High Calvinists in Action: Calvinism and the City, Manchester and London, C. 1810-1860

By Ian J. Shaw | Go to book overview

Introduction: People, Places, and Theology

The image of the revered high Calvinist John Gill shut away in his London study, or preaching long scholastic sermons to a dwindling congregation, whilst a few miles away the evangelical Calvinist George Whitefield was preaching in the open air to thousands is a particularly evocative one. 1 It encapsulates the enduring perception of the isolated high Calvinist, unable by virtue of his rigid theology to evangelize or to engage meaningfully with the world around him, and too doctrinally hide-bound to show any significant social concern. Whilst most recognize Gill's great intellectual ability, and see him as a particularly capable proponent of the scheme, all too frequently the popular caricature of high Calvinism is of the ignorant preaching to the illiterate or the foolish. But is such a deeply etched image of the high Calvinist a true one? This book explores the work of this often maligned and frequently misunderstood group, to see whether this perception resonates with the reality of the work of high Calvinists in the cities of the early nineteenth century. Although the number of high Calvinists was never great, they were significantly present in many rural and most urban centres. In a nuanced approach to the history of religious thought and expression, and understanding popular religion in its sometimes extreme and unusual forms, the beliefs of this neglected grouping deserve attention. However, religious discourse does not simply belong to the realms of personal and private spirituality, it has a decisive role in shaping not only ideology but also patterns of practical activity. Therefore, what follows is a study of the phenomenon of early nineteenth-century high Calvinism by means of an exploration of the interaction between three key elements: people, places, and theology.

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