Disciplining the Self in Methodist Women’s Writing

One evening I was much drawn out in prayer, and received a blessed visit from my Lord, and Master!  My soul seemed to be filled with the love of God.  Another night I walked out to praise the Lord.  The night was beautiful and clear; the starts seemed as so many seraphs, shining forth their Maker’s praise, and I saw a beauty in the whole creation.  The very air seemed to breathe sweetness, and my soul glowed with love divine!  As I was looking up to heaven, praising my great Creator, I felt that my sins were forgiven.  At this my soul was wonderfully transported.

The Experience of Rachel Bruff


First published in theArminian Magazine in 1787, it is easy to become captivated by the raw spirituality and genuine piety on display in Rachel Bruff’s conversion narrative.  Following the conventions of the evangelical conversion narrative form, Bruff lays out what her life was like before her involvement with the Methodists and the goes on the express the profound change that her experiences with God wrought in her sense of self and orientation toward the world.  I have written elsewhere about how these spiritual experience came to define a new sense of subjectivity for evangelical women, how they incorporated the conventions of the conversion narrative to suit their spiritual goals, and how these narratives entered and interacted with a vibrant evangelical public sphere.  Here, though, I want to engage a different set of questions.  Specifically I want to look past the blinding white hot piety of these experiences and ask how these seemingly mystical encounters with the divine were elicited.  Upon first glance it may seem as if they spring out of nowhere – but a careful study of the language of these texts reveals that this is simply not the case.  Instead, these women engaged in systematic spiritual disciplines, what Wesley termed “means of grace,” that helped elicit spiritual experience.  In Rachel Bruff’s case, she is engaged in intentional prayer and meditation when she has her experience with the Divine.  Instead of an inner act of will eliciting spirituality – external attitude influences internal orientation.

Answering these questions does more than help us understand the nature of women’s spiritual experience, however; it also helps us understand how the physical and embodied actions of these women came to shape their subjectivities and in turn their writing.  In other words, the question becomes: if women’s inner spiritual experience ends up working outward into the world, what is the role of their writing?  Does the activity of writing itself act as a form of spiritual discipline that helps elicit spiritual experience?  Or is their writing a result of spiritual experience?  I will argue that the answer to these questions is that writing in fact operates in both ways.  In fact, analysis of the conversion narratives in the Arminian Magazine reveals that women’s writing participates in a sort of feedback loop of experience, print, orality, and publicity that is both caused by and causes the development of the spiritual subject.  In other words, the subjectivity altering spiritual experience is both prior to and dependent upon action – action that is formed by the world of print and the public sphere.

The Means of Grace and Spiritual Experience

At least part of the common misapprehension about the separation between outward act and inner experience can be traced to modern assumptions about the nature of spiritual experience that have their very roots in the evangelical revival.  Dissatisfied with what they saw as the dead formality of the established churches, revivalists like John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards placed an emphasis on directly apprehended spiritual experience and justification by faith alone as opposed to salvation through adherence to a set of prescribed actions.  In this they not only broke from the establishment, but also incorporated Enlightenment notions of the autonomous individual subject into a theory of personal salvation.  Though (as I will explore later) none of these men rejected the sacraments and forms of worship as important elements of religion, they nevertheless emphasized belief and personal salvation (being “born again”) as the necessary components of saving faith.  This led in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to belief, narrowly defined as assent to a set of principles, becoming regarded as almost synonymous with religion.  Elements of this idea still persist to this day, especially in the west, though in many ways a theory of religion as ideology has come to replace it in many circles (for more on these shifts see Jager 202-207).

This is not to say, however, that men like Wesley neglected the importance of the spiritual disciplines and sacraments.  As a young man Wesley was deeply influenced by works like Thomas a Kempis’ Imitatio Christi and indeed, one of the defining conflicts of the early evangelical revival was over whether these disciplines or “means of grace,” were in fact necessary for salvation.  The Moravians, with whom Wesley was closely allied at the beginning of his career, held that a human could do nothing for her salvation and instead had to hold herself in “stillness” until God extended His grace towards her.  Wesley, as a good Anglican, would have none of this arguing that in fact the means of grace, while not saving in themselves, could nevertheless be used by God to save the individual.  This disagreement ultimately led to a split within the early revival – with Wesley going his own way to form Methodism proper while the Moravians formed their own congregations throughout the country.

In his sermon titled “The Means of Grace” Wesley defines the means as, “prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon); and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.”  He goes on to encourage his listeners to practice these disciplines as means to an end and none as ends themselves.  Of special interest to Wesley is the receiving of the Lord’s Supper, which had fascinated him since his days at Oxford with the Holy Club.  Wesley himself was a frequent communicator – as often as once a week – which was slightly unusual by the standards of the day.  He also believed that the Lord’s Supper could in fact be a “converting ordinance,” or the means through which an individual was converted.  In fact in his published Journal he includes the account of a woman, believed to be Susannah Wesley, who was converted through communion (see Rack 402-409 for a lengthy discussion of this).  All this to say that, however it may have been interpreted in the future, Wesley fully recognized the role of spiritual disciplines in forming the spirituality and subjectivity of his followers – believing that act could form experience just as authentic experience manifested itself in action.  As Peter Böhler advised the young Wesley upon his return from Georgia he should “Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith” (82).

It is this disciplinary aspect of seemingly spontaneous religious expression that is most easily overlooked when considering spiritual experience accounts.  In part this is because such disciplines can seem conventional or contrived whereas the spontaneous overflow of religious emotion in contrast seems original and deeply felt.  Again, though, this critical attitude reflects definitions of religion that originated during this time period in both the evangelical revival and Romanticism that tended to privilege directly apprehended experience above convention.  However as Amy Hollywood has pointed out, “for many religious traditions, ancient texts, beliefs, and rituals do not replace experience as the vital center of spiritual life, but instead provide the means for engendering it. At the same time, human experience is the realm within which truth can best be epistemologically and affectively (if we can even separate the two) demonstrated.”  In other words, outer discipline forms inner orientation which in turn affects how that orientation is made manifest in the world.

In her book, The Politics of Piety, Saba Mahmood demonstrates how this outer/inner relationship works in the personal piety of the members of the Egyptian women’s mosque movement.  These are women who gather together on a regular basis to be taught the practices of piety by (largely) female religious teachers.  According to Mahmood, these “women learn to analyze the movements of the body and soul in order to establish coordination between inner states (intentions, movements of desire and thought, etc.) and outer conduct (gestures, actions, speech, etc.)”(31). An example she gives of this is the duty to rise before dawn for morning prayer.  In one encounter she analyzes an older Muslim woman is instructing younger in the proper cultivation of the discipline of prayer.  Interestingly, she does not recommend “trying” harder or strengthening willpower, but action and emotion:

Performing the morning prayer should be like the things you can’t live without: for when you don’t eat, or you don’t clean your house, you get the feeling that you must do this. It is this feeling I am talking about: there is something inside you that makes you want to pray and gets you up early in the morning to pray. And you’re angry with yourself when you don’t do this or fail to do this (125).

This linking of emotion and action to spiritual practices thus reverses the liberal Western model of spiritual experience.  Instead of the individual deciding to do something through an act of will, she is disciplined in these practices through action.

Interestingly enough, this theory of how action and emotion operate accords with what we have come to know about the neurological mechanisms of emotion and will.  As far back as the late nineteenth century William James famously argued that, when it comes to emotion “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be.”  What James realized without benefit of modern neuro-imaging techniques, was that emotion was intimately connected to bodily action and bodily actions were in turn intimately connected to cognition and action.  Indeed, in The Will to Believe James goes further, arguing that faith is actually synonymous with act: “Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is still theoretically possible; and as the test of belief is willingness to act, one may say that faith is the readiness to act in a cause the prosperous issue of which is not certified to us in advance” (524).  The example he gives of this is a mountain climber who gets into a position where he/she can only escape by a terrible leap.  “Refuse to believe,” James says, “and you shall indeed be right, for you shall irretrievably perish. But believe, and again you shall be right, for you shall save yourself” (500).  In other words it is the act of faith that forms the internal disposition and the internal disposition that creates the desired result.

In thus linking body, emotion, and act James anticipates recent developments in neuro-science which have largely confirmed the role of emotion and body in the making of decisions and indeed in the formation of consciousness itself.  For example in Descartes’ Error, neuro-scientist Antonio Damasio details how he used neuro-imaging to examine brain-damaged individuals who seemed to have lost the ability to make reasonable long term decisions or plans.  These otherwise healthy individuals seemed to reason and function normally except for the loss of any ability to use reason to prioritize tasks.  What Damasio found was that all of these individuals had some type of damage to a part of their frontal lobes that largely controls decision making – in other words they had lost the ability, not to reason, but to use the underlying bodily feedback of emotion to make reasonable decisions.  As Damasio puts it in his later The Feeling of What Happens, “the presumed opposition between emotion and reason is no longer accepted without question…. emotion is integral to the processes of reasoning and decision making, for worse and for better” (40-41).  Thus the body and emotions are not inherently “unreasonable,” but are utilized to better help us understand the world around us and make decisions.  The damage these patients experienced to their frontal lobes disrupted the bodily systems of reasoning, thus leading them to make unreasonable decisions.  This view of the body as an interconnected system or organism not only allows for a more nuanced understanding of emotion, but also calls into question the very structure of the unified subject itself.  Furthermore, in the case of spiritual disciplines, it bears out the idea that an outward bodily act could affect the inward state.

More importantly for our purposes, however, is what all this tells us about how the disciplinary practices of piety affect women’s formation of a sense of self within a patriarchal structure.  Mahmood, for example, argues that “the mosque participants did not regard authorized models of behavior as an external social imposition that constrained the individual. Rather, they viewed socially prescribed forms of conduct as the potentialities, the ‘scaffolding,’ if you will, through which the self is realized” (148).  In other words these women did not see their adherence to outward forms of behavior as constricting, but ultimately liberating – as a means to becoming God’s agent in the world.  This definition of agency, though, requires that we situate agency within the particular discourse in which it operates.  In this case that means, as Mahmood puts it, we think of “agency not simply as a synonym for resistance to social norms but as a modality of action.” Doing so:

raises some interesting questions about the kind of relationship established between the subject and the norm, between performative behavior and inward disposition. To begin with, what is striking here is that instead of innate human desires eliciting outward forms of conduct, it is the sequence of practices and actions one is engaged in that determines one’s desires and emotions. In other words, action does not issue forth from natural feelings but creates them (157).

In thus situating agency within local discourse and as a “modality of action” we can better understand how religious women view the formation of the self, how spiritual discipline helps form inward orientation, and how this ultimately works its way out into the public sphere.  For the women Mahmood studied this sometimes meant going against the wishes of their husbands and fathers when their wishes conflicted with what they saw as God’s calling.  In this the women of early Methodism were very similar and it is to them that we must now turn.

Disciplining the Self in Methodist Women’s Narratives

As I have argued elsewhere, careful attention to Methodist women’s writing reveals a powerful symbiotic relationship between internal spiritual experience and outward action in the public sphere.  This action clearly includes writing, as much of the writing we have by evangelical women comes in the form of published conversion narratives, diary extracts, or letters.  Many of these were published in John Wesley’s Arminian Magazine while others, like the famous Account of Hester Ann Rogers, were published as independent books.  Women clearly saw writing and publishing as part of their call to action that followed spiritual experience.  What I have not theorized, however, is how the actual disciplines of reading and writing came to foster spiritual experience and how the publication of such writing both acted as a result of spiritual experience and an impetus for others to imitate the spiritual disciplines of the author.  

As I have already pointed out, the actual experience accounts by women are filled with references to participation in spiritual disciplines – prayer, fasting, scripture reading, attending religious meetings, listening to sermons, taking communion – and these spiritual disciplines are explicitly linked to the spiritual experiences that result.  Here, however, I want to focus on spiritual reading and writing themselves as disciplines – disciplines that ordinary lay women used worked to subtly resist these binaries through their writing.  In other words, it is both through their writing and because of their writing that the sense of subjectivity women form after conversion fundamentally works to break down binaries between self and other, body and mind, emotion and reason.  Thus, in tracing this transformation I will focus on each of these fundamental elements, reading evangelical women’s writing in terms of how this inner emotional experience worked outwards into the rapidly developing public sphere – for the two rely on one another and any attempt to read them separately fundamentally misses how evangelical women viewed and wrote the self during the eighteenth century.

By and large very little writing by evangelical women written specifically for publication has survived (see Krueger 69-70).  This is in part due to the nature of most of the printed discourse in early evangelicalism.  What was valued most was the printed sermon or religious discourse and, though there were female preachers in Methodism, their sermons were not published like men’s were.  The exception to this is the prolific Mary Bosanquet Fletcher who, though none of her sermons were published, succeeded in getting some of her religious discourses into print. As a result most of the writing by women that we have comes in the form of diary extracts, spiritual letters, or conversion narratives written in letter form to John Wesley or another male interlocutor.  In fact the “Letters” pages of the Arminian Magazine, especially during John Wesley’s lifetime, are dominated by letters from female correspondents.

What is important about this is that clearly this writing was not necessarily meant for print – though it may have ended up there – instead it was largely devotional in nature.  Imitating devotional forms and practices imbibed from works like Wesley’s own Journal women clearly used diary and letter writing as a form of spiritual discipline – incorporating scripture passages, hymns, prayers, and sermon notes into their writing as a means of forming spiritual experience.  Clearly it was in the act of writing that these disciplinary practices were somehow solidified.

This is especially evident in women’s experience narratives, a genre which is itself highly disciplined.  In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, the evangelical conversion narrative relies on a common pattern – evident in works from Bunyan to Wesley to Whitefied – consisting of 1. Consciousness of sin; 2. Acquaintance with Methodism and search for salvation; 3. Justification; 4. Opposition from within and without; 5. Search for “Christian Perfection”; 6. Achievement of perfection; and 7. Evidence of God’s grace in life and community. In exhibiting this pattern, these narratives perform the mimetic function that John Wesley hoped to instill through his own Journal.  Furthermore, they also indicate that these women saw themselves as part of a larger community of readers and writers, all of whom were pursuing the same spiritual goals.  As Hindmarsh has pointed out:

Through these communal practices they learned what was commonly expected in religious experience, and what was common became, in literary terms, conventional…. In expectation of conversion, evangelical discourse acted like a map, identifying the sort of terrain one might cross and the sort of destination one might arrive at if one chose to venture out (157).

Of course, as Hindmarsh also makes clear, just because these narratives were conventional, does not mean that they lack originality or insight.  Instead, Methodist women appropriated readily available genres as a means to relating their own experience in a way that would be better understood by the broader Methodist community.  It was precisely by using these conventions that women were able to form a unique sense of identity grounded in the broader religious culture.  For, as Somers and Gibson have argued, narrative structures are powerful, illustrating 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” (38). Much like the women of the women’s mosque movement in Egypt, these Methodist women found agency within disciplinary structures precisely by using those outward acts to alter the inner sense of self.

Thus it is because of the disciplinary nature of narrative convention that women came both to form a new sense of self after conversion and through them that they were able to reach a wider public through publication in venues like the Arminian Magazine.  In this the discipline of writing came full circle – working outward as a result of spiritual experience and in turn working mimetically to form the spiritual experiences of others in the Methodist community.  One of the main reasons John Wesley published spiritual experience accounts in the Arminian Magazine was in fact to illustrate that spiritual experience was available to all and that by imitating the examples of pious men and women, others could come to know God as they did.  Women’s writing was thus crucial to the formation of a developed evangelical public sphere within which the discourses of piety, spiritual discipline, and religious experience interacted powerfully in forming the evangelical subject.


Bruff, Rachel. “The Experience of Rachel Bruff, of Talbot-County, Maryland [Written by Herself].” Arminian Magazine March 1787: 135-137, April 1787: 191-192, May 1787: 243-246.

Damasio, Antonio. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam, 1994.

–. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.

Hindmarsh, D. Bruce. The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.

Hollywood, Amy. “Spiritual but Not Religious.” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 38(1-2): 2010.

Jager, Colin. The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era. Philadelphia, U of Pennsylvania P, 2007.

James, William. Writings 1878-1899. Ed. Gerald E. Myers. New York: Library of America, 1992.

Krueger, Christine L. The Reader’s Repentance: Women Preachers, Women Writers, and Nineteenth Century Social Discourse. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005.

Rack, Henry D. Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism. London: Epworth, 1989.

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 Publishing, 1994. 37-99.

Wesley, John. The Works of John Wesley. Ed. Thomas Jackson. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007.

2 responses to “Disciplining the Self in Methodist Women’s Writing

  1. Hi Andrew:
    I always enjoy your posts, seeing how you meticulously work through the original documents and the literature to flesh out the realities of 19th C evangelical affairs.

    I cannot resist reacting to the Moslem woman who feels her existence requires housekeeping in addition to eating and praying. What a comment on the relegation of women to a subservient role. Even worse than a man saying this is a woman saying this about her own self-definition. Oh well.

    I more like the Martha/Mary story where Mary is purely spiritual, unlike Martha who accepts the traditional responsibility of women to work at plebian tasks so men can “think.”

    I think your dissertation will be fabulous.

    Best, Sharon

  2. The issue of agency within patriarchal systems has always been a vexed theoretical question. What Mahmood would argue (and I would agree with) is that we cannot apply one catch all, liberal western vision of agency to other cultures and social situations. In the case of many of the Muslim women Mahmood studied, they saw agency as an ability to be God’s agent in the world and follow his commands more fully.

    Interestingly enough, many of these women saw this command as superseding any demand laid on them by their husband. So there were many cases of women training to become religious instructors without their husband’s approval. On the point of housework, many women would go out of their way to do the housework better than ever so that their husband could not use that as an excuse to force them to stop attending religious meetings.

    The book is certainly worth read – its an important issue to think about.

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