For most people in Victorian Britain, Germany was a land of dark forests, romantic castles, and music boxes. The majority of the public was not yet fully aware of the controversial theories of German philosophers and biblical critics, but out of Germany had come a phenomenon that pervaded 19th-century culture: Romanticism.

Romanticism began in the 1780s and 90s as a reaction against the rationalistic universe of the Enlightenment. The German Romantic poet Novalis complained that the Enlightenment thinkers "were tirelessly busy cleaning the poetry off Nature, the earth, the human soul, and the branches of learning—obliterating every trace of the holy, discrediting by sarcasm the memory of all ennobling events and persons, and stripping the world of all colorful ornament."

Rather than being a movement with a common code of beliefs, Romanticism was a mood, a way of looking at the world, a broad range of common concerns about how to understand knowledge and art. What unified all these new ideas was a fundamental shift in the climate of feeling and in attitudes toward emotion. Despite its secular manifestations, Romanticism in both Germany and England was primarily a religious phenomenon—a whole new way of understanding religious experience.

Truth tested on the pulses

The Evangelical Revival of the 18th century prepared the way for this transformation in England. (Its roots, in turn, were in German Pietism, one of several factors that set the stage for Romanticism in that country.) In reaction against the calm and pious rationality of the Church of England, John and Charles Wesley helped recover the lost emotional dimension of Christian faith. "Our souls o'erflow with pure delight," wrote Charles. It is significant that, for him, ...

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