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Sweeney’s Booknotes: John Erskine and Enlightened Evangelicalism

Jonathan M. Yeager, Enlightened Evangelicalism: The Life and Thought of John Erskine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

This excellent new book is a “life and thought” of one of Edwards’ most important correspondents, the Rev. John Erskine, a leading divine in the Church of Scotland from 1744 until his death in 1803.

The best-known minister of the “Popular party” in the eighteenth-century Kirk, Erskine repackaged orthodox Calvinism to meet Enlightenment challenges. Like Edwards, he was a Calvinist, a passionate evangelical, a serious intellectual, and a major bibliophile who contributed to what we might call, ironically, the Protestant or Christian republic of letters. By means of extensive correspondence, to which he attached hundreds of books for numerous evangelical friends on both sides of the Atlantic, Erskine proved extremely important to the intellectual development of other leading ministers, such as Edwards, Joseph Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins, Thomas Foxcroft, Jedidiah Morse, and John Ryland, Jr. By means of his editorial labors, Erskine also played a leading role in spreading Edwards’ writings through Great Britain.

Yeager’s book is not so much a standard biography as a monograph describing Erskine’s life and interpreting it in relation to the Scottish and British Enlightenments, the history of the book in the early modern Atlantic world, Anglo-American religion, and the history of Protestant thought. Yeager complicates (further) our understanding of the Enlightenment, contributing to the revision of the history of the Enlightenment underway for a generation (by including Erskine within it, along with other evangelicals). He adds color and detail to our pictures of the history of the book and of the book trade in Britain in America. He fills out our understanding of the transatlantic Awakening, the rise of evangelicalism, and modern Protestant history.

His main argument is that Erskine was most important to posterity not as a pastor or an author, but as a disseminator of evangelical Calvinism through books and through extensive correspondence. Erskine learned both German and Dutch–while a senior, in his sixties–so that he could transmit the latest continental European thought to the Anglo-American world. He spent countless hours per week writing letters to thinkers abroad, often thousands of miles away, many of whom he never met. He spent untold amounts of money sending books to his friends. He devoted much of his energy, nearly every week of his life, to the spread of religious news.

Erskine was not as visible in his contribution to evangelicalism as Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley or George Whitefield, which is probably why Scotland’s leading eighteenth-century evangelical has occupied a veritable unmarked grave among the more elaborate monuments. Whereas many notable evangelicals busily traveled throughout Britain and America or penned definitive theological treatises, Erskine’s significance was as a propagator of books. Although he published many of his sermons and put forward some interesting theological essays, he remained content as a man behind the scenes, promoting the abilities and writings of others (p. 204).

He reminds me of the leading Christian bloggers at work today, Justin Taylor for example, who describes his own work in similar terms.

Yeager’s scholarship is solid, his writing clear and compelling. Enlightened Evangelicalism is now the definitive treatment of Erskine’s life and crucial literary labors.

–By Douglas Sweeney, Director of the JEC at TEDS