Volume III - Church History

Eighteenth Century

The West

The 18th century in the West was a time of spiritual revival, especially through the spreading of various Pietist movements. In 1722 Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf (1700–1760), a godson of Philip Spener, welcomed a group of descendants of the Bohemian Brethren from Austria to settle on one of his estates, called Herrnhut, in Moravia. Thus began what would become the Moravians, a Pietistic group that emphasized intense personal devotion to Jesus Christ as Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer.

Moravians immigrating to America contributed much to the First Great Awakening, a widespread spiritual revival occurring in the English colonies on the Atlantic seaboard from the 1720s through the 1740s. An indefatigable, dynamic traveling evangelist from England named George Whitefield (1714–1770), and America’s greatest theologian of the 18th century, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), were the principal leaders actively promoting this revival, which cut across denominational barriers as Protestants of all sorts shared similar experiences of dramatic conversion to Christ.

An Anglican priest named John Wesley (1703–1791) was the leader of Methodism, a form of Pietism arising within the Church of England that began among a group of spiritually zealous students at Oxford University in the 1730s—one of whom had been George Whitefield. These students were seen to be so methodical in their approach to the Christian life that they were disparagingly called Methodists.

Wesley wanted his movement to foster and promote spiritual renewal within the Church of England, but in organizing annual conferences for his followers in the 1750s, he in effect laid the foundation for a new Christian denomination. The Methodist Episcopal Church was officially created in America in 1784. In England, the Methodists broke most of their ties with the Anglican Church by 1795, four years after Wesley’s death. John Wesley’s brother Charles (1707–1788) was a gifted, prolific hymn-writer whose 5500 hymns provided inspiration and cohesion for the Methodist movement and beyond.

At the same time, Deism was growing more popular, mostly among intellectuals, in Europe and America. Deism flourished in this era of the so-called Enlightenment, when man’s natural reason was exalted above belief in the supernatural. Deists still held to a belief in God as Creator of the universe, but they generally believed that, like a cosmic Clockmaker who fashioned and wound up the great clock of Creation and then let it go on ticking on its own, God had little or nothing to do with the ongoing affairs of the world. However, most American Deists, such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, attributed the American colonies’ victory over Great Britain to the working of God’s Providence—or as Washington said, “the propitious smiles of Heaven.”

The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) and the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) developed a philosophy which removed God, freedom, and immortality from the realm of human reason. To them, true Christianity was a religion of personal faith and ethical action, without mystical spiritual experience. Their work would have considerable influence in the development of Liberal Protestantism in the next century.

Among the most influential spiritual achievements of Western Christendom in this century was the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791).

The Roman Catholic Church in the eighteenth century continued to promote active mission work, especially in Africa, the Far East, and Latin America, including the American Southwest, where the celebrated Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra (1713–1784) established a number of missions along what is today the coast of southern California. However, a great conflict with the Enlightenment spirit and with growing nationalist and popularist forces led to the violently anti-clerical French Revolution that erupted in 1789.

In 1773 the Jesuit order was dissolved by Pope Clement XIV under secular pressures—though they were restored by the Papacy in 1814. Ironically, many Jesuits found refuge in the Russia of Empress Catherine II (the Great) (r. 1762–1796). Herself a devotee of the French Enlightenment spirit, she closed more than three fourths of the monasteries in Russia during her reign.