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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.

Disciplining the Self in Methodist Women’s Writing

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

The Experience of Rachel Bruff


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

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

The Means of Grace and Spiritual Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disciplining the Self in Methodist Women’s Narratives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Call for Papers: M/MLA Convention Special Session – Serious Religion at Play

Please consider submitting to a special session titled: “Serious Religion at Play in the Long Eighteenth Century” at the M/MLA Convention, Nov. 3-6 2011 in St. Louis.

Serious Religion at Play in the Long Eighteenth Century

Throughout the long eighteenth century religion was still serious business, yet many began to “play” with the boundaries of religious expression. Evangelical movements like Methodism swept the country, but raised the spectre of religious “enthusiasm” in the minds of the some.  Religious subjects dominated public discourse as the nation sought to work through its religious identity. Papers could address any of the issues related to religious identity in England: how authors began to “play” with religious ideas, how “enthusiasm” was redefined during the period, how authors attempted to play with religion by making it absurd in satire, or how despite this religious play, there were still serious consequences for those who went too far.

Send paper proposals, 300-500 words to Andrew Winckles, by July 11th.

Chair: Andrew Winckles, Wayne State University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Wesley Preaching to a Crowd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guilt and Subjectivity in Bunyan’s Grace Abounding

As I prepare for my qualifying exam this summer I will be blogging through some of the books I am reading as a means to clarifying my thinking.  These posts are not intended to be terribly original or fully developed, but merely gesture towards some interesting lines of analysis.

Having considered some of the prophetic overtones of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in my last post, I now want to turn to his autobiographical Grace Abounding to the Chief of SinnersGrace Abounding was written while Bunyan was serving a lengthy jail term for preaching publically without a license and was published in 1666.  Like Pilgrim’s Progress the text deals with the struggles and temptations of the Christian life, but unlike the better known work Grace Abounding does so within the genre of the conversion narrative.

This in itself is interesting, especially vis a vis my continuing interest in the development of the conversion narrative over the course of the long eighteenth century (see my previous post on Methodist conversion narratives) and in fact Grace Abounding has been on my reading list for quite some time.  I’m going to deal with some of the interplay between Bunyan’s narrative and later evangelical narratives at length in my next post so what I want to do here is point out some of the more important and interesting facets of the narrative that help us better understand the particularities of Bunyan’s life, theology, and work.

John Bunyan in Prison

To begin with, the most noticeable aspect of Bunyan’s narrative is the overriding sense of guilt that dominates the first two thirds of the text.  This is somewhat typical of similar Calvinist conversion narratives (see, for instance, Jonathan Edwards’ Faithful Narrative) as distinct from Methodist conversion narrative.  On the surface this seems somewhat unusual as the Calvinists believed that, once saved, the elect could not lose their salvation while Methodists believed that a person could “backslide” away from Christ.  However for the Calvinist most of the guilt and terror comes before conversion as the seeker worries over whether he or she is one of the elect and is born down by the burden of perceived sin.  A tremendous amount of time is spent in these narratives detailing sins and the resultant guilt.  Take, for example, this passage from Grace Abounding:

Now I began to conceive peace in my Soul, and methought I saw as if the Tempter did lear and steal away from me, as being ashamed of what he had done. At the same time also I had my sin, and the blood of Christ thus represented to me, that my sin, when compared to the blood of Christ, was no more to it, than this, little clot, or stone before me is to this vast and wide field that here I see. This gave me good encouragement for the space of two or three hours; in which time also, methought I saw, by faith, the Son of God, as suffering for my sins; but because it tarried not I therefore sunk in my spirit under exceeding guilt again.

This is not to say that a similar sense of guilt is not present in narratives by Arminian Methodists.  Indeed, one of the key elements of their narratives is this consciousness of sin that first motivates the individual to seek for salvation.  However there is not of this vacillating back and forth over whether or not one is elect and, after salvation there is surprisingly little guilt or concern.

Despite the fact that guilt is a common characteristic of Calvinist conversion narratives, the sense of guilt that dominates Bunyan’s narrative borders on the neurotic.  Indeed, as William James famously observes in his Varieties of Religious Experience, Bunyan “was a typical case of the psychopathic temperament, sensitive of conscience to a diseased degree, beset by doubts, fears and insistent ideas, and a victim of verbal automatisms, both motor and sensory.  These were usually texts of Scripture which, sometimes damnatory and sometimes favorable, would come in a half-hallucinatory form as if they were voices, and fasten on his mind and buffet it between them like a shuttlecock.”

Most famously, Bunyan spent years obsessing over whether or not he had committed the “unforgivable” sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit.  Large portions of Grace Abounding are taken up with his mental vacillation and anguish over this question and he does in fact seem to obsess over certain words, phrases, and scripture passages.  In modern day psychological terms we might say that Bunyan was a clear manic depressive who went through extreme bouts of depression and melancholy characterized by obsessive thoughts; bouts that were promptly followed by incredible bursts of spiritual elation and a sensibility of God’s love.

It is this extreme obsessive, manic, and internalized nature of the text, however, that is perhaps as intriguing from a literary perspective as it is tiresome to the reader, for it signals a larger sea change in the way narratives are constructed.  Remember, Bunyan published Grace Abounding in 1666 at a time when poetry was still the dominant artistic form – and make no mistake Grace Abounding, even as an autobiography, is important from both an artistic and literary perspective.  For, by shifting the narration of the story primarily to internal spiritual struggle instead of external action, Bunyan subtly reshapes our notion of narrator and action in a way that suggests the complex internal subjectivity and perspective of the novel.

Furthermore, the narrative structure of the text is unique in that the first two thirds of the narrative are taken up with Bunyan’s internal struggle for spiritual freedom, while the final third is consumed with his imprisonment and struggle for physical freedom.  Indeed, the two sections parallel each other both in form and in the way Bunyan conflates physical and spiritual freedom.  Far from being an inconsequential addition to his personal struggle, the final third of the text indicates the extent to which Bunyan’s external life and actions were bound up with his inner experience.  All this is not to say that Grace Abounding is a novel only that the type of spiritual autobiography it participates in is an important (and often ignored) forerunner to the novelistic form.

Indeed, it is this complex internal religious subjectivity that informs outward action that is perhaps the most engaging thing about Bunyan’s narrative and it clearly powerfully informs how he interacts with a largely hostile public sphere that persecutes and imprisons him.  In my next post, I will consider at greater length how the religious subjectivity Bunyan helped spawn came into conversation with the Evangelical Conversion narrative genre at large and the burgeoning Enlightenment discourse on religion, perception, and subjectivity.

John Bunyan’s Prophetic Vision and Pilgrim’s Progress

As I prepare for my qualifying exam this summer I will be blogging through some of the books I am reading as a means to clarifying my thinking.  These posts are not intended to be terribly original or fully developed, but merely gesture towards some interesting lines of analysis.

John Bunyan

Continuing my journey through books I read in freshman survey Brit Lit. class and since forgot about, this weekend I moved from Paradise Lost to John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress.  As with Paradise Lost, I was pleasantly surprised at how the fresh the text seemed to me and, especially given my religious studies bent, how much Bunyan’s work foregrounds so much of the writing of the Evangelical Revival in the eighteenth century.  Of particular interest, though, is the way Bunyan uses the “dreaming” device to frame his famous allegory of Christian life.  By framing the bulk of his text as a vision or dream Bunyan thus performs a subtle rhetorical move that has significant resonances for the rest of the text.  Specifically he is able to locate his vision within the realm of Old Testament visionary prophecy – a tradition that enjoyed a remarkable resurgence during and after the English Civil War – and the burgeoning print culture that disseminated radical ideas during the interregnum.  In doing so he infuses the text with subtle social and political commentary that both complicates and textures the overt evangelical and religious message of the allegory.

Pilgrim’s Progress begins with a verse poem in which the narrator frames the story that he claims comes to him in a dream:

And thus it was: I, writing of the way

And race of saints, in this our gospel day,

Fell suddenly into an allegory

About their journey, and the way to glory,

In more than twenty things which I set down.

This done, I twenty more had in my crown;

And they again began to multiply,

Like sparks that from the coals of fire do fly.

Nay, then, thought I, if that you breed so fast,

I’ll put you by yourselves, lest you at last

Should prove ad infinitum, and eat out

The book that I already am about.

These lines are crucial to the vision that follows in that Bunyan’s language here is rich with prophetic resonances.  For example in comparing the thoughts he has to set down to sparks and coals he clearly evokes Isaiah 6, where the prophet falls into a sleep and is commissioned by God to go prophesy:

1In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.

 2Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.

 3And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.

 4And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.

 5Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.

 6Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar:

 7And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.

 8Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.

Here the coals touched to the lips cleanses them and allows Isaiah to accept his prophetic calling.  Likewise, the sparks of Bunyan’s thoughts become the material of his prophetic book – the materiality of which he acknowledges upfront – writing that so many prophetic sparks threaten to “eat out” the book he is “already about.”  Nevertheless the narrator feels compelled to prophetically confront culture with the overflow of his visionary ideas.

This prophetic tone continues throughout the verse introduction to the allegory as Bunyan considers whether he ought to publish his words or not – some friends advise him to, while others advise against it. This debate indicates the extent to which, especially in the religious climate of the Restoration, publishing one’s prophetic words at large was a potentially dangerous business.  The events of the English Civil War and Restoration spawned a bevy of prophets like Anna Trapnel, Abiezer Coppe, and Gerard Winstanley, all of whom used the words of God call the world to repentance and true faith.  Many of these prophets claimed to have received their messages in visions or dreams and then published them in cheap print editions for the general public. Anna Trapnel even performed her prophecies publically in a trance.  Such “enthusiasm,” especially after the restoration was seen as potentially dangerous and seditious – threatening the newly restored political and religious order.  Particularly when such prophecy ended up in print, it often took on a life of its own as print was notoriously difficult to police and could spread ideas like wildfire.

What, then, was so potentially dangerous about Bunyan’s prophetic vision?  Why does his narrator debate over whether to publish it at large?  The answers to these questions lie largely in the specificities of the religious climate in England during the Restoration and specifically Bunyan’s status as a Baptist dissenter who refused to join the Church of England and often preached without a license.  Likewise, the almost proto-Evangelical message of the text itself flies in the face of much of the accepted theology of the Restoration Church.

For example, some of Christian’s greatest temptations come not from lust, greed, or avarice but from seemingly innocuous sources like Morality and Legality.  In fact one of the first people Christian meets is Mr. Worldly Wisdom who advises him not to continue on to the narrow gate, but detour to the village named Morality where, “dwells a gentleman whose name is Legality, a very judicious man, and a man of very good name, that has skill to help men off with such burdens as thine are from their shoulders.”  This is seemingly innocent enough fare but within this encounter is coded a harsh criticism of the Church of England which, after the Restoration moved increasingly towards a non-offensive, latitudinarian type of morality religion wherein true faith was determined by attending Church, living an upright moral life, and obeying the law.  Thus in identifying Morality and Legality as snares to the true Christian life Bunyan is anticipating the critique of people like Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitefield who, during the eighteenth century Evangelical Revival, privileged the religion of the heart over the morality of the established order.

This theme is brought out in even more clearly when Christian is near the end of his journey.  As he and Hopeful are walking together they meet Ignorance, who enters the King’s Highway from a crooked byway.  Ignorance, it turns out, is sure of his salvation because he affirms the gospel message to be true and has followed all the outward signs of religion.  However, when Christian and Hopeful question him further, it becomes clear that he has not had a clear conversion of the heart.  It is a crucial passage, so I will quote at length:

IGNOR: But is not a good heart that hath good thoughts? And is not that a good life that is according to God’s commandments?

CHR. Yes, that is a good heart that hath good thoughts, and that is a good life that is according to God’s commandments; but it is one thing, indeed to have these, and another thing only to think so.

IGNOR: I believe that Christ died for sinners, and that I shall be justified before God from the curse, through his gracious acceptance of my obedience to his law.  Or thus, Christ makes my duties, that are religious, acceptable to his Father, by virtue of his merits; and so shall I be justified.

CHR. Ignorance is thy name, and as thy name is, so art thou; even this thy answer demostrateth what I say. Ignorant though art of what justifying righteousness is, and as ignorant how to secure thy soul, through the faith of it, from the heavy wrath of God.  Yea, thou also art ignorant of the true effects of saving faith in this righteousness of Christ, which is, to bow and win over the heart to God in Christ, to love his name, his word, ways, and people, and not as though ignorantly manifest.

In this exchange are echoed all the key concerns of Bunyan and the later Reformers – that religion has become a simple matter of outward practice, devoid of any inner transformation of heart and life.  For Bunyan salvation was not a simple matter of acceding to a creed, it was an all encompassing encounter with the divine.  Thus Ignorance ultimately meets his end at the gates of the Celestial City when he is denied entry and sent through the back door to Hell.

My ultimate point here is that if this seems rather mundane and commonplace fare, this is perhaps because the theology that Bunyan articulates here has become so foundational to modern day evangelical movements.  The theology of grace and heart transformation that we can trace from Bunyan through to Wesley and Whitefield and on to the present day has come to dominate much of our religious discourse.  This reading, however, overlooks the fundamentally radical and prophetic nature of the text.  In articulating this viewpoint Bunyan was flying in the face of the political and religious order – an order than had been shaken to its very foundations by the events of the Civil War.  By prophetically framing his dream vision in print Bunyan was wading into the waters of religious enthusiasm that were still roiling and inviting censure from both public and establishment.  The fact that Pilgrim’s Progress has been printed more times than any book except the Bible still does not obscure the fact that its message was radical and its author a revolutionary.