After the Glorious Revolution for one reason or another, the British royalty began to view the church not as an instrument of spiritual vitality for the nation, but stability. Perhaps they’d seen the tumult caused by both the civil war and William’s ascendancy and they didn’t want any more of that religious squabbling. Whatever the reason, the broad church principles of Latitudinarianism became the raison de etre of the church during the Hanoverian dynasties. Thus, the church of the 1700’s was a church that was governed mainly by two pieces of scripture “Everything decent and in good order”(1 Cor 14:40) and “do not be overly zealous.”(Romans 10:2) During this time, the authorities in and over the church viewed with apprehension those who held passionately to the core doctrines of the Reformation, including the need for individuals to respond to the gospel with faith and repentance and be, in the words of Jesus, “born again.” One of the most damning accusations you could make against a churchman or priest in this age was to accuse him of “Enthusiasm”.
Many of those accused of “enthusiasm” would fit well into what we have described as “Reformation Anglicans”(with some serious differences we’ll discuss later). Men like Charles Simeon, John Newton, and Augustus Toplady led great revivals and sought not only to bring British people to Christ, but to bring the Gospel to bear in the Church of England. They were rarely greeted with open arms in the Church of England though. Simeon’s own congregation hated him and the wardens even locked up the church so no one could come and hear him preach! John Newton sought ordination in the Church of England for seven years before a wealthy benefactor, Lord Dartmouth, finally procured an appointment for him and persuaded a bishop to ordain him. Regardless of the fact that Newton turned down dozens of offers to serve in dissenter churches, almost every bishop he spoke to questioned his loyalty to the Church of England. Ever since the restoration of the monarchy in the 1600’s, the theological descendants of the Reformation have lived in the Church of England mostly on the margins.
Thus began an ironic relationship between those sons of the church who followed its father’s footsteps. Those who followed what Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley taught were pushed to the fringes of the Church of England. It bears stating that this marginalization was not necessarily in favor of High Church Anglicanism. During the Hanoverian period, the church began to fall more and more under the encroachment of modernity. Thus, bishops and priests may have questioned the divinity of Christ or the Trinity or the inspiration of the Scriptures as long as what they were teaching didn’t get people too excited. This was exactly what they found problematic about Evangelicals. Evangelicalism, by emphasizing a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, tended to produce disciples who were “dangerously enthusiastic.”
The British Evangelicals themselves were not immune to modernity’s influence though. Modernism, as a movement, tended to overemphasis the material world with an exaggerated trust on the rational mind of the individual to discover truth. Because Evangelicals in the 18th and 19th Century often had a misguided trust in individualistic rational thought, I would say that many of the accusations lobbied today against Reformed doctrine are the result of looking back at the Reformation through the lens of these centuries and not looking at the actual teaching and practice of the Reformation was. Some say, for instance, that evangelicalism neglects sacramental theology. They see the sacraments simply as symbols reflective of realities that are completely dependent on our own will. This accusation is often accurate when aimed at 18th and 19th Century British Evangelicals, but not against the teachings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Thomas Cranmer. For example, many popular evaluations of Anglican sacramental theology lay the doctrine of the real, or corporeal, presence in opposition to memorialism, the doctrine that the Lord’s Supper is merely a memorial and not, as the Articles of Religion put it a “sure and certain effectual means of grace.” In other words, they say, either we believe that somehow the body and blood of Jesus is physically present, or we believe that the Lord’s Supper is merely symbolic and is only an act of remembrance. Of course, this caricature completely ignores the Eucharistic doctrines of the Reformers and it does so because in the hyper-materialism of modernity it equates “spiritual” with “metaphorical.” In other words, the English Reformers believed that we really partook of Christ’s body and blood, but that we did so after “a heavenly and spiritual manner.” This was not to say that it was ephemeral, symbolic, and unreal, but that the Holy Spirit was the means by which we participate and even feed on the body and blood of Christ “in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving.” It is perhaps a topic for another day, but I would say that if Evangelicals held to more of what the Reformers taught, we wouldn’t see so many of our sons and daughters dabbling in other traditions in order to find a social conscience, or a robust sacramental theology, or a liturgical worship rooted in the history of the church.
On the other hand, the power in the evangelical movement of the 18th and 19th Centuries has been sadly forgotten as well. Evangelicals both within and without the Church of England led the charge for social reforms amongst the British people for well over a century. From William Wilberforce’s crusade against the transatlantic slave trade to Lever and Cadbury’s factory villages that provided healthcare, safe living conditions, and education to their factory workers, the marriage of evangelical faith with a social conscience helped give post-Industrial Revolution Great Britain a conscience of her own. I believe this is a helpful corrective to today’s evangelicalism that is all too often identified with a body of politics so shaped by resistance to socialism that it tends to see that bogeyman in any kind of social conscience and thus retreats into a privatized faith that looks very different from the New Testament church.
Not only were they extremely socially active, but Evangelical missionaries began to pour out of England all over the world. Despite how The Poisonwood Bible has caricatured these missionaries as unwitting stooges of the empire, they were often at odds with British imperial forces. After all, if you are trying to exploit people for your own profits under the ruse that you are there to help civilize them, the last thing you want is for them to be told that they, like all people, were made in God’s image and purchased by Christ’s blood.
This missionary movement established churches all over the world and Christianity today would be in a much different position without it. Anglican churches in the global south, the descendants of Anglican Evangelicals, have seen tremendous revivals in the 20th Century. As the church in the west shrinks in numbers and cultural influence, churches in the global south are thriving as they cling faithfully to the gospel of Jesus Christ. So even as they have long held a position on the fringes in the western provinces of the Anglican Communion, Anglican Evangelicals in many ways typify not only the past, but the future of Anglicanism as well.