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The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism

Wonder, love, and praise

T.S. Eliot admired the way seventeenth-century poets could bring diverse materials together into harmony, and for whom thought and feeling were combined in a unified sensibility. However, he famously described a kind of dissociated sensibility that set in at the end of the century with the advent of mechanical philosophy and materialist science. This made it more difficult to hold together the spiritual with the material. What, after all, is the response of a unified sensibility (of thought, feeling, and religious devotion) to particulate matter in void space obeying abstract mathematical laws?

When the evangelical movement emerged in the eighteenth century, it was among the first generation to accept the basic postulates of Newtonian science. For example, the young Jonathan Edwards came across the new science during his years as a student at Yale College. Newton himself contributed a copy of his Principia and Opticks to the collection of volumes given to establish the library at the infant college, and these books were taken out of their crates in 1718 (in the middle of Edwards’s undergraduate education). Newtonian physics quite literally arrived on his doorstep. Edwards was soon keeping his own science notebooks about “Things to be Considered and Fully Written About.”

Evidently there were a lot: why thunder a great way off sounds “grum” but nearer sounds very sharp; how arterial blood descends and venal blood ascends according to the laws of hydrostatics; why the fixed stars twinkle, but not the planets; why we need not think the soul is in the fingers just because we have feeling in our fingers; why the sea is salty; and the list goes on. There seemed no end to Edwards’s intellectual curiosity about the natural world.

On the other side of the Atlantic, John Wesley also tracked developments in science in multiple editions of his Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation (1763). But his preface to each edition ended the same way. He hoped that his account would serve to “warm our hearts, and to fill our mouths with wonder, love, and praise!”

This note of devotion in response to the world described by science suggests there were still religious people seeking after the kind of unified sensibility that Eliot found in earlier poets. It seems piety itself did a kind of metaphysical work above its pay grade as a number of evangelical poets, scientists, artists, and theologians came to see the natural world as radiant with the presence of God.

John Russell
John Russell, self-portrait c. 1780 by John Russell. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

For Wesley, conversion changed everything. Renewed by the Spirit of God, the human person could be conscious of God’s presence everywhere in the material world: “They see Him in the height above, and in the depth beneath; they see him filling all in all. The pure in heart see all things full of God.” This was now directly counter to any metaphysical naturalism: “We are to see the Creator in the glass of every creature … look upon nothing as separate from God, which indeed is a kind of practical atheism.” Wesley even drew upon the language of an earlier age, saying that God holds all things together as the anima mundi, for he “pervades and actuates the whole created frame, and is in a true sense the soul of the universe.”

The figure among the early evangelicals who best captures this unified sensibility in the age of science is the artist John Russell (1745-1806). A member of the Royal Academy and the foremost pastellist of his generation, he showed more than 300 pictures in the Academy’s exhibitions and could fetch the same price for a portrait as its president Joshua Reynolds. For all his artistic success, though, he was an ardent and outspoken evangelical believer who would hold his aristocratic sitters captive “to have the opportunity of speaking about Jesus.” His passions extended beyond art and religious devotion too. For more than two decades, he made detailed lunar observations for some six hours a night with his telescope, typically staying up until two or three in the morning. The Museum of the History of Science in Oxford has a collection of 180 of his studies, and an exquisite monumental pastel from 1795 of a gibbous moon hanging in empty space.

Face of the moon
The Face of the Moon by John Russell. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Since he first saw the moon through a telescope and it took his breath away Russell was especially observant of the “effect” of different conditions of light and darkness on the features of the moon. His artistic training meant he was concerned with representing well the aesthetic qualities of what he called simply “this beautiful Object,” and it was this very mode of attention that also enabled him also to see things others had missed. Not yet, then, was there the suggestion of two kinds of truth, the publicly-accredited truths of hard science, and the softer, more subjective truths of art.

There is one detail in Russell’s lunar studies that offers an especially delightful illustration of his union of art and science. The Promontorium Heraclides on the moon’s surface juts out into the Mare Imbrium and had been noticed under a certain light to look like the outline of a woman’s head in profile. Between 1787 and 1789, Russell did his own sketches of the “maiden in the moon.” The beauty and grace of these studies may be placed side by side with specimens of the detailed cartographic calculations he made with his homemade micrometer, showing his exact measurements of the features on the moon. Close observation was put in the service of both truth and beauty. There was a combination of art and science, grace, and precision, in all his lunar observations. And perhaps devotion, too.

With its delicately feathered wings, Russell’s “moon maiden” seems to merge into the figure of an angel. Although this may have been simply an element of fancy, it would not be beyond the unified sensibility and religious devotion of an artist who was lost in “wonder, love, and praise.”

Featured Image: “Full Moon photograph taken 10-22-2010 from Madison, Alabama, USA” by Gregory H. Revera. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Diane Tucker

    How beautiful! And thunder does go “grum”.❤️

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