Thursday, 15 October 2009

Protestantism from the Renaissance to Modernity: Stagnant, Growing or Declining?

Recently, I attended a conference at Baylor on Secularization and Revival. One of the best colloquial sessions there featured a discussion of Timothy Larsen's new book Crisis of Doubt. It was interesting to hear that in the nineteenth century many English-speaking Protestants were proclaiming that Christianity was on the decline and that the situation was much better in the previous century. What is interesting to me is that in the eighteenth century, the same argument was made - that evangelical piety was much more robust in the previous century and that it was the rise of Enlightenment thought that caused the decay of a vibrant Protestantism that was championed by the Puritans. I suspect that a sixteenth-century historian could propose that the Puritans believed that Protestantism was on the decline and looked back with admiration to the time of the Magisterial Reformers. My question then is this: Was Protestantism from the Renaissance to Modernity stagnant, growing or in decline?

Larsen is right when he pointed out in the session that many nineteenth-century ministers were preaching the real effects of secularization during their day while in reality there are plenty of examples of renewed piety among lukewarm Christians. The same jeremiad-style preaching existed in the eighteenth century. If a person read only the sermons of evangelical clergymen during the eighteenth century, he or she would walk away thinking that Christianity was marginal and on the brink of being overthrown by the advancing army of atheists and deists. In determining the true spiritual climate from the Renaissance to Modernity, there is the additional problem that secularization did in fact occur, at least in Britain. Today, Protestantism IS marginal in Britain. Anyone visiting Scotland or England will struggle to find multiple Christian congregations within a town that are thriving. Instead, a visitor will see boarded up churches, beautiful former church buildings that have been converted to apartments or condominiums and state church congregations that are dominated by the elderly. So, in the case of Britain, secularization did occur, but when? Are we to believe that Callum Brown is right in his "Death of Christian Britain" - that secularization occurred in the 1960s? Or, are other sociologists and historians correct in tracing the decline of Christianity at least in Britain to be a slow decay since the Enlightenment or during the "Crisis of Faith" in the nineteenth century?


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