Spiritual Senses in the Evangelical Conversion Narrative: From Bunyan to Wesley

As I dig deeper into the history and structures of the Evangelical conversion narrative, I have been continually struck by how, as one of my professors constantly reminds me: “genre is a powerful thing. Especially in the case of the conversion narrative, these stories come to inform how men and women relate to their faith, form their identity, and relate that identity to a broader religious community.  As Somers and Gibson have argued, such narrative structures are powerful in showing that “stories guide action; that people construct identities (however multiple and changing) by locating themselves or being located within a repertoire of emplotted stories; that ‘experience’ is constituted through narratives” (qtd. in Brown 70). Furthermore, these narratives reach out and arrest the reader (then and now) by using a profoundly embodied sense of spiritual perception to represent their experience with faith and the divine.  In these they simultaneously anticipate, appropriate, and interrogate the empirical philosophy of the Enlightenment (especially John Locke) that bases human understanding on sense perception.

In thus examining religious experience as primarily affective and embodied, we confirm William James’ assertion in The Varieties of Religious Experience that to understand religion in its own terms we need to turn to emotion and experience:

If religion is to mean anything definite for us, it seems to me that we ought to take it as meaning this added dimension of emotion, this enthusiastic temper of espousal, in regions where morality strictly so called can at best but bow its head and acquiesce. It ought to mean nothing short of this new reach of freedom for us, with the struggle over, the keynote of the universe sounding in our ears, and everlasting possession spread before our eyes (46-47).

And indeed most, if not all, of James’ assessment of religious experience is dedicated to judging emotional perception and the role this plays in the development of a religious subjectivity.  What James hypothesized at the beginning of the twentieth century and what has been confirmed by modern neuroscience is that emotion plays a far greater role in perception, understanding, reason, and even subjectivity than has hitherto been recognized.1

John Bunyan’s conversion narrative is a prime example of how these different philosophical and theological ideas play themselves out in narrative.  Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners is widely considered to be the forerunner to the evangelical conversion narrative of the eighteenth century.  Though writers before Bunyan (most notably the Catholic mystics) had written about their conversion experiences, Bunyan elevates the genre to an entirely new level, integrating a complex internal subjectivity and narrative pattern that anticipate the novel form.  I have written about the conventions of conversion narratives elsewhere and there is an excellent and growing literature on the subject (see especially D. Bruce Hindmarsh, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative), but what really sets Bunyan’s narrative apart is the way it relies on sense perception to represent spiritual experience.

The key point here is that in Grace Abounding Bunyan not only comes to know God or assent to the tenets of faith, but see, hear, and feel God’s presence.  He says that before conversion he was not, “sensible of the danger and evil of sin” (emphasis mine), indicating that religious experience is predicated on sense and that a new type of spiritual sense is granted upon conversion.  However as Bunyan continues to struggle with God he begins to see his sins set before him:

Yet I saw my sin most barbarous, and a filthy crime, and could not but conclude, and that with great shame and astonishment, that I had horribly abused the holy Son of God. Wherefore I felt my soul greatly to love and pity him, and my bowels to yearn towards him; for I saw he was still my Friend, and did reward me good for evil; yea, the love and affection that then did burn within to my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ did work, at this time, such a strong and hot desire of revengement upon myself for the abuse I had done unto him, that, to speak as I then thought, had I had a thousand gallons of blood within my veins, I could freely then have spilt it all at the command and feet of this my Lord and Saviour.

Here we see the evangelical convention of representing an ultimately indescribable spiritual experience as a visual event.  Bunyan does not of course mean that he literally saw his sins set before him or that Jesus was his friends, but it is the best language he can come up with to describe the experience.

Even more important for Bunyan is the sense of hearing – in fact Bunyan emphasizes, “faith comes by hearing,” which is one of the reasons he insists on preaching publicly.  Likewise Bunyan’s greatest temptation and most transcendent spiritual experience revolve around hearing.  Much of his narrative revolves around the words that he constantly hears in his head encouraging him to “sell Christ,” which he is eventually convinced that he does.  He then vacillates between despair and hope as he wrestles with whether he has committed the “unforgivable sin” of blaspheming the Holy Spirit.  Ultimately it is through hearing words of comfort from God that he is convinced that he has been saved.  The passage bears quoting at length:

Once as I was walking to and fro in a good man’s shop, bemoaning of myself in my sad and doleful state, afflicting myself with self-abhorrence for this wicked and ungodly thought; lamenting, also, this hard hap of mine, for that I should commit so great a sin, greatly fearing I should not be pardoned… suddenly there was, as if there had rushed in at the Window, the Noise of wind upon me, but very pleasant, and as if I had heard a voice speaking, Didst ever refuse to be justified by the Blood of Christ? And, withal my whole life of profession past was, in a moment, opened to me, wherein I was made to see that designedly I had not; so my heart answered groaningly, No. Then fell, with power, Heb. 12.25. that Word of God upon me, See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. This made a strange seizure upon my spirit; it brought light with it, and commanded a silence in my heart of all those tumultuous thoughts that before did use, like masterless Hell-hounds, to roar and bellow, and make a hideous noise within me. It showed me, also, that Jesus Christ had yet a word of Grace and Mercy for me, that he had not, as I had feared, quite forsaken and cast off my Soul…. But as to my determining about this strange dispensation, what it was I know not; or from whence it came I know not. I have not yet, in twenty years’ time, been able to make a judgment of it; I thought then what here I should be loth to speak. But verily, that sudden rushing wind was as if an Angel had come upon me; but both it and the Salutation I will leave until the Day of Judgment; only this I say, it commanded a great calm in my Soul; it persuaded me there might be hope; it showed me, as I thought, what the sin unpardonable was, and that my Soul had yet the blessed privilege to flee to Jesus Christ for Mercy.

This language of “speaking” to the heart, “hearing” the Lord’s voice or a passage of Scripture, and entering into a sort of dialogue with God became standard in later narratives as converts sought to explain the emotional apotheosis of coming to faith.  Like Bunyan they too experienced something they cannot easily describe, so they turn to the language of sense experience to explain it.  There are many more examples like this in Grace Abounding, but the key point here is that Bunyan comes to understand faith primarily through the evidence of “spiritual” sense.

In this Bunyan anticipates the empirical philosophy of John Locke, who emphasized that the mind was a blank slate, devoid of innate ideas and that all ideas come from sensation and reflection:

These simple ideas, the materials of our knowledge, are suggested and furnished to the mind only by those ways above mentioned, viz. sensation and reflection.  When the understanding is once stored with these simple ideas, it has the power to repeat, compare, and unite them, even to an almost infinite variety, and so can make at pleasure new complex ideas.  But it is not in the Power of the most exalted wit, or enlarged Understanding to invent or frame one new simple Idea in the mind, not taken in by the ways before mentioned: nor can any force of the understanding destroy those that are there. (Chapter II, Section 2)

“it is not possible for any man to imagine any other qualities in bodies, howsoever constituted, whereby they can be taken notice of, besides sounds, tastes, smells, visible and tangible qualities” (Chapter II, Section 3).

Thus, according to Locke, all that we know can ultimately be traced back to sense experience.  That said, though Locke was himself a Christian, he did not believe that the metaphysical world could be perceived by sense – only deduced from the rational ordering of the universe.  Nevertheless, eighteenth religious leaders from Jonathan Edwards to John Wesley most certainly read Locke and used his general principle of sensible experience to develop a theory of religious sensibility and experience.

For Methodist founder John Wesley, the foundation of religious experience lay not with outward moral action but with the experiential quality of justification by faith.  Just as his heart was famously “strangely warmed” at Aldersgate in 1738 he believed that people could know and feel that their sins were forgiven.  Contrary to later accusations, this experiential knowledge could not be obtained through good or moral works; instead these works were the result of a true and abiding faith in Christ.  Likewise Jonathan Edwards, on the other side of the Atlantic, was faced with the problem of how to determine whether an individual’s emotional expressions of faith were genuine.  Like Wesley he believed that a felt knowledge of justification to God was necessary and presided over some of the most notable outbreaks of religious fervor during the First Great Awakening.  In confronting this question both men drew on their religious heritage, but also modern empirical philosophy to develop theories of religious experience that relied on the evidence of perception and the Biblical “fruits of the Spirit.”

Edwards, for instance, in his Religious Affections lays out twelve signs that a religious affection is gracious, or of God.  What is most interesting for our purposes is that, clearly influenced by Locke, Edwards ties the affections to a sort of spiritual perception that is linked with heart emotion:

God has endued the soul with two faculties: one is that by which it is capable of perception and speculation, or by which it discerns, and views, and judges of things; which is called the understanding. The other faculty is that by which the soul does not merely perceive and view things, but is some way inclined with respect to the things it views or considers; either is inclined to them, or is disinclined and averse from them; or is the faculty by which the soul does not behold things, as an indifferent unaffected spectator, but either as liking or disliking, pleased or displeased, approving or rejecting. This faculty is called by various names; it is sometimes called the inclination: and, as it has respect to the actions that are determined and governed by it, is called the will: and the mind, with regard to the exercises of this faculty, is often called the heart (96).

Here Edwards delineates between type of perception located in the mind and understanding and a sort of spiritual perception that is located in the heart and can be inclined or disinclined to the things of religion.  He then goes on to detail how these spiritual perceptions act on the body, writing that, “All affections whatsoever, have in some respect or degree, an effect on the body…. So subject is the body to the mind, and so much do its fluids… attend the motions and exercises of the mind, that there cannot be so much as an intense thought, without an effect upon them” (131-132).  For Edwards these emotions and their bodily effects were still subject to the mind and true religious affections were still dependent upon the understanding, but what he is seeking to do here is develop a theory of the affections that makes at least a limited space for proper religious emotion.2

John Wesley Preaching to a Crowd

Likewise John Wesley faced accusations of enthusiasm throughout his life and ministry and often had more difficulty distinguishing between true religion and enthusiastic excess.  Early Methodism could be a raucous affair with thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of people turning out in the open air to hear famous preachers like the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield.  Extravagant expressions of religious emotion were often the norm at such events with people breaking down into tears, crying out and even suffering catatonic convulsions.  In his published Journal, Wesley expresses reservations about such experiences but in general judged many to be genuine.3  Likewise Wesley’s eagerness to accept the genuineness of emotional experience led to controversy in 1763 when two of his preachers, Thomas Maxfield and George Bell, proclaimed themselves spiritually perfect and led a portion of one of Wesley’s London congregations into antinomianism.  Wesley was slow to react, wanting to test whether Maxfield and Bell’s experience was genuine, but in the end his failure to act quickly caused a major rift within London Methodism4 (Heitzenrater 2729).

However this may be, in general Wesley thought that the true test of every religious emotion was how the convert manifested the fruits of the Spirit in everyday life.  Though a person could not be saved through works; love, joy, and peace with one’s neighbor were the true signs of conversion.  It was because of this belief that Wesley solicited personal experience accounts from his vast network of correspondents, many of whom were women.  These accounts not only represented evidence that his ministry was effective, but that the religious emotions of conversion could be genuine and carry over into everyday life, powerfully molding a sense of religious agency.

But I want to argue even further – suggesting that from Bunyan to Edwards to Wesley each was developing theory of religious experience based on spiritual senses. As Edwards wrote in defining the spiritual senses, “the work of the Spirit of God in regeneration is often in Scripture compared to the giving a new sense, giving eyes to see, and ears to hear, unstopping the ears of the deaf, and opening the eyes of them that were born blind, and turning from darkness unto light” (206).  Likewise Wesley, in his Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, argues that faith cannot be based on natural sense, but spiritual:

And seeing our ideas are not innate, but must all originally come from our senses, it is certainly necessary that you have senses capable of discerning objects of this kind: not those only which are called natural senses, which in this respect profit nothing, as being altogether incapable of discerning objects of a spiritual kind; but spiritual senses, exercised to discern spiritual good and evil (V:12).

Here Wesley simultaneously draws on Locke and moves further than him, arguing for spiritual perception of spiritual things to mirror natural perception of natural things.

It is this spiritual sense that is granted upon conversion and allows the believer to experience God in a way that is incomprehensible and indescribable to the non-believer.  This, for Wesley, is the true definition of faith:

Faith is that divine evidence whereby the spiritual man discerneth God, and the things of God. It is with regard to the spiritual world, what sense is with regard to the natural. It is the spiritual sensation of every soul that is born of God… [it] is the eye of the new-born soul… It is the ear of the soul, whereby a sinner ” hears the voice of the Son of God, and lives…It is… the palate of the soul; for hereby a believer ” tastes the good word, and the powers of the world to come ;” and “hereby he both tastes and sees that God is gracious,”yea,” and merciful to him a sinner.”  It is the feeling of the soul, whereby a believer perceives, through the “power of the Highest overshadowing him,” both the existence and the presence of Him in whom ” he lives, moves, and has his being;” and indeed the whole invisible world, the entire system of things eternal. And hereby, in particular, he feels ” the love of God shed abroad in his heart (V:6).

Thus faith is intimately connected to sense and even in the case of spiritual sense Wesley describes it primarily in terms of natural sense and emotion as a means to validating experience.  For this reason Methodist conversion narratives and religious experience accounts are full of the language of sensory perception and emotion – though the experience of faith is ultimately ineffable these men, and especially women, use the language of sensibility to describe faith.

Take, as just one representative example, the language of Hester Ann Rogers as she struggles to describe her experience with God:

While thus lost in communion with my Saviour, he spake those words to my heart, – “All that I have is thine! I am Jesus, in whom dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily – I am thine! My Spirit is thine!  My Father is thine!  They love thee, as I love thee – the whole Deity is thine!  All God is, and all he has, is thine!  He even now overshadows thee!  He now covers thee with a cloud of his presence” (102).

Here sensual perception (in this case hearing) is combined with a deeply spiritual revelation of union and communion with God that ends with Rogers describing the intensity of the experience in terms of life and death, writing “I believe, indeed, if this had continued as I felt it before, but for one hour, mortality must have been dissolved, and the soul dislodged from its tenement of clay” (102).

This type of language, though often less beautifully expressed, became the stock in trade of the evangelical conversion narrative – shaping the identities and subjectivities of an entire generation of believers.  It is at the same time heavily indebted to the Enlightenment and profoundly opposed to it – in other words it is both enlightened and enthusiastic – a complex fusion of the two that effectively works to break down a binary opposition.  It is in tracing these trends from Bunyan to Locke to Wesley and his movement that we can begin to see that expressions of religious “enthusiasm” persisted throughout the eighteenth century but they did not persist in a vacuum – they subtly shaped and were shaped by a culture that was still working out what it meant to be a being in the world.


1. See Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999: “Moreover, the presumed opposition between emotion and reason is no longer accepted without question.  For example, work from my laboratory has shown that emotion is integral to the processes of reasoning and decision making, for worse and for better” (40-41).

2. The role of the “religious affections” was a particularly controversial topic in New England at the time.  Following the revival at Edward’s Northampton Church in 1734-1735, the religious establishment (especially in Boston) began to increasingly question what they saw as the excesses of religious emotion (or “enthusiasm” that characterized the revival experience.  Edward’s wrote his famous Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in large part to combat the misconceptions of the revival and defend the role of proper religious affections in conversion.  His Treatise on the Religious Affections expand this commentary and more clearly delineates how to distinguish genuine from false affections.  For more on this see George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life and the Yale University Press edition of Religious Affections edited by John E. Smith.

3. See The Journal of John Wesley where he writes, “The danger was to regard extraordinary circumstances too much, such as outcries, convulsions, visions, trances; as if these were essential to the inward work, so that it could not go on without them. Perhaps the danger is, to regard them too little; to condemn them altogether; to imagine they had nothing of God in them, and were a hindrance to his work. Whereas the truth is 1) God suddenly and strongly convinced many that they were lost sinners; the natural consequence whereof were sudden outcries and strong bodily convulsions; 2) to strengthen and encourage them that believed, and to make His work more apparent, He favored several of them with divine dreams, others with trances and visions; 3) in some of these instances, after a time, nature mixed with grace; 4) Satan likewise mimicked this work of God in order to discredit the whole work; and yet it is not wise to give up this part any more than to give up the whole. At first, it was, doubtless, wholly from God. It is partly so at this day; and He will enable us to discern how far, in every case, the work is pure and where it mixes or degenerates.”

The truth is that this did not help Wesley’s reputation as an enthusiast and rabble rouser.  As Hempton writes, “Early Methodists were looked upon as disturbers of the world, the new Levellers, and were thus victims of surviving memories of the English Civil War when antecedent forms of popular religious enthusiasm led, or so it was thought, to the collapse of political, religious, and social stability” (87).  Thus it was no surprise that many early Methodist meetings were broken up by riots or press gangs.

4. For more on the Maxfield and Bell controversy see Kenneth Newport, “George Bell: Prophet and Enthusiast,” Methodist History 35.2 (1997), 95-105.  This was one of several cases where Charles Wesley’s instincts towards more tradition and stability in the Methodist movement should probably have been followed sooner.  He warned John about Maxfield and Bell early on but John was slow to act, preferring to believe their experience genuine.

Works Cited

Brown, Callum G. The Death of Christian Britain. London: Routledge, 2009.

Bunyan, John. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888.

Edwards, Jonathan. Religious Affections. Ed. John E. Smith. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1959.

Heitzenrater, Richard P. Wesley and the People Called Methodists. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995. Kindle Edition.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1985.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London: Tegg & Son, 1836.

Rogers, Hester Ann. An Account of the Experience of Hester Ann Rogers. New York: Carlton & Porter, 1857.

Somers, Margaret R. and Gloria D. Gibson. “Reclaiming the Epistemological ‘Other’: Narrative and the Social Construction of Identity.” Social Theory and the Politics of Identity. Ed. Craig Calhoun. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1994. 37-99.

Wesley, John. “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.” The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 5. New York: Emory and Waugh, 1831.

One response to “Spiritual Senses in the Evangelical Conversion Narrative: From Bunyan to Wesley

  1. Pingback: Conceptualizing an 18th Century Religious Public Sphere | 18th Century Religion, Literature, and Culture

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