Conceptualizing an 18th Century Religious Public Sphere

Since the publication of Jurgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Spherethe concept of the public sphere as a freestanding institution of bourgeois society has been progressively modified, including by Habermas himself.  What has emerged since that time is the conception of multiple public spheres that often overlapped and sometimes conflicted.  Of particular interest to me is the way that a religious public sphere emerged and matured over the course of the long eighteenth century.  This was something that first erupted during the tumultuous years of the English Civil War when the disestablishment of the Church of England led to a proliferation of religious sects that splintered the population.  Even after the Restoration and the reestablishment of the Church, though, the genie was out of the bottle.  After attempts to proscribe dissent in the Clarendon Code and the Test and Corporation Acts largely failed, Parliament passed the Toleration Act in 1689 which, while continuing to bar dissenters from the universities and government, lifted the most burdensome restrictions.

It was within this religious climate that the Evangelical Revival arose in England for, though Methodism itself began as a movement within the Church of England, it quickly located itself within the developing religious public sphere. The fact that there was so much anti-Methodist literature from writers ranging from Smollett to Fielding to people like the anonymous pamphleteer who wrote The Story of the Methodist-lady; or, The Injur’d Husband’s Revenge: A True History indicates the extent to which religious debates were very much a part of the public consciousness. As Fielding’s character Parson Adams says in Joseph Andrews men like Wesley and Whitefield, “set up the detestable Doctrine of Faith against good Works… for surely, that Doctrine was coined in Hell, and one would think none but the Devil himself could have the Confidence to preach it” (70). As strange as it may seem to a post-modern audience, such questions of religious doctrine were very much part of the public conversation in the eighteenth century.

On the other end of the spectrum spiritual experience diaries and narratives proliferated as people like John Wesley and George Whitefield cannily utilized print as a means of spreading their message.  Both men’s journals were best sellers and indeed religious literature as a whole dominated the literary marketplace. Of course, this spiritual experience genre no doubt existed well before the eighteenth century.  Catholic mystics like St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila on the continent and Julian of Norwich in England recorded powerful, intimate, and deeply symbolic mystical experiences that continue to influence generations of readers.  However their writings, beautiful though they may be, are largely bound up in the representational symbolism of the established church.  They are internal spiritual experiences first and though are presented largely as models for spiritual devotion.  In this sense these religious experience accounts largely mirror Habermas’ category of the “representational” public sphere.  The authority of the church largely mediated how spirituality was transmitted and experienced by the public at large and as a result relatively few members of the general population ever got to read about these great saints.

The evangelical conversion narrative, however, is a different story and, as I have argued elsewhere, it largely follows the general eighteenth century trend towards the development of a complex internal subjectivity that interacts in innovative ways with the developing public sphere.  Starting roughly with Bunyan’s Grace Abounding, the evangelical conversion narrative in fact acted like a spiritual solvent – eroding the artificial divide between private and public. Unlike earlier spiritual experience account the evangelical conversion narrative is clearly oriented towards a broader audience embodied in a specific religious community.  Individuals like John Bunyan, John Wesley, and Hester Ann Rogers were not and never claimed to be part of the spiritual elite, instead they represent their experience as a constant struggle.  For the tinker John Bunyan there is nothing of the heavily symbolic spiritual rapture of St. John of the Cross, only honest struggles with sin, doubt, and oppressive local authorities.  Just as Addison and Steele attempted the reform and democratize manners in the emerging bourgeois public sphere so Bunyan brought legitimate spiritual experience and struggle to a much wider swathe of the British population – a population that was still largely dependent on the representational forms of worship and not the subjective experience of religious faith.

Furthermore, these authors utilized the burgeoning print culture to transmit their experience to a much wider, and much more socially variegated, audience.  Drawing upon the “private” diary and letter form, spiritual experience authors oriented their texts towards a specific audience – probing the developing space that was opening up in print.  As Habermas writes, “From the beginning, the psychological interest increased in the dual relation to both one’s self and the other: self observation entered a union partly curious, partly sympathetic with the emotional stirrings of the other I” (49).  By thus appropriating these forms in print, early eighteenth century conversion narrative writers (like novelists) began to develop a complex internal subjectivity that was both rooted in internal experience but oriented towards a public space.  People like John Wesley published their spiritual experiences not only or primarily for their own sakes, but in order to elicit mimetic spiritual experiences in rapidly expanding reading public.

As the century progresses, however, this divide is almost entirely erased (especially for women) as individuals begin to see religious experience, and especially writing about religious experience, as a means to entering into a developing public conversation about the role of religion in British life.  John Wesley, for example, published his Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion as an explicit response to the early criticisms of Methodism.  Even more interesting, however, is how the women of the early evangelical revival used the space they found within religious experience to express themselves publicly.  I have written about this at length elsewhere, but in general the women of early Methodism used their private, internal experience as a way to disrupt the categories of public and private themselves.  Religious experience in this sense gave them the language to enter a public space and explode any distinction between inner emotion and outer action.  Thus it was not so much that evangelical religion appealed to women because it was inherently more suited to private and domestic consumption, but because it allowed for participation in a conversation beyond those bounds.

In this sense a new sort of religious “public sphere” emerges during the eighteenth century within which gender and the role of gender within religion become part and parcel of more abstract discussions about doctrine and theology.  Thus I would argue that the debates over doctrines like justification by faith or religious “enthusiasm” were in reality expressions of deeper seeded concerns over the role of marginalized members of society – women, the poor – in organized religion.  Over the course of the nineteenth century the roles of these women were gradually circumscribed as religious movements like Methodism became centralized institutions.  Once again women were used as representational religious symbols – the “angel in the house” of domestic piety.  This is not to say that women did not find ways to counteract this narrative even well into the nineteenth century, it is just that such excursions into the religious public sphere were looked upon with far more suspicion.


Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

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