Inspiration and Institution

16-18 July 2019, Durham University

The theme of the 58th EHS Summer Conference will be Inspiration and Institution in Christian History. As ever, the intention is to attract a broad spectrum of papers from across the history of Christianity.

Since the apostolic age, the history of Christianity and Christian churches has seen a constant dialectic between inspiration and institution: how the ungoverned spontaneity of Spirit-led religion negotiates its way through laws, structures and communities. If institutional frameworks are absent or insufficient, new, creative and dynamic expressions of Christianity can disappear or collapse into disorder almost as quickly as they have flared up. If those frameworks are excessively rigid or punitive, they can often quench the spirit of any new movements. Without dynamic movements of this kind, even well-functioning church institutions struggle to avoid sclerosis. And once institutionalised, inspirational movements can change their nature remarkably quickly, whether by calcifying or by settling down from sectarian unruliness into denominational respectability.

But when inspiration and institution work well together, and a new movement is able to find an institutional expression which channels and disciplines but does not block it, the result can be powerful and enduring. Episcopacy itself was developed in the first and second century as a means of controlling inspirational movements, which threatened to splinter. The many monastic and eremitic movements of the late antique period were decisively shaped by Benedict’s systematisation. Likewise, there were many movements for apostolic poverty in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but it was the Franciscans who found the structures that gave them durability. There were many spiritualist movements in mid-seventeenth century England, but it was the Quakers who managed to endure. Most of the apocalyptic movements of the nineteenth-century United States flamed out and disappeared: the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have both endured and prospered, and have done so with institutional expressions which could hardly be more different from one another.

This theme invites explorations of the interplay between inspirational movements and institutional structures throughout Christianity’s history. Delegates are encouraged to submit proposals for twenty-minute papers exploring:

• How and how effectively new, prophetic or renewalist movements have sought, negotiated or resisted institutional expression

• How established church institutions have attempted to encourage, co-opt, control or suppress novel movements

• How institutionalisation has affected new movements over generations

• How the tendency of inspirational movements to overturn hierarchies of gender, age and social status has responded to institutionalisation

• Why new movements are sometimes able to find enduring institutional form, and sometimes not

• Different forms of ‘institutionalisation’: from legal and financial structures, through communications

networks, through norms of piety, to ritual and sacramental forms and practices

• How Christian thinkers and communities have understood the interplay between institution and inspiration at various stages of history

• How these dynamics have interacted with secular or external forces such as legal structures, social crises or competition with other religious groups

• The sociological dynamics of ‘church’, ‘sect’ and ‘denomination’, and the value of models developed by scholars such as Ernst Troeltsch or Bryan Wilson for understanding the institution inspiration dynamic.

NB: The theme does not extend to papers which focus exclusively either on inspiration or on institution.

EHS offers both FULL COST and half bursaries for postgraduate students attending the conference. Please use the bursary form below.

If you require early acceptance for funding purposes or other reasons, please submit your abstract by 31 December. The final deadline for proposals 31 March. Please use the form below to submit your proposal.

Registration for the Summer Conference is now open. Please use the booking form below.

For more details about the conference, please download the conference information sheet below.

For details as they become available, please check our website: For further enquiries, email