Evangelicals and Culture
“Evangelicals, the Children of God”
19th century Evangelism has often been dismissed as anti-intellectual and philistine. This persuasion is the point of origin for Rosman’s study in Evangelicals and Culture. The book, a stylistically reformatted second edition of the work published by Croom Helm in 1984, tries to falsify the picture of 19th century-Evangelicals and to point out a Church whose doctrine/theology stands in accordance with the non-religious matters of that time. Rosman wants to prove the claim wrong that the principles of evangelical faith were antagonistic to intellectual activities and that Evangelicals likewise enjoyed music, literature and the fine arts.
“Suppressing passion in favour of piety”
God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must – shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you –not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.(Jane Eyre, p.463; Ed. Forgotten Books)
The character of St. John Rivers, to be found in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, published in 1843, confirmed the stereotypical image of world-denying Evangelical. In the novel, the clergyman attempts to convince the heroine to marry him and join him for his missionary activities in India. For young St. John love, passion and joy have no place in human life. He neglects his feelings for the beautiful Rosamond Oliver and instead wants to marry his cousin Jane Eyre as he thinks she would make a better missionary wife. His intention to leave for India, to resort into isolation from his cultural environment, is thus a reflection of the Evangelical desire to separate themselves from the worldly influences and the evil of society, a consequence of the their belief in human sinfulness.
However, the question needs to be asked: Did Charlotte Bronte draw a caricature of the Evangelicals of her time? Does St. John represent an exaggerated portrayal of the spirit of Evangelism?
By the 1790s the evangelical movement had positioned itself among the ecclesiastical landscape. “Any movement alters as it becomes more established”, argues Rosman in Evangelicals and Culture. Based on contemporary witnesses’ writings taken from periodicals, letters and memoirs, she points out the enjoyment and acceptance of non-religious cultural and intellectual pursuits within the community. Nonetheless, even though the Church’s establishment followed a moving closer to the worldly environment, she cannot revise the picture of suspicious evangelicals who dismissed everything that did not contribute to eternal well-being as “vanity,”, she cannot reveal the character of St. John Rivers to be a caricature.
Evangelicals and Culture is not only challenging our inherited perceptions of Evangelicalism but also hugely insightful simply in terms of better understanding the culture of the 19th century.