Brent S. Sirota. The Christian Monitors: The Church of England and the Age of Benevolence, 1680-1730. The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 376 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-16710-8.
Reviewed by Tessa Whitehouse (Queen Mary University of London)
Published on H-Albion (January, 2016)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer College)
Microhistory this is not. The Christian Monitors is an ambitious study of the established church in the late Stuart and early Hanoverian periods. Its scope is nothing less than the state-endorsed quest for salvation and its place in the nascent British Empire. Brent S. Sirota harnesses this topic to advocate strongly and persuasively for the revision of narratives about secularization in the age of Enlightenment. The purpose of the book is to make readers appreciate the extent to which ecclesiology underlay every aspect of Anglican church practice and policy in the fifty-year period under consideration. Throughout, the far-reaching effects of Anglican doctrine on civil society are asserted in global terms, though Sirota’s eye is more often trained on corridors of power than the streets, villages, ships, and plantations where the Church of England was trying to reassert itself after decades of decline, destruction, and internecine strife.
That is because Sirota’s stated purpose is to offer “a political history of the Anglican revival” that locates the origins of the benevolent humanitarianism that characterizes British Enlightenment (the non-radical, clerical one familiar from B. W. Young’s Religion and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century England ) in the institutions populated by the Anglican clergy (p. 13). He therefore takes the royal court, the two houses of convocation, and the incorporated bodies founded by elite Anglicans (the majority of them clergymen) as the hubs of revivalist efforts to secure the social and religious authority of the established church. The six chapters address reactions within the church hierarchy to James II’s disastrous religious policies and uncongenial personal religion; the status of the established church at the accession of William and Mary and the reasons for encouraging reform from within at this time; the changing relationship between the leading lights of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and the court and episcopal bench in its first three decades (as well as the vast range of its improving projects); the significant role of high churchmanship in Anglican revival in both doctrinal and practical terms; and the expansion of civil society projects in the burgeoning British Empire.
Thanks to a deeply considered argument framed in sharply expressive prose, Sirota effectively cuts through the tangled historiography of church and state formation in the decades after James II’s disastrous reign. For example, Sirota’s presentation of the aftereffects of the convocation controversy in terms of “moral counterrevolution” usefully forges terminology from two lines in the historiography into a lever that he manipulates to prise apart their ahistorical cleaving of party labels to voluntarist and sacerdotalist campaigns (p. 189). He is certain of the centrality of the episcopacy to the development of civil society and in this respect is the heir to traditional church-and-state scholarship exemplified by the work of J. C. D. Clark. In contrast to recent perspectives, such as that of Jeremy Gregory, Sirota writes off the significance of Protestant nonconformity in the development of Anglican thought, though, perhaps influenced by Daniel L. Brunner’s Halle Pietists in England: Anthony William Boehm and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (1993) on the Chapel Royal under Anthony William Boehm and its links to Halle Pietists, he does acknowledge the European and Atlantic world commitments of the SPCK that extended beyond support for members of the Church of England.
The Christian Monitors is a stylish, confident, and eloquent celebration of the foundational significance of Anglican theology for humanitarian discourses that we recognize today. But Sirota’s advocacy, however pithily phrased, of a positivist recalibration of the terms of secularization away from desacralization to “an alternative sacralization ... of civil society” is undermined by overlooking the significance (not least to Anglicans themselves) of a broadly constituted Protestant program of benevolent reform, rather than a top-down and strictly Anglican one (p. 258). Sirota’s presentation is difficult to reconcile with much of the strongest scholarship that deals specifically with religion and civil society at the turn of the eighteenth century, including W. R. Ward’s careful excavation of the origins of the evangelical revival movements of the eighteenth century, the influential picture developed by John Walsh of cooperation across Protestant traditions, and even the emphasis in Brunner’s book on Boehm’s communication with nonconformists in England and Germany. And despite the positive interpretation of associational life in English cities, towns, and provinces as informal, improving, and encompassing a relatively diverse membership (drawn most compellingly by Peter Clark and Peter Borsay) that has been so important to cultural and literary historians, there is little attention here to the sociable capacities of the SPCK and other voluntary organizations, particularly for lay members.
Perhaps that is because Sirota is opposed to any view of the origins of associationalist culture that is inattentive to faith and doctrinal commitment as drivers of human action. However, for a book that takes “the Age of Benevolence” as its framing idea and claims to reexamine the nature of official Anglican engagement in the processes of civil society, Christian Monitors is strikingly light on detail about the people and activities that constituted that benevolent civil society. Though there are small pockets filled with parochial libraries, translations of scripture into local languages, and charity schools in chapters 2 and 6, even in the first of these, titled “The Church in the Age of Projects,” I vainly hoped for more specific projects to be limned in detail to leaven the doughy bulk of the chapter: church wranglings over comprehension, episcopal authority, and the nature of orthodoxy. Chapter 3, wholly focused on the early history of the SPCK, repeatedly asserts the organization’s “anomalous” status and claims that, far from providing a civil society counterweight to the hierarchical directives of convocation and the royal court, the fact that it was not incorporated left it “peculiarly exposed to the vicissitudes of ecclesiastical and civil politics” (pp. 125, 121). This emphasis means that the individual people, activities, and beneficiaries of the SPCK are not subject to sustained attention.
Several figures and topics appear in a number of chapters without receiving sustained attention in their own right. White Kennett is one example: an active, well-connected, and, to the historian, pleasingly bureaucratic man who turns up in almost every chapter and whose ecclesiastical diary is evidently a significant source for Sirota (it is, for example, foundational to his discussion of the establishment of an Anglican church in Rotterdam). This journal is so rich a source that it certainly merits explicit attention.
The book’s intense interest in the composition and arguments of different subsets of Anglicans (nonjurors, sacerdotalists, high churchmen, Whigs) causes it to lose sight of the larger Christian world within which these groups were situated and therefore to overstate the significance of the Anglican church in its claims about the origins of enlightened, benevolent humanitarianism. One of Sirota’s specific examples that could have benefited from a more interdenominational approach is the treatment of Thomas Coram’s project to found a charitable colony in North America. As we know from Isaac Watts’s correspondence with the Boston clergyman Benjamin Colman, Coram sought support from a broad base of Protestant activists who were interested in evangelical endeavors. However, Sirota’s presentation of the project attends only to members of the establishment—such as Thomas Bray; James Edward Oglethorpe, MP; and the Irish peer John Perceval—and tells the story of their project in terms of parliamentary committees, incorporated trusts, and official occasions. Putting the Anglican group that promoted Coram’s scheme into its broader context would have highlighted the diversity of Protestant engagement with the scheme in terms of its benefactors as well as its beneficiaries (among whom Sirota identifies the Salzburg refugees and Polish Protestants of Thorn) and would thereby have complemented the nuanced overview of the SPCK as “an atlas of English benevolence” that forms the backbone of this book (p. 115).
These slight reservations about the balance of evidence notwithstanding, The Christian Monitors is a success. On its own terms of providing a political history of Anglican revival, it is a powerful and detailed piece of scholarship that promises to redirect the attention of scholars of religion, politics, and the public sphere back toward the heart of the English establishment.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Tessa Whitehouse. Review of Sirota, Brent S., The Christian Monitors: The Church of England and the Age of Benevolence, 1680-1730.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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