Category Archives: Eighteenth Century

Agnes Bulmer: Poet of Methodist Experience

Agnes Collinson Bulmer was born on August 31, 1775 in London, the third daughter of Edward and Elizabeth Collinson of Lombard Street. Her father was an early convert to Methodism while Elizabeth Collinson’s parents were themselves Methodists and friends of Wesley (Stevenson 497). Edward Collinson was one of the trustees of the prestigious City Road Chapel and a prosperous London tinman and ironmonger (Stevenson 250, 497). He and Elizabeth were personal friends of John and Charles Wesley and the young Agnes was baptized by John and received her first class ticket from him in December 1789. She was placed in Hester Ann Rogers’ class in the City Road society, where she would remain a member for the rest of her life.  Like most London Methodists of this time, however, the Collinsons were also faithful adherents to the Church of England – a practice that Agnes never fully gave up over the course of her life. As her friend and later editor William Bunting put it, the Collinsons were “equally allied, like most of the first followers of Mr. Wesley, to the established Church of England, and to the Society of ‘people called Methodists’” (Letters v), and the two were not seen as mutually exclusive. Also in common with a growing number of London Methodists, the Collinsons were decidedly middle class and the young Collinson girls appear to have received what was, by the standards of the age, an excellent education. This, combined with her natural curiosity, led the young Agnes Bulmer to read widely and voraciously, a practice that she would continue over the course of her life.

By the age of twelve, Bulmer was reading Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, a favorite of Wesley and evangelicals more generally, and this work was to have a tremendous influence on her own poetry. In 1788, at the age of fourteen, Bulmer published her first poem, “On the Death of Charles Wesley,” in the Arminian Magazine:

Ah happy man! thy griefs are passed away;
Thy struggling soul to heaven has took its flight:
To bliss eternal winged its wondrous way,
And safety lodged in realms of pure delight
 
Summoned by God to join the heavenly band,
And dwell with Him in everlasting rest
Thou now art happy in Immanuel’s land,
Where grief and pain shall never more molest.
 
But ah! how many will thy loss deplore?
Unmindful that ‘tis eternal gain;
They mourn their Friend so quickly gone before,
Forgetting he is gone from toil and pain:
 
Forgetting he is gone to joys on high,
And join the angelic hosts in heavenly lays
Far, far above yon bright ethereal sky
To aid the concert of eternal praise.
 
And now for every pang he felt below,
His soul receives a full, and sure reward;
While heavenly joys in streams of glory flow,
And Jesus crowns him with divine regard.
 
Then why should Death appear so great a foe?
Why with such terror is the subject fraught?
Since he relieves the just from every woe,
And brings them bliss, beyond the reach of thought! (AM 11:557)
 

Though the subject is undoubtedly conventional, the execution is of the poem is surprisingly solid, especially for a fourteen year old. Even here we see evidence of a lively intellect at working, already writing about themes that will come to occupy her adult life – Christian service, pain, death, and the purpose of human life on earth. The poem is all the more interesting in that Bulmer is eulogizing a poet whose role as religious bard she herself would most fully carry on into the nineteenth century. John Wesley sent the young Agnes Collinson a personal note thanking her for this poem and cautioning the prodigiously talented child to “Beware of pride; beware of flattery; suffer none to commend you to your face; remember, one good temper is of more value, in the sight of God, than a thousand good verses. All you want is to have the mind that was in Christ, and to walk as Christ walked.” It was characteristic Wesley, but the simple fact that he took the time to respond to verses from a child indicates that he was impressed by the young woman’s talent and promise.

The young Bulmer continued to write poetry even as she became more and more involved with the Methodist society at City Road. She was a member of Hester Ann Rogers class and during this time came to know the older Elizabeth Richie Mortimer, whose biography she would later author, and Sally Wesley, Charles Wesley’s only daughter. These three women were at least fifteen years older than Bulmer and very close to John Wesley. In fact, all three of these women attended Wesley at his death in 1791. Upon Hester Ann Rogers’ untimely death in 1793, Bulmer wrote an elegy titled Thoughts on a Future State, which was published with the 1794 edition of Rogers’ famous Account. Like her “Lines on the Death of Charles Wesley,” Bulmer once again takes up the subject of death and what happens to a Christian after death. In the Methodist tradition death was an especially important event as it provided an opportunity for the dying individual to testify of his or her faith to the end. Thus accounts of “holy dyings” in the ars moriendi tradition abound in literature by Methodists and Bulmer’s poetic take is particularly powerful.

In 1793, at the age of eighteen, Agnes Collinson married Joseph Bulmer, a London merchant and warehouseman who was also a member of the Methodist society. Joseph Bulmer was born at Rothwell, near Leeds, on May 16, 1761. Though his mother was religious, she died when he was nine and it is unclear whether she was a Methodist or not. He grew up in Leeds, where he served and apprenticeship, and early on came to associate with the Methodists there. In 1780 he moved to London where he apparently became quite prosperous (Joseph Bulmer 818). His influence within London Methodism is evidenced by the fact that over the course of his life he served as the treasurer and one of the stewards of the important City Road Chapel, London Circuit Treasurer, Treasurer of the Methodist Missionary Auxiliary Society for the London District, General Treasurer of the Children’s Fund, a member of the Preachers’ Friend Society along with several other non-Methodist charities (819). All of these positions would have been bestowed on him not only because of his commitment to Methodism, but also due to his success in business affairs and management of money. In fact Joseph Bulmer is regularly listed in the Methodist Magazines of the time period as a major donor to causes like the Children’s Fund and Missionary Auxiliary Society. For example, the April 1839 issue of the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine lists Bulmer’s legacy to the Missionary Society at nearly 200 pounds (351). Clearly Agnes had come from the middle class and married into the middle class.

Agnes Bulmer and the Shifting Character of London Methodism

That the Bulmers were undoubtedly part of a very middle class, conforming version of Methodism is reflected in the fact that they quickly became friends with many of the leading lights of the second generation Methodists. As early as the autumn of 1795, Bulmer became acquainted with Dr. Adam Clarke (1760-1832), the prominent Methodist theologian, author of a influential Commentary on the Whole Bible and President of the Methodist Conference. His daughter, Anna Rowley, describes the meeting over forty years later:

She was then in the twenty-first year of her age; and, I have heard my mother say, was one of the most interesting young women she ever met with. I recollect her narrating to me her earliest impression respecting Mrs. Bulmer, in the following words: – “The first time I saw her was in the old chapel at Spitalfields; and so strong was the feeling on my mind towards her, that I could not help, at the close of the service, inquiring who the young lady was to whom I had felt so irresistible an attraction.” This was introduction enough. When they met on the next day they felt that they were not strangers. My father was equally pleased with her; and at that hour commenced a friendship which, built upon the only sure foundation, proved so strong, so rational, and so abiding, as to brace unhurt the varied trials of nearly forty years. (Rowley 804)

This meeting was the beginning of an intellectual friendship that lasted until Clarke’s death. He once commented that “That woman astonishes me. She takes in information just as a sponge absorbs water. The nature of the subject seems to make little difference; for whether it be philosophy, history, or theology, she seizes upon it, and makes it all her own” (Rowley 804). Clarke and Bulmer frequently exchanged books with one another and sent each other lengthy letters discussing philosophy, theology, and history.

Also included in this circle of friends was Richard Watson, another important Methodist theologian and President of the Conference; Joseph Benson, the editor of the Methodist Magazine; Jabez Bunting, the de facto leader of Methodism for much of the early nineteenth century; and William M. Bunting, his son. As William Bunting wrote in his introduction to Bulmer’s published Letters, she was notable in this circle for her:

keen, irrepressible, and, if we might so say, passionate intellectuality; a thirst for all truth, fully as evident as was her pleasure in imparting what she had already apprehended of its facts and principles; a surprising copiousness and saliency of thought on any question which incidentally excited it; a range of information, which carried her at once into the details, far beyond most with whom she conversed; and then, on religious subjects, a perfect sublimity of feeling, an adoring piety, and a manner even in speaking of the present God, as if every breath were incense, and every utterance an act of worship, or of consecration (xxiv-xxv).

Clearly Agnes Bulmer was the intellectual equal of these important men. She could, and did, stand up to them in conversation and arguments on all subjects. As another member of this circle remarked years later in a reminiscence in the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine, “In discussion she was a match for men like Adam Clarke, Jabez Bunting, and Richard Watson; her forte being the resolute insistence on precision and consistency. ‘Define your terms, Sir,’ she would say to any one who tried to draw her into an argument” (Gregory 850). This clear, lively, and precise type of thinking is evident in her letters, both to these men and others. While many spiritual letters written during this time by Methodist women tended to be full of platitudes and common Methodist truisms, Bulmer’s are alive with a clever and searching intellect, always seeking to analyze a situation or argument and provide clear and cogent thoughts on the matter at hand.

On the other hand, though most of her male contemporaries seem to have viewed Bulmer as their intellectual equal, every one of her biographers felt the need to qualify this fact by playing up her “feminine” and “domestic” qualities, often immediately after praising her “masculine” intellect.  William Bunting is perhaps the worst offender for, after offering the effusive praise of her intellect quoted above he goes on to remark that “These qualities… were set off by a most feminine delicacy of sentiment, yet suavity and charmingness of demeanour; by a cheerfulness, soft, quiet, and lambent as the fire-shine on the hearth around which we met her… and by the utmost shrinking, in practice and in taste, from all the airs and annoyances of a teaching or a talking female” (xxv). Elsewhere he comments on her “masculine robustness of intellect, with none of the affectation of masculine manners” (xvi). Clearly Agnes Bulmer is an exceptional woman, but she is chiefly exceptional (in Bunting’s mind) for the skilful way she blends feminine grace and sociable conversation around the hearth with a “masculine” intellect which is at the same time not threatening because she seems so “feminine,” according to the standards of the age.

This might be expected of Bunting, but similar sentiments are found in memoirs by both of Bulmer’s female biographers. Anna Rowley, for example, comments that “as a wife, her wisdom and influence were so exercised as to contribute in every respect to the honour and comfort of her husband” (807), while Anne Collinson lauds the way her sister balanced intellect pursuit and domestic duty:

With a heart capable of the warmest affection, she possessed an uncommon degree of prudence, and employed the great influence which she had over him, for the best of purposes, and was truly his fellow-helper in the road to Zion. If she had a wish to shine, it was in his sight; and he in his turn felt proud and delighted at her intelligent and unassuming manners. A new sphere of duties and employments being thus opened to her, she assiduously applied herself to move regularly in it, and never permitted her love of study to intrench on the peculiar duties of her sex. Her household arrangements evinced her well-disciplined mind; – every thing was in order, and she herself was never in a hurry, though always employed (8-9).

Here as well is a separate “sphere of duties” that Bulmer was meant to balance with her scholarly activities. Collinson thinks it is vital to point out that, though he sister excelled as an intellectual she never let this get in the way of her “domestic duties,” and as late as 1889 Annie Keeling felt it necessary to remark that “The careful heed with which she fulfilled every domestic duty, interfered neither with her intellectual nor her spiritual progress” (151). These comments are especially difficult to square with Bulmer’s role as a very public Methodist author and intellectual. Though it is clear that others want to frame her as a domestic paragon of virtue who wrote on the side, it is far from clear that Bulmer viewed herself this way. Though it is perfectly clear that she loved her husband deeply and took pleasure in working with him, no writing of her own has survived that indicates she saw a tension between intellectual and wife – in all likelihood she saw the two vocations as perfectly compatible.

This tension between Bulmer’s roles as public intellectual and author, on the one hand, and wife, on the other, is indicative of a larger struggle over women’s roles in Methodism during the beginning of the nineteenth century. After the death of John Wesley in 1791 intense battles were also fought within Methodism, especially over the issue of women’s preaching. Though, as we have seen, Wesley clearly sanctioned women’s preaching on the grounds of an “extraordinary call,” issued Sarah Mallit with a license to preach, and actively supported the independent work of women like Mary Bosanquet Fletcher, Sarah Ryan, and Sarah Crosby, his was always a minority opinion within the movement. Even his support was qualified and, with his death, women preachers lost their most powerful defender. The Methodist Conference (made up entirely of men) moved quickly to circumscribe this activity by first discouraging women’s preaching and then by outright banning in 1803. Often prominent women preachers like Sarah Mallit, Mary Barritt Taft, and Mary Bosanquet Fletcher simply ignored this prohibition and, often with the complicity of their circuit leaders, continued to preach well into the 1840’s. Likewise women’s preaching was common in the Primitive Methodist Connection. However the attitude of the Methodist leadership was clear and as the century progressed the roles for Methodist women became increasingly limited to the instruction of other women and children and visiting the sick and dying or what were considered “proper” domestic roles. The London “Church Methodism” of City Road Chapel would have thus been far more inclined than East Anglian Methodism (where Sarah Mallit preached) to embrace prohibitions on women’s preaching activities. I all of this Adam Clarke’s own Commentary played an influential role in that it codified many of the restrictions on women’s ministry and relegated them to the domestic sphere through conservative interpretations of disputed Biblical passages.

Furthermore, the focus on domesticity and sociability in these comments about Bulmer indicate the extent to which Methodist sociability itself, especially in London, was changing. Whereas during the early days of Methodism sociability had been largely defined by the single-sex class and band structure, in the London Methodism of the early nineteenth century this was fast becoming a relic of the past. Though the structure still existed in name well into the nineteenth century, in practice the rigorous type of self examination that occurred in the bands earlier in the movement’s history began to disappear in favor of a more middle class sociability. The Bulmers and their circle are an excellent example of this. As her sister, Anne Collinson, put it in her Memoirs of Agnes Bulmer, “Her manners were cheerful and animated, though never frivolous; and she felt social intercourse to be one of the chief blessings of this changeful life” (9). While Agnes herself advises her brother in a letter that “A little recreation is a necessary relief from the labour of the study; and, in a well-regulated intercourse with the world, and observing mind will learn many lessons which his book would teach him in vain” (20). Likewise William Bunting remarks on Agnes Bulmer’s charming sociability and goes on to state that “We do not think that the talent of conversation, as it is called, is either cultivated or valued sufficiently by the generality of religious people. The fire-side circle was considered by our late accomplished friend as one department of Christian opportunity” (xxiii). These sentiments, though common in the nineteenth century are a far cry from the early days of Methodism. Though John Wesley certainly endorsed engaging with the world, he had little patience for social convention or polite standards of sociability. His Methodists were to be busy and active and thus have little time for fire-side conversation. That this was clearly important to Methodists like Agnes Bulmer and William Bunting indicates that the social terrain of Methodist – especially in London – was changing and that it was now the middle class gathering that superseded the noisy class meeting.

This shift from noisy movement to middle class institution is intimately connected to the history of the London City Road Chapel, to which Joseph and Agnes Bulmer, along with many of their notable friends, belonged. City Road had been constructed under Wesley’s supervision in 1777 to replace the old Methodist headquarters at the Foundery (Heitzenrater).  Constructed on the same piece of ground as the Foundery and across the street from the Dissenting burial grounds at Bunhill Fields, City Road in many ways represented an entirely new phase of Methodism. Though Wesley took pains emphasize that the construction of the chapel did not represent a separation from the Church in the sermon he preached when the foundation was laid, in practice the chapel acted as a further step towards irregularity. Architecturally speaking the chapel was a departure from the simple octagonal structures that characterized early Methodism – it was constructed to resemble a more traditional church and living quarters were built to accommodate Wesley while in London. Completely outside of diocesan control, nevertheless during John Wesley’s lifetime the pulpit at City Road was restricted to Methodist preachers who were ordained in the Church of England and in practice Charles Wesley essentially became the equivalent of the parish priest there until his death in 1788 (Stevenson 76-77). Though John Wesley refused to allow the sacraments to be administered there during his lifetime after his death City Road was one of the first places that they were administered outside of Church hours.

That Charles Wesley was so prominent in the early history of City Road actually says much about the shifting character of Methodism towards the turn of the century and the increasing tensions within the movement. Much to his brother’s chagrin, Charles had stopped itinerating in 1756 in favor of settling in Bristol with his wife Sally and his growing family. By 1778 the entire family had moved to London, in large part to promote the musical careers of his prodigiously talented sons Charles Jr. and Samuel Wesley. That City Road opened its doors around this time thus provided a natural outlet for the man who still wielded tremendous influence within the movement. Charles was always the more orthodox of the two brothers and viewed the lay preachers that his brother promoted with suspicion. His control of City Road was a way for him to reshape the character of the movement from its most prominent pulpit. In general the London Methodists during Charles’ lifetime tended to be more affluent, more conservative, and more observant “Church Methodists.” Though some of this changed after Charles and John’s death, nevertheless London Methodists (including the Bulmers) tended to be far more observant of the practices of the Church of England than provincial Methodists (Lloyd 227-229). Furthermore, more and more middle class merchants and wealthy businessmen were becoming influential in the Methodist movement. The list of trustees of City Road Chapel is disproportionately made up of skilled tradesmen (like Edward Collinson), merchants (like Joseph Bulmer), and bankers (Stevenson 250-251). Though it is safe to assume that the wider membership was more diverse, there can be little doubt that City Road was becoming decidedly middle class.

Bulmer’s Later Life and Writing

By all accounts the marriage between Joseph and Agnes was a happy one which closely resembles the ideal of the companionate marriage being promoted by writers as different as Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah More, and Jane Austen. Agnes was clearly Joseph’s intellectual equal in every way and there is little evidence that he hindered her in her work. In fact it is quite clear from the evidence that in many ways Agnes and Joseph Bulmer worked as a team – bound together by their commitment to the Wesleyan Methodist Connection. For example, in a poem to her husband written on their ninth wedding anniversary, Bulmer beautifully frames their marriage in terms of companionship and a mutual commitment to be God’s agents together:

February 7th, 1802

While some are doom’d to bear the load of life
In single solitude, without the aid,
The cheering aid of Friendship’s social power,
Like lonely trees upon a blasted heath,
Exposed to all the beatings of the storm;-
While others, stung by disappointment, feel
The bands design’s for comfort, peace, and love,
To be the cords of bondage to their souls;-
Say, my loved friend, what happiness is ours,
That we can greet this morning with a song,
A song of praise, to that all-gracious Power,
Who in the counsels of his matchless love,
First form’d our union, and then kindly join’d
our hearts and hands by his own sacred ties!
Obtaining strength by him as years increased,
More and more firmly have our souls been bound;
And spared by grace, this ninth revolving morn
Finds us more join’d in cordial, constant love,
Than we first before the altar bow’d.
 
Hail! welcome morn! thy glad approach we greet,
And bless the as the happiest of our lives.
Still may thy sun rise cloudless; and the years
That yet may roll their courses o’er our heads,
Increase, mature, and sanctify our love.
While, as we travel o’er life’s varied path,
Upheld by mutual tenderness, we rise
Above the storms that sometimes cross this way,
And, by participation sweet, receive
A richer pleasure from its brightest scenes;
While humble gratitude, with careful eyes,
Noting the boundless gifts of Love Divine,
Leads us together to the mount of praise,
To adore the Author of our numerous joys.
 

For Bulmer marriage is a means through which God empowers men and women to serve him better in the world. It is God who “First form’d our union, and then kindly join’d / our hearts and hands by his own sacred ties! / Obtaining strength by him as years increased,” and it is God who makes them more useful together than they could be one their own. Though, as we will see, others tried to paint Bulmer’s marriage as the ideal of a Christian woman’s submission to her husband it is clear from this poem and others like it that Bulmer saw her marriage as more of a partnership in Christ. This also represents a distinct shift in how Methodist women viewed marriage. Whereas before a woman like Sarah Ryan or Sarah Crosby could travel and preach by themselves and saw no problem with it, increasingly roles for women were defined by marriage. Though widows like Sarah Mallit in fact outlived Bulmer, they were increasingly a dying breed, especially after the prohibition on women’s preaching in 1803. If women were to find a role within Methodism it was increasingly within a domestic space – though women like Agnes Bulmer continued to trouble this dynamic.

Between 1793 and 1822 Bulmer was mainly employed in the regular activities of a middle class Methodist woman who was under no obligation to work. She was a Class-Leader at the City Road Chapel, visited the sick, dying, and poor, and spent much of her time writing. She also participated in a weekly Ladies Working Society which, in addition to discussing religious subjects, made garments for the assistance of the poor (Stevenson 190). Her friend Anna Rowley notes that Bulmer was “naturally retiring and timid,” and thus “had great difficulties to overcome in the performance of those duties which brought her at all into contact with other persons; yet for many years she employed herself in various departments of public usefulness” (808). Her sister confirms this, remarking that she was “not only a contemplative, she was also an active Christian” and that:

For above thirty years she was a Class-Leader among the Wesleyan Methodists in London, and deeply felt the responsibility of the situation she filled. Those can best appreciate the value of her advice who enjoyed its advantages in those religious meetings, which, to use her own expression, “provide for the minuteness of individual instruction, and adapt themselves to that variety of experience which as distinctly marks the spiritual as it does the intellectual or material man.” (74).

This work as a class leader also extended into her publishing activities during this period, in which she published poems and essays to both the Methodist and Youth’s Magazines and began publication of her Scripture Histories, adaptations of Bible stories for the use of children (Collinson 27). Though intended for the young, Scripture Histories are in many ways prose studies of the Biblical episodes that she would later render in poetic form in Messiah’s Kingdom. The fact that she wrote them for a younger audience, however, indicates both that she was (like Hannah More) alive to the need for good children’s instructional literature and at the same time being pigeonholed into teaching only women and the young – the proper role for pious women. That the Scripture Histories are in many ways theologically sophisticated is only one further evidence of the way Bulmer was able to use a genre that was open to her as a means of opening a space for scholarly women.

On July 23, 1822 Joseph Bulmer died after a long illness and two years later her mother followed him. This was a deep period of grief for Bulmer which she expressed primarily through poetry that not only acted as an outlet for her grief, but also framed the deaths in light of the Methodist hope of an after-life. Especially poignant is her Memoir of a Lyre Resumed: or A Requiem at the Tomb of a Beloved Friend, and Songs in the Night of Affliction, which beautifully capture her feelings following her loss. One in particular, “Pensive Musings Composed on a Journey, July 1823” is evocative of the type of synthesis between emotion and piety that characterizes her poems. Writing almost a year after her husband’s death, she uses nature as a canvass upon which the express her feelings – a technique that she will later master in Messiah’s Kingdom. She does not shy away from exhibiting sorrow, in fact she embraces her grief in a way that is unusual for an evangelical poet – telegraphing it onto the landscape before moving on to describe memories with the absent loved one that mirror her current surroundings. Death is a very real presence in this poem and though, by the end she is looking forward to a reunification in heaven, the separation is very real and very felt.

In 1835 Bulmer turned to another genre, publishing the Memoirs of Elizabeth Mortimer, which memorialized the Methodist “mother in Israel” who had been a close friend of John Wesley’s and a long-time member of the City Road Congregation. Bulmer had befriended the older woman and from her learned about the early days of Methodism. The Memoirs is unique in that it is one of the few biographies of an early Methodist woman written by a woman and it would go on to become Bulmer’s most famous and most published book on both sides of the Atlantic. It is also notable for its Introduction, which clearly lays out a theory Christian biography, calling it “a treasure of no ordinary value; [which]… applies the proper test to principles; and calls forth experience to vouch for truth” (12). This appeal to experience to vouch for truth was uniquely Methodist. Here Bulmer applies Wesley’s experiential theology to the subject of biography – working from the empirical details of experience upwards to the higher truths of religion. It is this process that sets the Memoirs apart from other account of holy women, including the Memoir written about her by her sister. By applying experiential theology to her work Bulmer is able to eschew simple hagiography and construct a picture of Elizabeth Mortimer that, while biased, nevertheless serves the interest of a larger truth.

However it was her epic, Messiah’s Kingdom, that Bulmer likely considered her most important work. Published in 1833 by Rivington, Messiah’s Kingdom was the result of over nine years of work begun during her early widowhood and represented the culmination of all her religious and poetic interests. Spanning twelve long books, its scope is tremendous, beginning (like Milton) with the fall of man and proceeding through the major events of the Old and New Testaments, the establishment of the Church, the Reformation, and up to the establishment of the British empire (which Bulmer views as God-ordained, especially in its missionary endeavors), and the evangelical fight against slavery and other social ills. As Bulmer herself expressed it, the main purpose of the work was to delineate the evangelical salvation message as presented in the grand narrative of scripture:

The work is not a poetical version of Scripture History; a developement of the great scheme of human salvation, through a Divine Incarnate Redeemer. This, from its first announcement to its final consummation, is pursued through its various forms of manifestation, – in the Patriarchal, Levitical, Prophetic, and Christian Revelations. And the great moral of the poem is, (as the in the first book enunciated,) “Propitiation through sacrificial blood; typically, at first, under the introductory dispensations by the blood of slain beasts; and finally, and really, by the offering up of the great Antitype, “The Lamb who taketh away the sins of the world.” In the prosecution of this great subject my line of order has been to follow the course of its developement in the Sacred Scriptures, – the spring-head of my inspiration; and time, place, and circumstance have been subordinated to this primary design (Collinson 103).

Its overriding theme is thus the establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth, first through his redemptive work on the cross and then through the actions of the individual Christian in society.

By any account this was a monumental achievement – running to over 14,000 lines, it is certainly one of the longest poems of the nineteenth century and perhaps the longest poem ever written by a woman. It was the work of her widowhood and, as she put it, represented the role poetry played in her life, especially during seasons of affliction:

I am under more than common obligations to that gentle art, which almost in childhood taught me to give expression to thoughts and feelings unconnected with a merely sensitive world, and which otherwise might not have been seriously cherished; and I owe much also to its soothing influence in seasons of deep sorrow, when I was enabled to resort to it as an alleviating and refreshing occupation, during days and years of pensive and almost melancholy depression (Collinson 118-119).

It is impossible to treat the poem holistically in this space – however I have attempted to outline some of its major themes here and you can read the full text of the poem beginning here.

Agnes Bulmer died suddenly on August 20, 1836, just shy of her sixty-second birthday and exactly ten months before the accession of Queen Victoria to the throne. She had traveled to the Isle of Wight with several family members in the middle of August when she fell ill of an unknown complaint – several days later she was dead. Her funeral sermon was preached by her friend, the Rev. William M. Bunting, son of Jabez Bunting, President of the Methodist Conference and she was interred next to Bunting at the burial ground of the City Road Chapel, of which she had been a member her entire life. Her epitaph reads: “The sweet remembrance of the just / Shall flourish when he sleeps in dust” (Stevenson 498) and her obituary in the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine remarked, “Of retiring and modest habits, her mind, nevertheless, was well cultivated, and calmly elegant…. Even the list of those English females who have done honour to their sex, loses nothing of its luster by having her name inscribed on it” (15:807). Her works continued to be published long after her death and her one hymn, “Hymn for the Ancoat’s Methodist Chapel,” was a part of the Methodist Hymnbook well into the twentieth century. Its third stanza perfectly encapsulate her life and work:

We, like Jesse’s son, would raise
A temple to the Lord;
Sound throughout its courts His praise,
His saving name record;
Dedicate a house to him,
Who, once, in mortal weakness shrined,
Sorrow’d, suffer’d, to redeem,
To rescue all mankind.
 

References and Additional Resources

Primary Sources:

Bulmer, Agnes. Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Mortimer. New York: Mason & Lane, 1836.

Bulmer, Agnes. Messiah’s Kingdom. New York: Waugh & Mason, 1833.

Bulmer, Agnes. Scripture Histories. London: Mason, 1837.

Bunting, William M, ed. Select Letters of Mrs. Agnes Bulmer. London: Simpkin & Marshall, 1842.

Collinson, Anne Ross. Memoir of Mrs. Agnes Bulmer. London: Rivington, 1837.

“Contributions to the Wesleyan Missionary Society.” Wesleyan Methodist Magazine 18 (April 1839): 351.

Gregory, Benjamin. “Notices of My Life and Times.” Wesleyan Methodist Magazine 13 (November 1889): 845-853.

Keeling, Annie E. Eminent Methodist Women. London: Kelly, 1889.

“Obituary of Agnes Bulmer.” Wesleyan Methodist Magazine 15 (Sept. 1836): 807.

“Obituary of Joseph Bulmer.” Wesleyan Methodist Magazine 1(December 1822): 818-821.

“Review of Messiah’s Kingdom.” Wesleyan Methodist Magazine 13 (May 1834): 357-376.

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

Rowley, Anna. “Memoir of the Late Mrs. Agnes Bulmer.” 19 (Oct. 1840): 801-810.

Stevenson, George J. City Road Chapel, London and its Associations. London: Stevenson, 1872.

Secondary Sources:

Chilcote, Paul Wesley. Early Methodist Spirituality: Selected Women’s Writings. Nashville: Kingswood, 2007.

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

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

Lloyd, Gareth. Charles Wesley and the Struggle for Methodist Identity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

Methodism and the Redefinition of Religious Intolerance in England, 1688-1791

This paper was presented at the 2012 American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies Conference in San Antonio, TX – March 24, 2012.

John Wesley at Wednesbury

On October 20, 1743 John Wesley rode into the town of Wednesbury in the West Midlands.  As was his custom, he proceeded to the middle of the town and began to preach in the open air.  On this particular occasion his text was Hebrews 13:8 (Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever) and he remarks in his journal that there was a “far larger crowd than expected.”  After preaching, Wesley retired to a local Methodist’s house.  There he was engaging in his endless correspondence when a mob beset the house and forced Wesley to come with them to the local magistrate.  This is how Wesley describes the scene in his Journal:

To attempt speaking was vain; for the noise on every side was like the roaring of the sea. so they dragged me along till we came to the town; where seeing the door of a large house open, I attempted to go in; but a man, catching me by the hair, pulled me back into the middle of the mob. They made no more stop till they had carried me through the main street, from one end of the town to the other. I continued speaking all the time to those within hearing, feeling no pain or weariness. at the west end of the town, seeing a door half open, I made toward it and would have gone in; but a gentleman in the shop would not suffer me, saying they would pull the house down to the ground. However, I stood at the door, and asked, “Are you willing to hear me speak?” Many cried out, “No, no! knock his brains out; down with him; kill him at once.”Others said, “Nay, but we will hear him first.” I began asking, “What evil have I done? Which of you all have I wronged in word or deed?” And continued speaking for above a quarter of an hour, till my voice suddenly failed: then the floods began to lift up their voice again; many crying out, “Bring him away! bring him away!” (5:418).

What is remarkable about this story is that 1. Wesley was an ordained Anglican priest who always preached (even in the open air) in his cassock and bands, 2. The text and message he presents are completely orthodox – in complete agreement with the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles, and 3. the vehemence of the mobs reaction and their willingness to use physical violence against the famous John Wesley.

Such incidents were by no means isolated in the early years of Methodism.  Methodists, though legally still part of the established Church, were routinely harassed by fellow citizens who looked upon them with suspicion and contempt. Riots regularly broke out at Methodist meetings, chapels were vandalized and destroyed, preachers were attacked and/or pressed into the army and navy and Charles Wesley was brought before the magistrates on charges of Jacobitism.  Clearly toleration had its bounds even within the establishment.

What these brief examples clearly illustrate is that “toleration” and indeed intolerance took on a very different cast in Britain during the years following the Toleration Act of 1689.  Though the state officially tolerated religious difference – opening the way for a more individual system of religious belief; nevertheless local circumstances continued to dictate how toleration was applied. As in the example of John Wesley at Wednesbury illustrates, though Methodists were ostensibly a part of the establishment yet they faced localized persecution in some cases far more severe than that suffered by Dissenters. Thus, what I want to argue is that tolerance in England during the eighteenth century was about far more than religious doctrine or right belief.  Instead, intolerance persisted precisely because official toleration gave the public license to overlook belief.  As the example of the Wednesbury mob illustrates the attacks against Methodists, up to and including John Wesley himself, had little to do with doctrine and everything to do with how Methodists used the discourse structures of orality and print to reach a wider audience.  It was the unboundedness of the revival – the circulation of people and print, along with the willingness to ignore local customs and boundaries – that was really at issue.

Bearing this in mind, I want to do two things.  First, I will lay out some basic background on the controversy over Methodism.  Specifically, I will use the complex interplay between orality and print that characterized early Methodism to illustrate how the movement disrupted public space and created what became a developed evangelical public sphere by century’s end.  Secondly, I will turn to the question of Methodism and gender as a lens through which to interpret the intolerance that Methodists faced – by examining this potent socio-cultural issue I will thus be able to illustrate that the objections to Methodism by the general public had little to do with doctrine and everything to do with the evolving definition of the religious self.

It has long been assumed that the evangelical religion that arose and spread during the Evangelical Revivals in England and America was diametrically opposed to Enlightenment.  However as Michael Warner has recently pointed out, “Far from being simply a reaction against an already congealed ‘Enlightenment,’ eighteenth-century evangelical practices came into being through many of the same media and norms of discourse” (Preacher’s Footing  368).  Thus evangelicalism in fact participated in the same norms of discourse that created what Warner has termed an “evangelical public sphere” during the eighteenth century.  This evangelical public sphere operated alongside the secular in ways that “required the space of controversy afforded by competing printers, the compressed and progressive temporality of news, awareness of translocal fields of circulation, and a semiotic ideology of uptake” (Freethought and Evangelicalism 11:00). Thus the Evangelical Revival was in large part made possible by the expanding technologies of print and the increased venues for circulation that the developing capital economy produced.  It is to these technologies and products of mediation that we must attend if we are truly to understand the discourse of popular evangelicalism and how this discourse interacted with society at large.

In the case of the discourse culture of Methodism that was fostered by John Wesley there was an inherent relationship between circulating orality, manuscript culture, and print that came to define the Methodist media environment. As Warner puts it, “In a movement context that mixes printed and preached sermons with pamphlets and newspapers, performance and print were densely laminated together” (Printing and Preaching 42:00).  In his published Journal, for example, John Wesley not only records his extensive travels, but also details the sermons he preached – many in the open air to thousands of listeners.  However, in contrast to his printed sermons which are composed and arranged specifically for publication, in the Journal Wesley usually only recounts the Scripture passage he preached on and the number of people he preached to.  These mostly ex tempore public sermons were shaped by his context and his public audience, and the account of them in the printed journal thus highlights the unbounded nature of his audience and his text and the close relationship between orality and print that defined early Methodism.

However it was this unbounded nature of open air Methodist itinerant preaching that was perceived as the greatest threat to the established social norms.  Anglican parish preaching was directed in mostly set language (The Book of Common Prayer and the Homilies) to a very specific and set group of people within a sanctioned public space by an ordained priest – itinerant Methodist preachers, on the other hand, openly operated outside of this established structure.  Mostly un-ordained and uneducated, and thus outside of the established structure, they circulated from town to town preaching ex tempore in the open air or unsanctioned chapels.  Many of their sermons were never printed, nevertheless the storm of controversy they stirred up (both for and against) clearly made its way into print and informed the national conversation on the Revival.  Thus it was this “unauthorized” entrance into the public space of preaching – the claim to be able to address an unbounded audience – that caused much of the animosity towards Methodism.  In other words it was the discourse not the doctrine of the revival that was at issue.

An example of this can be found in the Account of the Experience of Hester Ann Rogers.  Towards the beginning of her narrative Rogers relates her reaction to the new Methodist preacher in Macclesfield, Mr. Simpson:

I heard various accounts of a clergyman whom my uncle Roe had recommended to be curate at Macclesfield, and who was said to be a Methodist. This conveyed to my mind as unpleasing an idea of him, as if he had been called a Romish priest; being fully persuaded that to be a Methodist was to be all that is vile, under a mask of piety…. I believed their teachers were the false prophets spoken of in the Scripture: that they deceived the illiterate, and were little better than common pickpockets; that they filled some of their hearers with presumption, and drove others to despair (15-16).

Thus Rogers’ objection to the Methodist Mr. Simpson has very little to do with anything he actually believes or preaches (she has never even heard him) and very much to do with the way in which he disturbs the order of society.  As she writes later, “When I came back to Macclesfield, the whole town was in alarm. My uncle Roe, and my cousins, seemed very fond of Mr. Simpson, and told me he was a most excellent man; but that all the rest of my relations were exasperated against him (16-18).  Simply by participating in the discourse of Methodism, then, Mr. Simpson calls up the specter of unbounded enthusiasm and disruption of the social order.

More than that, though, Rogers’ account illustrates how closely intertwined orality and print were in early Methodism.  Sprinkled throughout her published Account are references to sermons by Mr. Simpson, John Wesley and others.  Ostensibly instances of the localized orality of popular religion, evidence of these sermons nevertheless make it into print accounts – the most famous and published of which was Rogers’.  Likewise the women who wrote in to John Wesley’s Arminian Magazine participated in this conversation between orality and print – often giving accounts of revivals and sermons for the larger Methodist public.  Thus early evangelical media culture worked to form a type of feedback loop within which the genres of public oral sermon and printed discourse were constantly in conversation.  And it was this feedback loop of orality and print that threatened to break down the established public boundaries between private spirituality and public life.

To better illustrate how this evangelical public sphere operated and was contested I want to turn to some specific and local examples of the types of intolerance early Methodist converts faced. For, though the generally unbounded (in every sense of the word) nature of the Methodist movement and spirituality was crucial in forming attitudes towards Methodism, these attitudes were shaped and enacted according to local circumstances, customs, and mores. This is especially apparent in the case of Methodist women. Not only do these evangelical women writers illustrate how print could be used to blur gendered distinctions between public and private, they were also the locus for much of the anti-Methodist criticism and satire.  In fact the role of gender within evangelical religion and the appeal of evangelicalism to women was one of the roots of the controversy the Revival engendered. Thus the reaction to Methodism was in reality an expression of deeper seeded concerns over the role of marginalized members of society – women, the poor – in organized religion.  This anxiety is apparent in Leigh Hunt’s Attempt to Shew the Folly and Danger of Methodism in which he states, “We may see directly what influence the body has upon this kind of devotion [Methodism], if we examine the temperament of its professors.  The female sex, for instance, are acknowledged to possess the greater bodily sensibility, and it is the women who chiefly indulge in these love-sick visions of heaven” (55).  Thus what is really at stake in the print wars over Methodism is not so much the doctrine of justification by faith but the eroding of social boundaries via spiritual experience.

Hester Ann Rogers, for example, faced intense persecution from her mother and family upon her conversion to Methodism. Swayed by rumors about Methodism and Methodist teaching her mother “threatened, if ever she knew me to hear them… [to] disown me. Every friend and relation I had in the world, I had reason to believe, would do the same” (22). Rogers continues to attend Methodist meetings, however and “when my mother heard of it, a floodgate of persecution opened upon me!” (22). Her mother responds by confining her to the house for eight weeks, bringing in her godmother and the local clergyman to council her, and taking her away from Macclesfield, but to no avail. Upon returning home Rogers told her mother “in humility, and yet plainness,” that she “must seek salvation to my soul, whatever is the consequence” (23). She then says that she will leave and become a servant rather than renounce Methodism and goes on to offer her mother a deal:

Yet if you will consent to it, I should greatly prefer continuing in your house, though it should be as your servant: and I am willing to undertake all the work of the house, if you will only suffer me to attend preaching. She listened to my proposals; and after consulting with her friends, consented to comply on this last condition (23).

Rogers then proceeds to work for her mother as a servant for over a year before finally convincing her of the authenticity of Methodist experience. What was at stake here clearly had nothing to do with the actual content of Methodist belief – Hester goes to great lengths to articulate its orthodoxy to both her mother and godmother – but the erosion of family and community bonds and loyalties through spiritual experience.

Likewise the intense persecution that Mrs. A.B. experienced following her decision to become a Methodist illustrates the localized nature of Methodist experience and the ways in which persecution was very much tied to the disruption of social and culture norms. Mrs. A.B. was born to a Catholic family on an island of Lough Key in Ireland. Through the influence of an old Protestant woman who boarded with the family during Mrs. A.B.’s childhood, she was convinced of the error of the Catholic Church and the necessity of salvation by faith.  When she was fifteen, Mrs. A.B. was sent to the local priest for religious instruction – she refused to take part in Catholic rituals and openly defied both the priest and the Bishop, to whom she was sent to cast the “witchcraft” out of her. When she was twenty-one she came in contact with the Methodists and was sensibly converted.  She then publically recanted the Catholic Church, causing the parish priest to say he “would make hawk’s meat” of her.  After this she applied to the Rector of the Church of England parish for admittance and protection, but was rejected due to her belief in the ability to sensibly know her sins were forgiven. She then applied to another clergyman, who agreed to receive her into the Church. After this her friends and family attempted to marry her to a Catholic by force – rather than comply she fled, covering over seventeen miles by foot in a single day and contracting a life threatening fever.  Eventually she was taken into the house of a local Methodist and eventually married a Methodist man. What is crucial to recognize here is that Mrs. A.B. was an obscure, young woman who dared subvert local cultural norms because of her evangelical conversion.  She was willing to stand up to religious authorities up to and including a Bishop and flee her family and friends rather than marry someone against her will.

In becoming Methodists these women were in essence declaring their allegiance to a new spiritual family that was set in direct opposition to mainstream British culture.  Henceforth their primary allegiance was to God and the Methodist community and, as Hester Ann Rogers’ and Mrs. A.B.’s testimonies illustrate, they were willing to give up everything to do so. This disruption of social and cultural norms was then reflected in the concern on the part of fathers, mothers, husbands, and communities.  By developing a grassroots system of classes, bands, and select bands in order to foster a unique Methodist social community, Wesley created and organization that operated with what Gail Malmgreen describes as a “centrifugal force” which brought individuals together across wide distances and “broke down the narrowness of provincial life” (62).  For this very reason, though, these bands were seen as profoundly threatening to existing social and religious structures; thus it should come as no surprise that the early years of Methodism were accompanied by intense persecution in the form of riots, press gangs, and family pressure to renounce Methodism.

What these concerns indicate is that controversy over religious doctrine in eighteenth century England was rooted in the discourses of religion, gender, and publicity.  The average layperson may not have understood why Wesley’s doctrine of justification by faith and insistence on immediate sensible conversion caused such uproar within the Church establishment, but he or she surely understood that such doctrines threatened social order in radical ways.  Implicit in Wesley’s assertion that God’s grace was a free gift and salvation was available to all was an understanding of doctrine that exploded static categories of rich/poor, male/female, public/private.  Furthermore, by emphasizing that the experience of salvation could be sensibly experienced outside of Church walls, Methodism offered a fundamental redefinition of self based on personal experience with God and interaction with a new community of faith. Thus, under the guise of toleration religious belief became individualized, localized, and incorporated into a developing consumerist media culture. Individuals were now free to choose belief from a variety of options, but it was precisely in this move towards general toleration that localized intolerance became tolerable.

Works Cited

The Experience of Mrs. A.B.” Arminian Magazine XII (1789): 414-417, 463-466.

Malmgreen, Gail. “Domestic Discords: Women and the Family in East Cheshire Methodism, 1750-1830.” Disciplines of Faith: Studies in Religion, Politics and Patriarchy. Ed. Jim Obelkevich, et al. London: Routledge, 1987. 55-70.

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

Warner, Michael. “The Evangelical Public Sphere: Between Freethought and Evangelicalism: Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin.” A.S.W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography. University of Pennsylvania. 25 March 2009.

—. “The Evangelical Public Sphere: Printing and Preaching: What is a Sermon?.” A.S.W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography. University of Pennsylvania. 25 March 2009.

—. “The Preacher’s Footing.” This is Enlightenment. Ed. Clifford Siskin, and William Warner. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010. 368-382.

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.

References

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.

Hunting the Wesleyan Fox?: Toleration, Sermon Preaching, and the Public Sphere

I want to begin this essay with two vignettes – one from the life of the famous radical and orator John Thelwall and another from the life of Methodist founder John Wesley – two men who would seemingly have nothing in common, but who both deeply disturbed the public space of British life:

John Thelwall

John Thelwall

In his brilliant essay on the life and career of John Thelwall, “Hunting the Jacobin Fox,” E.P. Thompson recounts the story of the violent public reaction to a series of six political lectures Thelwall gave at Yarmouth.  It bears quoting at length:

The lectures were in an exposed position in a hall on the seafront, and were attended by some two hundred persons of both sexes, including a few children.  At the first two lectures the hall was surrounded by a parcel of yobbos “instigated by a Naval Officer” to pull down the house, but no serious incident took place.  On the third night about ninety sailors armed with bludgeons burst in upon the audience and laid about them on all sides…. Thelwall attempted to make his escape, was seized at the door, was rescued by some friends, and (not without presenting a pistol at an assailant) made his get-away to a house which the crowd later threatened to pull down…. Several of the auditors were seriously injured and the victors carried trophies, including shawls, bonnets, wigs, shoes, hats coats and Thelwall’s books, back to their ships.  To the honour of Thelwall and the Yarmouth reformers, the three remaining lectures were safely delivered (161).

These events occurred at a time when Thelwall’s movements were being carefully tracked.  Barred by the infamous Two Acts from speaking openly on political subjects, the radical reformer cloaked his politics in lectures on “Roman history,” and continued to travel and speak. Government spies continually tracked him and it is clear in this instance that the mob had been stirred up by loyalists and that the goal of the sailors was to impress Thelwall into naval service (Thompson 162).  Apparently Thelwall’s public lectures were so powerful that the government felt it necessary to attempt to close off the unbounded public space of his meetings.  Indeed, Thelwall often claimed that the Two Acts were passed in direct response to his lecturing.

John Wesley

John Wesley in Wednesbury

On October 20, 1743 John Wesley rode into the town of Wednesbury in the West Midlands.  As was his custom, he proceeded to the middle of the town and began to preach in the open air.  On this particular occasion his text was Hebrews 13:8 (Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever) and he remarks in his journal that there was a “far larger crowd than expected.”  After preaching, Wesley retired to a local Methodist’s house.  There he was engaging in his endless correspondence when a mob beset the house and forced Wesley to come with them to the local magistrate.  This is how Wesley describes the scene in his Journal:

To attempt speaking was vain; for the noise on every side was like the roaring of the sea. so they dragged me along till we came to the town; where seeing the door of a large house open, I attempted to go in; but a man, catching me by the hair, pulled me back into the middle of the mob. They made no more stop till they had carried me through the main street, from one end of the town to the other. I continued speaking all the time to those within hearing, feeling no pain or weariness. at the west end of the town, seeing a door half open, I made toward it and would have gone in; but a gentleman in the shop would not suffer me, saying they would pull the house down to the ground. However, I stood at the door, and asked, “Are you willing to hear me speak?” Many cried out, “No, no! knock his brains out; down with him; kill him at once.” Others said, “Nay, but we will hear him first.” I began asking, “What evil have I done? Which of you all have I wronged in word or deed?” And continued speaking for above a quarter of an hour, till my voice suddenly failed: then the floods began to lift up their voice again; many crying out, “Bring him away! bring him away!” (418).

What is remarkable about this story is that 1. Wesley was an ordained Anglican priest who always preached (even in the open air) in his cassock and bands, 2. The text and message he presents are completely orthodox – in complete agreement with the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles, and 3. the vehemence of the mobs reaction and their willingness to use physical violence against the famous John Wesley.

Such incidents were by no means isolated in the early years of Methodism.  Methodists, though legally still part of the established Church, were routinely harassed by fellow citizens who looked upon them with suspicion and contempt. Riots regularly broke out at Methodist meetings, chapels were vandalized and destroyed, preachers were attacked and/or pressed into the army and navy and Charles Wesley was brought before the magistrates on charges of Jacobitism.  Clearly toleration had its bounds even within the establishment.

Orality, Print, and the Public Sphere

Traditional interpretations of both of these events would have us believe two things: 1. That there is little or no connection between the lectures of the secular, radical, enlightened Thelwall and the preaching of the conservative, enthusiastic, religious Wesley and 2. That the objection to both of these men’s teaching was based on radical content (in the case of Thelwall) or unorthodox doctrine (in the case of Wesley).  In the first case I would argue that the distinctions between enthusiasm and enlightenment have been largely overblown, as Michael Warner has recently pointed out it is not even, “clear that enlightenment and evangelical religion were recognizable to contemporaries as opposing forces” (Preacher’s Footing  368).  In the second case I would argue that objections to content or doctrine alone to fully explain the vehemence of the public reactions against both men.  Instead, the violent reaction to both Thelwall and the Methodists is better explained by how both used the expanding public sphere afforded by the closely intertwined discourses of orality and print to disrupt established order in both politics and religion.

Indeed I would further argue that it is exactly the discourse that is at stake here, not the actual doctrine of justification by faith.  As Michael Warner has argued, we must attempt to understand evangelicalism “not by the doctrinal emphasis which has so far dominated the intellectual history of evangelicalism since almost all of these doctrinal elements could be found almost anywhere, anytime,” and instead move toward an approach that examines the “discourse culture of evangelicalism” (Printing and Preaching 31:00).  To do so we must examine the discourse of popular evangelicalism more broadly – moving beyond print to the relationship between print and orality in early evangelicalism.  As Warner puts it, “In a movement context that mixes printed and preached sermons with pamphlets and newspapers, performance and print were densely laminated together” (Printing and Preaching 42:00).  Likewise the opposition to Thelwall’s lectures is not adequately explained by objections to his radicalism – the ideas he presented were not new and in fact that had been largely developed by others – what was new was the way he powerfully translated these ideas into discourse.

In the case of Methodism this confluence between print and orality was inherent in the Methodist media culture.  In his published Journal, John Wesley not only records his extensive travels, but also details the sermons he preached – many in the open air to thousands of listeners.  However, in contrast to his printed sermons which are composed and arranged specifically for publication, in the Journal Wesley usually only recounts the Scripture passage he preached on and the number of people he preached to.  These mostly ex tempore public sermons were shaped by his context and his public audience, and the account of them in the printed journal thus highlights the unbounded nature of his audience and his text.  Nevertheless, the fact that an account of the sermon made it into the Journal and that some version of it was eventually printed illustrates the closely intertwined nature of Methodist public space.

However it was the very unbounded nature of open air Methodist itinerant preaching that was perceived as the greatest threat to the established social norms.  Anglican parish preaching was directed in mostly set language (The Book of Common Prayer and the Homilies) to a very specific and set group of people within a sanctioned public space by an ordained priest – itinerant Methodist preachers, on the other hand, openly operated outside of this established structure.  Mostly un-ordained and uneducated, and thus outside of the established structure, they moved from town to town preaching ex tempore in the open air or unsanctioned chapels.  Many of their sermons were never printed, nevertheless the storm of controversy they stirred up (both for and against) clearly made its way into print and informed the national conversation on the Revival.  Thus it was this “unauthorized” entrance into the public space of preaching – the claim to be able to address an unbounded audience – that caused much of the animosity towards Methodism.  In other words, to paraphrase Michael Warner, it was the discourse not the doctrine of the revival that was at issue.

Likewise, it would seem to be the unbounded nature of both Thelwall’s audience and his discourse that prompted violent reaction.  Like Wesley Thelwall spoke in public (either in the open air or large gathering halls), his lectures attracted a similar demographic (the poor, women), and he too was accused of engaging in “enthusiastic” discourse.  In fact even his friend Thomas Amyot wrote that, “He raves like a mad Methodist parson: the most ranting Actor in the most ranting Character never made to much noise as Citizel Thelwall…” (qtd. in Thompson 158).  Thus here Thelwall is explicitly compared to a Methodist preacher in that the unbounded nature of his speech is perceived as having a negative effect on his hearers – of arousing their emotions instead of appealing to their reason. Likewise the conservative Bishop Samuel Horsley blithely conflated the Jacobins and the Methodists, even referencing the Two Acts that forced Thelwall to itinerate and disguise his message, as the impetus for the explosion of radical “preaching:”

In many parts of the kingdom new conventicles have been opened in great number, and congregations formed of one knows not what denomination.  The pastor is often, in appearance at least, an illiterate peasant, or mechanic.  The congregation is visited occasionally by preachers from a distance…. It is very remarkable, that these new congregations of non-descripts have been mostly formed, since the Jacobins have been laid under the restraint of those two most salutary statutes, commonly known by the names of the Sedition and the Treason Bill.  A circumstance which gives much ground for suspicion, that Sedition and Atheism are the real objects of these institutions, rather than religion.  Indeed, in some places this is known to be the case.  In one topic the teachers of all these congregations agree; abuse of the Established Clergy, as negligent of their flocks, cold in their preaching, and destitute of the Spirit…. It is a dreadful aggravation of the dangers of the present crisis in this country that persons of real piety should, without knowing it, be lending their aid to the common enemy, and making themselves in effect accomplices in a conspiracy against the Lord, and against his Christ.  The Jacobins of this county, I very much fear, are, at this moment making a tool of Methodism (19-20).

Even here, then, the lines between reason and enthusiasm are (in the mind of the Establishment) dangerously blurred and potentially indistinguishable in the minds of a supposedly gullible population (for more on this see Robert Ryan).

And indeed it was this blurring of the lines between reason, enthusiasm, and discourse cultures in both Thelwall and Wesley that most alarmed the establishment.  Edmund Burke, for example, deplored the use of print in the service of enthusiasm and radicalism, condemning its ability to “make a kind of electrick communication everywhere” (380). According to Burke such “‘mechanic’ spasming of enthusiastic philosophers” (Mee 91) did not provide the space for reflection that was supposed to be necessary for reasoned discourse (see Jon Mee, Romanticism, Enthusiasm, and Regulation for more on this).  Moreover this early evangelical (and radical) media culture worked to form a type of feedback loop within which the genres of public oral sermon and printed discourse were constantly in conversation.  Both Thelwall and Wesley not only lectured and preached, but had their discourses printed and then commented on in newspapers and the public sphere at large.  And it was this feedback loop of orality and print that truly threatened to break down the established public boundaries between private belief and public life.

Thus, these lines of congruence between the enthusiastic religion of Wesley and the enlightened radicalism of Thelwall work to further break down the tenuous divide between enthusiasm and enlightenment.  Though espousing radically different philosophies, it is clear that both the Evangelical Revival and radical reformism arose from the same types of discourse cultures –cultures that helped simultaneously construct and disrupt the public sphere.  As Foucault has pointed out, “we must conceive discourse as a series of discontinuous segments whose tactical function is neither uniform or stable.  To be more precise, we must not imagine a world of discourse divided between accepted discourse and excluded discourse, or between the dominant discourse and the dominated one; but as a multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies” (100).  In this case, instead of constructed a false opposition between liberal radicalism and religious enthusiasm (as scholars like Mee and Makdisi have done) we should instead be considering that ways in which both participated in the same subversive discourses or at lease used the newly available “multiplicity of discursive elements” to disrupt the status quo.

In doing so we can also call into question the problematic secularization narratives that have dominated eighteenth century and Romantic studies.  At the end of the eighteenth century, so the narrative goes, the enthusiastic babbling of the religious fanatics was inevitably aesthetisized (in high Romantic poetry and art), politicized, and secularized (in radical reformism).  According to this narrative, then, the politics of Thelwall and the poetry of Wordsworth are part and parcel of the same linear un-halting progression away from an “unreasonable” religious past – a complete break with its enthusiastic other.  Instead what this discursive construction of enthusiasm and Enlightenment reveals is that in many ways the two worked symbiotically throughout the century to create the discourse conditions necessary for secularization itself.  In other words, in many ways secularization was constituted as a discourse within religious structures themselves (see Callum Brown, David Hempton), and it then worked its way outward through the confluence of orality and print in the swirling nexus of the public sphere.  Thus the poetry of Wordsworth and the politics of Thelwall are not so much the secularization of the religious impulse as they are part and parcel of that impulse itself.

Works Cited

Brown, Callum G. The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation, 1800-2000. London: Routledge, 2009.

Burke, Edmund. The Writings and Speeches of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Vol. V. Boston: Little, Brown, 1901.

Foucault. Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. New York: Vintage, 1978.

Hempton, David. Methodism: Empire of the Spirit. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

Horsley, Samuel. The Charge of Samuel Lord Bishop of Rochester, to the Clergy of His Diocese, Delivered at His Second General Visitation, in the Year 1800. London: Robson, 1800.

Makdisi, Saree. William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790’s. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.

Mee, Jon. Romanticism, Enthusiasm, and Regulation: Poetics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

Ryan, Robert. The Romantic Reformation: Religious Politics in English Literature, 1789-1824. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Thompson, E.P. “Hunting the Jacobin Fox.” The Romantics. New York: The New Press, 1997.

Warner, Michael. “The Evangelical Public Sphere: Printing and Preaching: What is a Sermon?.” A.S.W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography. University of Pennsylvania. 25 March 2009.

—. “The Preacher’s Footing.” This is Enlightenment. Ed. Clifford Siskin, and William Warner. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010. 368-382.

Wesley, John. The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley. London: Kershaw, 1827.

Playing with the Boundaries of the Religious Public Sphere in Methodist Women’s Conversion Narratives

A version of this paper will be presented at the special session on “Serious Religion at Play in the Long Eighteenth Century,” M/MLA Convention, St. Louis, MO, November 5, 2011.

In the year 1778, the people called Methodists had been preaching in different parts of the country, sometime before I went to hear them.  They were much spoken against.  It being much pressed on my mind, in the month of February, I went to hear Mr. Shadford.  I liked his doctrine exceeding well; but I had no mind to join the Society, till it was made known to me that they were the Servants of God, sent to shew us the way of salvation.  However, I went from time to time to hear, and grew more and more happy every day.  After some time, I again covenanted with God in the following manner: Lord, as I have chosen Thee to be my God and Guide, I now choose thy People to be my people.  I then joined the Society, for which I have much reason to praise God ever since. – Rachel BruffArminian Magazine, 1787

And now, dear Sir, I have endeavoured to give the relation desired by you; though to be as particular as I might, would take up too much paper, and too much of your time.  Excuse what difficiencies you will find in this, and believe me, with the utmost duty and respect, your friend and servant. – Elizabeth ScaddanArminian Magazine, 1791

In these extracts from John Wesley’s Arminian Magazine we see the complex interplay between orality, spiritual experience, belief, conversion, and print that characterized early Methodism.  This complex nexus worked to produce a developed culture of evangelicalism during the period that worked to form a fully developed religious public sphere.  Since the publication of Jurgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere the 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 (something Habermas never even considered) emerged and matured over the course of the long eighteenth century in conjunction with the liberal “secular” public sphere.  As Jon Mee has pointed out:

Habermas’s notion of the bourgeois public sphere, with its newspapers being discussed in coffee houses and clubs, its periodicals encouraging the circulation of sound knowledge and banning disputation in religion from its pages, had an alter ego in the heterotopias of chapels, field meetings, and the huge circulation of popular religious pamphlets and sermons.  Eighteenth-century notions of civility were almost defined by the exclusion of this kind of religious literature with its tendency to rancor, disputation, and ecstasies (72-73).

While I would certainly agree with Mee’s overarching point that a developed religious public sphere encompassing a vast network of print, sermons, and field meetings existed during the eighteenth century I would take issue with the idea that these networks constituted a counter-public.  Instead, I will argue that this religious public sphere was actually the product of the same enlightenment discourses that brought the secularized bourgeois public sphere into being.  In this sense the religious public sphere did not operate so much as a reactionary counter-public sphere opposed to “notions of civility,” but as part and parcel of the larger societal debate over the role of evangelical religion in public life that was largely played out on the pages of the periodical press.

Of course, it has long been assumed that the evangelical religion that arose and spread during the Evangelical Revivals in England and America was diametrically opposed to Enlightenment.  However as Michael Warner has recently pointed out, “Far from being simply a reaction against an already congealed ‘Enlightenment,’ eighteenth-century evangelical practices came into being through many of the same media and norms of discourse.  What we now call evangelicalism can be seen as the transformation of older strains of pietism by public sphere forms….  Indeed, it is not clear that enlightenment and evangelical religion were recognizable to contemporaries as opposing forces” (Preacher’s Footing  368).  Thus evangelicalism in fact participated in the same norms of discourse that created what Warner has termed an “evangelical public sphere” during the eighteenth century.  This evangelical public sphere operated alongside the secular in ways that “required the space of controversy afforded by competing printers, the compressed and progressive temporality of news, awareness of translocal fields of circulation, and a semiotic ideology of uptake” (Freethought and Evangelicalism 11:00).

In other words, evangelicalism was not a reaction to Enlightenment, instead the two were in many ways mutually constitutive, relying on many of the same foundations.  One of the most crucial foundations was the advent of the public sphere.  By only positing the public sphere in terms of secularization and liberalization scholars have thus overlooked the fact that the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century participated in a robust public sphere of print and periodical literature that still dwarfed secular publications throughout the century. By 1830, for example, The Sunday School Magazine had sold over 30 million copies far more than any other contemporary title, while the Arminian Magazine and its successor Methodist Magazine regularly outsold the better known Gentleman’s Magazine.  Whitefield and Wesley’s print empires dominated the literary marketplace of the eighteenth century with their published journals going through hundreds of editions on both sides of the Atlantic.

Furthermore, aside from their own publication successes, the journals of Whitefield and Wesley provoked further writing and further print in the mode Clifford Siskin has detailed in The Work of Writing – turning readers into authors (163-170).  Individual converts imitated Wesley’s confessional style and 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.

This proliferation of print that the Evangelical Revival spawned was, of course, in direct conversation with the “secular” public sphere – indicating not so much a binary relation, but a close, symbiotic relationship tied together through mediation and circulation.  In conjunction with attacks on Methodist preachers and meeting houses, anti-Methodist literature proliferated during the period.  Novels by Smollet (Humpry Clinker) and Fielding (Joseph Andrews) lampooned Methodists as deranged enthusiasts.  Pamphlets by religious leaders like the Bishop of London compared them to Catholics and cheap print like The Story of the Methodist-lady; or, The Injur’d Husband’s Revenge: A True History, cast Methodists as disturbers of the social and domestic order. 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 discourse were very much part of the public conversation in the eighteenth century in large partbecause of the medium of print.

However I would argue that it is exactly the discourse that is at stake here, not the actual doctrine of justification by faith.  As Michael Warner has argued, we must attempt to understand evangelicalism “not by the doctrinal emphasis which has so far dominated the intellectual history of evangelicalism since almost all of these doctrinal elements could be found almost anywhere, anytime,” and instead move toward an approach that examines the “discourse culture of evangelicalism” (Printing and Preaching 31:00).  To do so we must examine the discourse of popular evangelicalism more broadly – moving beyond print to the relationship between print and orality in early evangelicalism.  As Warner puts it, “In a movement context that mixes printed and preached sermons with pamphlets and newspapers, performance and print were densely laminated together” (Printing and Preaching 42:00).

In the case of Methodism this confluence between print and orality was inherent in the Methodist media culture.  In his published Journal, John Wesley not only records his extensive travels, but also details the sermons he preached – many in the open air to thousands of listeners.  However, in contrast to his printed sermons which are composed and arranged specifically for publication, in the Journal Wesley usually only recounts the Scripture passage he preached on and the number of people he preached to.  These mostly ex tempore public sermons were shaped by his context and his public audience, and the account of them in the printed journal thus highlights the unbounded nature of his audience and his text.  Nevertheless, the fact that an account of the sermon made it into the Journal and that some version of it was eventually printed illustrates the closely intertwined nature of Methodist public space.

However it was the very unbounded nature of open air Methodist itinerant preaching that was perceived as the greatest threat to the established social norms.  Anglican parish preaching was directed in mostly set language (The Book of Common Prayer and the Homilies) to a very specific and set group of people within a sanctioned public space by an ordained priest – itinerant Methodist preachers, on the other hand, openly operated outside of this established structure.  Mostly un-ordained and uneducated, and thus outside of the established structure, they moved from town to town preaching ex tempore in the open air or unsanctioned chapels.  Many of their sermons were never printed, nevertheless the storm of controversy they stirred up (both for and against) clearly made its way into print and informed the national conversation on the Revival.  Thus it was this “unauthorized” entrance into the public space of preaching – the claim to be able to address an unbounded audience – that caused much of the animosity towards Methodism.  In other words, to paraphrase Michael Warner, it was the discourse not the doctrine of the revival that was at issue.

An example of this can be found in the Account of the Experience of Hester Ann Rogers.  After confessing her childish sins of card playing and dancing, Rogers relates her reaction to the new Methodist preacher, Mr. Simpson:

I heard various accounts of a clergyman whom my uncle Roe had recommended to be curate at Macclesfield, and who was said to be a Methodist. This conveyed to my mind as unpleasing an idea of him, as if he had been called a Romish priest; being fully persuaded that to be a Methodist was to be all that is vile, under a mask of piety. These prejudices were owing to the false stories which from time to time I heard repeated to my father, when about seven or eight years old; and also many more which my mother heard after his death, and to the present time: so that I believed their teachers were the false prophets spoken of in the Scripture: that they deceived the illiterate, and were little better than common pickpockets; that they filled some of their hearers with presumption, and drove others to despair: that with respect to their doctrines, they enforced chiefly, that whosoever embraced their tenets, which they called faith, might live as they pleased, in all sin, and be sure of salvation: and that all the world besides must be damned without remedy: that they had dark meetings, and pretended to cast out devils, with many other things equally false and absurd; but all of which I believed. I heard also, that this new clergyman preached against all my favourite diversions, such as going to plays, reading novels, attending balls, assemblies, card tables, &c. But I resolved he should not make a convert of me; and that if I found him, on my return home, such as was represented, I would not go often to hear him (15-16).

Thus Rogers’ objection to the Methodist Mr. Simpson has very little to do with anything he actually believes or preaches and very much to do with the way in which he disturbs the order of society.  As she writes later, “When I came back to Macclesfield, the whole town was in alarm. My uncle Roe, and my cousins, seemed very fond of Mr. Simpson, and told me he was a most excellent man; but that all the rest of my relations were exasperated against him (16-18).  Simply my participating in the discourse of Methodism, then, Mr. Simpson calls up the specter of unbounded enthusiasm and disruption of the social order.  In fact, after Hester becomes a Methodist she receives an ultimatum from her family and ends up working as her mother’s servant for over a year just so she can remain in the house after she is in essence disowned.

More than that, though, Rogers’ account illustrates how closely intertwined orality and print were in early Methodism.  Sprinkled throughout her published Account are references to sermons by Mr. Simpson, John Wesley and others.  Ostensibly instances of the localized orality of popular religion, evidence of these sermons nevertheless make it into print accounts – the most famous and published of which was Rogers’.  Likewise the women who wrote in to the Arminian Magazine participated in this conversation between orality and print, often giving accounts of revivals and sermons for the larger Methodist public.  Thus early evangelical media culture worked to form a type of feedback loop within which the genres of public oral sermon and printed discourse were constantly in conversation.  And it was this feedback loop of orality and print that threatened to break down the established public boundaries between private spirituality and public life.

To better illustrate how this evangelical public sphere operated and was contested I want to turn now to the role of women writers within the Evangelical Revival.  For not only do these evangelical women writers illustrate how print could be used to blur gendered distinctions between public and private, they were also the locus for much of the anti-Methodist criticism and satire.  In general the women of early Methodism used their private, internal experience as a way to disrupt the categories of public and private.  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 context I would argue that the role of gender within religion was at the root of the doctrinal controversies that the Revival engendered. Thus 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.  This anxiety is everywhere apparent in Leigh Hunt’s Attempt to Shew the Folly and Danger of Methodism in which he states, “We may see directly what influence the body has upon this kind of devotion [Methodism], if we examine the temperament of its professors.  The female sex, for instance, are acknowledged to possess the greater bodily sensibility, and it is the women who chiefly indulge in these love-sick visions of heaven” (55).  Thus what is really at stake in the print wars over Methodism is not so much the doctrine of justification by faith but the eroding of social boundaries via spiritual experience.

Women’s Conversion Narratives and the Arminian Magazine

One of the main outlets for women’s writing during the Evangelical Revival was John Wesley’s Arminian Magazine. Wesley founded the Arminian Magazine in 1778 in direct response to growing tensions within the evangelical revival over the question of predestination. However the real purpose of the magazine, for Wesley, was to defend “universal redemption” against predestination not only through polemic and theological argument, but also through the personal experiences of actual Methodist men and women.  This real-life experience was proof positive for Wesley that the salvation experience was available to all.

It is in this context that Wesley solicited personal religious experience accounts for the Arminian Magazine.  Religious accounts had always been important to Wesley as validations of his ministry.  His published Journal not only served as an apologia for Wesley’s ministry but also, according to Hindmarsh, worked to mimetically produce both spiritual experiences and spiritual experience accounts by lay people, thus creating a kind of “narrative community” (127-128).  Furthermore, from the earliest days of the movement both Wesley brothers encouraged their lay preachers and members to record their spiritual experiences and send them as letters, some of which were later published in theArminian Magazine.

Especially under Wesley’s editorship, which he maintained until his death in 1791, the widely circulated Magazine, served as an ideal outlet for women’s writing.  Tolar Burton has estimated that, of the 238 biographical accounts in theArminian Magazine, 79 are about women (200).  Interestingly enough, 113 of these accounts were published between the inception of the magazine in 1778 and Wesley’s death in 1791 (Jones 275), at which time men’s and women’s accounts were almost equally represented (Tolar Burton 200).  Wesley also regularly published stand alone pamphlets by  women that detailed their conversion and spiritual experiences – the most famous being the Account of the Experience of Hester Ann Rogers, which remained in print on both sides of the Atlantic until the end of the nineteenth century.  What is especially interesting about these narratives is that the majority of them are by or about Methodist lay-women – ordinary women who wrote to Wesley about their conversion and experience of faith.  Thus, not only did Methodism offer the women a space within the burgeoning public sphere, their accounts in turn worked to expose the very binaries that constructed this sphere as inherently gendered spaces in need of subversion.

For example after her conversion Elizabeth Scaddan relates how her family gave her an ultimatum, telling her she “should no longer remain with them; that they would disown me; and accordingly I had only till the next morning to determine what answer to give them” (XIV: 187).  Eventually her family backed down, but it was not atypical for family members to be distressed at their daughters or wives becoming Methodists.  This concern reflected not only contemporary prejudices against the doctrine of justification by faith, but also the prevalence of false rumors that were widely spread about the Methodists accusing them of Popery and even sponsoring orgies at their “love feasts,” or communal gatherings.

What these concerns indicate is that controversy over religious doctrine in eighteenth century England was rooted in something far deeper than scholastic arguments over the nature of salvation and redemption.  The average layperson may not have understood why Wesley’s doctrine of justification by faith and insistence on immediate sensible conversion caused such uproar within the Church establishment, but he or she surely understood that such doctrines threatened social order in radical ways.  Implicit in Wesley’s assertion that God’s grace was a free gift and salvation was available to all was an understanding of doctrine that exploded static categories of rich/poor, male/female, public/private.  By emphasizing that the experience of salvation could be sensibly experienced outside of Church walls, Methodism offered a fundamental redefinition of self based on personal experience with God and interaction with a new community of faith.

Furthermore, early Methodism was in many quarters considered profoundly countercultural.  As Clive Field’s comprehensive survey of early Methodist membership lists tentatively suggests, the perceived threat to social structures reflects the fact that a disproportionate number of Methodist members tended to be drawn from the skilled trades – mining, carpentry, weaving, etc – though this could vary by locality (165).  In this type of local economic activity families had a vested economic interest in their sons and daughters remaining in the family trade (Malmgreen 64).  The concern on the part of fathers, mothers, and husbands was that if their daughters or wives were out participating in Methodism meetings they would not be at home helping raise the family or contributing financially (Field 157).  Likewise, by developing a grassroots system of classes, bands, and select bands in order to foster a unique Methodist social community, Wesley created an organization that operated with what Gail Malmgreen describes as a “centrifugal force” which brought individuals together across wide distances and “broke down the narrowness of provincial life” (62).  For this very reason, though, these bands were seen as profoundly threatening to existing social and religious structures; thus it should come as no surprise that the early years of Methodism were accompanied by intense persecution in the form of riots, press gangs, and family pressure to renounce Methodism.

In becoming Methodists these women were in essence declaring their allegiance to a new spiritual family that was set in direct opposition to mainstream British culture.  Henceforth their primary allegiance was to God and the Methodist community and, as Elizabeth Scaddan’s testimony illustrates, they were willing to give up everything to do so.  They did so not to make a political or feminist statement, but because they felt they owed allegiance to a higher moral authority.  Such self-determination in the face of vigorous opposition from friends and family defined many women’s experience with Methodism, especially in the early days of the movement, and it partially explains why they felt compelled to speak out in public about the true nature of their religious experiences.

Conversion not only operated to break down social and cultural bonds, however, it also granted a sense of liberatory agency that licensed Methodist women to disrupt the public/private binary in print. For example, Rachel Bruffdescribes writes:

One day I bowed myself at the Redeemer’s feet, and determined not to let him go without the blessing.  And glory be to his Name!  in a moment my burden was gone.  My soul was now so enraptured with a sense of his love, that I was constrained to praise his name aloud.  From that time he has been constantly with me, and has borne me up above all my sins, temptations, and sufferings (X:192).

Likewise, M.Taylor states, “There is now a free and open intercourse betwixt God and my soul…. My soul cries out for love, and hungers and thirsts for more, and to be more united to him who is my all in all” (XIV: 619).  Mrs. Planchesimilarly uses the language of liberation to describe her experience:

He came into my soul with such a display of his grace and love, as I never knew before.  All my bands were loosed, and my spirit was set perfectly free.  I felt an entire deliverance from all the remains of sin in my nature; and my precious Jesus took full possession of my heart (XIV: 421).

Thus in each case these women represent conversion as an overwhelming experience of God’s love that destroys sin by entering into them and taking possession of their hearts.  Furthermore, they tend to represent this experience in almost erotic terms – using the language of love and affection to describe the sensory feeling of sanctification.  This would seem to suggest that these women view this experience in much the same terms as a human relationship – their relationship with Christ is cemented in Christian perfection through the mystical union of their soul and body with Christ.  Unlike similar accounts by men, perfection for these women is an intensely embodied experience that licenses public action.

Thus it appears that women, more than men, saw their sanctifying submission to God as an empowering or agency-granting experience in the sense that their primary allegiance was to God, not men.  The experience of sanctification empowered them to speak and act in ways that would have been inconceivable before because they believed they were operating as God’s agent in the world.  In fact at the end of her narrative Elizabeth Scaddan explicitly asks her audience to “excuse what difficiencies [sic] you will find.”  Despite these perceived “difficiencies,” however, these women overcome their reservations because they see themselves as called to speak out and testify to the broader Methodist community about what God has done in their lives.  This has the radical effect of opening up a space in discourse within which lay-women can use religious experience as a means of participating in a fully developed religious public sphere that calls into question the very nature of the public/private, inner experience/outward action binary itself.

Works Cited

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.

Field, Clive D. “The Social Composition of English Methodism to 1830: A Membership Analysis.” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library 76.1 (1994): 153-178.

Fielding, Henry. Joseph Andrews and Shamela. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

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

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

Hunt, Leigh. An Attempt to Shew the Folly and Danger of Methodism. 1809.

Jones, Margaret P. “From ‘The State of My Soul’ to ‘Exalted Piety’: Women’s Voices in the Arminian/Methodist Magazine, 1778-1821.” Gender and Christian Religion.  Woodbridge: Suffolk, 1998. 273-286.

Malmgreen, Gail. “Domestic Discords: Women and the Family in East Cheshire Methodism, 1750-1830.” Disciplines of Faith: Studies in Religion, Politics and Patriarchy. Ed. Jim Obelkevich, et al. London: Routledge, 1987. 55-70.

Mee, Jon. Romanticism, Enthusiasm, and Regulation: Poetics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

Planche, Mrs. “An Account of Mrs. Planche. [Written by herself sometime before her death.].” Arminian Magazine August  1791: 416-423.

Scaddan, Elizabeth. “The Experience of Elizabeth Scaddan: in a Letter to the Rev. Mr. Wesley  Feb. 3, 1783.” Arminian Magazine April 1791: 182-188.

Siskin, Clifford. The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain, 1700-1830. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.

Taylor, M. “The Experience of M. Taylor. [Written by herself.].”Arminian Magazine December     1791: 613-619.

Tolar Burton, Vicki. Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism: Reading, Writing, and Speaking to Believe. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008.

Warner, Michael. “The Evangelical Public Sphere: Between Freethought and Evangelicalism: Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin.” A.S.W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography. University of Pennsylvania. 25 March 2009.

—. “The Evangelical Public Sphere: Printing and Preaching: What is a Sermon?.” A.S.W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography. University of Pennsylvania. 25 March 2009.

—. “The Preacher’s Footing.” This is Enlightenment. Ed. Clifford Siskin, and William Warner. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010. 368-382.

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

Materiality, Immateriality, and the Mediation of Millennium during the Revolution Controversy

This paper will be presented at the Canadian Society for Eighteenth Century Studies Conference, Hamilton, Ontario, Oct. 28, 2011.

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke begins his polemic by likening prominent Dissenter Richard Price’s sermon in favor of the French Revolution to the worst religious excesses of the English Civil War:

That sermon is in a strain which I believe has not been heard in this kingdom, in any of the pulpits which are tolerated or encouraged in it, since the year 1648, when a predecessor of Dr. Price, the Reverend Hugh Peters, made the vault of the king’s own chapel at St. James’s ring with the honour and privilege of the Saints, who, with the “high praises of God in their mouths, and a two edged sword in their hands, were to execute judgment on the heathen, and punishments upon the people; to bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron” (13)

In rhetorically linking the Civil War to the French Revolution Burke thus calls up the ghosts of that turbulent time – ghosts that still haunted the public at large.  More importantly, Burke suggests that part of the problem with the rhetoric of the Civil War was the blurring of the lines between preaching and prophecy – the overtaking of reasoned discourse and scholarly Biblical interpretation by ranting “enthusiasts,” who prophesied a world turned upside down.  It was this threat that Burke saw threatening England once again.

This threat was exacerbated (in Burke’s mind) by the proliferation of cheap printed prophecies that were distributed to the general population.  For Burke the mechanical printing press was dangerous in its ability to “make a kind of electrick communication everywhere”(380) thus facilitating, according to Jon Mee, “the ‘mechanic’ spasming of enthusiastic philosophers (91). Thus Burke’s harangue is also a testament to the long life of prophecy in print.  By drawing up the specter of the Civil War prophets Burke is also drawing attention to the complex connections between printed prophecy then and the perseverance of those prophecies throughout the eighteenth century – prophecies like those of Lady Eleanor Davies that would be later be echoed in the millenarian works of people like Richard Brothers.

Furthermore if, as Siskin and Warner have recently argued, Enlightenment is an event in the history of mediation (1) then I would argue that its supposed opposite number, enthusiastic millenarianism, is also an event in the history of mediation.  From the moment that Lady Eleanor Davies published her prophecies rather than spoke them publically, millenarianism was no longer the sole domain of the individual prophet in the wilderness – it had entered the complex and rapidly expanding network of print, publicity, and public sanction.  Millenarianism was now as much the domain of printers, booksellers, and hawkers as it was of the religious mystic – it was something that could be commoditized, commercialized, and easily transmitted.

Thus, what I want to do here is trace the legacy of millenarianism in print from the Civil War to the Revolution controversy and detail some of the ways in which the new technologies of mediation shaped prophecy and how prophecy in turn shaped mediation technologies.  In doing so I will focus on two exemplary prophets: Lady Eleanor Davies and Richard Brothers – both of whom used print in self-consciously new ways to promote their message and both of whom ultimately paid the penalty for it in court.  More than that, though, I want to work to expose some of the networks of print that were born in the era of Lady Eleanor and endured through to the 1790’s – networks that included both the professional printers and booksellers, and a more radical underground network among whom millenarian prophecy never lost currency during the eighteenth century (Makdisi 297).  Finally, I want to consider some of the ways in which millenarianism has found outlet in our modern mediation technologies and what this might mean for how we interact with them and they in turn with us.

Lady Eleanor Davies

Lady Eleanor Davies (1590-1652) was the fifth daughter of Baron Audeley, the first earl of Castlehaven.  She was married in 1609 to Sir John Davies, an attorney in the King’s service.  Until 1625 there was nothing particularly remarkable about her life.  However on July 28, 1625 she heard the voice of the prophet Daniel from heaven saying, “There is Ninteene years and a halfe to the day of Judgement and you as the meek Virgin.”  She interpreted this as a prophetic call and began publishing prophesies proclaiming the impending judgment that specifically criticized both the King (who acceded to the throne the same year Lady Eleanor heard the voice from heaven) and the governance of the Church of England under Archbishop William Laud.  She gained even more notoriety when she correctly predicted both the death of her husband in 1626 and the Duke of Buckingham in 1628. She quickly remarried Archibald Douglas, who claimed to be Charles II’s older brother and thus the rightful heir to the throne (Cope xi-xii).

In 1633 Lady Eleanor was arrested and sent to prison by Archbishop Laud for the illicit publication of her prophecy, Given to the Elector, which he burnt in front of her.  She remained imprisoned in the Gatehouse for two and a half years and upon her release she promptly destroyed the altar-hanging at Litchfield Cathedral and was committed to Bedlam.  She was later transferred to the Tower of London and remained in prison until 1640 (Cope xv-xvii).  In 1645 she interpreted the trial and execution of Archbishop Laud as the fulfillment of her prophecy of judgment made in 1625.  She continued to prophesy the coming kingdom of God until her death in 1652 and the printed prophecies she left behind represent one of the largest collection of writing by a seventeenth century woman.

What is particularly interesting about Lady Eleanor’s prophecies, however, is that they were meant for print.  Unlike the other prophets of the Civil War Lady Eleanor did not prophesy on street corners, walk naked as a sign, or fall into prophetic trances.  In fact her only real public demonstration (the destruction of the altar hanging at Litchfield) was largely a wordless event.  Instead Lady Eleanor focused her attention on print and her books.  However, as Lisa Maruca has pointed out, “print is a site in which the book as a tangible object meets the meaningful text contained within its pages” (4).  In other words, the production of print extends beyond the post-Romantic notion of the solitary genius author to the print technologies that made the book possible (the type, the press, etc) and the print workers that transferred words to type.  In fact she argues that, prior to the mid-eighteenth century the author was equally important as the printer, bookseller, hawker, etc.  In the case of Lady Eleanor, she and the printers she worked with took on substantial risk as, before the Civil War, it was illegal to print anything outside the Stationer’s Guild monopoly.  For this reason Lady Eleanor travelled to Holland early on in her career to print her most controversial prophecy, Given to the Elector, an event she describes inEverlasting Gospel:

And so pursuing the Prophetical History in the next place, That it might be fulfilled out of the Low Countreys, &c. as the Virgin when undertook her voyage, she fleeing for the Babes preservation thither; also constrained for printing the same, to go into Holland, those plain swathing-bands for wrapping it in, pretending in her husbands behalf theSpaw obtained a License, since none for printing to be had here, inquisition and hold such, among them imprisoned about it formerly, till afterward all as free, Cum Privilegio out of date become (288).

This passage is particular interesting in that, not only is she describing the “birth” of her most controversial prophecy – the one that got her imprisoned and condemned by Archbishop Laud – she is doing so in gendered terms and in the language of print.  Her books are her “Babes” – a term that takes on special resonance considering her prophetic identification as a virgin.  She goes to Holland because she cannot obtain a license to print in England and works with printers there to produce a religio-political text that lives on in print, despite being burned by the archbishop.

This gendered imagery of giving birth to the printed word also ties in closely to the physical production of her texts.  As Lisa Maruca argues, seventeenth century printing manuals often described the printing process in embodied and gendered terms.  So, for example, Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercisesdescribes the casting of letters thus: “[t]he Female Block is such another Block as the Male Block, only, instead of a Tongue running through the length of it aGroove is made to receive the Tongue of the Male-Block” (qtd. in Maruca 40).  Thus the mechanistic work that these letters then perform, Maruca argues, “is an essential part of the creation of words…. So, apparently, from the sex of machinery, a unit of language is born” 40-41).  In the case of Lady Eleanor, her printed works really are her “babes,” created through the illicit intercourse of radical prophet and underground printer.  The printed text that results is dangerous and destabilizing to the ruling hierarchy precisely because the prophetic message has found voice in the printed word.

All of these elements are on clear display in Given to the Elector, the only one of Lady Eleanor’s prophecies written in ballad form.  It was published in 1633 and then again in 1648 – on both occasions in sought to address specific socio-political circumstances.  The content of the prophecy conflates the events of Daniel 5, specifically Belshazzar’s feast, with what she sees (in 1633) as Charles I’s impending doom.  What is most interesting, however, is not so much the content of the text, but how it is printed.  On either side of the main body of text, Lady Eleanor has had glosses printed that sometimes help interpret the prophecy and at others simply obscure it further.  For example, the body of the text conflates the writing on the wall that disturbs Belshazzar’s feast with the failure of Charles I to amend his ways.  In two places the marginal notes repeat the three words written on the wall predicting Belshazzar’s doom, “Mene Tekel Upharsin” and in one Lady Eleanor transfers the words to an anagram reading, “Parlement House King: in number about 666,” thus further tying corrupt government to apocalyptic prediction.

This particular passage is significant in that it was precisely her Biblical interpretation applied to current events that got her in the most trouble.  In fact when Lady Eleanor was brought before the Archbishop he overlooked her slights on King Charles and identified her most grievous offenses as claiming to be able to interpret prophecy and then (worst of all) having it printed without a license.  This is the account Lady Eleanor gives of his accusations in herBlasphemous Charge:

That she had lately compiled and written, and caused to be printed and published, the three several Schedules annexed to the said Articles, some containing Expositions of divers parts of the Chapters of the Prophet Daniel, But forasmuch as she took upon her (which much unbeseemed her Sex) not only to interpret the Scriptures, and withal the most intricate and hard places of the Prophet Daniel, but also to be a Prophetess, falsly pretending to have received certain Revelations for God, and had compiled certain Books of such her fictions and false Prophesies or Revelations, which she had in person carried with her beyond the Seas, and had there procured them to be printed without License, and after brought them over here into England, and here without License, vented and dispersed them, or some of them, contrary to the Decree of Star-Chamber” (252-253).

That a woman would claim to be able to understand the prophecies of Daniel was bad enough, but that she would dare to publish such prophecies in print and that there was a printer willing to do it testifies to the dangerous destabilizing effect such works could have.  For once in the public space such work was uncontrollable – the Archbishop could burn all the books he could find, but copies still remained and Lady Eleanor herself survived long enough to haveGiven to the Elector printed again in 1648.  Her work, then, is a testament not only to the power of prophetic discourse in the seventeenth century, but to the power of print technologies and printers in the turbulent times leading up to the Civil War.

Richard Brothers

Richard Brothers, "Prince of the Hebrews"

Richard Brothers (1757-1824) was a penniless former naval officer who, after being discharged for refusing to take the oath of loyalty, began to prophesy against war with France in 1792 (Paley 261).  He quickly gained a following in London when several of his early prophecies seemingly came true and in 1794 he published the first book of his Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times followed by a longer second book in 1795.  Both books worked to reinterpret Biblical prophecy to relate to the present situation in Europe and his own prophetic calling.  They also predicted a new millennial kingdom to be established in Jerusalem with him as its king.  Both books were severely critical of the government and the war with France, even going so far as to call for King George III to step down and be replaced by Brothers himself.  On March 4, 1795 Brothers was arrested and examined by the Privy Council; unable to officially charge him with treason, they nevertheless declared him insane and sent him to an asylum, where he remained until 1806 (Paley 261).

Unlike Davies, however, Brothers participated in the electrically charged and fully developed public sphere of the 1790’s.  He was immediately revelation, with acolytes flocking to his home and followers and critics battling it out in the popular press.  It would be safe to say that everyone in London during 1794 and 1795 knew who Richard Brothers was and had an opinion on him.  Print had truly come of age and Brothers realized that it was the ideal medium for prophecy.  As Susan Juster argues, prophets like Brothers “were much more self-consciously immersed in the expanding world of print culture, which formed not only the medium but the message of their republican brand of prophecy” (160).  This self conscious awareness of the power of print is reflected in the Revealed Knowledge itself as, in several sections, Brothers reflects on the production, materiality, and transmissibility of his own text.  Thus the millennial message is truly made possible by the radical re-envisioning of the medium of print.

An example of this self-consciousness occurs in the second book of theRevealed Knowledge in which Brothers recounts his prophetic call in terms of God’s command to print his message: “The night before I had finished this book for the press,” he writes, “the Lord God shewed it to me in a vision, ready printed, holding it up at the same time by one leaf, and shaking all the others open, while he pronounced, in strong clear words, and commanded me to write them down exactly as he spoke, for universal information” (101-102).  Here prophecy has been transformed from the “voice of one calling in the wilderness,” into a material object – the printed book as the medium of prophecy.  Thus the printed word has been transformed from transmitter of millennium into the creator of millennium – it is through the medium of print that the millennial vision can be spoken into being in the first place.

Likewise in the preface to the second book, Brothers posits his prophetic call in terms of the command to write, and revise, “revealed knowledge”:

The following are the words which the Lord God spoke to me in a vision, soon after I was commanded to write and make known his judgments, for the good of London and general benefits of all nations: There is no other man under the whole heaven that I discover the errors of the Bible to, and reveal a knowledge how to correct them, so that they may be restored as they were in the beginning, but yourself.

Here Brothers both reiterates his call to write, and by extension print his prophecies, but he frames this call in terms of “correcting” or reinterpreting the “errors” in the Bible.  By doing this Brothers performs a self-reflexive turn in which he reflects on the formal characteristics of his printed text.  Much of theRevealed Knowledge is structured like Scripture – indeed much of it is direct quotations from prophetic passages like the ever popular Daniel 7 – however Brothers alters or “corrects” these already printed texts in order to shape the to his prophetic goal.  In other words there is a kind of double act of mediation going on as Brothers both mediates God’s message in print and remediates passages of Scripture.  In this, as with Lady Eleanor’s prophecies, the establishment objection to prophecy had as much to do with this unauthorized remediation as it did with the actual content of the prophecies.

In was within this context that Brothers, like Davies, faced the most serious threat of legal sanction for, though the licensing acts that bound Davies had long lapsed, the charged atmosphere of the revolution controversy brought new types of sanctions on radical print.  In this context it was not only the individual prophet that faced prosecution, but publishers and booksellers as well.  It was as much the circulation of print that the government feared as it was its radical content.  Thus Godwin’s expensive edition of Political Justice was allowed to be distributed while Paine was run out of the country for The Rights of Man.

This was also a fact of which Brothers was self-consciously aware.  In the second book of the Revealed Knowledge he comments that, “After the first division of this copy was sent to be printed, and even some of it done, the printer was advised not to do it according to my form; for, if he did, prosecution, imprisonment, and perhaps hanging, would be the consequence to him” (99).  Indeed the threats of prosecution, imprisonment, or worse during the 1790’s were very real, as is evidenced by the trial and imprisonment of noted radical bookseller Joseph Johnson in 1798.  And, even though Brothers’ works were not radical in the way Thelwall’s or Paine’s were the government had significant reason to worry radical printers disseminating both types of works.

It was this type of promiscuous reading that Edmund Burke most feared in inveighing against the “electrick communication” of print.  As Juster argues, “this was “a moment when the acts of reading and writing became politicized to an unprecedented degree and the nation itself constructed along textual lines.  Print was the primary medium of prophecy in the late eighteenth century, a fact of which prophets themselves were keenly aware as they sought to claim the privileges of authorship for themselves and instill the responsibilities of readership their audience” (143-144).  In this Brothers participates in a discourse that is both backwards looking, towards the ecstatic prophecy of the Civil War, and forwards looking, towards the rise of the Romantic author and the de-spiritualization of prophecy itself.

Millennial Mediations

It is here we come to some of the points of conversion between Davies and Brothers for, in addition to using print as the primary medium of prophecy, they both reference a very specific millennial genre.  In offering interpretations of obscure scripture passages and envisioning a new millennial kingdom Brothers accesses a tradition that gained currency during the Civil War which over 100 years had never completely erased.  Indeed scripture commentaries, especially the books of Daniel and Revelation remained popular throughout the eighteenth century, with even Sir Isaac Newton entering the fray towards the end of his life.  Furthermore the, in Jon Mee’s term “dangerous enthusiasm,” of millenarian print never really went away over the course of the century, it just went underground in the form of Jacobitism, Muggletonianism, other radical movements that relied on millenarian visions.   Playing on the public’s unease over the Revolution, the wars on the continent, and the political unrest at home, then, prophets like Brothers resurrected this underground discourse of millennium to reflect the concerns of the populace in print.  In fact, I would argue that without print, this fusion of millennial speculation and political radicalism would not have been possible in the first place.

But I want to go further and suggest that, for Davies and Brothers, mediation was not merely the means of transmitting millennial visions, but the actual space of millennium itself.  Through the use of print, both writers attempted to create a critical distance from culture that allowed for the advent of the kingdom of God, if not in an actual political space, then in the minds and hearts of the populace at large. In tracing this millennial space prophets like Brothers used mediation technologies that existed largely outside the control of the state to access a subversive underground of prophetic rhetoric that had the power to apocalyptically shape reality. Thus the mediation of millennium that I have tracked from Davies to Brothers opens up a space that works to reveal the true nature of reality (apocalypse) and break down mental boundaries between the individual self and community.

Postscript: Millennial Mediation in the Age of WikiLeaks

Though the religious millenarianism of the eighteenth century has largely disappeared from modern culture, it still has currency in some corners of society.  Radical interpretations of premillenial dispensationalist theology by people like Harold Camping who started the May 21st  doomsday movement still exist and their propagators shrewdly use the internet to spread their message.  Likewise radical Islamic jihadism has effectively moved online – leading to the U.S. targeted killing of radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.  That these movements gain any traction at all is an indication of the types of social unrest that characterize both our era and the 1790’s.  People naturally look for an ideological release valve and, for some, these millenarians provide it.

However in my mind true millenarianism has become largely de-secularized and is now located within the cyber-community of online hacktivists like Julian Assange of Wikileaks, Anonymous, and LulzSec.  These groups have all articulated a millennial ideology of the free exchange of information and technology on the internet and have showed little compunction about breaking laws to make that happen.  Indeed organizations like Anonymous have illustrated that they can launch targeted Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks against major corporations like VISA, Paypal, or Bank of America at will; while more recently LulzSec has demonstrated that it is possible to hack into the secure servers of almost any major corporation or government in the world.

On a more sinister level, the creators of the Conficker worm have demonstrated that it is possible to take down the internet altogether – thus creating a true apocalyptic scenario.  All this is to say that mediation continues to be the outlet for millennium – a millenarianism that challenges the core institutions of the liberal democratic state and the capitalist class that supports it.  The battle for control of the internet is still being fought, much as the battle for control of print was waged throughout the eighteenth century, and organizations like Wikileaks are articulating a vision of this technology that is not bounded by national borders or capital concerns.  In this they echo the ethos of their millenarian predecessors in the eighteenth century and they too understand that it is on the battlefield of mediation technologies that their cause will be won or lost.

Works Cited

Brothers, Richard. A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times: Book the First. London, 1794.

–. A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times: Book the Second. London, 1795.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. London: Dodsley, 1790.

–. The Writings and Speeches of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Vol. V. Boston: Little, Brown, 1901.

Davies, Lady Eleanor. The Prophetic Writings of Lady Eleanor Davies. Ed. Esther S. Cope. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Juster, Susan. Doomsayers : Anglo-American prophecy in the age of Revolution. Philadelphia, U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.

Makdisi, Saree. William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790’s. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003.

Mee, Jon. Romanticism, Enthusiasm, and Regulation: Poetics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

Paley, Morton D. “William Blake, The Prince of the Hebrews, and The Woman Clothed with the Sun.” William Blake: Essays in Honour of Sir Geoffrey Keynes. Ed. Morton D. Paley & Michael Phillips. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973. 260-293.

Siskin, Clifford, and William Warner. This is Enlightenment. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010.

Agnes Bulmer – Methodist Poetess

When most people think of “Methodism” and “poetry” together they naturally think of Charles Wesley.  Indeed, it could rightly be argued that the great poet and hymnist shaped the Methodist movement at least as much through his poetry as his more famous brother did.  However, scholarship on Methodist poetry (scanty as it is already) rarely moves beyond Charles and, when it does, it mainly considers such religious poets as curiosities – it generally makes no attempt to regard such poets in their own terms and take them seriously as poets – it most certainly never considers women.  Of no one is this truer than Agnes Collinson Bulmer.

Agnes Bulmer was the most notable poet of second generation Methodism – her epic Messiah’s Kingdom runs to twelve books and over 14,000 lines, a scale of ambition rarely seen since Milton.  It is certainly one of the longest poems of the nineteenth century and perhaps the longest poem ever written by a woman.  And yet this magnificent and important poem has received no serious scholarly attention.  This is due, in part, to long-standing elision of explicitly religious eighteenth century poetry in general and religious poetry by early evangelical women in particular.  Though feminist critics have done an admirable job of reintegrating women into the canon over the past thirty years, religious women continue to be written out or, when they are included (as in the case of someone like Hannah More) their writings are largely considered primarily in terms of gender, class, or politics and rarely in terms of the more primary category of religion.

This is especially true of writers like Bulmer who wrote almost solely on religious topics and who dared to do so in an epic poetic genre largely dominated by men.  Instead of being considered for their own literary and cultural merits, these works have largely been laid to the side as the cliché moralistic devotional poetry of the religious fanatic.  Indeed this is too often the case as religious writers of lesser talent (both women and men) often turned to scripture and sentimental cliché as a substitute for poetic vision; but it is not true of Bulmer, who used the materials she was given craft a cohesive and original poetic vision that speaks beyond its limited religious sphere to address the key moral, social, and political questions of the day in an original and powerful voice.  That subsequent critics have not recognized this has more to do with our preconceptions than the actual content of the text.

Agnes Collinson was born in London on August 31, 1775 to Edward and Elizabeth Collinson.  Both her parents were devout Methodists and personal friends of John Wesley.  She was baptized by Wesley and received her first Methodist class ticket from him in 1789.  By this time Wesley was a venerated figure both within and without Methodism and London had become the one of the key centers of the Methodist movement.  Here Agnes would have rubbed shoulders with the Methodist elite, her first class leader was Hester Ann Rogers and she also became acquainted with Elizabeth Mortimer – both major female leaders of early Methodism who present at Wesley’s death.

Early on Agnes exhibited a keen intellect and a marked talent for writing.  Her favorite book, aside from the Bible was Young’s Night Thoughts, a work that would have a profound influence on her later work.  She also began composing poetry early in life and her first poem, “On the Death of Charles Wesley,” was published in the Arminian Magazine in 1788, when she was just fourteen.  It is hardly great poetry, but it exceptional for a fourteen year old girl.  She also contributed a longer, more polished poem, Thoughts on a Future State to the posthumous 1794 edition of Hester Ann Rogers’ famous Account. It is a far more developed poem and one that indicates the direction her poetic vision was taking – incorporating a thoroughgoing knowledge of Scripture with a keen ear for poetic diction.

In 1793 Agnes married Joseph Bulmer, a London merchant and one of the stewards of the famous City Road Chapel.  By all accounts the marriage was a happy one and Joseph’s relative wealth allowed Agnes the leisure to pursue both poetry and deep involvement in the Methodist societies.  She was a frequent contributor to the Arminian Magazine, the later Methodist Magazine, and Youth’s Instructor.  She also carried on an extensive correspondence with the luminaries of the second generation Methodism, some of which was published after her death as Select Letters (these are currently unavailable in an electronic edition – I have a copy and will be transcribing at a later date).  Some of her notable friends included the prominent Methodism theologian Adam Clarke and Jabez Bunting, the powerful leader of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection.

It seems, however, than much of Bulmer’s greatest poetry revolved around and was spurred on by the experience of death.  Her husband Joseph died in 1822 and her mother in 1825.  It was after this second experience of nursing her mother during her final illness that Bulmer began her magnum opus: Messiah’s Kingdom.  Published in 1833 in twelve books, Messiah’s Kingdom is a momentous achievement by any standards.  At 14,000 lines it is 4,000 lines longer than its most obvious literary forbearer, Paradise Lost, and only 2,000 lines shorter than one of the longest poems of the Romantic period, Don Juan.  Its scope is tremendous, beginning (like Milton) with the fall of man and proceeding through the major events of the Old and New Testaments, the establishment of the Church, the Reformation, and up to the contemporaneous evangelical fight against slavery and social ills.  Its overriding theme is the establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth, first through his redemptive work on the cross and then through the actions of the individual Christian in society.

Length and scope, however, are not necessarily the best indicators of poetic worth.  This, combined with the fact that the subject matter of the poem is so explicitly religious, no doubt explain why it has been overlooked by serious scholars for so long.  Nevertheless, careful attention to the poem clearly indicates a marked poetic talent – a clear grasp of both content and form that are married together seamlessly.  As late nineteenth century biographer Annie Keeling put it, Bulmer composed the poem, “with a rare fervour and depth of conviction, with impassioned eloquence, and a style always musical and graceful, often rising in power.  The whole poem presents an attractive unconscious picture o a high, pure spirit delighting itself in the loftier regions of thought and speculation; and in the frequent lyrical outburst which break the flow of its rhymed heroic verse there is a certain swift and fiery quality, an airy grace of flight…” This quality is best exhibited in the lyric sections, like this one which links God’s promise to Noah to his promise to redeem humankind through the coming Messiah:

GLOOMY cloud, that, lowering low,
    Shadowest nature’s lovely light,
Wide thy deepening darkness thrown
    Catch the sunbeam bursting bright;
Gently on thy humid breast,
Bid its soften’d splendours rest.
 
Wild the wind, and fierce the flood
    Foaming, roaring, raved, and rush’d;
Thunder’s roll’d, – the voice of God: –
    Now the angry storm is hush’d,
Now the eddying whirlwind sleeps,
Ocean seeks its barrier deeps.
 
 
Hush! the word of promise breaks,
    Not in thunders hoarse and loud:
Lo! the covenant Saviour speaks
    Softly from the symboll’d cloud.
Rise! the storm of wrath is pass’d;
Judgment shall not always last.
 
From the cross, where darkness shrouds
    Him who suffer’d there for me,
In the fearful tempest clouds,
    Resting, dread, on Calvary,
Mercy’s beaming sign appears,
See, believe, and dry thy tears!
 

Not all passages of the poem are (or could be) this moving, but even Milton had his bad lines.  This style may not be to everyone’s taste, and Bulmer is no Milton, but the fact that Milton’s epic religious poem has be endlessly dissected and connected so clearly with social and political events, while Bulmer’s has not, says more about the state of scholarship on religious women poets than it does about Bulmer’s poetry.  Bulmer is just as much of an engaged social poet as Milton was, she just exhibits this engagement in different terms in a different time and place.

However Messiah’s Kingdom was not what Bulmer was most famous for, even during her lifetime.  In 1836, after the death of her friend and Methodist fore-mother Elizabeth Mortimer, she edited the Memoirs of Elizabeth Mortimer, which became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.  She also wrote several volumes of Scripture Histories, prose re-workings of Biblical stories mainly targeted to children. Indeed, all of these works were picked up by the formidable Methodist publishing machine and circulated widely.  This alone makes her a writer who deserves considerable attention.  Methodist membership in England and America during the 1830’s was sky rocketing and it would be no exaggeration to say that a fair portion of the population was familiar with her work.

Agnes Bulmer died on August 20, 1836 on the Isle of Wight.  Her funeral sermon was preached by William Bunting, the son of Jabez Bunting, who later wrote that Bulmer was “one of the most intellectual and holy women, probably, whose presence ever adorned this world,” while Adam Clarke wrote, “That woman astonishes me.  She takes in information just as a sponge absorbs water…. Whether it be philosophy, history, or theology, she seizes upon it, and makes it all her own.”

These tributes are touching, but they also clearly reveal the crucial tension between official Methodism and the role of women in the movement during the nineteenth century.  During John Wesley’s lifetime women like Hester Ann Rogers, Elizabeth Mortimer, and Sarah Crosby were given prominent roles in the movement – allowed to preach publically and express themselves in official publications.  After Wesley’s death official Methodism moved quickly to proscribe the roles that were available to women within the movement and under Jabez Bunting women were further confined to a space of Victorian domestic piety.  This move is revealed in the tributes to Bulmer after her death.  Both William Bunting and Adam Clarke treat Bulmer as an anomaly – the intellectual woman – not the rule.  The fact that Bulmer was largely confined to the private world of correspondence with other women and poetry instead of public speech and preaching indicates just how far the Methodism of the early nineteenth century had moved from its roots.  Indeed, at the end of the century, Annie Keeling frames Bulmer in explicitly domestic terms:

This beautiful nature, rich in thought and in love, shy and retiring as regarded all public manifestations, yet abounding in the beneficent activities of private life, has a right its own peculiar place among our types of Methodist womanhood, exemplifying as it does the union of high intellectual gifts with a saintliness no less pure and true than that of any martyred and canonized virgin, though displayed in the quiet, sheltered station of an ordinary English matron.

According to Keeling, Bulmer was skilled in the “activities of private life,” and an “ordinary English matron.”  The fact that she was a serious intellectual and poet is secondary to her role as faithful Methodist wife and matron – it is just an added benefit.

We cannot know for certain what Bulmer herself thought of this tension between gender and religion because she left no written record.  After her death her Memoirs were edited and published by her sister, but they are mainly a collection of her extant pious letters that tell us little about her inner life.  What we are left with, then, are her impressive literary productions which reveal a woman of deep learning, keen intellect, and immense poetic talent.  If this record is any indication, Bulmer found a way of expressing herself despite a religious culture than confined women to a private domestic piety.  It is my hope that, by drawing more attention to Bulmer and her poetry, religious women poets in general will begin to receive more attention from the scholarly community.

For this reason I am embarking on sustained scholarly work on Agnes Bulmer on this blog.  In addition to research on her life and work, I will be slowly transcribing and posting the entirety of Messiah’s Kingdom.  Through the magic of Google Books, an entire facsimile text of Messiah’s Kingdom is now available online.  However, this is truly a poem that deserves more scholarly and critical attention – attention that would be much assisted by a modern annotated critical edition.  Since such an edition is unlikely to appear anytime soon and I am currently in no position to make that happen, I am in the process of making the complete text available here.  As of today both the Introductory Stanzas and Book I are posted under “Primary Sources.”  Over time I will also be creating eBook versions of the text (currently unavailable through Google), working up some annotations, and posting some of her letters and minor works.  My hope is that making this fascinating poem more readily available will encourage more scholarship on Bulmer in particular and on early evangelical women poets and writers in general.

References and Additional Resources

Primary Sources:

Bulmer, Agnes. Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Mortimer. New York: Mason & Lane, 1836.

Bulmer, Agnes. Messiah’s Kingdom. New York: Waugh & Mason, 1833.

Bulmer, Agnes. Scripture Histories. London: Mason, 1837.

Collinson, Anne Ross. Memoir of Mrs. Agnes Bulmer. London: Rivington, 1837.

Keeling, Annie E. Eminent Methodist Women. London: Kelly, 1889.

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

Secondary Sources:

Chilcote, Paul Wesley. Early Methodist Spirituality: Selected Women’s Writings. Nashville: Kingswood, 2007.

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