Skip to main content

The “integration of faith and learning” has become a touchstone of many Evangelical Protestant higher education institutions in recent decades. Martin Spence argues that modern Evangelical scholars and teachers have intellectual forbears who long ago raised similar questions about the relationship between faith and learning. The author introduces one such individual, the nineteenth-century British Baptist minister and essayist John Foster (1770–1843), and provides a commentary on Foster’s essay “On Some of the Causes by which Evangelical Religion has been Rendered Unacceptable to Persons of Cultivated Taste” (1805). This essay critiqued the anti-intellectualism of popular Evangelical piety and called for the creation of scholarship that operated within explicitly Christian paradigms. The author contends that Foster’s aspiration for the cultivation of learning, creativity, and cultural intelligence in the Evangelical community both challenges and encourages contemporary Christian educators. Dr. Spence is Assistant Professor of History at Cornerstone University.

The concept of “integration of faith and learning” has developed into a touchstone of many Evangelical Protestant higher education institutions in the United States during the last 50 years.1 However, the aspiration to teach, write, and research within a context of Christian faith has faced two major obstacles. First, popular Evangelical Christianity tends toward anti-intellectualism. It has a seemingly incurable desire for novelty and shallow pragmatism rather than for disciplined study and intellectual maturity.2 Second, large parts of academia have little place for scholarship and teaching that is avowedly informed by orthodox Christian presuppositions. This makes it difficult for those who want to participate in academic conversations outside of confessedly Christian institutions to distinguish their scholarship as “Christian” in any meaningful way.3

It is salutary to remember that the aspiration for the “integration of faith and learning,” and the problems within the culture of both the church and the academy that hinder the advancement of this ideal, are not unique to the present generation. It is not recognized often enough that modern Evangelical scholars and teachers have intellectual forbears who long ago raised similar questions about the relationship between faith and learning. One such individual was the nineteenth-century British Baptist minister and essayist John Foster (1770–1843).

This article introduces the argument of his essay, “On Some of the Causes by which Evangelical Religion has been rendered unacceptable to Persons of Cultivated Taste” (1805) which critiqued the anti-intellectualism of popular Evangelical piety and called for the creation of scholarship that operated within explicitly Christian paradigms.4 There has been little in-depth analysis of this important essay.5 This article therefore offers a discussion of Foster as a contribution to the historical understanding of the nineteenth-century Evangelical movement, but the author also hopes that contemporary Evangelical scholars can be encouraged and challenged by meeting an old friend who cherished aspirations for encouraging learning, creativity, and cultural intelligence in the Evangelical Christian community.

For the purposes of this article, “Evangelicalism” is defined as an interdenomi-national network of Protestant Christians that emerged in the English-speaking world in the mid-eighteenth century, encompassing both Calvinist and Arminian theologies. The Evangelical movement has since its inception been marked by a fusion of the key doctrinal principles of the Protestant Reformation, including the centrality of justification by Christ alone and the sole authority of Scripture, with a desire for personal, experiential knowledge of God, and an energetic commitment to mission.6

Introducing John Foster

John Foster, the son of handloom weavers from the West Riding of Yorkshire, grew up a loner and a romantic dreamer, absorbed in his imagination and his books.7 His parents were Baptists, although his father had been converted by the famous Evangelical Anglican William Grimshaw (1708–1763). At age fourteen, Foster placed “simple reliance on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for acceptance before God.”8 He entered into membership of Hebden Bridge Baptist Church when he was seventeen. The minister of that church, Dr. Henry Fawcett, urged Foster to train for Baptist ministry. After attending a small class for theological students run by Dr. Fawcett at Brearley Hall, in 1791 Foster enrolled at Bristol Baptist College, the oldest Baptist theological institution in Britain.9

After graduation Foster found it hard to settle. He lived briefly in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Dublin, Cork, and Leeds. In 1797 he became minister of a General (that is, non-Calvinistic) Baptist church in Chichester and then in 1799 moved to Battersea, South London. In Battersea he established friendships with “several individuals of refined taste and superior intelligence,” people who were altogether different from the type of person with whom he had conversed in provincial life.10 He moved in 1800 to Downend, Bristol, and from 1804 to 1806 was minister of Shepherd’s Barton, Frome, Somerset.

During his twenties and early thirties, Foster wrestled with intellectual doubts about Christian orthodoxy including questions about the divinity of Christ.11 Foster’s questions were very common among educated Protestant Dissenters of the late eighteenth century, “a steady stream” of whom turned to Unitarianism.12 However, by the mid 1800s Foster claimed that he could again affirm orthodox Christology. Indeed, his writings consistently articulated a characteristic Evangelical stress on the centrality of the atoning death of Christ.13 An uncertainty about the nature of eternal punishment, however, endured for the rest of his life.14 Foster knew that faith seeking understanding could sometimes be a painful and difficult process, and he had much invested personally in showing that commitment to evangelical essentials and intellectual rigor were not antithetical, even if integrating the two sometimes required a difficult process of mental and spiritual searching.

While living in Frome, he befriended Maria Snooke. They married in 1808.15 Snooke was the addressee of four essay-length letters Foster wrote in 1804 on topics of contemporary interest.16 The essays, which Foster revised and published in 1805, brought Foster to the notice of the religious and literary world. By 1856 the four essays had been republished twenty times.17 This article is concerned with the last of these four essays. Foster’s success as a published author led him to resign his ministerial charge in Frome. From 1806 to his death in 1843, he devoted the majority of his time and energy to literary endeavors, including contributing many critical essays to the erudite Nonconformist journal The Eclectic Review.18 He also continued, somewhat fitfully because of ill health, to preach and lecture in churches around the Bristol area of southwest England. Foster was an ardent supporter of popular educational and political reform, a fact which ought to be entered in Foster’s defence when we later encounter his descriptions of uneducated individuals, some of which may sound condescending to modern ears.19

Although Foster never held a faculty position in a university he was nevertheless part of the world of arts and learning. This was a world somewhat more diffuse than today’s professionalized academy. It was also more committed, at least in theory, to upholding Christian truth as a social good simply because of the more widespread assumption that Britain was by nature a Christian nation. Foster called members of this section of society “persons of cultivated taste.” By this he meant those individuals “whose feelings concerning what is great and excellent have been disciplined to accord to a literary or philosophical standard.”20 The terminology of “cultivation” might not be current today, but Foster’s basic identification of a group of people for whom beauty and meaning is found in artistic and intellectual pursuit still accurately describes the individuals who inhabit the world in which many of us pursue our vocation. His concern was with individuals who cared about ideas, aesthetics, creativity, literature, and the pursuit of liberal learning.

The title of Foster’s essay echoed the recently published treatise by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799). In this work the German philosopher had sought to modernize Christian theology by downplaying dogma and tradition. In their place he appealed to the authenticity of personal experience of the divine. Both Foster and Schleiermacher wanted to reconnect the “cultured” and “cultivated” classes with religious faith, but Schleiermacher tried to save religion by downplaying its rationalistic elements and stressing instead its intuitive dimension. Foster, by contrast, thought there was too much individualistic experientialism within popular Evangelicalism. He desired a more thoughtful, intelligent Evangelical community that could marry emotional warmth with an intelligent consideration of art, science, and literature. He also attempted to prove to the educated that Evangelical Christianity was not the narrow, shallow ideology that many held it to be.

In seeking to explain why “cultivated” people did generally not embrace Evangelical Christianity, Foster proposed two major theses. Stated in language familiar to twenty-first-century academicians, the first of these was the failure to integrate learning with faith. He criticized popular Evangelicalism for rejecting intellectual rigor, treating learning with contempt and trading in the shallow and banal. Here, he was most obviously the predecessor of scholars like Mark Noll who have pointed to “the scandal of the Evangelical mind.” Second, Foster identified the failure to integrate faith with learning. He was shocked that, in a supposedly Christian country, the products of erudition and scholarship were not more evidently infused with the Gospel of Christ. He argued that scholars needed to work harder to show how the Gospel of Christ changed every dimension of reality. Here Foster was most obviously the predecessor of scholars such as George Marsden who have pointed to the need to re-sacralize the academy. I will examine both of these themes in turn and conclude with some ways in which we can garner advice from Foster about the integration of faith and learning.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

The Perils of Popularity

The Evangelical movement sprang from a series of inter-linked religious revivals within eighteenth-century European and North American Protestant Christianity. The fruit of this revival was a network of Christians that stretched across traditional and newly created denominations and which was distinguished by a cluster of common beliefs about the essence of the Christian message. Foster helpfully defined these Evangelical beliefs as:

a humiliating estimate of the moral condition of man, as a being radically corrupt —the doctrine of redemption from that condition by the merit and sufferings of Christ—the doctrine of a divine influence being necessary to transform the character of the human mind, in order to prepare it for a higher station in the universe—and a grand moral peculiarity by which it insists on humility, penitence, and a separation from the spirit and habits of the world.21

Foster wanted to discover what it was about this type of Christianity that repelled the educated. He stressed that he was not concerned with “triflers” and dogmatic atheists (the Richard Dawkins of his day!), but rather with those individuals who had encountered the “evangelical system” of belief and practice in some form and had made their rejection of Christianity based, at least in part, on the experience of such an encounter.22 Foster was concerned in particular with those who respected religious sentiment and desired some experience of the sublime yet found popular Evangelicalism inadequate to meet this need: “The dignity of religion, as a general and refined speculation, he may have long acknowledged; but it appears to him as if it lost part of that dignity, in taking the specific form of the evangelical system.”23

At the time Foster wrote, Evangelical Christianity was growing into a popular and all-pervasive movement in the religious and cultural life of Great Britain.24Foster claimed that faith and learning appeared incompatible precisely because of the success that Evangelical Christianity enjoyed. Foster contended that, because Evangelicalism was a “popular” religious belief, it was often articulated in common, everyday, “uncultivated” language by the uneducated.25 Thus he wrote: “One of the causes therefore which I meant to notice as having excited in persons of taste a sentiment unfavorable to the reception of evangelical religion, is, that this is the religion of many weak and uncultivated minds.”26 Despite his prophetic tone, Foster did not make this observation as a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Ironically, Foster only had an audience for his essay because by the early 1800s, Evangelicalism was no longer the preserve only of field preachers and Methodist “enthusiasts” but had also been adopted as the stated creed of numerous prominent “establishment” figures, including leading clerics in the national churches of the British Isles.27 A number of voices desired to stress the “reasonableness” of Evangelical Christianity at this time.28 Thus the Christian Observer, an Evangelical Anglican periodical founded in 1801, hailed Foster as “a valuable and powerful ally” in seeking to “correct the religious taste” of the Evangelical public.29

Foster was not ashamed of the “popular” nature of Evangelicalism. Evangelical Christianity should be popular, he claimed, because New Testament Christianity was popular. Its popularity was, he said, a “cause for rejoicing.” Foster also admitted that “the majority of Christians are precluded, by their condition in life, from any acquirement of general knowledge” and due allowance must be made for this.30 Moreover, he stressed that intellectual prowess was not the only way to commend Christ:

It would be unjust not to observe that some Christians, of a subordinate intellectual order, are distinguished by such an unassuming simplicity … and by a piety so fervent and even exalted, that it would imply a very perverted state of mind in a cultivated man, if these examples did not operate, notwithstanding the confined scope of their ideas, to attract him toward the faith which renders them so happy and excellent, rather than to repel him from it.31

However, while Foster did not think one had to be an intellectual to be a devout Christian he argued that popular Evangelicalism was not the sole, nor the most accurate, articulation of Gospel truth. Rather, popular Evangelicalism was truth constricted. “Evangelic truth must accommodate itself to the dimensions and unrefined habitudes of their minds,” explained Foster. The consequence of this is that

the exhibitions of it [that is, the Gospel message] will come forth with more of the character of those [weak, uneducated] minds, than of its own celestial distinctions: insomuch that if there were no declaration of the sacred system, but in the forms of conception and language in which they declare it, even a candid man might hesitate to admit it as the most glorious gift of heaven.32

Foster therefore thought it unsurprising that for an individual who valued complexity, nuance, and rigor, as well as beauty of expression and form, the effect of encountering such an “evangelical system” would be severely depressing,

for if he had heard as much spoken on any other intellectual subject, as for instance, poetry, or astronomy, for which perhaps he has a passion, and if a similar proportion of what he had heard had been as much below the subject, he would probably have acquired but little partiality for either of those studies.33

In other words, the media did not do justice to the message. Foster concluded: “I feel no surprise … that this man [that is, an individual of “cultivated taste”] has acquired an accumulation of prejudices against some of the distinguishing features of the gospel.”34

Foster was clearly sympathetic to the position taken by the “cultivated” toward Evangelicalism. He understood why the educated would be repelled by much of what they found in everyday Evangelical culture. However, it is important to note that Foster did not thereby exonerate the educated for rejecting Christ. He did not think that any of the reasons that a “person of cultivated taste” might object to popular Evangelicalism could be used by them as an excuse for their failure to respond to the Gospel, “as if a rational being could calmly wait for his taste to be conciliated, before he would embrace a system by which his immortal interest is to be secured.”35 Foster was also very aware of the dangers inherent in education pursued for its own sake. Learning and artistic enjoyment could encourage hubris and nurture attitudes that damaged faith, noting that the learned “are greatly inclined to make an idol of their taste.”36 Nevertheless, Foster proposed that, since naturally sinful individuals did not need encouragement to reject the Gospel, one ought to remove as many barriers as possible to their encountering the salvation of Christ. To do this, he contended, it is necessary to identify the roadblocks established by Evangelical subculture that prevent the educated from finding Christ.

In diagnosing the maladies of popular Evangelicalism, Foster uttered many of the same criticisms made by nineteenth-century detractors of the movement.37 But unlike some other commentators, Foster was not intending to ridicule the movement. “If I were not conscious of a solemn and cordial veneration for Evangelical religion itself,” he explained, “I should be more afraid to trust myself in making these observations.”38

Foster’s Diagnosis of Evangelical Anti-Intellectualism

Six broad themes can be detected in Foster’s diagnosis of the popular Evangelical attitude to faith and learning. First, Foster noted that many Evangelicals simply did not welcome critical investigation of any kind. They tended to claim that such enquiry was tantamount to doubt. Indeed, Foster hypothecated that an educated individual may even have experienced an Evangelical who tried to dissuade him from intellectual pursuit because the Evangelical believed it would damage authentic faith.39 Foster suggested that many Evangelicals had an in-built prejudice against learning in general, but also about their own faith, which Foster thought inexcusable. “They [have] neglected, and even despised, all these means of enlarging their ideas of a subject which they professed to hold of infinite importance.”40 While Foster admitted that many people did not have the time or energy for theological education, he argued that there was a spirit within Evangelical Christianity that willfully neglected further study. Many Evangelicals, he noted, “make a kind of merit of their indifference to knowledge, as if it were the proof or the result of a higher value for religion.”41

Second, Foster claimed that many Evangelicals talked about their faith solely in terms of what they felt or experienced. Such people dismissed any attempt at grounding faith in the historical events of Scripture and did not want to investigate the implications of faith beyond the realm of personal intuition or emotion. Foster explained:

If he [that is, the person of cultivated taste] or some other person attempted to talk on some part of the religion itself, as a thing definable and important, independently of the feelings of any individual, and as consisting in a vast congeries of ideas, relating to the divine govern-ment of the world, to the general nature of the economy disclosed by the Messiah… they [that is, the imaginary Evangelical] seemed to have no concern in that religion, and impatiently interrupted the subject with the observation—That is not experience.42

Such emotional, affective faith tended to work against the application of Christianity to areas outside of personal experience. This made it difficult to communicate truth to someone who did not have similar emotional encounters with the Divine. Also, suggested Foster, it implied that Christian faith was in no way related to the large themes of political, social, historical, or philosophical enquiry because it was simply an individual experience rather than an objective reality. It thus appeared irrelevant to scholars who were concerned to understand the structures of the world and who would have welcomed discussions of how Christian truth informed universal philosophical questions as well as personal piety.

Third, Foster identified the tendency of Evangelical Christians to put forward a set of pet theological topics which, although in reality not central to Christian faith (“adiaphora,” as theologians call such matters), were asserted to be crucial to authentic Christianity. “Though he [that is, the person of cultivated taste] could not perceive how these points were essential to Christianity, even admitting them to be true, they were made [by the Evangelical] the sole and decisive standard for distinguishing between a genuine and a false profession of it.”43 Having encountered such a person, noted Foster, the educated individual could not even consider broad Evangelical truth claims without being reminded of what appeared to him or her to be these obscure and sometimes eccentric ideas. Such dogmatism on minor issues appeared inconsequential to an educated individual who had been exposed to a diversity of practices and beliefs through his or her study and therefore realized that local custom was a matter of preference and circumstance.

Fourth, Foster identified religious mannerisms as a reason that many found Evangelical Christianity repulsive. Imagining the experience of the anonymous “individual of cultivated taste,” Foster surmised that

the religious habits of some Christians may have disgusted him excessively. Everything which could even distantly remind him of grimace, would inevitably do this; as, for instance, a solemn lifting up of the eyes, artificial impulses of the breath, grotesque and regulated gestures and postures in religious exercises, an affected faltering of the voice, and, I might add, abrupt religious exclamations in common discourse, though they were even benedictions to the Almighty, which he has often heard so ill-timed as to have an irreverent and almost a ludicrous effect.44

Here Foster was articulating a common criticism of nineteenth-century Evangelicalism, namely that its religious gestures were artificial and theatrical. Such posturing gave the movement a reputation for hypocrisy and superficiality and bred suspicion that there was little distance between the pulpit and the theater.45 Foster thought it unsurprising that the educated found such affected religious gestures a source of discomfort and repulsion.

Fifth, Foster suggested that popular Evangelical literature and preaching could have damaging effects on the presentation of the Gospel to the educated by trading in superficial or banal statements, or by endorsing sentiments or ideas that were, when compared with the great authors and artists of the world, weak, insipid, or even nonsensical. The cultivated person who had spent time with Evangelicals, said Foster, “may not unfrequently have heard worthy but illiterate persons expressing their utmost admiration of sayings, passages in books, or public discourses, which he could not help perceiving to be hardly sense, or to be the dictates of conceit, or to be common-place inflated to fustian.”47 Thus, argued Foster, not only is Evangelical discourse far below the standards of “cultivated taste,” but Evangelicals often showed no awareness of this fact and actively dismissed anything other than the products of their own subculture.

Sixth, and related to the previous point, Foster identified the poverty of Evangelical verbal expression, especially in relation to attempts at explaining the Evangelical message. “In the conversation of illiterate Christians he [the person of cultivated taste] has perhaps frequently heard the most unfortunate metaphors and similes, employed to explain or enforce evangelical sentiments.”48 Foster had become annoyed by this element of Evangelicalism while at Chichester. Writing to his parents, he had criticized those individuals

who have zealously adopted a few peculiar phrases and notions; some of them proper, some cant, some unintelligible, and some absurd. They only want to have these repeated with heat and positiveness an indefinite number of times, with occasional damnatory clauses for the edification of such as happen to think otherwise, and they are satisfied.49

The effect of hearing such forced and odd illustrations, argued Foster in his essay, was that every time the educated individual thought of a particular doctrine, a rather degraded and debased image came to mind, thus distracting him from the beauty of the idea. This phenomenon was similar to one being unable to meet a person for the second time with anything approaching joy if the first meeting had been in some way marred by a tragic incident.50

A Call for Better Communication

Foster was particularly interested in this latter theme of Evangelical communication. His essay dwelt on this topic at length. First, Foster devoted considerable time to analyzing the problems with what he called “the evangelical dialect.51 Foster argued that there was an Evangelical sub-cultural discourse that overwhelmed all other forms of speech. “It is a kind of popery of language,” he claimed, “vilifying every thing not marked with the signs of the holy church, and forbidding any one to minister to religion except in consecrated speech.”52 The “evangelical dialect,” although used in an apparent attempt to amplify spirituality, was in fact a missiological failure, Foster contended, because it made non-Evangelicals feel as if they were foreigners unable to participate in the conversation. This problem was exacerbated because Evangelicals deliberately shifted into this mode of “religious” speech. This created an impression of artificiality and pretense:

You have sometimes observed, when a person has introduced religious topics, in the course of perhaps a tolerably rational conversation on other interesting subjects, that, owing to the cast of expression, fully as much as to the difference of the subject, it was done by an entire change of the whole tenor and bearings of the discourse, and with as formal an announcement as the bell ringing to church.53

Foster requested that “evangelical principles may be clearly exhibited in what may be called a neutral diction.”54

Second, and as part of this extended analysis of the banal and trite in verbal communication, Foster poured scorn on Evangelical literature. He noted wearily the “accumulation of bad writing, under which evangelical theology has been buried.”55 He rejected the common claim that piety compensated for a deficit in literary skill:

The indulgent feelings, which you entertain for the intellectual and literary deficiency of humble Christians in their religious communications in private, are with difficulty extended to those who make for their thoughts this demand on public attention: it was necessary for them to be Christians, but what made it their duty to become authors?56

Foster identified several types of bad Christian books. First, he reviewed wearily the tendency of Evangelical authors to believe that literary art was unnecessary and “that the greatness of the subject was to do every thing, and that they had but to pronounce, like David, the name of `the Lord of Hosts,’ to give pebbles the force of darts and spears.” Foster lamented that Evangelical authors thought literary merit unnecessary as long as they were talking about holy topics.57Second, he identified many Evangelical books that were worthy but dull. There was nothing bad about them, he noted, but little to inspire either:

[They] bear the marks of learning, correctness, and a disciplined understanding … but … display no invention, no prominence of thought, nor living vigor of expression: all is flat and dry as a plain of sand … you seem to understand it all, and mechanically assent while you are thinking of something else.58

A third category of books, he suggested, attempt to be eloquent and witty, but are only able to produce a “gaudy verbosity,” wherein “epithets of chalk” are multiplied page on page without adding anything to the central argument.59 Foster also criticized works which sought to inspire devotion by asking for empathy with the author’s own emotional state, a corollary of his criticism of the Evangelical appeal to experience. In such works, he complained “you are not made to perceive ow the thing itself has the most interesting claims on your heart; but you are required to be affected in mere sympathy with the author.” Such books demand empathy with the author’s emotional state, not an encounter with the majesty of God. They thus apply to God “such forms of expression … as must revolt a man who feels that he cannot meet the same being at once on terms of adoration and of caressing equality.”60 Ending this review of Evangelical literature, Foster concluded wearily that “there are a great many [books] into which an intelligent Christian cannot look without rejoicing that they were not the books from which he received his impressions of the glory of his religion.”61

Foster wanted better for Evangelical communication. He desired words and works of artistic and intellectual merit that avoided cliché, that were rich in and that honored with creativity the creator God. He believed that such works were valuable not simply for their own sake but because they best represented the richness and beauty of Christian truth. Foster was certain that Evangelical truth was not being done justice by its adherents. He admitted there were some excellent works of Christian literature, but the vast majority,

though even asserting the essential truths of Christianity, yet utterly preclude the full impression of its character … [they] exhibit its claims on admiration and affection with insipid feebleness of sentiment; [and] cramp its simple majesty into an artificial form at once distorted and mean.62

Here was a statement of Foster’s main theme: Evangelical truth deserves an intelligent and creative articulation because it expresses the reality of an intelligent and creative God. This, in fact, was the theme to which he turned in the second half of his essay as he asked for Christian scholars to do better at placing their learning in the context of Christian faith.

The Need for Christian Scholarship and Creativity

For Foster the problematic relationship between faith and learning ran in two directions. While Evangelicals did their message few favors because of their attitudes to learning and creativity, the perceived disjunction between Evangelical truth and academic excellence was exacerbated because few scholars had attempted to integrate their Christian faith with their academic work. This compounded the problem of the perceived antithesis between Evangelicalism and learning, said Foster, because if no one could articulate Evangelical themes within educated discourse, then it naturally appeared that there must be an inherent, insurmountable incompatibility between faith, learning, and culture.

Foster began this part of his discussion by rehearsing the perennial question of how Christians should treat pre-Christian literature, particularly the bedrock of classical learning that was foundational to western education. In Tertullian’s immortal phrase, “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” In fact Foster believed that citizens of Jerusalem should visit Athens often and freely, but that it should not be for them a place of permanent residence. He valued the contribution of “pagan” (that is, classical) learning and literature to the education of the mind, but he denied that the lessons taught by classical literature were any longer applicable as a guide for living. The Christian must study “pagan” literature, but

[H]e must learn to assign these men in thought to another sphere, and to regard them as beings under a different economy with which our relations are dissolved; as marvelous specimens of a certain imperfect kind of moral greatness, formed on a model foreign to true religion, which model is crumbled to dust and given to the winds.63

Foster valued art and learning wherever it was found but his conviction that Christ had changed everything meant that the world could no longer be comprehended satisfactorily by pre-Christian thought.

When Foster turned to address “modern” literature – by which he meant literature written after the events of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ – he lamented that few writers showed an appreciation of how Christian truth should alter their mental universe. Given the fundamental significance of the Christ event, argued Foster, one might suppose that all good literature ought to be informed by the knowledge of the historical Christ:

It might have been expected, that all the intelligent men, from that hour to the end of time, who should really admit this religion, would perceive the sovereignty and universality of its claims, and feel that every thing unconsonant with it ought instantly to vanish from the whole system of approved sentiments and the whole school of literature, and to keep as clearly aloof as the Israelites from the boundary that guarded Mount Sinai.64

Foster observed that many people continued to study and write about the “great themes” of life, such as virtue, morality, deity, and the future life, without reference to Christ, despite the fact that these are all “subjects that come within the relations of the Christian system.”65 Foster had little time for those who failed to integrate their faith with the study of such topics. “These subjects are not left free for careless or arbitrary sentiment, since the time that ‘God has spoken to us by his Son’ and that the noblest composition would be only so much eloquent impiety, if discordant with the dictates of the New Testament.”66 The realities of the Gospel, he claimed, should not necessarily be paraded in every work of scholarship. Rather, he thought that such assumptions should act as the paradigmatic framework in which all other arguments operate, just as the laws of Newtonian physics provide a foundational assumption for all scientific enquiries.67

Foster admitted that there were indeed a handful of Christians who “write on subjects so completely foreign to what comes within the cognizance of Christianity, that a pure neutrality, which should avoid all interference with it, would be all that could be claimed from them in its behalf,” but for the majority of scholars and artists there was no neutral ground and no way of justifiably excluding Christian faith from intellectual pursuits.68 Indeed, Foster argued, if Christian writers and artists had done better at creating a distinctly Christian scholarship, the “man of cultivated taste” would have less excuse for thinking that faith and learning were antithetical. “An ingenuous mind might have read alternately their works and those of the evangelists and apostles, without being confounded by a perception of antipathy between the inspirations of genius and the inspirations of heaven.”69

Foster was clear that this desire for Christian scholarship was not a dilettantish pursuit. Instead he believed that Evangelical truth and the life of the mind mustgo together because all reality is already created, sustained, and redeemed by God in Christ. Creative, thoughtful, integrated Christianity was for him not an elite upgrade on a low-cost version but rather the grand reality to which much popular Christian expression only dimly points. “Consider how small a portion of the serious subjects of thought can be detached from all connexion with the religion of Christ,” wrote Foster, “without narrowing the scope to which he meant it to extend, and repelling its intervention where he intended it to intervene.”70For Foster, therefore, it was the dislocation of the Gospel from the life of the mind that was aberrant, not the attempt at their integration. He stressed that to make this attempt to integrate faith and learning was not like trying to apply the laws of geometry to the fields of law and politics. Rather,

Christian principles have something in their nature which has a relation with something in the nature of almost all serious subjects. Their being extended to those subjects therefore is not an arbitrary and forced application of them; it is merely permitting their cognizance and interfusion in whatever is essentially of a common nature with them.71

Learning from Foster

Foster did not write explicitly to help the modern Christian scholar whose context is of course markedly different to the world of early nineteenth-century Britain. The essay is short on practical advice, although he of course viewed the whole exercise as an apologia that encouraged the educated and cultured to reconsider their attitude to Evangelical truth. Nevertheless, in reviewing Foster’s work it is possible to extrapolate at least five broad conclusions from his essay that we, as Christian educators in the twenty-first century, might use to help consider our own vocations and discipleship.

First, Foster offered a salutary warning. Foster reminded the educated they would be required to use their gifts wisely. While he clearly believed that Evangelical popular culture required a strong rebuke for its anti-intellectualism, and while he saw Christian virtue in high intellectual achievement, he warned against intellectual pride, vainglory, and complacency. To have the privilege of a “cultivated mind” is indeed a divine gift, but one that requires corresponding excellence in devotion and service to God:

If while we are all advancing to meet the revelations of eternity, I have a more vivid and comprehensive idea than these less privileged Christians, of the glory of our religion, as displayed in the New Testament, and if I can much more delightfully participate the sentiments which devout genius has uttered in the contemplation of it, I am therefore called upon to excel them as much in devotedness to this religion, as I have a more luminous view of its excellence.72

As Christian academics we of course believe that the use of the creative and intellectual faculties is part of manifesting our status as bearers of the image of the creative, all-wise God, but, as Foster reminded his readers, we also have a great responsibility. Learning is no excuse for coldness of devotion. We who have been entrusted with this gift must use it wisely, lovingly, and humbly for the service of the church and the glory of God. Working out how to do this requires time, prayer, and the illumination of the Holy Spirit who alone can renew our minds. Foster realized this early on. As a candidate for Baptist ministry, he had written to his friend Henry Horsfall:

We see some in low circumstances in life, privileged with none of our advantages for the acquisition of knowledge, for retirement, reading, and contemplation, yet glowing with the zeal, and melting with the warmth of piety. Is not the world then entitled to expect from us something approaching to angelic excellence? “Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required!”73

Second, Foster warned against intelligent Christians who used the poverty of some aspects of popular Christianity as an excuse for themselves retreating into shallowness, or for becoming disillusioned with Christianity. “Evangelical disillusionment” is an unfortunately all too common theme of the movement’s history, and Foster understood well why such disenchantment might occur.74 But for those of us who sometimes grow weary and frustrated at the shallow, trite, and banal in our churches, it is good to be reminded that it is Christ that calls and holds us, not the strengths and weaknesses of the church. As Foster pointed out, there are good reasons to be dissatisfied with Evangelicalism but not with evangelical truth:

As he hears the sentiments of sincere Christianity from the weak and illiterate, he says to himself—All this is indeed little, but I am happy to feel that the subject itself is great, and that this humble display of it cannot make it appear to me different from what I absolutely know it to be; any more than a clouded atmosphere can diminish my impression of the grandeur of the heavens, after I have so often beheld the pure azure, and the host of stars. 75

To assume such an attitude requires prayer and careful guarding against cynicism and pride. Christian scholars and artists must make sure we unite together for this purpose. We must make sure fellowship and corporate worship are parts of our academic life.

Third, Foster encouraged friendship between Christians and agnostic intellectuals. Foster’s essay was in and of itself the offer of the hand of friendship from a supporter of Evangelical doctrine to the “individual of cultivated taste.” Foster modeled a sympathetic engagement with intellectuals who rejected Christ. He lamented that those who had rejected Christianity because of their experience of popular Evangelicalism did not have an Evangelical peer who knew their culture who could thus help them consider Evangelical truth divested of its subcultural paraphernalia. “Now, one wishes there had been some enlightened friend to say to such a man … By what want of acuteness do you fail to distinguish between the mode (a mere extrinsic and casual mode), and the substance?”76 Christian academicians have the opportunity to demonstrate the compatibility of Christianity with high intellectual pursuit and to press upon their friends and colleagues the same type of question that Foster raised. While this involves sympathetic engagement with the concerns of the agnostic intellectual, it must also involve a challenge. As we have seen, Foster did not exonerate the individual of cultivated taste, despite acknowledging the problems of popular evangelicalism. “What is it to you that many Christians have given an aspect of littleness to the gospel, or that a few have displayed it in majesty?,” he enquired of the educated individual.77 As Christian scholars, together we must think more fully about how we evangelize our colleagues in ways that are true both to our vocational discipline and to our call to make disciples.

Fourth, for those of us who take pastoral care of the students in our care seriously, Foster offered an important reminder of how disturbing intellectual study can be to the faith of the young student who has been nurtured within the context of an anti-intellectual Evangelical popular piety. Foster noted specifically the dangerous territory into which a young student entered when he left behind the Evangelical teaching of his family and friends and began the “enlargement of intellect.”78 The contrast between the two worlds often proved too great, noted Foster. He imagined a scenario in which such a young Evangelical “has felt the full contrast between the force, luster, and mental richness, accompanying the moral speculations or poetical visions of genius, and the manner in which the truths of the gospel had been conveyed,” and had, quite naturally, thought Foster, chosen poetry over popular piety.80 There is a great need for academicians who are also pastors and shepherds to such young students, if Evangelical freshmen are not to become post-Evangelical seniors.

Finally, Foster urged confidence in the absolute wonder, majesty, and truth of Evangelical Christianity. He reminded Christian intellectuals that they can never get beyond Christ, and that they can never out-read, out-write or out-think the creator of the Universe. They need never worry (and should never boast) that their intellectual pursuits put them above the Triune God revealed in Scripture:

Never fear lest the gospel should prove not sublime enough for the elevation of your thoughts. If you could attain an intellectual eminence from which you would look with pity on the rank which you at present hold, you would still find the dignity of this subject occupying your level, and rising above it.81

Once again Foster’s point was that faith and learning are far from antithetical enti-ties that need to be forced artificially together. Because both faith and scholarship are about discovering and enjoying the reality that God created and redeemed, Christian faith is an invitation to study, discover, create, and innovate. As Foster wrote early in his life, “Nothing can so effectually expand the mind as the views which religion presents; for the views of religion partake of the magnitude and glory of that Being, from whom religion proceeds.”82


Foster was a missionary pioneer of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Evangelical revival. He was not, however, a missionary like his fellow Baptist William Carey, who traveled over oceans to evangelize unknown cultures. Instead his mission field was the educated women and men of early nineteenth-century Britain.83 He realized that this community was an unreached people group. They were unresponsive to the central themes of the Gospel as expressed in the popular language and preaching of the Evangelical revival. Foster sought to understand why this was so and to explain to the educated that evangelical theology was not inimical to the life of the mind. As he analyzed the barriers between Evangelicalism and the educated, he identified a scandal at the heart of popular piety, namely that Evangelicalism all too readily traded in the shallow and clichéd and appeared to have no regard for the sophisticated pleasures of literature, art, and learning. He did not think this problem could be overcome completely because the popularity of Evangelicalism was a reflection of Christ’s mission to call all people. Yet Foster’s analysis urged Evangelicals to try better to articulate faith with intelligence and creativity, for only such imaginative and disciplined expression of Christian faith could do justice to the rich depths of the Gospel. Those best equipped to help reform Evangelicalism in this regard were artists and scholars who, said Foster, should strive to infuse their learning and creativity with evangelical truth.

In Foster’s essay, contemporary Christian scholars can find an agenda for their own missionary calling. First, we hear a call to demonstrate through our academic work the fact that commitment to Christ does not thwart creativity and learning but rather encourages and enriches it. Second, we should consider Foster’s call to befriend other scholars, sympathizing with their suspicion that some parts of popular piety fall short but also directing their attention to the riches that are in Christ. Finally, we should acknowledge the possession of a privilege and responsibility that Foster never enjoyed in nineteenth-century Britain: helping to breed discontent with all that is clichéd, shallow, and atrophied in our Christian communities by nurturing Evangelical Christian students who are whole-heartedly committed to using their minds and creative faculties to serve and worship God.


  1. William C. Ringenberg, The Christian College: a History of Protestant Higher Education in America (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), 183-208. For an introduction to the literature on the “integration of faith and learning,” see Arthur F. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987); Duane Litfin, Conceiving the Christian College (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004); David S.Dockery and Gregory Alan Thornbury, eds., Shaping a Christian Worldview; (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2002); Robert A. Harris, The Integration of Faith and Learning (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2004). Not all individuals or institutions use this particular phrase to describe their vision of Christ-centered education. For different approaches, see Richard T. Hughes, The Vocation of a Christian Scholar (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005); Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)

  2. This argument was made most influentially in: Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994. See also: David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993). A somewhat more positive assessment of Evangelical scholarship, along with a theological justification for its pursuit, has recently been offered by Noll in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011).
  3. This point has been extensively argued in: George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). See also George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  4. John Foster, “On some of the Causes by which Evangelical Religion has been rendered unacceptable to Persons of cultivated Taste,” in Foster, Essays in a Series of Letters (Andover, MA: Mark Newman, 1826), 157. The eccentric capitalization of the title is original.
  5. One other article has examined Foster’s essay from the perspective of discussing his attitudes to literature: A. G. Newell, “A Christian Approach to Literature,” Evangelical Quarterly 32 (1960): 79-106. Foster’s essay is introduced briefly as part of a broader discussion of early nineteenth-century British Evangelical attitudes to learning and education in Doreen Ros-man, Evangelicals and Culture (London: Croom Helm, 1984), 203-204. For a short overview of Foster’s life, see Doreen M. Rosman, “Foster, John,” in ed. Donald M. Lewis, The Blackwell Dictionary of Evangelical Biography, 1730–1860, vol.1 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 400-402.
  6. For helpful introductions to Evangelicalism, see David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Mod-ern Britain (London: Routledge, 1989), 3ff.; George Marsden, “Introduction: The Evangelical Denomination” in G. Marsden, ed., Evangelicalism and Modern America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984); Doug Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), esp. 24ff. The term “evangelical” pre-dates the eighteenth-century revival movement. This article capitalizes the term when referring to the network of Evangelicals that emerged from the eighteenth-century revivals, but uses a lower case where the term is being used adjectively. This differentiation reflects the observation of Doug Sweeney that “Evangelicals… are [not] the only ones to whom the term evangelical applies.” Foster used a lower case throughout and this is retained in quotations. Nevertheless, it could be argued that his essay would have benefitted from making the same linguistic differentiation because his implicit argument is that “evangelical truth” needs to be rescued from the narrow subcultural confines of the popular Evangelical movement.
  7. J. E. Ryland, The Life and Correspondence of John Foster, vol. 1 (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1861), 5-6.
  8. Ibid., 1:7.
  9. Ibid., 1:11.
  10. Ibid.,1:61.
  11. Ibid., 1:35.
  12. Michael R. Watts, The Dissenters, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 87.

  13. See Ryland, Life and Correspondence, 1:110.
  14. J.E. Ryland, The Life and Correspondence of John Foster, vol. 2 (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1861), 232-244.
  15. Ibid., 1:320.
  16. Ibid., 1:218.
  17. Thomas Hamilton, “Foster, John (1770–1843),” rev. Jessica Hinings, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eds. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, (accessed June 17, 2011).
  18. Many of these were published as: John Foster, Contributions, Biographical, Literary, and Philosophical, to the Eclectic Review, 2 vols. (London: Thomas Ward & Co., 1844).
  19. John Foster, An Essay on the Evils of Popular Ignorance (London: B. J. Holdsworth, 1820). See Rosman, 401.
  20. Foster, “On some of the Causes,” 157.
  21. Foster, “On some of the Causes,” 160.

  22. Ibid., 157.
  23. Ibid.
  24. For a recent survey, see John Wolffe, The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More and Chalmers (Leicester, UK: InterVarsity Press, 2007). Foster’s analysis of the “popu-lar” nature of Evangelicalism would also have applied, perhaps to an even greater extent, to Christianity in the United States in this era. See Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989).
  25. This analysis of Evangelicalism as a “popular” movement coheres with John Kent’s analysis that Evangelicalism “is essentially ‘popular religion’ in a Protestant form, analogous to, but not the same as, ‘popular religion’ in its Roman Catholic form.” John Kent, Book Reviews: “Popular Religion,” The Expository Times 106 (January 1995): 125.
  26. Foster, “On some of the Causes,” 162.
  27. Wolffe, The Expansion of Evangelicalism, 152.
  28. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 52-53.
  29. Christian Observer, February 1806, 713-714.
  30. Foster, “On some of the Causes,” 168.
  31. Ibid., 172.
  32. Ibid., 162.
  33. Ibid., 166.
  34. Ibid., 173.

  35. Ibid., 178.
  36. Ibid., 190.

  37. For a flavor of nineteenth-century satire against Evangelicals, see George Eliot, “Evan-gelical Teaching: Dr Cumming,” Westminster Review (October 1855) reprinted in Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Spirit of the Age: Victorian Essays (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 119-144; Henry William Pullen, The World of Cant (London: Wade & Co., 1880). See also Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 129-130.
  38. Foster, “On some of the Causes,” 182.
  39. 9Ibid., 166.
  40. Ibid., 169.
  41. Ibid., 168.
  42. Ibid., italics in original.

  43. Ibid., 167.
  44. Ibid., 170.
  45. These apparently affected gestures were the fodder for many satirists of the evangelical movement in the nineteenth century, including George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Jane Austin, and Charles Dickens. For introductions to the various fictional rendering of Evangelicalism in the nineteenth century, see: Elizabeth Jay, Religion of the Heart: Anglican Evangelicalism and the Nineteenth-Century Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979); Valentine Cunning-ham, Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent in the Victorian Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).
  46. Foster, “On some of the Causes,” 169.[/efn_note[ Once again, the problem was that the educated individual would come away from such an encounter convinced that admiration for banality represented the limits of the Evangelical message. The problem was exacerbated, argued Foster, because, when an educated individual spoke to an Evangelical about an author or an artist with whom he was familiar, the Evangelical showed “no perception of its beauty, or [might have] expressed a doubt of its tendency, from its not being in canonical diction.”46Ibid.
  47. Ibid., 170.
  48. Ryland, Life and Correspondence, 1:77.
  49. Foster, “On some of the Causes,” 171.
  50. Ibid., 181.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Ibid., 191.
  53. Ibid., 190. Compare with: Ryland, Life and Correspondence, 1:9
  54. Foster, “On some of the Causes,” 201.
  55. Ibid., 203.
  56. Ibid., 202; italics in original.
  57. Ibid., 203.
  58. Ibid., 204.
  59. Ibid., 205.
  60. 1Ibid., 206; italics in original.
  61. Ibid.
  62. Ibid., 225.
  63. Ibid; Italics in original.
  64. Ibid., 227.
  65. Ibid.
  66. Ibid., 226. Foster’s particular analysis of individual writers, and discussion of how Foster appraised literature by Christian values, is dealt with by Newell and will not therefore be repeated here. Newell, “A Christian Approach to Literature,” esp. 92-106.
  67. Foster, “On some of the Causes,” 227.
  68. Ibid.
  69. Ibid., 229.
  70. Ibid., 230.
  71. Ibid., 165.
  72. Ryland, Life and Correspondence, 1:14-16 at 16.
  73. On this theme, see David Hempton, Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).
  74. Foster, “On some of the Causes,” 164.
  75. Ibid., 175.
  76. Ibid., 179.
  77. Ibid., 173.
  78. As noted earlier, Foster was speaking from his own experience as a young student who had experienced intellectual doubts about Christian orthodoxy. Foster called for Evangelical students to work hard to reconcile the faith of their childhood with their newfound taste for learning, and to “abstract … these [Evangelical] truths from the shape in which they were thus unhappily set forth, in order to see what they would appear in a better.”79Ibid.
  79. Ibid., 175

  80. Ryland, Life and Correspondence, 1:25. By “religion,” Foster of course meant Christianity.

  81. Foster’s “success” as such a missionary is, of course, difficult to quantify. His biographyportrayed a diffident, retiring and perhaps somewhat obtuse man who probably struggled to live up to his own model for missionary engagement and who preferred the written word to personal interaction. For example, his biographer noted: “His piety [was] meditative, imaginative, self-enclosed, and, in reference to his fellow men, self-dependent.” Foster wrote: “I like all persons as subjects of speculation; few indeed as objects of affection!” Ryland, Life and Correspondence, 1:54.

Martin Spence

Cornerstone University
Martin Spence is an associate professor of history at Cornerstone University.