Tuesday, July 8th, 2014
By: Bruce Hindmarsh
My presidential address in January, “The Inner Life of Doctrine: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Calvinist-Arminian Debate Among Methodists,” is published this month in Church History, but it began several years ago on a padded bench in Henry E. Huntington’s villa in San Marino, California.
This grand house was built in 1911 and is now the centre-piece of the Huntington Art Galleries. I was in Pasadena with my family and working on a research fellowship at the Huntington Library, and every day I enjoyed walking through the gardens to have lunch in the Café. I used to stop off on the way at the Huntington villa to wander through the galleries, and especially to sit in the Grand Manner Portrait Gallery to look at pictures by Gainsborough, Lawrence, Romney and other eighteenth-century greats. In the library, I was reading sources having to do with Methodism, but here, sitting on my padded bench, I was looking at pictures painted around the very same time.
I became fascinated with one particular portrait, the painting of the actress Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Joshua Reynolds. As I looked at the date, 1784, I tried to think of all that was going on that same year among the evangelical figures that I was reading about. I realized how easily we begin to study our subjects in disciplinary silos, rather than to make the rich interdisciplinary connections that reflect the reality of life lived on the ground then as now. As I became curious, I began reading about eighteenth-century portraiture and seeing connections to my work on evangelical subjects. At first some of the connections were interesting enough, but superficial. Apparently, Reynolds had a niece who was a god-fearing Methodist who wrote a commentary on Ezekiel. The evangelical John Russell was a leading pastelist and member of the Royal Academy with Reynolds. And so on. But then the connections became more profound as it became apparent that there were deeper aspirations and cultural concerns that brought art and religion into the same frame (so to speak!). I began to try to look at these things together, and if art and religion, then why not other cultural “silos,” and so I began to draw in philosophy, literature, and music, as connections appeared. In the end, this interdisciplinary perspective allowed me to take the Calvinist-Arminian debate among evangelicals—what for many folks today would seem a something of sectarian backwater—and place it back at the centre of eighteenth-century culture and to show how it reflected fundamental aspirations. I used the “sublime” and the “agon” as terms of art that made these connections.
There is a nice coda to this story, since my journey with this article also ended with sitting on another bench in another gallery. Several of us were in Oxford in April for the first joint meeting the ASCH and the Ecclesiastical History Society in the UK—a very successful venture and stimulating conference. It was a busy four days on the ground in Oxford for me, as co-chair of the conference. I was also hosting an alumni event for Regent College and visiting with old friends and colleagues from earlier days in Oxford. It was breathless. Immediately after the conference on Saturday, I rushed to North Oxford to have tea with my good friend, the great Methodist scholar, John Walsh. He insisted on “whizzing” me back into town, after tea, to get ready for the alumni reception. At the last minute, I remembered that the painting, “The Choice of Hercules” by Paulo de Matteis was housed at the Ashmolean in Oxford, and I’d be going right by. This is the painting, commissioned by the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, that appears on the cover of this month’s issue of Church History, and it figured largely in my address and the article. I had not actually seen the painting in person, and I did not know if it was on display. I asked John to drop me at the corner by the museum, and I rushed past the tourists pouring out the front doors and went to the main desk. It was five minutes to closing, and they were shutting down the computers. A kind museum volunteer started up her computer again and looked up the painting. It was upstairs in the European Gallery at the far end, and if I ran I might be able to get there in time to see it. And so I ran, taking the stairs two or three at a time, and arrived huffing and puffing to the gallery, where I saw the painting. It was hard to miss. I took the picture below to help me remember the scale of it. The gallery attendants kindly gave me ten minutes with the painting in an empty gallery, and it was a fitting conclusion to my research for this article.
I am left with two reflections on my experience. The first one I have alluded to already, namely, that we ought as historians to be open to interdisciplinary investigations as a way of seeing our religious subjects in their fullest context. But secondly, and more personally, I am reminded of the importance of a certain element of disinterested exploration, or what Josef Pieper termed “leisure,” in our research. It was in the interstices—the breathing spaces—of my research at the Huntington, when I was “off duty,” so to speak, that I found my way to Reynolds and began to contemplate connections that would later bear fruit in my work. This element of scholarly leisure is increasingly hard to find, and hard to justify in terms of the world in which we now live, but I am grateful the Huntington remains the sort of gracious place that invites such contemplation.
Finally, I refer to an oratorio by Handel in my article, and if any readers would like to hear the music for this work, “The Choice of Hercules,” which is a kind of sound track to the painting below, you may hear at least snippets of the music here. The track for the trio that I describe in my article is number 18.
Bruce Hindmarsh is the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College. This post is drawn from his Presidential Address to the American Society of Church History at the Society’s 2014 Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C. The address was published in the June 2014 issue of Church History and is available here.