For the old lights, morality and religious purity were outworking of a localized religious establishment. The presence of an established parish served as a guarantee of security for those who lived within it’s bounds.
And then things changed. The world became smaller, having “choices” became commonplace, and the secure boundaries of the parish began to weaken. What took place from the 1740’s onward was a rewriting of the emotional connection people had towards religion, morality, and personal freedom. The thesis of the book is that those settled pastors who embraced the revival brought by itinerants successfully charted a course for their parishioners during a time of incredible social upheaval. For Timothy D. Hall, it was the shift away from external moral boundaries and toward rigorous moral and ethical inward pressures which both gave religion a “booster” against a changing world and prevented “religious choice” from descending into anarchy. The use of print and burgeoning trade routes gave these loose connections a sense of being part of a grand story spanning the British Empire, the breadth of which made the parish boundaries seem small indeed.
It is an interesting thesis and was put together well. As such, Hall offers great insight for the state of the wider Church today. Itinerancy helped usher in the era of the “voluntary association 1.” The rapidly expanding world of choice and communication collapsed a stable social order in which people resolutely accepted their “God ordained place.” People began to feel deeper connections with the wider stories of people they’d never met, rather than the religious institutions among which they lived every day.
The parallels are striking. Voluntary association has expanded beyond choosing which church one attends 2. It now includes if one attends. The stable social order for which many of our local churches are formed has similarly collapsed. People do not automatically look for a church when they move into a neighborhood, much less a local one. The boundaries of church fellowship, which have contracted into an even greater local focus than the parish boundaries of old, are seen as incredibly restrictive. People are finding more meaning in the wider stories of sports, youth activities, and even town celebrations.
For local churches, the lessons of history are worth pondering. Defending the parish line in the face of a rapidly expanding and changing world could very well be the path of decay and death. Rather than complaining that “God’s social order 3” is falling into anarchy, it’s time for churches to become part of the wider stories in which people seem to find meaning. Instead of using the great communications tools of this age to pass on complaints, and even outright lies, in the name of “traditional religion,” it would be well if we took our cue from the best of the itinerants – who saw themselves as partners with the old world, helping to usher in a new birth of revealed religion.