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In many ways, not just politically, but morally, culturally, and even spiritually, the nineteenth century was dominated by the French Revolution of 1789 and its aftermath. The French Revolution introduced a new force into world history—democracy as “gospel.” When the French middle classes seized power from a decadent monarchy and aristocracy, they were driven by an Enlightenment devotion to the sovereignty of reason in human affairs. No tradition, however ancient or venerable, must be allowed to stand in reason’s path. This was quite different in spirit from the American Revolution of 1775–81, which took its stand on acknowledged British legal principles. By contrast, the French Revolutionaries wanted to jettison history and re-create human society afresh, based on purely rational ideals. This was reflected in their reform of the calendar: 1789 became Year 1. Time was no longer to be measured by the Savior’s redeeming birth but by humanity’s revolutionary rebirth.

When today we think of democracy as a kind of self-evident political gospel to be sold to (or imposed on) the world, we are showing ourselves to be children of the French Revolution. It may be worth reflecting that very few Christian thinkers at the time agreed with this idea. Partly, this was because they believed in original sin. Humans are incapable of behaving rationally for very long. The very fate of France’s revolution demonstrated this when the “rational republic” was soon transformed into the personal military empire of Napoleon Bonaparte, plunging Europe into the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). Those years of bloody turmoil ended when Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo in Belgium by a coalition made up (chiefly) of Britain, Prussia, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia.

Although Napoleon had hijacked the French Revolution for his own ambitions, people never forgot what had happened in France in 1789. It remained an inspiration and rallying cry across Europe, ever bursting forth afresh—as in 1848, the “year of revolutions,” which shook conservative governments in many European capitals. The ideal of rational democracy and popular sovereignty was in the world to stay.

The military defeat of Napoleon led to the victorious nations’ redrawing the map of Europe and, in a sense, the globe. It was in the wake of Napoleon’s downfall that the British Empire was able to reach its zenith of world power. The previous great world-colonial empire of Roman Catholic Spain was in decline, whereas Britain built on foundations it had laid in the eighteenth century to become the new leading colonial power. This led to the export of the English language and aspects of British culture to other parts of the world. British religion—Protestant Christianity—proved just as exportable. In many (though not all) cases, British Protestant missionaries could work under the protecting hand of British colonial authorities.

Various global territories, but Africa in particular, would now be divided up among the new European colonial empires—Britain, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and a post-Napoleonic France. These global empires meant that if there was ever a “European civil war” (such as broke out in 1914), large parts of the rest of the world would unavoidably be drawn into it, making a European war into a world war.

Theological Developments

Continental Europe not only dominated the political scene in the nineteenth century but the theological scene as well. It was in the leading German state of Prussia that “liberal theology” was born in the life and work of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834). A more philosophical type of Protestantism also arose in Prussia through the life and work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). Both men would wield massive influence in the Protestant world for the next hundred years.

Not that Schleiermacher and Hegel were the only key Protestant thinkers in nineteenth-century Europe. A third way was charted by the great Danish Lutheran Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55). Often caricatured as a mere irrationalist, Kierkegaard was an orthodox Lutheran in his theology. However, he reacted passionately against all attempts to “domesticate” Christianity, whether as a “national religion” (the Danish Lutheran state church) or a philosophical system (Hegel). In protest, Kierkegaard—a literary and religious genius by any standard—emphasized what he called the “subjectivity” of truth. By this he meant the profoundly personal response demanded of each individual by Jesus Christ. It was useless to believe (or to think one believes) in objective truth without subjective appropriation of the truth by the individual in the depths of his own unique existence.

Moreover, Kierkegaard insisted that Christian truth was not necessarily amenable to comfortable rational analysis, as Enlightenment-influenced theologians seemed to think. Especially in its fundamental doctrine of the incarnation, Christianity transcended reason by the “paradox” of one person’s being simultaneously the infinite, eternal God and a finite, temporal man. Against such a paradox, “reason beat its brow till the blood came.”

Kierkegaard had minimal impact in his own day. But after the First World War, his ideas had a huge influence on the “dialectical theology” of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, which shaped much of twentieth-century Protestant theology. The great twentieth-century philosophical movement of Existentialism would also look to Kierkegaard as its founder; however, its appreciation of his stress on individual authenticity would often ignore his Christian faith.

The French Revolutionaries wanted to jettison history and re-create human society afresh, based on purely rational ideals.
British Protestantism

Lest we become too mesmerized by the theological power and impact of Continental Europe, let us turn to the British scene. Much of nineteenth-century Protestant, especially evangelical, theology was marked by what scholars have called “the search for the church.” This may have been in part a recognition of evangelical weakness in the area of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). Whatever its causes, three significant forms of this “search for the church” emerged in nineteenth-century Britain and from there gained much wider importance.

First, in the Church of England, there developed what we today would call Anglo-Catholicism. In its own day, it was known as the Oxford Movement (after the prominence in the movement at Oxford University) or Puseyism (after Edward Pusey, one of its foremost advocates). Anglo-Catholicism was basically a reaction to a prevalent rationalism and moralism among Anglican clergy and against the Church of England’s subordination to the English state. Anglo-Catholics strove to reassert the supernatural character of the faith and of the church. They had great success, soon becoming one of the chief parties within Anglicanism. Significant numbers of Anglo-Catholics were disenchanted evangelicals. Others retained an evangelical enthusiasm for preaching salvation by personal faith but combined it with very “high” and elaborate forms of medieval ritual.

Anglo-Catholicism had a worldwide impact on the Anglican communion. Its most eloquent spokesman, however, deserted the movement for Roman Catholicism. This was John Henry Newman (1801–90), who in 1845 was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Today Newman is regarded as one of the greatest Roman Catholic theologians of the nineteenth century. He is often looked on as a spiritual father of the new-style Roman Catholicism that gained prominence in and through the Second Vatican Council (1962–65).

Part of the secret of Newman’s brilliance lay in his supreme mastery of the English language. His Plain and Parochial Sermons are masterpieces of pulpit eloquence. His Apologia Pro Vita Sua is one of the most captivating religious biographies ever written. His Grammar of Assent is a rich philosophical essay exploring the nature of faith. Not only Roman Catholics but also some Protestants have found Newman’s writings extremely interesting and insightful (for Protestants, perhaps by way of being provocative).

The second form taken by the British “search for the church” was the Brethren movement. Rather like Anglo-Catholics, the Brethren were originally Anglicans disillusioned with the Church of England. Their origins are complex, but one important seedbed was the annual Powerscourt Conference on biblical prophecy, held from 1831 to 1833 in Ireland (at that time part of the British Empire). After 1833, prophecy conferences continued to be held elsewhere. Leading figures were John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), Anthony Norris Groves (1795–1853), and Benjamin Wills Newton (1807–99).

What finally took shape was a new religious body whose main distinctives were the rejection of a single full-time pastor paid by the congregation in favor of a more corporate lay eldership; a more open style of worship (with various individuals allowed to give words of exhortation); and a new form of premil­lennial belief known as dispensationalism. The basic difference between historic premil­lennialism and dispensationalism is the latter’s view that Christ’s thousand-year reign on earth will be not a church millennium but a Jewish one wherein God’s purpose for Israel will resume central importance. The Brethren would become a worldwide movement and would transmit their dispensational beliefs to many other Christian groups, especially in the United States.

The third form taken by the British “search for the church” was the Catholic Apostolic Church. This is sometimes nicknamed “Irvingism” after its pioneer Edward Irving (1792–1834), one of Britain’s most colorful and eccentric preachers and theologians of the nineteenth century. Originally a Church of Scotland minister, Irving was deposed in 1831 for his belief in Christ’s “fallen” humanity (that Christ’s human nature had the same propensity to sin as ours, but that the Holy Spirit in Christ’s case neutralized this tendency). This belief, or something akin to it, would find considerable favor in twentieth-century theology, but it was regarded as heresy in Irving’s day.

More significant, however, was what Irving and his disciples did after his deposition. They experienced what we must call the first modern Pentecostal movement, and on that basis founded the Catholic Apostolic Church, formally organized in 1835 after Irving’s death. Modern Pentecostals and charismatics sometimes look back to Irving and the Catholic Apostolic Church as the forerunners of their own movements. What made the Catholic Apostolic Church peculiar from a modern Pentecostal/charismatic viewpoint was its embrace of a strongly liturgical form of worship and a strongly hierarchical church polity.

The Catholic Apostolic liturgy had an influence far beyond its parent denomination. The church, however, eventually died out in Britain. But it had taken root in Continental Europe, where it lived on, in one form or another, for another hundred years in Germany and the Netherlands, and through emigration in Australia and South Africa. It is best remembered today as the precursor to the birth of Pentecostalism at the Azusa Street Revival in 1906–13.

Developments in American Religion

America, the new nation across the Atlantic, also birthed its fair share of new or impactful religious movements in the nineteenth century. The Second Great Awakening had wide influence, lasting from roughly 1795 until the 1830s or even the 1840s. One of the innovative features of this awakening was the way that “revival” began to develop into “revivalism.” The new distinctive of revivalism was the growing belief that a revival could be produced by “the use of means”—that if only Christians followed the right methods, revival was bound to happen, as surely as a crop would follow if a farmer used the proper methods of sowing and cultivating. The great popularizer of revivalism was Charles Grandison Finney.

Reformed thinkers and preachers gave critical assessments of Finney’s “new methods.” The most enduringly fascinating response came from Mercersburg Seminary in Pennsylvania, the seminary of the German Reformed Church in America. This response was articulated by Mercersburg’s Princeton-trained theologian John Williamson Nevin (1803–86) and its Swiss church historian Philip Schaff (1819–93). Beginning as a critical rejoinder to Finney, Mercersburg Theology developed into a grand and elaborate appeal to American Protestants to rediscover the early church fathers and to give more central focus to the doctrine of the incarnation and to Calvin’s (rather than Zwingli’s) view of the sacraments. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Mercersburg was the Schaff-inspired thirty-eight-volume translation of the ante-Nicene, Nicene, and post-Nicene fathers that graces many a pastor’s bookshelves today.

Other American religious movements that sprang from the Second Great Awakening embraced a reaction against church history and tradition (the opposite trajectory to Mercersburg), calling for an Anabaptist-like restoration of pure New Testament church life and polity. This is comparable to the Brethren Movement in Britain. In America, one of the most influential of these “restorationist” movements was the Disciples of Christ, founded in 1830 by the Baptist Alexander Campbell (1788–1866)—hence the nickname “Campbellite.” This restorationist impulse has ever since either blessed or bedeviled American Protestantism, depending on one’s viewpoint.

A unique factor in American Christianity throughout the first half of the nineteenth century was the controversy and denominational splits occasioned by radically differing attitudes to slavery. Other countries, such as Britain and France, managed to abolish slavery without fracturing society or state. Matters took a different course in America, where the institution of slavery was too socially entrenched to be so easily dislodged.

The American churches, as a result, became caught up in the social controversy over slavery. Two general positions arose, with a variety of viewpoints in between. Some church leaders adopted an abolitionist stance, considering slaveholding to be incompatible with New Testament teaching. Others argued that the practice was tolerable or even a positive good in Christianizing those of African descent. Since most of the slaveholding states were in the South, this led to denominational splits along a North-South axis, which reinforced the growing sociopolitical divide between the two regions.

The issue of slavery was significant in the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln (1809–65) in 1860. Shortly after his election, the Southern slaveholding states seceded from the Union. They formed a new nation, the Confederate States of America, in the South. This precipitated war in 1861, since Lincoln was not prepared to tolerate secession.

The original war aim of the North was to restore the Union, but eventually the issue of slavery also came to the fore. The battlefield cost was high, with more than six hundred thousand dead by the war’s end. The North’s ultimate triumph in 1865 brought not simply the restoration of the 1860 Union but the legal abolition of slavery. Yet the emancipation of slaves did not immediately lead to their full integration into Southern society or church, nor even to much acceptance in the North.

The Reformed faith enjoyed a golden age in nineteenth-century America. No other land produced such a dazzling crop of Reformed talent.

The Reformed tradition in many ways enjoyed a golden age in nineteenth-century America. The list of notable American Reformed theologians and scholars includes Charles Hodge (1797–1878) and his son Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823–86), William G.T. Shedd (1820–94), Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–98), James Henley Thornwell (1812–62), Benjamin Morgan Palmer (1818–1902), John Girardeau (1825–98), John B. Adger (1810–99), William H. Green (1824–1900), Benjamin Breckinridge War­field (1851–1921)—the list goes on. No other land produced such a crop of Reformed talent. In particular, Princeton Theological Seminary, presided over by Charles Hodge, was a powerhouse of Reformed theology.

However, nineteenth-century America also produced a startling array of unorthodox religious movements. To this century in the United States we owe the origins of Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, and Seventh-day Adventism. Virtually all these and other sectarian movements held in common the attribution of some type of extrabiblical authority to one or more of their founders, who claimed prophecy, visions, or written revelation alongside the Bible. Notoriously, Joseph Smith (1805–44), the Mormon founder, was a self-styled prophet who professed to be God’s chosen agent in restoring true Christianity to a long-apostate Christian world.

Unbiblical religion of another type—the syncretistic, pantheistic religious thought of the Eastern world—also came to influence the West increasingly in this period. This was in part due simply to the way that the world was becoming a smaller place through technological progress. Travel and communication were becoming so much easier and more rapid. The European colonial empires also played their part in channeling Eastern thought back into the West. America had its own religious school of thinking, the Transcendentalism of New England, that reflected many Eastern themes. The pan-religious syncretism favored by this style of thought found concrete expression in the founding of the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. All of this presaged the multifaith ecumenism that would become politically correct in the twentieth century.

World-Altering Philosophies

Other significant movements that began in the nineteenth century and greatly affected the twentieth century lay more in the area of philosophical theorizing (political, scientific) outside the church. Communism in its modern form originated in the nineteenth century with the political teachings of the German thinker Karl Marx (1818–83). Marx was a sort of renegade disciple of Hegel; he stripped Hegel’s philosophy of anything spiritual and interpreted human history in wholly materialist, economic terms. Hegel had seen everything as developing, by an inevitable historical process, toward an ultimate manifestation of “Spirit,” but Marx saw it developing toward the worldly utopia of a classless society. In the vanguard of this development stood the working class, who had to unite across all national divides and shatter the chains of their rich, capitalist oppressors.

Nor in Marx’s hands was communism friendly to religion, which he famously called “the opium of the people”—a drug-like refuge for suffering workers who knew no better. When the classless society dawned, the dream of religion would vanish as no longer needed. Marx’s prophecy was to be radically falsified in communist societies of the twentieth century, where religion would remain a potent reality despite all attempts by communist states to eradicate it.

The nineteenth century also saw the epoch-making work of English scientist Charles Darwin (1809–82) and his theory of life’s development (evolution) over vast eras of time from one or a few original forms. Here we must be careful. The theory of biological evolution had in fact been around throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, many decades before Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). What Darwin’s landmark treatise did was offer a seemingly scientifically viable mechanism—natural selection (sometimes called “survival of the fittest”)—by which evolution could take place. The end result of Darwin’s theory was to make the more general concept of biological evolution more palatable and respectable.

Although Darwin’s theorizing took place in the scientific domain, Christian thinkers wondered about its impact on the biblical narrative. Christian responses were extremely varied. Some saw no problem in Darwin’s theory as long as God’s sovereignty was regarded as lying behind natural selection. Others, however, argued that Darwin had framed his theory in such a way as to render the Christian God either redundant or positively incredible. The seeds of the later fierce religious controversies between “theistic evolution” and “creationism,” still divisive today, were thus sown at the very outset of Darwin’s impact.

Another nineteenth-century thinker worth noting is the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). With more honesty than most, he stared into the atheistic void of existence without God and saw little or no meaning left (“nihilism,” from the Latin nihil, nothing)—that is, nothing but the struggle for mastery by the strong over the weak. Rejecting Christianity as the religion of the weak, a “slave morality,” Nietzsche prophesied the coming of an Übermensch (literally, “super-man”) who would embody human beauty and virility without God—and without compassion for the weak. Some have seen themes here that came to evil fruition in Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.

At the other extreme to Nietzsche, we should mention the Russian Orthodox writer Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–81), who has a claim to being the greatest novelist of all time. Dostoevsky also stared into the atheistic void, but he drew the opposite conclusion from Nietzsche: the only valid meaning of human life lies in the God of Jesus Christ. In his novels such as The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky explores these themes with unique imaginative brilliance.

Rome Responds to Modernity

Last, the Roman Catholic Church underwent some serious developments in the nineteenth century. In reaction to the anti-Catholic excesses of the French Revolution, the predominant note of these developments was intensely conservative. They were embodied in the figure of Pope Pius IX (pope from 1846 to 1878). He was nicknamed “Pio Nono,” because he was always saying no to anything modern. During Pius’ pontificate, the Roman Catholic Church formally defined two new dogmas as binding on the faithful. The first was the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary (1854)—Mary’s conception without sin—which until then had been merely an opinion denied by some of Rome’s leading theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas. The second was papal infallibility, proclaimed at the First Vatican Council in 1870.

Rome in the nineteenth century saw herself as the embattled city of God, fighting on two fronts: against the Protestantism so mightily incarnated around the globe in the British Empire, and against all the “liberal” and progressive tendencies of Western civilization in the nineteenth century. Few at the time could have foreseen the complete collapse of this mentality among Roman Catholics in the century to come. One of the more poignant lessons of church history is that it rarely enables us to foretell how future history will unfold.

Christianity and Theological Liberalism

Remembering Old Princeton

Keep Reading The Nineteenth Century

From the May 2019 Issue
May 2019 Issue