CH 13: Rationalism and revival


The period between (roughly) 1700 and 1900 is known as the “Age of Reason” or “Enlightenment”. It was dominated by a philosophy that put high hopes in the human mind and accomplishments. This rationalist worldview shifted the focus from religious, doctrinal truth to more humanistic, secular principles. (Some of this development already started in the humanism of the Renaissance and the time of the Reformation.)

The emphasis on human reason starts displacing God from the Western worldview. In deism, God is reduced to the creator and designer of the world; he is no longer personally involved. Deism is sometimes called “watchmaker belief”, because it makes God like a watchmaker: he made an intricate design and wound it up, but is not involved in what happens afterward.

This deistic view of God can be found among the Founding Fathers of the USA. It also prompted the formation of the Unitarian churches, which deny the Trinity and consider Jesus the ideal human being rather than the Son of God.


As rationalism and deism slipped into the various European churches, a revival movement arose called Pietism. Rejecting the half-hearted, secular Christianity of the late 1600s, it emphasized the importance of personal faith. Pietists were not content with the state churches but looked for intimate fellowship with true, committed believers.

In Germany and Scandinavia, Pietism influenced a significant part of the Lutheran churches. In the Netherlands, a similar movement arose under the name Nadere Reformatie (“Further Reformation”).

An influential Pietist was Nikolaus van Zinzendorf, who owned a large property in Moravia (the east side of the modern Czech Republic). There he welcomed a group of followers of Hus, who attempted to establish a thoroughly Christian “village”. His house became known as the Herrnhut, “the Lord’s Protection”. Under Zinzendorf’s leadership, this led to the formation of the Moravian Church, a Pietistic church with strong missionary impulses.

The Great Awakening

In England and the United States, similar revival movements reached a climax in the 1730s, known as “the (First) Great Awakening”. Well-known, powerful preachers such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley proclaimed the need for heartfelt and true conversion to churchgoers and unchurched alike. Some of this happened within the existing church structures, but some also through unofficial, outdoor preaching.

The result of this “Great Awakening” highlighted the contrast within the traditional Protestant churches between merely nominal members and true, active believers. It also provided significant growth to newer denominations, such as the Baptists.

John Wesley, “Methodist”

One of the leaders in the Great Awakening was John Wesley. As a student in Oxford, he and his brother Charles led a student organization called “Holy Club”. It focused on actively pursuing Christian living. Others mockingly called the club “methodistic” because it developed a “method” of attaining true spirituality. This name became a badge of honour for many followers of Wesley.

For a while, John Wesley was a member of the Moravian Church (see above). Eventually he began his own ministry, apart from the English organized churches. This developed into the Methodist tradition.

Like John Wesley, the Methodist tradition especially emphasizes

  • that faith produces both inward and outward holiness, visible in good works in society;
  • that believers can attain entire sanctification or a second blessing, when they learn essentially not to sin anymore and to truly love God and neighbor;
  • an Arminian view of salvation, in which man by his free will chooses to accept God’s offer of salvation, rather than the Augustinian and Calvinist view that even faith itself is a gift of grace.

In the United States there are millions of Wesleyan Christians.

  • The United Methodist Church is the largest group.
  • The African Methodist Episcopal Church and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church are historically African-American Methodist denominations.
  • The Church of the Nazarene is a worldwide Wesleyan church that does not identify as Methodist. (It started in the Pentecostal/Holiness-movement in the early 1900s.)

Also, the Salvation Army is a famous charity organization with Wesleyan roots.

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