Academic journal article The Hymn

"Feeling Religion": High Calvinism, Experimentalism, and Evangelism in William Gadsby's A Selection of Hymns for Public Worship

Academic journal article The Hymn

"Feeling Religion": High Calvinism, Experimentalism, and Evangelism in William Gadsby's A Selection of Hymns for Public Worship

Article excerpt

John Wesley famously called his Collection of Hymns (1780)"a body of practical and experimental divinity," in which the truths of God were carefully organized and illustrated through song.1 While books of this period served as liturgical and devotional tools, these hymnbooks were also manuals of theology. Wesley's observation can be equally applied to the hymnbooks of the late-eighteenthand earlynineteenth-century English Particular Baptist churches, which were struggling to reconcile the teachings of the Evangelical Revival with Calvinistic doctrine. Because hymns both reflect and inform the theology of a congregation, hymnbooks became a battlefield for opposing theological systems and evangelical models within the early-nineteenth-century Particular Baptist churches.

William Gadsby's hymnbook A Selection of Hymns for Public Worship (1814) stands at the intersection of late-eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought and early-nineteenth-century romanticism, balancing between these two ways of thinking.2 As the collection stands today, it is the product of more than one hundred years of revisions and enlargements.3 The hymnbook comprises six parts with over one thousand hymns, making it one of the largest Baptist hymn collections of the nineteenth century. When the hymnbook was first published in 1814, it had only two parts: (1) "Original Selection," and (2) "Gadsby's Hymns," which make up the hymnbook's core with 671 hymns. Gadsby's initial impetus for compiling and publishing the hymnbook was to provide his congregation with a congregational songbook that reflected his own theological distinctives, doctrines associated with a theological system called high Calvinism.4 The second stage of development involved the addition of another 102 hymns that formed Gadsby's Supplement, which Gadsby added in 1836. This second stage is the result of Gadsby's increasing interest in experimentalism and his growing concern over the lack of experiential understanding of high Calvinistic theology.5 In this essay, I shall discuss Gadsby's desire to infuse the "dry" orthodoxy of Enlightenment high Calvinism with romantic experimentalism and the mode through which he chose to bring about this romantic reform within his congregation, namely his hymnbook. Gadsby's Selection helped to redefine high Calvinism for the nineteenth century by establishing a method for the reenactment of spiritual experiences and by fostering a rather unconventional, and yet highly orthodox, model of romantic evangelism.

William Gadsby and Hijfh Calvinistic Orthodoxy

William Gadsby (1773-1844) was born in early January, 1773, in Attleborough (in the West Midlands of England) and baptized into the Particular Baptist church at Cow Lane, Coventry, in 1793. English Baptists of the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were divided into Particular and General Baptists according to their differing beliefs about the nature of redemption. Particular Baptists were so named because of their belief in "particular atonement": the teaching that God's atoning work through Jesus is applied only to particular individuals (the elect). In contrast, General Baptists believed that atonement is applied universally (or generally) to all mankind.

The tensions between these two interpretations of atonement are part of a larger disparity between the theological systems known as Calvinism, named after French theologian Jean Calvin (1609-1564), and Arminianism, named after Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). Arminius believed that salvation is the result of the combined work of God and human beings: God initiates atonement for all people, but that each person must respond by choosing to accept grace. In the Arminian system, humanity must respond to the offer of salvation but it is made to and for all. Calvin, on the other hand, believed that salvation is a work of God alone: even a person's acceptance of grace is the result of God's work of repentance. In the Calvinist system, God-not people-determines who will be saved, and the offer is made only to "the elect. …

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