(Book review:)
                High Calvinists in Action:
                       Calvinism and the City, Manchester and London 1810-1860
by Ian J. Shaw:  Oxford University Press, 2002.  pp.413.

Born in London, Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) ‘had formed no religious convictions’ till he ‘was fifteen.’ Then in the autumn of 1816 ‘a great change of thought’ took place in him. ‘I fell under the influences of a definite Creed’, Newman would later write. ‘Above and beyond the conversations and sermons of the excellent man, the Rev. Walter Mayers, of Pembroke College, Oxford, who was the human means of this beginning of divine faith in me, was the effect of the books which he put into my hands, all of the school of Calvin’(Apologia). So Calvinism (but not ‘high’ Calvinism) was significant in the conversion to a living faith and spiritual life of the foremost religious mind of Victorian England, who, though, went on to turn his back on Calvinism utterly. Let this fact introduce us to the subject of the book being reviewed: several ‘high’ Calvinists in action in Manchester and London, 1810-1860.
The Baptist theologian Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) recalled a discussion in which Calvinists were categorised as ‘high’, ‘moderate’, and ‘strict’. Moderate Calvinists rejected limited atonement. The strict Calvinist (or, for Fuller, the true Calvinist) was the ‘evangelical Calvinist’, mentioned above in relation to Newman. But what of ‘high Calvinism’? The perception has been that it was isolated and pastorally ineffective. Its doctrine? Election is unconditional and  atonement limited. Grace is irresistible, such that the elect become passive in their regeneration and conversion. Assurance is found in the conviction and felt experience that the believer is eternally elected by God. High Calvinists were theoretically unable to make the free offer of the Gospel: faith is not the duty of unbelievers. The assertion ‘Christ died for you’ could not be uttered without evidence of personal regeneration.

Whether high Calvinism is to be found in Calvin’s teaching is open to discussion, for his teaching was very extensive, and underwent many developments in his numerous followers. In the first half of the eighteenth century (especially during the ministries of John Gill and his convert John Brine), High Calvinism became widespread in Particular Baptist circles. But then in the last decades of the century a number of Particular Baptists adapted their Calvinism to the successful experiential emphases of the Evangelical revival. Though under attack during this latter period, high Calvinism retained a vigorous life in certain Anglican, Independent and Baptist circles into the nineteenth century. This survival owed much to Huntington (died 1813), who may be regarded as a bridge between John Gill and one of the characters of our study: William Gadsby. Huntington’s high Calvinism had a continuing influence into the nineteenth century among Anglicans, Independents and Baptists, although as the century proceeded high Calvinism became increasingly isolated - isolated, but still vigorous in its isolation.

  This book sets out to explore the effectiveness of high Calvinism in the cities of England in the first half of the nineteenth century. This situates the study in a period somewhat neglected in favour of later decades of the century, when the preoccupation of historians has been with religious decline in urban areas. The author’s method is to take two cities, London and Manchester, and a handful of  high Calvinist clergymen who worked in these cities, and to analyse their separate stories from the point of view of the interaction between their persons, their theology, and their congregations. To assist in his analysis of this strand of Calvinism, some contrast is drawn with evangelical Calvinism.
  Accordingly, the study begins with an insightful and revealing chapter on the development of high and evangelical Calvinism to about 1860, together with a study of the doctrinal basis for social concern among the two groups. Then, after discussing at length  the responses of British Evangelicals to the religious and secular problems of the inner city during this period, our author focuses on the city of Manchester as the context of the work of the high Calvinists William Nunn (1786-1840), William Gadsby (1773-1844), and William McKerrow (1803-1878). Similarly thorough chapters follow concerning the ministry in different London urban contexts of the high Calvinists Joseph Irons (1785-1852), James Wells (1803-1872), and Andrew Reed (1787-1862). Then the author draws his general conclusions on high Calvinists in action in the cities.

  The book is full of factual detail, with statistics and other available data, showing evidence of a great deal of patient work in research. In each biographical chapter, there is an introduction to the personality being studied, an outline of his life, and an investigation of the urban context of his work. The minister’s theology is reviewed, and the character of his congregation described. The response of the minister to the religious needs of his congregation and of his part of the city is then explored, such as his involvement in Sunday schools, the character and success of his preaching, his qualities as a writer, his missionary concern, and his involvement in pan-evangelism. There are special subsections on other aspects of his work such as his involvement in education, his political theology, his social concern, and there are general conclusions at the end of the chapter.  

  Our author’s detailed investigation leads him to propose a re-examination of the image of the isolated high Calvinist, understood as hidebound by doctrine, unable to engage with the world around, and occupying a notably marginal position in Church life. High Calvinism would appear probably to have been  more widespread and more complicated than has been thought, and having a considerable following among sections of the populace. It had adherents among Anglicans, Independents, and Baptists, and was attractive to considerable numbers of the poor. The high Calvinists were not homogeneous, for while a common theology produced common tendencies, there were notable variations.

The high Calvinists chosen for study were active rather than reflective, and responded to the cities with flexibility and initiative, attracting and retaining considerable working class congregations. For instance, the reader cannot but be impressed with the striking work of Andrew Reed, and others of them. The length of their ministries and the statistics produced give the impression of a remarkable growth in their churches, which, of course,  depended on the personality of their ministers. In their preaching, the devotional study of Scripture and one’s own experience was deemed most important, leading to a search for a sense of assurance. The high Calvinist ministers in this study tended to be independent but untutored in mind. By contrast (and this is my own thought), we may perhaps think of the contemporary Oxford Tractarians with their great vigour, high culture, profound spirituality, and much wider theological  impact.  

Our author mentions at various points the high Calvinists’ fear of and hostility towards Catholicism. In view of this, I myself would have liked to see him contrast the ministry of these several high Calvinists not only with evangelical Calvinism, but even more broadly: that between high Calvinists in action and, say, Catholics in action. Whatever of that preference, Ian Shaw has done a thorough and excellent job. He has gone through the tedium of extensive examination of available data and arrives at careful conclusions about this element of Calvinism in the first half of the nineteenth century.