The English Church in the Eighteenth Century eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 665 pages of information about The English Church in the Eighteenth Century.
thought or action.  A slight notion of extravagance may sometimes remain attached to it, but on the whole we use the words in a decidedly favourable sense, and imply in it that generous warmth of impetuous, earnest feeling without which few great things are done.  This meaning of the word was not absolutely unknown in the eighteenth century, and here and there a writer may be found to vindicate its use as a term of praise rather than of reproach.  It might be applied to poetic[468] rapture with as little offence as though a bard were extolled as fired by the muses or inspired by Phoebus.  But applied to graver topics, it was almost universally a term of censure.  The original derivation of the word was generally kept in view.  It is only within the last one or two generations that it has altogether ceased to convey any distinct notion of a supernatural presence—­an afflatus from the Deity.  But whereas the early Alexandrian fathers who first borrowed the word from Plato and the ancient mysteries had Christianised it and cordially adopted it in a favourable signification, it was now employed in a hostile sense as ’a misconceit of inspiration.’[469] It thus became a sort of byeword, applied in opprobrium and derision to all who laid claim to a spiritual power or divine guidance, such as appeared to the person by whom the term of reproach was used, fanatical extravagance, or, at the least, an unauthorised outstepping of all rightful bounds of reason.  Its preciser meaning differed exceedingly with the mind of the speaker and with the opinions to which it was applied.  It sometimes denoted the wildest and most credulous fanaticism or the most visionary mysticism; on the other hand, the irreligious, the lukewarm, and the formalist often levelled the reproach of enthusiasm, equally with that of bigotry, at what ought to have been regarded as sound spirituality, or true Christian zeal, or the anxious efforts of thoughtful and religious men to find a surer standing ground against the reasonings of infidels and Deists.

A word which has not only been strained by constant and reckless use in religious contests, but is also vague in application and changeable in meaning, might seem marked out for special avoidance.  Yet it might be difficult to find a more convenient expression under which to group various forms of subjective, mystic, and emotional religion, which were in some cases strongly antagonistic to one another, but were closely allied in principle and agreed also in this, that they inevitably brought upon their supporters the unpopular charge of enthusiasm.  All were more or less at variance with the general spirit of the century.  But, in one shape or another, they entered into almost every religious question that was agitated; and, in many cases, it is to the men who in their own generation were called mystics and enthusiasts that we must chiefly turn, if we would find in the eighteenth century a suggestive treatment of some of the theological problems which are most deeply interesting to men of our own time.

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The English Church in the Eighteenth Century from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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