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Changing Meanings of "Enthusiasm"

Consider the meaning of the word “enthusiasm.” “Enthusiasm” first appeared in English in 1603 with the meaning “possession by a god.” The source of the word is the Greek enthousiasmos, which ultimately comes from the adjective entheos, “having the god within” (formed from en, “in, within,” and theos, “god”)....

In the years since enthusiasm entered English, its meaning has broadened. It moved first from “possession by a god” to mean “rapturous inspiration like that caused by a god.” Then it came to mean “an overly confident or delusory belief that one is inspired by God,” and then to mean “ill-regulated religious fervor, religious extremism.” 1

Only eventually did the word move to the familiar sense of “craze, excitement, a strong liking for something.” Today, you can have an enthusiasm for almost anything from auto racing to gourmet food without religion or God entering into it at all.

In England in the 1700s, the word still implied “ill-regulated religious fervor, religious extremism.” When John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was carrying out his ministry, one of the upper-class women who encouraged his work was Lady Selina Shirley, the Countess of Huntington. She was a woman of strong Christian faith, but when she died in 1791, they put the following inscription on her tomb: “She was a Godly, righteous, and sober Lady, bounteous in good works and Christian affections, a firm believer in the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and devoid of the taint of enthusiasm.”[1]

So, was Lady Shirley enthusiastic about her faith? Well, maybe it depends on how you are defining the word....

To illustrate this, consider a few lines from an obituary that appeared in The New York Times a few years ago. The deceased was Howard Gotlieb, who was an archivist for Boston University: “Howard B. Gotlieb, a Boston University archivist who cajoled, charmed, wheedled and — most effectively, he said — groveled to snare the papers of notables like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bette Davis, not to mention Fred Astaire’s dancing shoes, died Thursday at a Boston hospital. He was 79.” [2]

Further on in the obituary, it says Gotlieb had an “exuberant public personality,” so maybe the man was emotional about his work. But even without knowing that, I can tell he was enthusiastic about it. You don’t cajole, charm, wheedle and grovel for things you don’t care deeply about.

But more to the point, think about someone you know who is not an emotional person but who is a vital part of the church. There’s someone like that in every congregation, someone who is so calm and matter-of-fact that you cannot conceive of that person waving his or her arms in ecstasy. But some of those people are among the first to step forward when the church needs something done, and to do the task thoroughly and well. People don’t put out that kind of effort and energy for things they don’t care deeply about. The may not be emotional, but they are enthusiastic about their faith.

1. Quoted in The Twentieth Century Pulpit, Vol 2, James W. Cox, ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981), 90.

2. Douglas Martin, “Howard Gotlieb, an Archivist with Persistence, Dies at 79,” The New York Times, December 5, 2005, A23.

- From an anonymous sermon for 12/5/10, from the ProclaimSermons.com website, "Feeling and Thinking Advent"