Saturday, 18 February 2017

Before the Tractarians

There was hardly an aspect of English Church life that was not affected in some way by the Tractarians. For whatever reason, the Newman, Pusey, Froude, and even, at times, Keble, tended to drive men to define their positions either for or against, and the Evangelicals were no more immune to this development than other churchmen. Prior to 1833, things had been going almost swimmingly for the Evangelicals. The movement, which had started back in the 1730s with the Wesleys, Whitefield, and a handful of others, had matured into a widely respected, and influential body. Charles Simeon (1759-1836) had permanently connected the Evangelicals to the University of Cambridge with his influence spreading far and wide from his rooms in King's College, and his pulpit in Holy Trinity Church. William Wilberforce had long been the most prominent Evangelical in politics, and businessmen and colonial administrators were often drawn to the Movement. The great Evangelical campaign to abolish the slave trade had succeeded as long ago as 1809, and the Abolition of Slavery in the West Indies was soon to be accomplished after another long and exhausting campaign. Evangelicals had also started to find their way into the Church hierarchy, with Henry Ryder being consecrated as Bishop of Gloucester in 1815; Charles Sumner going to Llandaff in 1827; John Sumner to Chester in 1828; and Daniel Wilson to Calcutta in 1832. Also a young man named J. C. Ryle was about to go up to Oxford where he was converted, and, after his father's failure in business, decided to to take holy Orders. In the main, these men represented a rather sober form of Evangelicalism who took their doctrine from the Bible and the Church of England's Thirty-nine Articles of Religion giving it a mildly reformed cast. They believed in fairly frequent communion, in preaching as a means of grace, and in what I can only describe as godly activism to improve both the spiritual life of the nation, and the lot of their fellow man. The only danger of their situation was that they ran the risk of becoming a little too respectable.

There had been occasional controversies between Evangelicals and High Churchmen. Herbert Marsh, the none to tactful Bishop of Peterborough, had done his best to refute the mild Calvinism of most Evangelicals, and had also got himself into a rather sterile controversy with Thomas Scott, among others, on the subject of Baptismal regeneration. In the main, the Evangelicals upheld the doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration in those days, J. B. Sumner had maintained the doctrine in his 'Apostolic Preaching' (1815), but simply stated that regeneration was not inseparable from Baptism. This moderate line was later to find its way into the REC/FCE Declaration of Principles. High Churchmen would occasionally wince at the crude expressions used by some Evangelical preachers, but in the main, relations between the two parties were cordial.

What of the Methodists? In England, the Methodist Societies did not decisively break with the Church of England until 1812. Even then, many Methodists, especially in rural areas, continued to be baptized, married, and receive Communion in their parish churches whilst worshipping in the local Chapel most of the time. In the 1850s, the Rev. George Holt, the vicar of my home town noted that, "in the main, the Wesleyans are well disposed towards the Church, and come to have their children baptized in the Church, rather than in their meeting house." For some Church of England clergy, the split produced a bit of a crisis. For example, the Rev. Patrick Brontë found himself awkwardly straddling the gap when the break occurred being both examiner in a Wesleyan School, and Curate of Hartshead. He remained with the Church, but his wife's family were mainly Methodists. One complicating factor was that Wesleyan Methodism was doctrinally Arminian, whereas the Evangelicals tended to be mildly Calvinist. In some respects, this dividing line was more apparent than real, but it had tended to help folks define on which side they stood as the Methodists drifted away from the Church of England.

What of the numerical strength of the Evangelicals. Most estimates seem to suggest that between 10% and 20% of clergymen were Evangelicals in the 1820s, and this was growing. In the main they tended to reflect the sort of moderate reformed theology, and activist spirituality that had been associated with the Clapham Sect, and as such they were great ones for organisation. The Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Lord's Day Observance Society, and so forth, all came out of the Clapham tendency towards taking an active stance. However, the Tractarians were to force a division in the Evangelical ranks as the battle lines were drawn over Baptismal Regeneration, the Real Presence, the Apostolic Succession, and a host of other issues in the late 1830s and 1840s. The reaction to the Tractarians was to turn the Evangelicals from being a movement, into a party, and back into a movement again over the course of the next sixty years, reflecting their need to react to what they saw as an alien theological importation into the Church of England. The fundamental split was between the older 'Claphamites' led by the Sumners, and connected to the Birds, the Wilberforces, the Thorntons, the Venns, and the Bickersteths; and the younger 'Recordites' who took their name from a new Evangelical Church newspaper 'The Record' which first appeared in 1828.

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