Christianity in the 18th century

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George Whitefield, leader in the first Great Awakening

Christianity in the 18th century is marked by the First Great Awakening in the Americas, along with the expansion of the Spanish and Portuguese empires around the world, which helped to spread Catholicism.

Protestant Pietism, evangelicalism[edit]

Historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom identified a "great international Protestant upheaval" that created Pietism in Germany and Scandinavia, the Evangelical Revival, and Methodism in England, And the First Great Awakening in the American colonies.[1] This powerful grass-roots evangelical movement shifted the emphasis from formality to inner piety. In Germany it was partly a continuation of mysticism that had emerged in the Reformation era. The leader was Philipp Spener (1635-1705), They downplayed theological discourse and believed that all ministers should have a conversion experience; they wanted the laity to participate more actively in church affairs. Pietists emphasized the importance of Bible reading. August Hermann Francke (1663-1727) was another important leader who made the University of Halle the intellectual center.[2][3] Pietism was strongest in the Lutheran churches, and also had a presence in the Dutch Reformed church. In Germany, however, reformed Reformed Church's work closely under the control of the government, which distrusted Pietism. Likewise in Sweden, the Lutheran Church of Sweden was so legalistic and intellectually oriented, that it brushed aside pietistic demands for change. Pietism continues to have its influence on European Protestantism, and extended its reach through missionary work across the world.[4]

The same movement toward individual piety was called evangelicalism in Britain and its colonies.[5] The most important leaders included Methodists John Wesley, George Whitefield and hymn writer Charles Wesley.[6][7][8] Movements occurred inside the established state churches, but there was also a centripetal force that led to partial independence, as in the case of the Methodist and Wesleyan revivals.

The American Great Awakening[edit]

The First Great Awakening was a wave of religious enthusiasm among Protestants that swept the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s, leaving a permanent impact on American religion. Jonathan Edwards, perhaps most powerful intellectual in colonial America, was a key leader. George Whitefield came over from England and made many converts. The Great Awakening emphasized the traditional Reformed virtues of Godly preaching, rudimentary liturgy, and a deep sense of personal guilt and redemption by Christ Jesus. It resulted from powerful preaching that deeply affected listeners with a deep sense of personal guilt and salvation by Christ. Pulling away from ritual and ceremony, the Great Awakening made religion personal to the average person.[9]

It had a major impact in reshaping the Congregational, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and German Reformed denominations, and it strengthened the small Baptist and Methodist denominations. It brought Christianity to the slaves and was an apocalyptic event in New England that challenged established authority. It incited rancor and division between the new revivalists and the old traditionalists who insisted on ritual and doctrine. It had little impact on Anglicans and Quakers.

Unlike the Second Great Awakening that began about 1800 and which reached out to the unchurched, the First Great Awakening focused on people who were already church members. It changed their rituals, their piety, and their self-awareness. The new style of sermons and the way people practiced their faith breathed new life into religion in America. People became passionately and emotionally involved in their religion, rather than passively listening to intellectual discourse in a detached manner. Ministers who used this new style of preaching were generally called "new lights", while the preachers of old were called "old lights". People began to study the Bible at home, which effectively decentralized the means of informing the public on religious manners and was akin to the individualistic trends present in Europe during the Protestant Reformation.[10]

Roman Catholicism[edit]


Across Europe the Catholic Church was in a weak position. In the major countries, it was largely controlled by the government. The Jesuits were dissolved in Europe. intellectually, the Enlightenment attacked and ridiculed Catholic Church, and the aristocracy was given very little support. In the Austrian Empire, the population was a heavily Catholic, but the government seized control of all the Church lands. The peasant classes continue to be devout, but they had no voice. The French Revolution of the 1790s had a devastating impact in France, essentially shutting down the Catholic Church, seizing and selling its properties, closing its monasteries and schools and exiling most of its leaders. [11]


Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal, "The Expulsion of the Jesuits" by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1766.

Throughout the inculturation controversy, the very existence of Jesuits were under attack in Portugal, Spain, France, and the Kingdom of Sicily. The inculturation controversy and the Jesuit support for the native Indians in South America added fuel to growing criticism of the order, which seemed to symbolize the strength and independence of the Church. Defending the rights of native peoples in South America, hindered the efforts of European powers, especially Spain and Portugal to maintain absolute rule over their domains.[12] Portugal's Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal was the main enemy of the Jesuits. Pope Clement XIII attempted to keep the Jesuits in existence without any changes: Sint ut sunt aut not sint ("Leave them as they are or not at all.")[13] In 1773, European rulers united to force Pope Clement XIV to dissolve the order officially, although some chapters continued to operate. Pius VII restored the Jesuits in the 1814 papal bull Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum.[14][15]

French Revolution[edit]

Matters grew still worse with the violent anti-clericalism of the French Revolution.[16] Direct attacks on the wealth of the Catholic Church and associated grievances led to the wholesale nationalisation of church property and attempts to establish a state-run church.[17] Large numbers of priests refused to take an oath of compliance to the National Assembly, leading to the Catholic Church being outlawed and replaced by a new religion of the worship of "Reason"[17] along with a new French Republican Calendar. In this period, all monasteries were destroyed, 30,000 priests were exiled and hundreds more were killed.[17]

When Pope Pius VI sided against the revolution in the First Coalition, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy. The 82-year-old pope was taken prisoner to France in February 1799 and died in Valence August 29, 1799 after six months of captivity. To win popular support for his rule, Napoleon re-established the Catholic Church in France through the Concordat of 1801.[18] All over Europe, the end of the Napoleonic wars signaled by the Congress of Vienna, brought Catholic revival, and renewed enthusiasm and respect for the papacy following the depredations of the previous era.[19]

Spanish colonies[edit]

The expansion of the Roman Catholic Portuguese Empire and Spanish Empire with a significant role played by the Roman Catholic Church led to the Christianization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas such as the Aztecs and Incas.

In the Americas, the Roman Catholic Church expanded its missions but, until the 19th century, had to work under the Spain and Portuguese governments and military.[20] Junípero Serra, the Franciscan priest in charge of this effort, founded a series of missions which became important economic, political, and religious institutions.[21]


The bull of Pope Benedict XIV Ex Quo Singulari from July 11, 1742, repeated verbatim the bull of Clement XI and stressed the purity of Christian teachings and traditions, which must be upheld against all heresies. Chinese missionaries were forbidden to take part in honors paid to ancestors, to Confucius, or to the emperors. This bull virtually destroyed the Jesuit goal to Christianize the influential upper classes in China.[22] The Vatican policy was the death of the missions in China.[23] Afterwards the Roman Catholic Church experienced missionary setbacks, and in 1721 the Chinese Rites controversy led the Kangxi Emperor to outlaw Christian missions.[24] The Chinese emperor felt duped and refused to permit any alteration of the existing Christian practices. He told the visiting papal delegate: "You destroyed your religion. You put in misery all Europeans living here in China."[25]

Russian Orthodoxy[edit]

In 1721 Tsar Peter I abolished completely the patriarchate and so the Russian Orthodox Church effectively became a department of the government, ruled by a Most Holy Synod composed of senior bishops and lay bureaucrats appointed by the Tsar.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1972) p. 263
  2. ^ F. Ernest Stoeffler, German Pietism During the Eighteenth Century (Brill Archive, 1973)
  3. ^ Richard L. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth-century Prussia (Cambridge UP, 1993)
  4. ^ Kenneth Scott Latourette, Christianity in a Revolutionary Age. Vol. I: The 19th Century in Europe; Background and the Roman Catholic Phase (1958) pp 74-89
  5. ^ Mark A. Noll, et al. eds. Evangelicalism: Comparative studies of popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and beyond 1700-1900 (Oxford University Press, 1994)
  6. ^ Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the people called Methodists (2013).
  7. ^ Frank Lambert, "Pedlar in divinity": George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737–1770 (1993)
  8. ^ Nicholas Temperley and Stephen Barfield, eds., Music and the Wesleys (2010)
  9. ^ John Howard Smith, The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725–1775 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)
  10. ^ Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (Yale University Press, 2009)
  11. ^ Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (1976) pp 353 -54
  12. ^ Duffy, Saints and Sinners (1997), p. 193
  13. ^ Frank Leslie Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone (2005). The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford UP. p. 366. 
  14. ^ Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church (2004), p. 295
  15. ^ Cross and Livingstone; and Elizabeth A. Livingstone (2005). The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. p. 366. 
  16. ^ Edward, The Cambridge Modern History (1908), p. 25
  17. ^ a b c Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church (2004), pp.283-285
  18. ^ Collins, The Story of Christianity (1999), p. 176
  19. ^ Duffy, Saints and Sinners (1997), pp.214-216
  20. ^ Franzen, 362
  21. ^ Norman, The Roman Catholic Church an Illustrated History (2007), pp.111-112
  22. ^ Franzen, Papstgeschichte, 325
  23. ^ Franzen 324
  24. ^ McManners, Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (1990), p. 328, Chapter 9 The Expansion of Christianity by John McManners
  25. ^ Franzen 325
  26. ^ Kane, p. 82
  27. ^ Herzog, vol. XII, p. 316
  28. ^ Kane, p. 78
  29. ^ Neill, p. 195
  30. ^ Kane, p. l83
  31. ^ Neill, p. 200
  32. ^ Kane, 83
  33. ^ Herzog, vol. IX, p. 65
  34. ^ Glover, p. 52
  35. ^ Glazier, p. 689
  36. ^ Kane, p. 79
  37. ^ Moreau, p. 913
  38. ^ Thwaites, Reuben Gold. The Revolution on the Upper Ohio, 1775-1777: Compiled from the Draper Manuscripts in the Library of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Genealogical Publishing Company, 2002, p. 45.
  39. ^ Tucker, 2004, p. 55
  40. ^ Kane, p. 84
  41. ^ Anderson, p. 195
  42. ^ Latourette, 1941, vol. III, p. 280
  43. ^ Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity 1941, vol. V, p. 446
  44. ^ Herzog, vol. VIII, p. 220
  45. ^ Habermann, p. 370
  46. ^ Gailey, p. 82
  47. ^ The Works of Emanuel Swedenborg in Chronological Order

Further reading[edit]

  • Atkin, Nicholas, and Frank Tallett, eds. Priests, Prelates and People: A History of European Catholicism since 1750 (2003)
  • Brown, Stewart J. and Timothy Tackett, eds. The Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 7, Enlightenment, Reawakening and Revolution 1660-1815 (2007)
  • Chadwick, Owen. The Popes and European Revolution (Oxford UP, 1981)
  • Hastings, Adrian, ed. A World History of Christianity (1999) 608pp
  • Hope, Nicholas. German and Scandinavian Protestantism 1700-1918 (1999)
  • Latourette, Kenneth Scott. Christianity in a Revolutionary Age. Vol. I: The 19th Century in Europe; Background and the Roman Catholic Phase (1958)
  • MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (2011) ch 21
  • McLeod, Hugh and Werner Ustorf, eds. The Decline of Christendom in Western Europe, 1750-2000 (Cambridge UP, 2004) online
  • McManners, John. Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France (2 vols. Oxford, 1998) 709–11.
  • Rosman, Doreen. The Evolution of the English Churches, 1500-2000 (2003) 400pp

External links[edit]

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