Unenthusiastic About Enthusiasm
We're used to hearing complaints that secular commentators have a difficult time understanding religion, but no less obvious is the chasm that separates different styles of Christian belief and worship. Many Christians, who would be quick to rally against the atheistic attacks of a Richard Dawkins, are themselves perplexed by charismatic or Pentecostal traditions: witness the controversies over Sarah Palin's faith in the 2008 presidential election. When they encounter the idea that prophecy and charismatic gifts are widely accessible in the modern world, it's not only outspoken liberal Christians who readily resort to familiar "Holy Roller" stereotypes of gullibility, chicanery, and mental derangement. Evangelicals also have their doubts.
Doubts about continuing prophecy are nothing new in the church, and at least since the time of the Montanists in the early second century, they have repeatedly spawned schisms. In modern history, though, a defining moment occurred at the start of the 18th century with the affair of the so-called French Prophets. It was three hundred years ago, in fact, that Western Christians drew sharp battle lines that in broad terms survive today. In 1709, the English religious world was defined by three-sided debates between moderate Christians, charismatics, and secularist liberals, and their exchanges look uncannily modern. Those struggles—and the profound ill feeling they engendered—reverberated through the great revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries in both the British Isles and North America. The affair of the French Prophets has an excellent claim to mark the beginning of modern religious discourse in the English-speaking world.
"Agitations, ecstasies, and inspirations"
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