Why Inspiration and Institution?

Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity in the Department of Theology and Religion at the Durham University.

Like many graduate students and early-career scholars in the history of Christianity, I spent years at conferences playing the EHS theme game: if my turn ever came to pick a theme, what would it be? Those conversations tended towards comedy answers: the Church and hair! The Church and the sea! The Church and the theatre! (Those are still available, free of charge, if anyone wants to use them.)
But I am not an early-career scholar any more, so when then time came I fear I went for something a bit more sober-sided. ‘Inspiration and Institution’ is, I know, not the most obviously lapel-grabbing theme. I chose it because it seems to me to go to the heart of our discipline, and especially to the difference between the two ways we describe it: ‘church’ or ‘ecclesiastical’ history (as enshrined in the Society’s name and its publications) versus the history of Christianity.

The mood of recent years is pretty plain: institutional history is stuffy, dull, inward-looking and old-fashioned, while cultural, social and emotional histories of religion are exciting, fluid and insightful. That’s certainly my instinctive prejudice. But – especially while I was trying to write a longue-duree history of Protestantism, spanning five centuries – I’ve come to appreciate that it ain’t that simple.

Millerite prophetic time chart from 1843, illustrating the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation.

Inspirational, charismatic, prophetic religion or spirituality is very eye-catching: and of course without it, there is ultimately no religion at all. And it very often emerges in deliberate opposition to rigid institutional frameworks, frameworks which often try to suppress it. The drama almost writes itself: heroic inspirational leaders stand against wicked, or at least blinkered, bureaucrats. Ever since the evangelists told this kind of story about Jesus and the Pharisees, Christians have found it a compelling narrative.
But doing that long survey, one of the recurrent features I began to notice was how often, certainly in the history of Protestantism, inspirational, charismatic and prophetic movements flared up – and then flamed out, in large part because they failed to institutionalise. Sometimes it was because their apocalyptic timetable meant that institution-building seemed unnecessary – as with the Anabaptists of the 1530s and the Millerites of the 1840s. Very often it was because they lacked the political or organisational nous to do it effectively. Sometimes it was because they objected to institutions as un-Christlike structures, quenching the Spirit, and indeed saw themselves as prophetically called to destroy their own institutions so as to create an open space in which the Holy Spirit might create something new – as amongst many of the English radicals of the 1650s and of the 1960s.

Engraving of John Wesley preaching outside a church

And what these movements have in common is that they didn’t last. It turns out that Churchill’s quip about familiarity could apply equally to institutions: yes, they may breed contempt, but if you don’t have them it’s remarkably difficult to breed anything at all. No matter how inspired you are, without institutions of some kind, your movement cannot endure.
Which makes the exceptions all the more remarkable: the prophetic, inspirational movements that discover, or stumble across, or are led into ways of institutionalising themselves effectively. ‘Reformed’ Protestantism was an eclectic and quarrelsome family in the mid-sixteenth century, until Calvin, the lawyer, found a way of giving it expression that contained its chaos but kept its creative energy. Mid-seventeenth century England was awash with radical sects: only the Quakers found a way of enduring. Eighteenth-century revivalism and evangelicalism seethed with energy: the Methodists, latecomers to the party, found ways of bottling that energy while groups like the Moravians fizzled. Nineteenth-century America was a sectarian ferment: only a handful of groups – the Seventh-day Adventists, the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses – endured.
And of course the pattern goes back much deeper into Christian history. Can we doubt that a fundamental reason for early Christianity’s survival and success was its ability, in the first, second and third centuries, to build institutions which were robust enough to contain, channel and discipline its energies, but flexible enough to encourage rather than stifle them?
In other words: I think there’s something fundamental here. It is not that I think there is a secret sauce waiting to be discovered, the recipe for how a new movement can avoid either fossilising or dissolving into chaos. But I do think that the question of how those twin dangers have been navigated, or not, is an under-appreciated determinant of how the history of Christianity has played out and how it continues to. If this year’s theme can map some of the ways this has and has not been done, then I will feel that I have institutionalised my younger self’s inspirations well enough.

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