Monday, August 4th, 2014
Bruce Hindmarsh’s recent delightfully wise afterword in the ASCH blog recalls for us his presidential address, delivered this past January in Washington and now expanded in Church History’s June number. His careful research and graceful presentation, both in the room and in the journal, deserve our admiration. In effect, he has put the Society’s imprimatur on the growing “cultural turn” in early Methodist studies. And in the process he has deftly illustrated once again our journal’s “new” subtitle: Studies in Christianity and Culture.
It is not the first time the unlikely connection between British art and the evangelical revival has been made. Peter Forsaith has tilled this field for some time (see his perceptive article “Methodism and its Images” in the T & T Clark Companion to Methodism, ed., Charles Yrigoyen, Jr., 2010). But Hindmarsh has focused more narrowly and given us a particularly fine example of what such interdisciplinarity can achieve. Following up on impulses he felt while “off-duty” and browsing the Huntington Library’s collection of 18th-century British painting, this accomplished church historian immersed himself in art criticism well enough to demonstrate how the two specialties might engage. Both art and evangelical religion, we shouldn’t be surprised to know, were breathing the same cultural air. But who knew that the connections and tensions between artistic titans Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough could illuminate the similar loving but contested relationship of Wesley and Whitefield?
Intriguing parallels may also be sketched, Hindmarsh shows, between painting and the basic doctrinal concerns of Calvinistic and Arminian Methodists. Calvinist spirituality, its take on divine and human agency, may be represented by the aesthetic term “sublime” which was increasingly applied in ethical and philosophical conversation as well. Contemplating divine sovereignty and human creatureliness is a key element in this approach, and Hindmarsh sees it illustrated in Gainsborough’s landscapes and self-portraits. The example he has us view, though, is Joseph Wright’s dramatic painting of an erupting volcano (“Vesuvius from Portici” c.1774-76), nicely evoking Rudolph Otto’s Calvinist-sounding conceptualization of “the Holy” as mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
On the other side of the cultural/theological divide, the Arminian “inner life of doctrine” is best described as a life of the struggle, the agon. This active approach to life and faith was appropriated by the Wesleys in part from their reading of Milton (think Samson Agonistes as well as Paradise Lost); but it was certainly also pervasive throughout the British Enlightenment. The painting Hindmarsh chose to represent this spirituality of struggle is the picture he mentions in his blogpost and that graces the cover of Church History, “The Choice of Hercules,” commissioned by the moralist Third Earl of Shaftesbury from Paolo de Matteis (1712). From our 21st century perspective young Hercules may seem to be merely pondering (rather than outright agonizing) over the allegorical option before him. It’s either virtue, represented by the earnest woman on his right engaging him rationally at eye level, or the blandishments of the somewhat scantily clad woman at his feet to his left, symbolizing worldly pleasure. In any case it appears he has calmly made up his mind. For a more intense version of the story, Hindmarsh recommends Handel’s musical version of the same scene wherein indeed Hercules seems to wrestle emotionally with his choice, singing “Where shall I go?” Here (more so in the oratorio than the painting) the accent is on Arminian human action and agency rather than Calvinist contemplation of the divine.
Leaving Hercules to make his decision, we might ponder a similar question: “Where shall we go?” Hindmarsh, pointing the way, has painted religious historical scholarship into a large cultural landscape – a bigger picture even than the one he literally ran up the Ashmolean stairs in Oxford just at closing time to contemplate! It not only includes religious texts, but art, music, architecture and the rest of 18th-century English culture. Scholars like Hindmarsh and Forsaith have already begun to (and will continue to) fill in the canvas. And so, too, have historians from beyond our guild taken up palette and brushes, the most recent being Misty Anderson, whose impressive Imagining Methodism in 18th-Century Britain: Enthusiasm, Belief & the Borders of the Self (Johns Hopkins, 2012), shows that cultural (in this case literary) historians can cross-over and focus on “our” territory, too. Like Hindmarsh, she has discovered surprising connections between Methodism and other improbable cultural productions, in her case, theater, novels (including erotic fiction), satirical art (e.g., Hogarth’s anti-Methodist engravings), and popular music. The big picture is indeed larger than we thought; early evangelicalism is taking its place on this wider cultural canvas. Thanks to Bruce Hindmarsh for his part in expanding our view and our viewing and for inviting us to travel with him. Perhaps we may both contemplate what we see and struggle to express it artfully in our scholarship!
Charlie Wallace is chaplain and professor of religious studies emeritus at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He is working on a study of food and drink in early Methodism.