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Enthusiasm in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Moore, Nathan

Abstract

Several studies have been made of "enthusiasm," but I have found none which attempts to give a comprehensive account of the subject from the point of view of those who lived with "religious enthusiasts." This dissertation is an attempt to bring together for the first time the varied views on enthusiasm held by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Englishmen as found in their sermons, polemical writings, pamphlets, periodicals, and journals, among other works. Using a thematic approach, I have presented the ideas of many writers, allowing one writer to speak, however, when his opinions are characteristic of the general attitude. I have found that the term "enthusiast," originally meaning "an inspired individual," developed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into a term of abuse attached to people who claimed that they received special revelations from the Holy Spirit; that religious enthusiasm reached its highest peak in England during the Civil War and Interregnum, when religious toleration led to a proliferation of extreme Puritan sects such as Ranters, Seekers, Muggletonians, Familists, and Quakers, among others; and that the first decade of the eighteenth century saw the rise of new enthusiasts, the French and English prophets, and the seventeen-thirties introduced the Methodists, led by John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield. My findings indicate that the religious and political activities of the Puritan sects (especially the Fifth Monarchists, Baptists, Independents, Levellers, and Presbyterians) during the Revolution and Interregnum so alienated anti-Puritans that for more than a hundred years, they associated religious ardour with political and social evils destructive of all established systems of order. Anti-Puritans saw in enthusiasm a disease either arising from or leading to melancholy, which eventually unsettled the victim's senses, leaving him insane. Believing that the Holy Spirit no longer inspired men as He inspired the apostles, prophets, and the writers of the Scriptures, critics of enthusiasm dismissed the enthusiasts' claims to special revelation as mere pretense or as the fancies or imagination of an over-heated brain. In fact, many people firmly believed that enthusiasts were either madmen possessed by the Devil or hypocrites who manufactured mechanically what they called "the Spirit." Many Anglican clergymen believed that in the church, enthusiasm led to disrespect of authority, to quarrels over vestments, ceremonies, doctrines, and discipline, and ultimately to schism, the destruction of the Church, and the growth of atheism and infidelity. They insisted that the enthusiasts' belief in the sufficiency of the Spirit and their extreme views on faith and assurance of salvation caused them to slight or deny the necessity of good works, the sacraments, set forms of prayer, and academic training for the clergy. In the state, enthusiasm supposedly expressed itself either in active opposition to the duly appointed "magistrates" or in a pacificism which left the country to the mercy of its foreign enemies. Because of its basic irrationality, enthusiasm allegedly unfitted the individual for a balanced and productive life. It was also considered to be destructive of property and the national economy, of morality and virtue, and inimical to the laws and traditions which ensured the safety and authority of rulers, the order of society, and the deference due to the upper-classes. The reaction to enthusiasm contributed to the demand for a plain prose style; enthusiasm also influenced the growth of a large body of literature, including sermons, devotional writings, polemical and satirical works, autobiographies, and journals. But it was in the hymns of the Nonconformists and Methodists that enthusiasm expressed itself most significantly in poetry.

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