views updated May 29 2018


ENTHUSIASM . The history of enthusiasm is as much the history of the word as of the phenomenon it signifies. In the English-speaking world, the word came to prominence as a technical religious term in the seventeenth century, used always in reference to religious experience, and, for the most part, as a term of denigration. For about two hundred years, the usual usage was to denote ill-regulated religious emotion or, more specifically, fancied inspiration, the false or deluded claim to have received divine communications or private revelations. In the course of the last hundred years the technical religious meaning has been almost completely superseded by the more positive meaning now current (ardent zeal for a person, principle, or cause), though unfavorable overtones still cling to the derivative term, enthusiast, as connoting an impractical visionary or self-deluded person. It is, however, the technical religious term with which we are here concerned.

A discussion of enthusiasm is also a discussion of the word, in the important sense that disputes over its applicability were also disputes over the propriety and validity of any claims to divine inspiration and revelation. For those hostile to religion as suchor to any save a strictly rational religionenthusiasm was no different from superstition, a charge which could be brought against the Jewish prophets of old, the apostle Paul, or Muammad with as much justice as against John Wesley (17031791). For members of the established church who were fearful of schism, enthusiasm was another name for sectarianism, and as such could be used of Francis of Assisi or Dominic, or "papists" in general, as well as the followers of George Fox (16241691) or Madame Guyon (16481717). For those suspicious of any display of emotion, particularly in religion, enthusiasm was synonymous with fanaticism. Only in the nineteenth century, under the influence of the Romantic revival, did a more positive sense of enthusiasmas emotion deeply felt or the heightened perception of poetic inspirationbegin to free the word from the negative overtones of religious disapproval.

In a strict sense, then, the study of enthusiasm is the study of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Christianity, understood as the study of movements within Christianity that were regarded by their critics as peripheral and as threatening to the integrity of Christianity, although perhaps it could more properly be understood as the study of the attitudes of those who condemned such movements as "enthusiastic." In addition, it should be borne in mind that enthusiast was used as a translation of the German Schwärmer, a term used by Martin Luther to describe such radical reformers as Andreas Karlstadt, Thomas Müntzer, and the Anabaptists. Like the English "enthusiasts," the German Schwärmer pretended to divine inspirations and revelations and could be classed as fanatics and sectarians. As a technical religious term, therefore, enthusiasm denotes the diverse expressions of radical, spiritualist, or sectarian Christianity, particularly in Europe, during the three hundred years from the beginning of the Reformation to the nineteenth century.

Ronald Knox's Enthusiasm

It is this narrowly defined enthusiasm which Ronald Knox describes in his classic study Enthusiasm. "Enthusiasm did not really begin to take shape until the moment when Luther shook up the whole pattern of European theology" (Knox, 1950, p. 4). "Enthusiasm in the religious sense belongs to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; it hardly reappears without inverted commas after 1823" (p. 6). To be sure, Knox notes that the pattern of enthusiasm is one which recurs spontaneously throughout church history, and he presents brief studies of the Corinthian church, the Montanists, the Donatists, and some medieval sects, particularly the Waldensians and the Cathari. But Donatists are hardly a good example of enthusiasm, despite their zeal for martyrdom. Knox dismisses Montanism as "naked fanaticism" (p. 49) and the medieval movements as fed by an inspiration "alien to the genius of Europe" or as "sporadic and unimportant, freaks of religious history" (p. 4). All these are brought into the picture less as examples of enthusiasm requiring analysis in their own right than as foils to the subsequent descriptions of enthusiasm proper. Even the Anabaptists, the Schwärmer themselves, are given scant treatment and serve largely as a vehicle for Knox's Roman Catholic disapproval of Luther and the Reformation. In all this, it is clear that Knox's chief objection to enthusiastic movements is their tendency to schismatic sectarianism. "The enthusiast always begins by trying to form a church within the Church, always ends by finding himself committed to sectarian opposition" (p. 109).

Knox's somewhat more sympathetic depiction of enthusiasm begins with his treatment of Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers). His attention naturally focuses on Fox's belief in "the inner light," as illustrated by Fox's interruption of a preacher at Nottingham: "It is not the Scripture, it is the Holy Spirit by which holy men of old gave forth the Scripture, by which religions are to be tried" (p. 152, note 3). In the twofold implication of this assertion, the marks of the enthusiast are clearly evident: the claim to an immediacy of inspiration (comparable to that elsewhere readily acknowledged in, but otherwise confined to, the biblical writers) not to be confused with reason or conscience; and the claim that this inner illumination is the true source of authority above the letter of scripture, the creeds, and the ordinances of church and state. The violent tremblings which often accompanied and were thought to attest to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and from which the nickname "Quakers" was derived, apparently occurred only in the very early days.

The central section of Knox's monograph is given over to a treatment of Jansenism (mid-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth centuries) and quietism (latter half of the seventeenth century). Significant certainly for their challenge to the mainstream of Roman Catholic tradition, these movements should probably not be classified as examples of enthusiasm, at least in the technical sense of the word as used by Knox. Jansenism stressed the corruption of human nature by original sin and the power of divine grace. Rigorist in charactera kind of Roman Catholic Puritanismit came closest to enthusiasm in the degree to which it understood grace in terms of experiences of "sensible devotion" (pp. 224225). Quietism was a doctrine of Christian spirituality which sought to suppress all human effort, so that divine action might have full sway over the passive soul. It emphasized the immediacy of contact between the soul and God, but since it also denied that such contact need be a matter of conscious experience, quietism is better studied in connection with Christian mysticism than (Christian) enthusiasm.

The real targets of Knox's critique at this point are Madame Guyon and the convulsionaries at Saint Médard. Guyon, who did much to promote quietism, evidently epitomizes a good deal of what Knox regarded as detestable in enthusiasm: particularly her spiritual "smugness" and, not least, the prominent role of influential women in supporting enthusiastic movements. The convulsions at the Paris cemetery of Saint Médard in the early 1730s (including ecstatic dancing, many alleged cures, and speaking in unknown languages) were regarded by participants as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit expected in the last days. But for Knox they are a fitting expression of popular Jansenism and a terrible warning of what can happen to a movement which sits too loose to ecclesiastical authority. Similar to the Jansenist Catholic convulsionaries were the Huguenot Camisards in southern France (late seventeenth to early eighteenth centuries), among whom a form of ecstatic prophecy, involving prostrations, trancelike states, and glossolalia, was prominent, and who in exile in Britain (where they were known as "the French Prophets") converted Ann Lee, the subsequent founder of the North American Shakers.

The other main object of Knox's analysis is Wesley. Here Knox's critique focuses on the religion of experience. An initial chapter examines the Moravian piety inculcated in Germany by Count Nikolaus Zinzendorf (17001760). Like the quietists, the Moravians practiced a piety of stillness. But unlike the quietists, Zinzendorf preached religion as felt experience and salvation "as an immediate and joyful apprehension of a loving Father" (Knox, 1950, p. 410), assurance not merely as a doctrine believed but as something felt, the sense of God's protective love. It was the importance of such experience which Wesley learned from the Moravians and emphasized in his own doctrine of assuranceassurance of present pardon, the inner witness of the Spirit of God. Wesley never abandoned this belief in the importance of feelings, of "heart-religion," though he did subsequently concede that the consciousness of God's acceptance was not an invariable or essential concomitant of that acceptance (p. 539).

These examples might seem to have represented relatively mild forms of enthusiasm. But it is the consequences of such emphases, when freed from the constraints of traditional discipline and ecclesiastical authority, which concern Knox. It was the place given to the nonrational in Wesley's scheme of things which incited the famous remark of Bishop Butler to Wesley: "Sir, the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing" (p. 450). So, too, under the heading "Wesley and the religion of experience," Knox describes the convulsions, weeping, and crying out which often accompanied Wesley's preaching. Wesley's willingness to recognize the work of God in such paroxysms and to defend their occurrence makes the charge of enthusiast harder for him to escape, though Wesley himself resisted the charge, was never carried away with such enthusiasm, and clearly perceived its dangers. The other aspect of his teaching which might seem to merit the accusation was his view of Christian perfection, since a belief in the possibility of achieving sinless perfection results inevitably in spiritual elitism and claims of special revelation. However, "sinless perfection" was never Wesley's own phrase: what he encouraged his followers to seek was renewal in love or entire sanctification; nor did he indulge in or encourage the more extreme ideas which his teaching sometimes precipitated.

Knox's survey concludes with a brief foray into the nineteenth century and a reference to the Irvingites, the Shakers, and Perfectionism. Under the ministry of Edward Irving in London in the 1830s, prophecy and speaking in tongues became prominent, understood as utterances in the vernacular and in unknown languages prompted by the Holy Spirit, comparable to the first Christian Pentecost. For Irving, these manifestations confirmed his belief that the second coming of Christ was imminent. The Shakers emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century from a branch of English Quakers who adopted the Camisards' ritual practice of devotional dance to induce states of inspiration (the "shaking Quakers"). Under Lee, who was convinced by revelation that the millennium had already dawned, the movement was transplanted to North America in 1774. "Perfectionism" is identified by Knox with three roughly contemporaneous movements in the first half of the nineteenth centuryone in Prussia, one in England, and one in North America (the only other example of North American enthusiasm that Knox really considers). All three shared the belief that the experience of conversion made sin an impossibility.

From all this it is possible to derive a thumbnail sketch of the typical enthusiast in classical terms. The fundamental belief of the enthusiast is in the immediacy and directness of his experience of God. For the enthusiast, as distinct from the quietist, this experience is self-evident and self-authenticating: self-evident, because it will be marked by distinct inward impressions (a clear sense of God's presence or acceptance, and inspiration or particular revelations, including visions) or by outward bodily manifestations (trembling or prostration, inspired utterance, or miraculous healings); self-authenticating, because it bears greater authority than scripture (as usually interpreted), ecclesiastical creed, rite, or officegreater, even, than reason itself. The enthusiast knows God's will and acts as his agent, accountable only and directly to him. Such experiences will regularly lead the enthusiast to conclude (1) that he is more spiritual than other believers, or that he has reached a higher stage in the Christian life; (2) that a less restrained form of worship should be permitted or encouraged, one in which the outward manifestations of the Holy Spirit have proper place; and (3) that any forms and structures of traditional Christianity which stifle the Holy Spirit should be dispensed with. Not untypically, such convictions can have a strong eschatological tingea belief that the millennium has dawned or that Christ's second coming is imminentwhich invests the enthusiastic individual or sect with universal significance and can thus justify strongly antisocial or revolutionary action.

Toward a Broader Evaluation of Enthusiasm

Obviously, then, the classic view of enthusiasm has to a considerable extent been determined by the negative connotations attached to the word. Within Christianity, because of fear of superstition, fanaticism, and sectarianism, claims to inspiration and fresh revelation have repeatedly been labeled as "enthusiastic" without more ado. Even Knox, in this love-hate fascination with the subject, regularly allows his account of enthusiastic eccentricities to color the total picture. However, the very evolution in the meaning of the word itself, from censure to approbation, invites a broader evaluation of the subject matter, regarding both the range of phenomena covered (outside as well as inside historical Christianity) and the possibility of a less negative appraisal. In particular, a less value-laden approach to enthusiasm must view more objectively the fact that claims to inspiration and fresh revelation are a fundamental feature of most religions, not least of all Christianity itself. Such an approach should therefore include a fuller analysis of why some such claims are acceptable and others are not.

Outside Christianity

A history of religions approach, which looks beyond the traditional intra-Christian critique of enthusiasm, broadens the range of the phenomena studied and of the tools used in evaluation.

An obvious starting point is the context of Greek thought and religion, from which the word enthusiasm comes, and in which one could regard enthusiasm as something positive without being uncritical. According to Plato's Socrates, "our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, provided the madness is given us by divine gift" (Phaedrus 244a). Socrates proceeded to distinguish four types of this "divine madness"as E. R. Dodds has shown in his concise summary (1951): (1) prophetic madness, whose patron god is Apollo; (2) telestic or ritual madness, whose patron is Dionysos; (3) poetic madness, inspired by the Muses; and (4) erotic madness, inspired by Aphrodite and Eros. Madness (mania ) is not synonymous with enthusiasm (entheos, "full of or inspired by the god"; enthousiasmos, "inspiration, frenzy"), but there is considerable overlap in meaning, since enthusiasm also designated the classic examples of the first two kinds of madness: the Pythia of the Delphic oracle, who prophesied in a state of possession, speaking in the first person as Apollo's voice, and the frenzied dancing of the Dionysian cult, through which the devotees sought the release of ecstasy. This early recognition of a dimension of experience beyond control of the human mindof an inspiration experienced as coming from without, to which one must yield in order to experience its full benefitis of lasting relevance in any critique of enthusiasm, as is the recognition of a continuity or similarity between poetic inspiration and sexual ecstasy on the one hand and enthusiasm on the other. And, while Christianity looks more to the Hebrew idea of prophecy than to the ecstatic prophecy of the Hellenistic world, the phenomenology of Hebrew inspiration is not so very different, as the visions and first-person oracles of the major prophets of the Hebrew scriptures clearly testify.

The association of enthusiasm with the ancient Bacchanalia was well known by those who first used the term in the seventeenth century, which explains their heavy note of disapproval. In the past hundred years, however, documentation of similar phenomena from other cultures has grown apace. Most striking of these is shamanism, defined by Mircea Eliade as a "technique of ecstasy."

By examining the religious interpretations and intentions of shamans who communicate directly with the supernatural world, Eliade argues for a more precise distinction between ecstasy and enthusiasm. In ecstasy, the soul is believed to leave the body during a trance in order to ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld, where it may retrieve the soul of sick persons and restore them to health. Enthusiasm, on the other hand, is a term more suitably applied to cases in which a supernatural being (divinity, ancestor, or demon) inhabits or possesses an individual's body or personality. As in the many instances already mentioned, the indwelling spirit is recognized by some unusual behavior, sentiments, or especially sounds. For a parallel to the group ecstasy of the Camisards or the Shakers, we need look no further than the Muslim fraternity known as the dervishes, who since the twelfth century have sought clearer apprehension of God and greater spiritual illumination through hypnotic-like trance culminating often in a whirling dance.

A further advantage enjoyed by present-day students of enthusiasm over their predecessors is the availability of developed analyses of the social functions and psychological mechanisms of enthusiasm: for example, the shaman's role in enabling a community to cope with the unknown or with sickness and death; the techniques by which ecstasy can be induced; or the way in which ecstasy can be manipulated to strengthen and legitimize a leader's authority or to voice the protest of a deprived section of society. It would be unfortunate, however, if such analyses were confined to the field of abnormal psychology or subordinated to theories of social and economic deprivation, as has often been the case. Enthusiasm in itself deserves neither praise nor blame; it can be as integrative for some individuals and communities as it is disintegrative for others. The extreme forms of enthusiasm are just that, extreme forms, and may be as much due to the hostility of those who feel threatened by any expression of enthusiasm as to the enthusiast's own lack of control. We can speak of the cathartic benefit of phenomena such as a Dionysian ritual (and not only for the less articulate) and compare it to the temporarily inhibition-loosening benefits of a festival like the Mardi Gras. Enthusiasm can bring to expression nonrational and unconscious aspects of the personality and thus provide both release and stimulus for the individual and the community if sympathetically handled. In a fully rounded assessment of enthusiasm, psychological and sociological categories should not be permitted to squeeze out the more theological categories of symbol and sacrament.

Christian enthusiasm

A broader evaluation of enthusiasm must also take full account of the extent of enthusiasm within the Christian tradition itself. Not least in importance is the fact that Christianity in its beginnings can properly be described as an enthusiastic sect within first-century Judaism. Jesus himself can hardly be called an ecstatic, but the immediacy of his experience of God as Father and of the power of the Holy Spirit, not to mention his healings and claims to eschatological finality, are clearly attested in Christian sources and have left their mark on subsequent spirituality as well as doctrine. However, so far as enthusiasm is concerned, much more influential has been the record, given in the Acts of the Apostles, of the Christian movement itself, from the first Christian Pentecost onward. According to this account, ecstatic visions (described on two occasions precisely in those terms) played a significant part in directing the course of the earliest Christian expansion. Regular reports are given of miracles, including healings effected by Peter's shadow or handkerchiefs touched by Paul. The Holy Spirit was understood to come upon, enter, and fill the individual Christian with a clear physical impact which included glossolalia. Experiences of inspired utterances were evidently prized, not least as evidence that the long withdrawn spirit of prophecy had been poured out in eschatological fullness. All this is the stuff of enthusiasm throughout the history of Christianity, so it is hardly surprising that the desire to recover or experience again the Pentecostal spirit of the primitive church is one of the most recurrent features of enthusiasm from the radical Reformation onward. Similarly, it should occasion little surprise that the canonical Revelation to John has provided a ready source of inspiration for apocalyptic and millenarian movements within Christianity down through the centuries.

Paul was no stranger to enthusiastic phenomena, including the ascent to heaven and speaking in tongues. But his approach to excessive enthusiasm, particularly in the church at Corinth, is marked by a rare balance of sympathy and firmness. In Paul, the older Jewish recognition of the need to "test the spirits" in cases of claimed inspiration achieves a degree of sophistication seldom matched before or since. To be accepted as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, inspiration (1) must be in accord with the gospel, whose power constituted them as Christians, (2) must be consistent with and expressive of love for fellow Christians, and (3) should aim to provide beneficial service to the community. In short, Paul viewed enthusiasm as an aberrant phenomenon only when it offended the love of neighbor which Jesus so completely embodied.

A broader critique of enthusiasm, less dominated by Western rationalist perspectives, would also take fuller account of the whole phenomenon of Eastern Christian spirituality, including such early writings as the Odes of Solomon and the homilies of Makarios of Egypt, and such early movements as that of the Desert Fathers and Messalianism, the latter the only Christian sect to be explicitly called "enthusiast" by the church fathers. In the medieval period, mysticism as well as millenarianism provide overlapping phenomena, and with the fuller documentation now available, it is possible to achieve a more balanced view than that attained by Knox of both the prophetic impact of Joachim of Fiore (11451202) and the character of the radical Reformation.

Most striking of all, for an author writing in the mid-twentieth century, was Knox's neglect of enthusiastic features of North American Christianity during the nineteenth century, particularly camp meetings, revivalism, and the holiness movement, as well as his neglect of the emergence in Britain of primitive Methodism and "higher life" teaching. Nor should the role of claimed revelations and prophecies in the beginnings of the Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and of the Seventh-day Adventists be ignored.

A prime example of enthusiastic Christianity is the twentieth-century Pentecostal movement, with its special emphasis on a second experience of the Holy Spirit distinct from and subsequent to conversion, on continued bestowal of spiritual gifts, and particularly on speaking in tongues. Within the history of Christian enthusiasm, the importance of Pentecostalism can hardly be overestimated. It is the form of Western Christianity which has been least influenced by the traditions of Western rationalism and most conducive to the emergence of indigenous forms of Christianity in Africa and South America, as illustrated especially by the profusion of independent African churches which are Pentecostal (i.e., enthusiastic) in character. This suggests, once again, that European antipathy to enthusiasm reflects as much the culture patterns particularly of northern Europe as it does the emphasis of enthusiasm on experience and emotion. Furthermore, since the 1950s, Pentecostalism has been increasingly recognized as a valid and vital expression of Christianitythe first formal recognition from within mainstream Western Christianity that the enthusiastic dimension should have a place within a fully rounded Christianity. Finally, while classical Pentecostalism was largely vulnerable to reductive psychological and sociological analyses, the spread of Pentecostal emphases into the older Christian denominations with the charismatic renewal which began in the 1960s has embraced a much broader range of society and undermined many analytic stereotypes.

Concluding Reflections

Enthusiasm should not be dismissed as a primitive throwback or marginal movement, whether in religion in general or in Christianity in particular. It expresses a fundamental aspect, an experiential dimension, of religion. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially, it forms a strand as important as scripture, creed, or priesthoodan experience of the Spirit of God not restricted to mediation by holy book or holy ritual. The history of enthusiasm within Christianity strongly suggests that, unless given adequate expression within Christian worship and spirituality, it will burst forth sooner or later outside organized structures, often in exotic forms. This further suggests that, without checks such as those counseled by Paul, enthusiasm all too soon becomes the reductio ad absurdum of the religion of the Spirit. Here, too, the words of Jonathan Edwards on the similar theme of "religious affections" have continued application. "As there is no true religion where there is nothing else but affection, so there is no true religion where there is no religious affection" ([1746] 1959, p. 120).

See Also

Ecstasy; Frenzy; Glossolalia; Inspiration; Moravians; Oracles; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; Prophecy; Quakers; Quietism; Shakers; Spirit Possession; Wesley Brothers.


Given the ambiguity of the word enthusiasm, the reader should consult Susie I. Tucker's Enthusiasm: A Study in Semantic Change (Cambridge, U.K., 1972), which traces the evolution of the meaning of the word.

For the background in Greek thought, see E. R. Dodds's The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley, 1951), especially chapter 3, and Walter F. Otto's Dionysus: Myth and Cult (Bloomington, Ind., 1973). Alfred Guillaume's 1938 Bampton Lectures, Prophecy and Divination among the Hebrews and Other Semites (London, 1938), treats enthusiasm in Jewish and Muslim tradition. Mircea Eliade's classic history of religions study, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1951; rev. & enl. ed., London, 1964), examines shamanism in Siberia and elsewhere. Eliade's study is complemented by I. M. Lewis's Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism (Harmondsworth, 1971). Still valuable are the psychological observations of William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York, 1902).

For enthusiasm within Christianity, the period of Christian beginnings is covered in P. G. S. Hopwood's The Religious Experience of the Primitive Church (New York, 1937) and in my Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament (Philadelphia, 1975). Simon Tugwell provides a light introduction to the enthusiasm of Eastern Christian spirituality in his Did You Receive the Spirit? (London, 1972). For the medieval period, see the fascinating account of the revolutionary millenarian sects in Norman R. C. Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium, 3d ed. (New York, 1970). For one of several specialist studies of Joachim of Fiore and his influence, see Marjorie E. Reeves's The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages: A Study of Joachimism (Oxford, 1969). Equally fascinating is Herbert Thurston's The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism (London, 1952). George H. Williams's The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia, 1962) corrects the traditional "bad press" given to the most enthusiastic strand of the Reformation.

Any enquiry into the Christian phenomena must begin with Ronald Knox's Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Oxford, 1950), which, despite the deficiencies noted above, remains a magnificent and magisterial study. From the period treated by Knox, two contributions from men of stature who knew enthusiastic movements from the inside are still worth considering: John Wesley's sermon The Nature of Enthusiasm (1750), usually printed as sermon 32 in standard collections of Wesley's forty-four sermons; and Jonathan Edwards's A Treatise concerning Religious Affections (Boston, 1746), which is reproduced in volume 2 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, edited by John E. Smith (New Haven, 1959).

For the modern period, Timothy L. Smith provides a balanced view in his Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 1957). The compendious study by Walter J. Hollenweger, The Pentecostals (London, 1972), is the standard work on the subject. Kilian McDonnell provides a countercritique of the wide range of psychological and sociological analyses of Pentecostal phenomena in Charismatic Renewal and the Churches (New York, 1976).

James D. G. Dunn (1987)


views updated May 18 2018


ENTHUSIASM. From the sixteenth century to the nineteenth, "enthusiasm" was used in describing individuals or groups who claimed to have been the special recipients of divine inspiration. Originally having the neutral or positive meaning of "being possessed or inspired by a god" (from the Greek enthousiasmos ), the term assumed negative connotations after the Reformation. Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (14831546) first used the word "Schwärmer" to describe such radical reformers as Thomas Müntzer (c. 14891525), Andreas Karlstadt (c. 14801541), and the Anabaptists, on account of their elevation of religious experience over the literal words of Scripture.

"Enthusiast" was the English equivalent, used to characterize those thought guilty of feigned inspiration, impostures, sectarianism, and extremes of religious passion. Enthusiasm was also associated with sets of physical symptomsconvulsions, ecstatic dancing, prophesying, speaking in foreign tongues, and the "quaking" from which Quakers received their derisory designation. The expression was used of a variety of sects, including the original Anabaptists, Behmenists, Seekers, Familists, Ranters, Camisards, Quietists, and Quakers. However, the deployment of the term in the context of religious controversy meant that it was often applied indiscriminately. Puritans and Methodists could be referred to as enthusiasts. Luther called the pope an enthusiast, and even the rationalist philosopher René Descartes (15961650) attracted the label. Its more restricted technical sense was well expressed by Samuel Johnson (17091784) who defined it as "a vain confidence of Divine favour or communication."


In the West, Christian belief is grounded in a combination of four authorities: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Whereas Catholics typically elevated the authority of tradition and Protestants that of Scripture, enthusiasts argued that private religious experience was paramount. This emphasis on individual inspiration meant that those designated enthusiasts were often regarded as a threat to the established civil and religious order. Private and heartfelt revelations unchecked by the external authority of Scripture, the universal strictures of common reason, or the institutionalized resources of ecclesiastical tradition arguably did present some challenges to social stability. Responsibility for the ill-fated German Peasants' War (15241526) was laid on the shoulders of religious enthusiasts, not entirely without justification, for Müntzer's apocalyptic visions had played a role in the later stages of the revolt. English critics of enthusiasm also came to regard the Great Rebellion (the English Civil War; 16421651) as an event that exemplified the dangers of unchecked religious zeal.

Most responses to the perceived problem of enthusiasm stressed the need for private religious experience to be moderated by reason or constrained by the authorities of tradition or Scripture. Of these, reason was the major beneficiary of the fear of enthusiastic excess. Champions of reason claimed that a reasonable religion suffered from neither the corruptions to which tradition was susceptible nor the difficulties associated with the interpretation of Scripture. For its promoters, moreover, the religion of reason also promoted religious concord, for in its simplest form, it contained only fundamental doctrines on which all, at least in principle, could agree. The seventeenth-century tendency toward rational religion can be regarded, at least in part, as a reaction against the putative dangers of enthusiasm.


Another response to enthusiasm was the attempt to analyze its natural causes. During the seventeenth century a number of writers set out to investigate the etiology of what was regarded as a religious distemper. In his classic work of psychopathology, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton (15771640) articulated the influential view that enthusiasm was one of two extreme forms of religious melancholy, the other being atheism. Both extremes were caused by various affects in the brain, and both were equally undesirable. Meric Casaubon (15991671), son of the famous classicist Isaac, devoted a complete work to the condition. In his Treatise concerning Enthusiasm (1655) he argued for a distinction between natural and supernatural enthusiasm. The former was caused by an excitation of the soul, spirits, or brain, the latter by divine or diabolical inspiration. Religious errors arose when natural or diabolical inspirations were mistakenly thought to have originated from God. The Cambridge Platonist Henry More (16141687) also focused on the natural causes of enthusiasm in his Enthusiasmus Triumphatus (1662). For More, enthusiasm resulted from a diseased imagination, which in turn had underlying physical causes. While it was essentially a physiological condition, it could be triggered by ascetic and monkish habits. By the same token, in human behaviors and attitudes lay the prospect for the control and cure of enthusiasm through cultivation of the habits of reasonableness, temperance, and humility.

These naturalistic treatments gave enthusiasm a significance that went beyond contemporary confessional polemic. As a generic form of mental pathology, its adverse affects were discovered in other spheres of human endeavor such as science and medicine. Followers of the medical and chemical reforms of Paracelsus (14931541) and Jan Baptiste van Helmont (c. 15791644) were referred to as "philosophical enthusiasts," and theosophists and alchemists were similarly identified. More importantly, the emergence of this category in the early modern period gave a new shape to interpretations of religious history. Schismatic groups such as the early Christian Montanists and Donatists, and the medieval Waldensians and Cathars, were now retrospectively classified as enthusiasts. Enthusiasm was also given a role in the general history of religion. According to Henry More's analysis, enthusiasm accounted for defections from the pure, simple, and rational religion that he and many others believed had been universally practiced in the first age of the world. Enthusiasm, in short, was said to account for the varieties of heresy and heathenism in the world and thus took on the status of a theory of religious pluralism.

Physiological accounts of enthusiasm and the application of the category to religious history are indicative of an important shift in Western understandings of the basis of religious belief. The quest for the natural causes of the diversity of religious beliefs, incipient in the treatments of Burton, Casaubon, and More, heralds the beginning of Enlightenment attempts to provide religious beliefs with natural, rather than supernatural, explanations. To a degree, these treatments also lessened the moral stigma associated with religious heterodoxy. Enthusiasm and its critics played a significant role in the secularization of European thought and culture.

See also Anabaptism ; Cambridge Platonists ; Descartes, René ; Helmont, Jan Baptiste van ; Johnson, Samuel ; Luther, Martin ; More, Henry ; Paracelsus ; Peasants' War, German ; Quakers .


Primary Sources

Casaubon, Meric. A Treatise Concerning Enthusiasm, as It Is an Effect of Nature: But Is Mistaken by Many for Divine Inspiration, or Diabolical Possession. London, 1655.

More, Henry. Enthusiasmus Triumphatus, or a Brief Discourse of the Nature, Causes, Kinds, and Cure of Enthusiasm. London, 1662.

Secondary Sources

Heyd, Michael. "Be Sober and Reasonable": The Critique of Enthusiasm in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries. Leiden, 1995. Argues that reactions against enthusiasm provide important background to the Enlightenment.

Knox, Ronald. Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Oxford, 1950. The classic study of early modern enthusiasm, although Knox's own sympathies are quite apparent.

Tucker, Susie I. Enthusiasm: A Study in Semantic Change. Cambridge, U.K., 1972. Traces changing meanings of "enthusiasm."

Peter Harrison


views updated May 23 2018

en·thu·si·asm / enˈ[unvoicedth]oōzēˌazəm/ • n. intense and eager enjoyment, interest, or approval. ∎  a thing that arouses such feelings: the three enthusiasms of his life were politics, religion, and books.


views updated May 23 2018

enthusiasm †prophetic or poetic frenzy; vain confidence in divine inspiration, misguided religious emotion XVII; rapturous or passionate eagerness XVIII. — F. enthousiasme or late L. enthūsiasmus — Gr. enthousiasmós, f. enthousiázein be inspired or possessed by the god, f. énthous, éntheos inspired, possessed, f. en IN + theós god.
So enthusiast XVII. — F. or ecclL. enthusiastic XVII. — Gr. Hence enthuse vb. XIX.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Enthusiasm. A religious attitude of extreme commitment, frequently leading to acts and utterances which (in the eyes of those outsiders who regard themselves as more sober) seem extraordinary. Holy fools often exhibit those characteristics which evoke the word.