Here is the fourth of my Christianity Today history website series “Grateful to the Dead: The Diary of Christian History Professor” For the rest of the series, click through the link in the first paragraph, below, to the previous installment. You’ll find links to the first two articles in the series are embedded early in that article:
#4: “I laughed, I cried, I changed”
In the last installment, I promised to tell you about a tradition in Western philosophy and literature that highly valued our shared nature as emotional beings and affirmed that reading about other people’s experiences and emotions can be a powerful transformational tool.
My “Exhibit A” is the 1764 book An Authentic Narrative of some Interesting and Remarkable Particulars in the Life of John Newton. As I prepared a discussion for our Patron Saints class at Bethel on this spiritual autobiography of the author of “Amazing Grace,” recently reissued by Regent College Publishing, I realized something: Newton‘s book is a clear example of a popular 18th- and 19th-century literary genre: the sentimental narrative.
What was a “sentimental narrative?” For a later example, think of the novels of Charles Dickens. When we read Dickens (remember high school English class?), we get two very strong impressions: (1) we become emotionally engaged in the characters and their story, and (2) we sense that Dickens is trying to communicate to his readers, through those characters and their story, moral and even spiritual truths.
In fact, these two impressions derive from a single “sentimentalist” agenda at work in the novels of Dickens, and in hundreds of other 18th- and 19th-century novels, as well as period biographies and histories. This agenda was the brainchild of the group of 18th-century philosophers and writers who in fact invented the novel as a genre.
These sentimentalists included philosophers such as Adam Smith, novelists such as Samuel Richardson, and, at one point in his career, the philosopher/historian David Hume. To these thinkers, the term “sentimentalism” did not carry the meaning that it does now—of over-wrought, insincere emotional expression. Rather, it named a coherent set of philosophical ideas about emotions and morality.
The first of these is that all people share certain basic experiences and emotions. Although as I showed in our last installment, postmodern “strong constructionists” have sowed suspicion in our minds about this, modern social-scientific emotions researchers are beginning to reaffirm it.
The second sentimentalist affirmation, dependent on the first, is that we can become better people by hearing the stories of other people and having our own emotions (hearts) shaped by those stories.
This agenda of moral and spiritual formation shines from the full title of Samuel Richardson’s 1740 prototypical sentimental novel Pamela: “Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded—Now first published in order to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of the Youth of Both Sexes, A Narrative which has the Foundation in Truth and Nature; and at the same time that it agreeably entertains …”
Sentimental novels? Surely not!
The literary sentimentalists were not hack writers; they were philosophers who expressed their deepest philosophical convictions in their writings. Under the influence of John Locke’s empiricism, Smith, Richardson, Hume, and Newton all assumed that our experiences (and by extension, our emotions, and by another extension, other people’s experiences and emotions) are a strong, helpful source of knowledge.
In turn, these sentimental authors and many others exerted a pervasive influence on readers and reading habits in the 18th and 19th centuries. The three most popular genres in those centuries were novels, biographies, and histories. Why? Because, thanks to Locke and the sentimentalists, everyone assumed that what you learned in reading those books was valuable, experiential knowledge that could transform you in ways mere rational argumentation could not achieve.
Returning to “Amazing Grace” author John Newton: he clearly crafted his conversion narrative under the influence of the sentimentalists. Newton wrote his Authentic Narrative in the form of personal letters, with warm greetings and relational rhetoric at the front of almost every chapter. This is no accident. This “epistolary” form was exactly the form used by the first writers of sentimental novels—like Samuel Richardson in his Pamela.
Also in the sentimental tradition were several of Newton’s other stylistic decisions: (1) the frequent, detailed descriptions he gives of his inner states, (2) the vivid, visually rendered tableaux or “scenes” designed to draw his readers imaginatively into his own experiences, and (3) the way he weaves his own courtship and marriage into his account, portraying his romantic relationship with Mary as an important part of his spiritual reawakening.
The result of Newton’s sentimentalist approach is an engaging and affecting story designed to do the quintessential sentimental work of changing the hearts of those who read it.
The book’s popularity was instant and long-lasting. It was reprinted many times. Treasured copies were passed from friend to friend, long into the 19th century. And most importantly, it helped pattern the conversion narratives of evangelicals for centuries after.
Evangelicalism’s most important book, a sentimental narrative?
If you are still tempted to dismiss Newton’s sentimental conviction as a dinosaur or a dangerous concession to emotional self-indulgence, consider this:
A generation before Newton’s Authentic Narrative (1764), contemporaneously with Richardson’s sentimental novel Pamela (1740), another famous book was published that owed much to Lockean empiricism and the ideals of the sentimentalists. Like Newton and Richardson, the brilliant Puritan thinker Jonathan Edwards wrote his 1737 classic The Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the form of a series of letters. And like those other two authors, Edwards sought to lay bare the intricacies of the human heart.
Mark Noll, in his recent Rise of Evangelicalism, tells how Edwards’s Narrative became the primary textbook for revivalistic Christianity in his age and long after. Out of his sentimentalist conviction that reading about the experiences and emotions of others would illuminate one’s own heart and relationships, Edwards wrote a masterpiece that has shaped the whole course of modern evangelicalism.
The novels of Charles Dickens and Samuel Richardson, the Authentic Narrative of John Newton, and the Faithful Narrative of Edwards all remind us that there was once a space in Western culture for people to read and be deeply influenced by the experiences and emotions of others—whether in fictional or non-fictional form.
Grace and Peace to All who are Still Open to being Changed by Stories,
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