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Sharper than a two-edged sword: The agony and the joy of interpreting the bible in Georgian England

This blog highlights the importance of bible reading and interpretation at the grassroots of the Evangelical Revival. It also shines a spotlight on the significant but often overlooked place of the bible across 18th century society in general.

This blog is the third in a series showcasing a collection of religious testimonies written from the heart of the 18th century Evangelical Revival. Created by converts from every social class, the collection describes spiritual struggle against the backdrop of daily life.

The collection was first digitised in 2016 and transcripts were added to the site two years later

The earlier posts focussed on promoting the launch of the resource and the addition of new material. The transition to remote working provided this opportunity to revisit the testimonies and write a third blog with a different approach. This post will highlight one characteristic of the collection to illustrate both research value and interest for non-academic faith audiences.

A striking feature of the testimonies is the importance given to the bible. The collection is so full of biblical language that it is often difficult to distinguish between the scriptural voice and that of the 18th century author. In one short passage written by Elizabeth Bristow, there are nine biblical allusions woven seamlessly into the narrative and that is typical of the collection.

What does this characteristic of the archive tell us about early Methodism and the society from which it emerged?

“I do search and Study the Scriptures, day and Night and I thank God he does Increase in me every Fruit of his Spirit” (John Butcher 1763)

It is a given that the leaders of the Revival were, as John Wesley asserted, men of “one book”, but the impact of that message on audiences is often unclear. The testimonies demonstrate the centrality of bible reading and study across all levels of the evangelical movement.

Works of Methodist scholarship often give the impression that preaching was the central foundation on which the Revival was built. The heroic image of the travelling preacher became part of the movement’s iconography. What is often missing from that picture is the part played by converts in their own salvation – the intense private study of scripture and agony of prayer and reflection over many years. The testimonies fill that gap in our understanding.

Methodists of all backgrounds pored and agonised over the scriptures. Interpreting the bible through personal study, group fellowship and attendance at preaching was not a pastime, but a matter of eternal life and death. The results can seem strange to modern readers – people were driven by the bible and its teachings to violent mood swings from despair and desperation to “joy unspeakable” and the “peace of mind that passeth all understanding”.

 “For the word of God is quick, and powerful … piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

The testimonies illustrate how dangerous the bible could be, as working men and women struggled with literal interpretation of complex doctrinal questions. Did God offer salvation to everyone, or are we predestined to heaven or hell? What do the scriptures mean by “perfection”? For many of the testimony writers, some of whom were barely literate, the bible was a pandora’s box.

The Wesley brothers struggled to impose discipline over a movement desperate for knowledge as a pathway to heaven, but lacking tools of critical analysis. When one reads the testimonies, it becomes clear why Methodism was prone to doctrinal division and feared by many for its extremist tendencies.

“In my infancy from the time of my having learnt to Read … the Scriptures was so much my Delight that I was seldom prevail’d upon to leave that pleasure.” (Martha Clagett, 1738)

Regardless of education and social status, the writers of the testimonies tended to have one thing in common. Most were acquainted from childhood with the bible. A copy of the King James translation could be found in most homes, and in poor households, it was often the only book. The language of the testimonies is biblical because the bible was an important part of cultural, linguistic and values formation in 18th century England, even for the non-religious. This shared background with the rest of society gave evangelical preachers an advantage that the modern Church in our more secular age lacks.

Examination of the use of the bible and biblical language in the testimonies opens up many research avenues for theologians, historians and scholars of linguistics. It also raises areas for discussion within a modern Church that often struggles to reconnect its audience with the bible. This is just one of many areas of interest in this remarkable collection.

Testimony of Elizabeth Bristow, 12 April 1740 (EMV 501/11)

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