Christians, Critics, and Romantics
Though contemporary evangelical Protestants have shown an increased interest in the fine arts, scholars have often seen the aesthetic history of Anglo-American evangelicalism as one marked by hostility and indifference. In contrast to this view, this study argues that the history of evangelicalism's intellectual engagement with the fine arts has been complex and varied. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, evangelicals writing in a variety of denominational periodicals carried on a robust inquiry into aesthetics. This study traces the rise of this discourse among Anglo-American evangelicals and maps some of the main features of the evangelical theoretical landscape between 1830 and 1900—a high point of evangelical critical activity. Christians, Critics, and Romantics describes how evangelicalism's contact with Enlightenment thought initiated a break with the Puritan aesthetic tradition that contributed to the growth of a modern aesthetic consciousness among some eighteenth-century evangelicals. By the 1830s, evangelical aesthetic discourse had come under the influence of romanticism. Not only did many evangelical writers define art according to the expressivist principles adduced by major romantic critics but some went even further in asserting, after Coleridge and the German idealists, that art is an embodiment of a higher reality and the imagination an organ of transcendental perception. Evangelical critics, moreover, valued art for its contribution to the stability and progress of “Christian nations” such as England and the United States. By refining the moral feelings of individuals, fine art helped to safeguard the socio-moral cohesion of Protestant “civilization.” For a time, evangelical critics attempted to celebrate art in romantic terms while insisting on art's subordination to traditional Christianity, but such an arrangement ultimately proved unsustainable. By the end of the nineteenth century, a rift had opened up within Anglo-American evangelicalism between conservatives and liberals. This rift, caused in part by the spread of romantic thought and by various other secularizing trends, had important implications for evangelical aesthetic thought. While liberals continued to advance high claims for the spiritual and educational potential of art, conservatives largely abandoned the philosophical exploration of art in order to turn their attention to the threats of Darwinian evolution and biblical criticism. Nevertheless, both liberals and conservative fundamentalists retained in their respective ways many of the aesthetic assumptions of the romantic tradition.