being that of the great educator Mother (now Saint) Elizabeth Seton.
In 1808, new dioceses were founded in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. By 1829, America would boast 200,000 Catholics, along with 33 monasteries, 3 universities, 6 colleges, and 6 seminaries.
1755 Lisbon Earthquake
Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755, signaling the end of Portugal as a world power. Because the earthquake happened on All Saints Day, 30,000 Catholics died in the churches where they had gathered to worship.
This event provided ammunition to Voltaire against the Catholic Church and its belief that God is in control of all human events. It was as if Voltaire had had been waiting for such a catastrophe to attack the received wisdom of the age.
Some Protestants saw the great earthquake as fulfillment of Revelation 6:12. It may have been the most terrible earthquake ever recorded. It pervaded an extent of not less than four million square miles. The shock was nearly as severe in Africa as in Europe. At Cadiz, Spain, a tidal wave sixty feet high came ashore. Sixty thousand persons died the first six minutes in Lisbon alone. 90,000 lost their lives that day.
THE CHURCH IN ROME
The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia had greatly weakened the papacy in regard to its power over matters that did not pertain specifically to the Church. The 18th century popes were rather non-descript. Pope Benedict XIV was probably the best of the bunch.
Many people in Europe thought the papacy would eventually disappear.
CHEVALIER DE LA BARRE
Chevalier de la Barre was a young man of Abbeville, France. In 1766, a group of Capuchin monks came down the street in a religious procession and Chevalier de la Barre did not doff his hat out of respect. He was charged and convicted of blasphemy, and the Catholic authorities cut off his hands, tore his tongue out, and then burned him alive. This barbarous torture was witnessed by Voltaire who made it his mission from then on to destroy the power over individuals possessed by the Catholic Church.
MADAME DE GUYON
Madame de Guyon was a Mystic from France who was imprisoned for eight years after her book A Short and Easy Method of Prayer was condemned by the Pope. Guyon wrote: "Prayer is the key of perfection and of sovereign happiness; it is the efficacious means of getting rid of all vices and of acquiring all virtues; for the way to become perfect is to live in the presence of God. . . . Prayer alone can bring you into His presence, and keep you there continually."
The Jesuits had become despised in Europe for their gargantuan worldly power and riches; as well as their involvement in scandals and political assassinations. In the 1760s, most countries in Europe banned the Jesuits. Finally, they had sufficiently embarrassed the Pope that he dissolved the order in 1773.
The dissolution of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) threw Catholic schools and missions into chaos. Soon secular schools and universities would fill the vacuum in Europe.
REFORM IN AUSTRIA
In 1781, Emperor Joseph II of the Austrian Empire passed an edict of religious toleration, effectively ending the persecution of non-Catholics. From that time on, one no longer had to be a practicing Catholic to go to school, hold political office, or practice medicine or law. The celebration of saints' days, pilgrimages, and superstitions were discouraged by the Empire in order to modernize its realm.
The Dark Day
May 19th, 1780 was the Dark Day. The whole visible heavens and atmosphere in New England was unaccountably darkened in the middle of the day. Most people thought it was a fulfillment of Mark 13:24. The darkness remained until the middle of the next night—36 hours of darkness such as no one had ever witnessed. When it was over, the moon appeared to be as red as blood. Since the time of Moses no period of darkness of equal density, extent, and duration, has ever been recorded.
An eyewitness reported: "Fear, anxiety and awe gradually filled the minds of the people. Women stood at the door, looking out upon the dark landscape; men returned from their labor in the fields; the carpenter left his tools, the blacksmith his forge, and tremblingly the children fled homeward."
Hell served to restrain those who might otherwise plunge into wickedness. The Anabaptists proposed a new idea that there would be an end to the punishment of the damned.
While Hell deterred a great many souls from sinful deeds, sophisticated Christians began avoiding the subject, as they did not wish to think of God as ferociously vindictive. Enlightened people began to think that sins committed in time would be punished in time—not an eternal suffering. Those who reject God would be burned up by the righteous fire of His Presence and be no more—not suffer for millions of years, as had been taught. It was the Fire that was eternal, not the consciousness of the condemned.
Of course, there were conservative preachers who lamented this new concept of Hell as eternal annihilation. They felt that the threat of eternal suffering had an enormously powerful positive effect on the morals of their communities and that if men no longer feared this sentence, a crime wave would ensue.
It was widely thought that if the day came when men no longer feared going to Hell after death, there might be a marked increase in vanity, anxiety, disputes, wars, hostility, lying, theft, rape, pride, envy, murder, cruelty, sadism, lust, boasting, fornication, adultery, incest, homosexual behaviors, perjury, blasphemy, sacrilege, slander, swindles, fraud, anger, and violence.
My sources used for this article include: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture by Jaroslav Pelikan; The Great Controversy by Ellen G. White; A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson; A Short History of Christianity by Stephen Tomkins; The One Year Book of Christian History by E. Michael and Sharon Rusten; and Europe by Norman Davies.