Henry Fielding and the Evangelical Revival in England

Quite apart from their brilliant satirical wit and biting social commentary, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and Shamela offer a remarkably broad snapshot of religious practice in England at the beginning of the evangelical revival.  Not only do both works provide a contemporary perspective of the evangelical movement broadly associated with George Whitefield and John Wesley (which was only just beginning to coalesce into Methodism), but they also bitingly expose some of the worst abuses perpetrated by the Church of England power structure.  As such, they both provide striking insights into the religious climate in which the evangelical revival was spawned and contemporary perceptions (often skewed then and now) of that revival.

Chronologically, both Joseph Andrews and Shamela were written very close to the beginning of the evangelical revival in England.  Contrary to much subsequent historical opinion, the revival did not originate solely with Whitefield and the Wesleys and, at least at its inception, was not under their control.  In fact, the revival sprang from a diverse mix of religious movements and trends – including Church of England religious societies, traditional dissent, and the Moravian missionaries who had recently arrived from the continent.  By the early 1730’s there were already stirrings of revival within the Church of England.  Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland, two Welshman, experienced evangelical conversion and began preaching justification by faith in the open air.  Independent religious societies, mostly under Moravian influence, were formed in major cities and began to attract growing crowds both from within and without the established Church.  George Whitefield experienced evangelical conversion in 1736 and began preaching to massive open air crowds in London and Bristol.

In 1738, just as Whitefield’s fame and popularity were peaking, John and Charles Wesley returned from their missionary expedition to Georgia and, within two days of one another, experienced their own conversion.  Before leaving for Georgia himself Whitefield invited John Wesley to preach in the open air at Bristol, thus inaugurating Wesley’s own career as a revivalist.  Even then for nearly ten years after, the revival was not a unified movement under the sole leadership of Whitefield or Wesley.  Whitefield was in America for long periods of time and, though unmatched at preaching, was poor at consolidating gains and organizing a movement.  John Wesley, on the other hand, was a skilled organizer, but had a tendency to alienate those who disagreed with him.  By the early 1740’s, when Fielding was writing, the revival was still far from a consolidated movement.  Controversies were still brewing on the one hand between the Wesleys and the Moravians over “stillness,” (the idea that human’s can do nothing for their own salvation but must remain “still” and wait for their own salvation) and on the other between Wesley and Whitefield’s followers over Calvinism.  Eventually these groups would break into distinct branches of the revival, with Whitefield, the Countess of Huntingdon, and the Welsh Methodists forming the Calvinist Methodists, the Moravians their own societies, and John and Charles Wesley consolidating what we know as Methodism within the Church of England.

All of this was still a toxic mix throughout the 1740’s – and nowhere was this more evident than over the issue of the revivals relationship with the Church of England.  Both of the Wesley brothers and Whitefield were ordained Anglican priests and all three saw their movement explicitly as a revival movement within the established church structure.  In fact, at its inception, this was not as radical as many contemporary critics made out.  Religious societies dedicated to renewal had been a part of the Church structure for over a half a century before the revival.  What was controversial about the evangelicals was first of all their “irregularities,” such as field preaching and itinerant evangelism; and secondly their doctrines of justification by faith alone and entire sanctification, or holiness.  At least at the beginning of the revival, neither of these issues were, technically speaking, at odds with Church doctrine or polity.  However, it was the way in which these actions and beliefs were interpreted that was to prove so controversial.

It is this controversy over Church doctrine and practice that is most in evidence in Joseph Andrews and Shamela.  For, as Wesley pointed out time and again, the doctrine of justification by faith alone did not conflict with the Thirty-Nine Articles; it proved to be a major flashpoint within the established Church.  The worry here was really two-fold: first, that this doctrine emphasized faith to the exclusion of good words and; second, that the doctrine was a brand of “enthusiasm” that would lead to anti-nomianism and the type of religious turbulence that characterized the Civil War.

The first issue – that justification by faith excluded good works – is of prime concern in Joseph Andrews.  For, as Parson Adams makes clear, he has no objection to Whitefield’s criticism of wealthy clergyman and the corruption of Church power.  “I am myself as great an Enemy to the Luxury and Splendour of the Clergy as he can be,” he says, “I do not, more than he [Whitefield], by the flourishing Estate of the Church, understand the Palaces, Equipages, Dress, Furniture, rich Dainties, and vast Fortunes of her Ministers” (70).  This in itself indicates the extent to which many themes of the evangelical revival resonated with the Anglican rank and file.  As a poor curate, Parson Adams has witnessed firsthand how a concern for worldly matters has corrupted the power structure and impoverished men like him to the detriment of the people.  However, Adams goes on to say that he cannot agree with how Whitefield, “sets up the detestable Doctrine of Faith against good Works… for surely, that Doctrine was coined in Hell, and one would think none but the Devil himself could have the Confidence to preach it” (70).  Thus Adams echoes a common complaint against Whitefield and Wesley, arguing that by shifting the focus to faith, good works such as charity to one’s neighbor are deemphasized.

Fielding gives ample examples of the danger of this idea in both Joseph Andrews and Shamela.  Parson Trulliber, for instance, professes to believe all of the Churches doctrines and to have faith, but refuses to help Adams – causing Adams to accuse Trulliber of not being a Christian.  Furthermore, Shamela’s library includes both Whitefield’s recently published journal, God’s Dealings with Mr. Whitefield and The Whole Duty of Man (a very popular text with the evangelicals), but “with only the Duty to one’s Neighbour, torn out” (332).  The implication is clear here – Shamela professes faith and attends church regularly thus (as Williams continually reassures her) she is saved despite whatever else she might do.

However, this controversy over justification by faith in reality has much deeper roots than a simple concern over the means of salvation.  The fact is that Whitefield and the Wesleys preached this doctrine within a very charged religious and political atmosphere.  Not only was there still real concern about a Jacobite uprising (and in fact there is evidence that both Wesley’s mother and older brother were Jacobite sympathizers), but memories of the religious violence of the English Civil War were still fresh on people’s minds.  Thus the evangelicals were alternatively painted as Papists and Enthusiasts by their opponents because of their doctrines.  In fact Charles Wesley was even falsely accused of treason when his prayer that “the Lord will call back his banished,” was interpreted as a reference to the Young Pretender.

However, the far more worrying charge, from Wesley’s perspective, was that of “enthusiasm.”  And in fact this is exactly what Parson Adams accuses Whitefield of, stating that, “when he began to call Nonsense and Enthusiasm to his Aid, and to set up the detestable Doctrine of Faith against good Works, I was his Friend no longer” (70).  “Enthusiasm,” in the eighteenth century was a very specific religious term that was generally applied to anybody who claimed to receive revelation directly from God, without the mediation of the Church.  This was seen as inherently dangerous for, if anybody could claim to speak for God; they could potentially lead a portion of the population astray.

Enthusiasm was also intimately linked in the public mind to anti-nomianism, or the belief that, because humans are justified entirely to God through faith whatever they do can no longer be considered sin.  Enthusiasm and anti-nomianism were believed to have been primary causes of the English Civil War in that religious “enthusiasts” claimed to have a mandate from God to overthrow the monarchy and, because they were justified through faith, this was not a sin.  This memory was still fresh in the public’s mind in the 1740’s, so much so that any hint of enthusiasm or anti-nomianism was met with violent reaction. Thus as Adams makes clear, enthusiasm and justification by faith are inherently connected in the eighteenth century mind – one predicated another and both carried the spectre of religious violence.

This is, of course, a slightly skewed representation of what Whitefield and the Wesleys actually meant by justification of faith and one that overlooks the differences between the different groups of evangelicals over what exactly this meant.  Wesley was extremely sensitive to accusations of enthusiasm and anti-nomianism for these very reasons and constantly fought to separate justification by faith and entire sanctification from these associations.  Justification by faith, he argued, was simply the beginning of a long process of holiness that ended in sanctification.  Good works were the product and signs of a faith that could be lost through unbelief or “backsliding.”  This was also the crux of Wesley’s disagreement with and ultimate split from Whitefield.  As a Calvinist, Whitefield was much more within the tradition of the Puritan’s of the Civil War and Wesley firmly believed that Calvinist inevitably lead to anti-nomianism.  Furthermore, Wesley was often undermined from within by preachers who took his doctrine of sanctification too far and claimed they no longer committed sin.  Thus Wesley waged an almost constant inward and outward battle to differentiate his movement from these more radical associations.

Overall, Fielding provides a remarkably complete picture of religious practice and the early stages of the evangelical revival.  He not only excoriates the Established Church for its irrelevance and corruption, but he also represents the pulse of popular beliefs about the evangelical revival.  In this, he represents the sentiments of his day and provides a valuable archive of contemporary religious belief.  It is only by examining such texts within their historical context that we can begin to understand the scope and texture of eighteenth century religious life.

For more information on Methodism and the Evangelical Revival check out:

Heitzenrater, Richard P. Wesley and the People Called Methodists. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995.

Rack, Henry D. Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism. London: Epworth, 2002.

Rupp, Gordon. Religion in England: 1688-1791. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.

4 responses to “Henry Fielding and the Evangelical Revival in England

  1. Andrew, I knew you’d love the religious debate in these works! One quick question: you say that these works offer “a remarkably broad snapshot of religious practice in England,” but clarify later that Adams gives “a slightly skewed representation of what Whitefield and the Wesleys actually meant.” Given Fielding’s mentions and your knowledge of the actual movements, what do you think is at stake in Fielding’s “skewed” representations? Where is he ideologically when he plays up some aspects of these burgeoning movements and dowplays others? Are there connections to be made between his religious politics and his gender and/or class beliefs?

  2. Lisa,

    Excellent question. My overall point that, though sharing the cultural bias against and misunderstanding of justification by faith and enthusiasm, Fielding nevertheless identifies some of the same problems in the Church of England that the evangelicals were quick to point out. He seems to be suspicious of hypocrisy of any kind – whether established or evangelical.

    However, to your point about the class/gender ideology that informs Fieldings representations, a strong case could be made that his critique of both the established Church and the evangelical revival is founded on a burgeoning middle class consciousness. On the one hand, the power structure of the Church was such that it continued to be primarily controlled by the aristocracy and wield inordinate power over the political sphere. The corruption and inefficiency of the Church during this period is well documented, despite the effectiveness of many individual parish priests and pious parishioners. On the other hand, people like Fielding and Richardson would have good reason to be threatened by the perceived enthusiasm of the evangelicals. For them, it was a short step from justification by faith to enthusiasm and from enthusiasm to anti-nomianism – all of which was strongly associated with Levelling and social upheaval – both of which are harmful to commerce. Thus I would argue that Fielding had a vested interest not only in criticizing the Establishment, but also in keeping potentially destabilizing social forces at bay.


  3. Great post as always Andrew! While reading I was reminded of the parallels between Richardson’s explorations of inwardness in character and similar interests amongst, for example, the Quakers Inner Light and the various evangelical movements, like the Methodists, elevation of faith over works. Fielding, I know, was much more sympathetic towards Richardson after Clarissa was published which makes me wonder if this may have also opened him to a general sympathy with expressions of inwardness and so perhaps to the popular expressions of enthusiasm of that time. I found one article online touching on Fielding and Methodism which I am not able to access at the moment– S.J. Rogal, “Enlightened Enthusiasm: Anti-Methodism in the Literature of the Mid and Late Eighteenth Century”, Enlightenment Essays, 5 (1974) In Joseph Andrews, at least, the narrative is firmly rooted in a kind of sober and practical spirituality.

  4. Don,

    It certainly is very interesting to me that at around the same time that we see this development of an interior subjectivity in the novel, we see the same sort of thing emphasized in popular religious movements and writings. Methodist diaries and journals are particularly interesting in this regard as many of them evidence a firmly rooted interior spirituality, sometimes to the exclusion of describing day to day life and events. This, even in religious diaries, represents a shift from the religious journal writing of even the previous century.


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