When religious influence was at the lowest ebb, two eloquent preachers, John Wesley and George Whitefield, started a movement which is still gathering force. Wesley did not ask his audience to listen to a sermon on the favorite bloodless abstractions of the eighteenth-century pulpit, such as Charity, Faith, Duty, Holiness, —abstractions which never moved a human being an inch heavenward. His sermons were emotional. They dealt largely with the emotion of love,—God’s love for man.
He did not ask his listeners to engage in intellectual disquisitions about the aspects of infinity: He did not preach free-will metaphysics or trouble his hearers with a satisfactory philosophical account of the origin of evil. He spoke about things that reached not only the understanding but also the feelings of plain men.
About the same time, Whitefield was preaching to the miners near Bristol. As he eloquently told them the story of salvation he brought tears to the eyes of these rude men and made many resolve to lead better lives.
This religious awakening may have been accompanied with too much appeal to the feelings and unhealthy emotional excitement; but some vigorous movement was absolutely necessary to quicken the spiritual life of a decadent age.
The American Revolution.—The second forty years of the eighteenth century witnessed another movement of great importance to the world,—the revolt of the American colonies (1775). When George III. (1760-1820) came to the throne, he determined to be the real ruler of his kingdom,—to combine in himself the offices of king, prime minister, and cabinet. He undertook to coerce public opinion at home and abroad. He repeatedly offended the American colonies by attempts to tax them and to regulate their trade. They rebelled in 1775 and signed their Declaration of Independence in 1776. Under the leadership of George Washington, and with the help of France, they achieved their independence. The battle of Yorktown (1781), won by Washington and the French navy, was the last important battle of the American Revolution. In spite of her great loss, England still retained Canada and her West India possessions and remained the first colonial power.
What is Romanticism?—In order to comprehend the dominating spirit of the next age, it is important to understand the meaning of the romantic movement. Between 1740 and 1780 certain romantic influences were at work in opposition to the teaching of the great classical writer, Dr. Samuel Johnson, who was almost the literary dictator of the age.
The best short definition of romanticism is that of Victor Hugo, who calls it “liberalism in literature.” This has the merit of covering all kinds of romantic movements. “Liberalism” here means toleration of departures from fixed standards, such as the classical couplet and didactic and satiric subjects. Romanticism is characterized by less regard for form than for matter, by a return to nature, and by encouragement of deep emotion. Romanticism says: “Be liberal enough not to sneer at authors when they discard narrow rules. Welcome a change and see if variety and feeling will not add more interest to literature.”