Accounting for Spiritual Curiosity: The Construction of Public and Private Spaces in the Religious Experience Accounts of Early Methodist Women
Presented at the 2011 18th and 19th Century British Women Writers Conference, Columbus, OH – April 1, 2011.
Tucked away among the pages of the August 1791 edition of John Wesley’s popular Arminian Magazine, vying for space with Wesley’s abridgement of Locke and stories of the heroes of the Christian faith was a rather strange account written by a woman only identified as Mrs. Planche. Mrs. Planche was not a great figure of Methodism; in all likelihood few people knew her name. Yet, writing from a relatively remote corner of Scotland this obscure widow laid her soul bare to the vast Methodist readership of the Magazine, telling of the freedom she found in Methodism: “He came into my soul with such a display of his grace and love, as I never knew before,” she writes, “All my bands were loosed, and my spirit was set perfectly free. I felt an entire deliverance from all the remains of sin in my nature; and my precious Jesus took full possession of my heart.”
Contrast this ebullient expression of freedom to E.P. Thompson’s famous claim in The Making of the English Working Class, that Wesley “rarely let pass any opportunity to impress upon his followers the doctrine of submission, expressed less at the level of ideas than of superstition” (40-41) For Thompson the evangelical revival confined revolutionary energy within the bounds of innocuous public religious expression while limiting opportunities for personal liberty. While true that Methodism could never be mistaken for a politically revolutionary movement; nevertheless Thompson fails to fully comprehend the variety of spiritual experiences that characterized Methodism, experiences often expressed in print by groups traditionally excluded from religious discourse – including women, minorities, and the laboring classes. For women especially Methodism provided an avenue for personal religious expression that was unavailable to them elsewhere.
Some of the clearest examples of the space for the expression of marginal voices within Methodism are the conversion narratives of early Methodist women that were published in John Wesley’s Arminian Magazine. From its inception, Methodism was predominately a women’s movement with, until 1830, nearly 57% of its membership made up of women (137). Women also played a vital leadership role in early Methodism, leading devotional groups, Sunday schools, and even preaching. Furthermore, Wesley encouraged members, and especially women, to publish their personal narratives of conversion and rebirth for the populace at large.
By regarding such “curious” expressions not merely as “curiosities,” then, a more complete picture emerges of the nature of Methodist thought and social practice – one that allows for a more nuanced interpretation of how the internal religious experiences of these women prompted them to think, act, and write in ways that were new, innovative, and even socially transgressive. Most notably, the Arminian Magazine accounts largely work to break down binaries between public and private, internal experience and external expression, faith and works. For early Methodist women, the division between private and public became artificial following their conversions. The impetus to act, speak, and write within a public space was, for them, a natural extension of their internal spiritual experience. Furthermore, these women locate this public speech within their religious community. As such, they viewed their public expression primarily as a mode through which to build community solidarity and encourage similar, mimetic experiences in other community members. Thus, the agency and subjectivity that they gain as a result are primarily figured as willingness to be God’s agent, to express “freedom” through Christ. Paradoxically, these narratives vividly illustrate that these women located their own agency not in the individual autonomous self of the Enlightenment but, as I will show, in a willingness to act as God’s agent within a larger religious community. It is in this space that they find true liberty.
To this end, I will examine four of these religious experience accounts by women for, although the disciplinary turn to new historicism and cultural studies has allowed literary scholars to examine texts through a broad variety of cultural lenses, religious texts have largely escaped our notice. As Ken Jackson and Arthur Marotti note in their study of “The Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Studies,” this is not so much because religion has disappeared as a topic of study but because it has been “somewhat pushed to the side by most New Historicists and cultural materialists, who pursued other topics and, when they dealt with religious issues, quickly translated them into social, economic, and political language” (167). As such, the narratives of ordinary and unknown Methodist lay-women, like those published in the Arminian Magazine, have largely gone unexamined – they are treated merely as “curiosities” that are not worthy of serious scholarly attention. In fact, in her influential The Autobiographical Self, Felicity Nussbaum claims that these narratives by women were both relatively rare and largely unremarkable:
While lives of women were included in Wesley’s Arminian Magazine, the lives of men outnumbered them 10 to 1. Most Methodist women’s accounts were not written by themselves, but by husbands, sons, or friends. They are, in the main, stories of chaste and upright women who lead and record unremarkable lives, their stories less eventful than those of their male counterparts…. (173)
While it is certainly accurate that the majority of the accounts published in the Arminian Magazine were by or about men, in the twenty years since Nussbaum’s foundational study, more accurate figures have emerged. More recently, Tolar Burton has estimated that, of the 238 biographical accounts in the Arminian Magazine, 79 are about women (173). Interestingly enough, 113 of these accounts were published between the inception of the magazine in 1778 and Wesley’s death in 1791 (200), at which time men’s and women’s accounts were almost equally represented. Furthermore, according to Jones, nearly forty percent of all biographical material published under Wesley’s editorship was by or about women, though only fourteen accounts can be directly attributed to women authors (275). Finally, even after Wesley’s death, Tolar Burton estimates that almost a quarter of the published accounts were about women, though even fewer were authored by them (200).
Four of the non-preaching lay-women whose accounts were published in the Arminian Magazine were Rachel Bruff, Elizabeth Scaddan, Mrs. Planche, and M. Taylor. All four women were virtually unknown outside of their AM contribution and all four had their narratives published prior to Wesley’s death, indicating that their narratives were most likely a result of direct correspondence with Wesley. Broadly speaking, the religious experience accounts by women that appear in the Arminian Magazine fall into a relatively consistent seven part narrative pattern: 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. Of the four Arminian Magazine narratives under examination here, three incorporate all seven characteristics, with one (Elizabeth Scaddan’s) including all but the search for and achievement of Christian perfection.
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 example: Though each woman’s first experiences with Methodism were different and, in general Methodism operated like an electrifying force in these women’s spiritual journeys. Their conviction of sin and the need for salvation intensify after their encounters with the Methodists and they begin to earnestly seek for their salvation. M. Taylor first comes in contact with the Methodists in America, where she works as a ladies maid. She hears the famous Dr. Coke preach and upon seeing him she, “was seized with a palpitation of the heart, which seemed to affect my whole body, so that I could not put the needle into my work.” These portions of their narratives are particularly vivid as the women almost literally wrestle with God and the knowledge that they can do nothing for their own salvation except believe. They also tend to use an intense language of embodiment that describes the physical effects that spiritual awareness has on their bodies. Mrs. Planche, for example, writes of her palpable desire for justification that she fears will never come:
I came to his footstool with tears, and cried, “Save Lord, or I perish!” O how I longed to come to him; but found I was shut up in unbelief, and could not break my chain…. I found a divine attraction upon my heart, and had many visits of God’s love; but I wanted justifying faith, and a clear sense of my interest in Christ, and determined not to rest till I found it.
In both of these cases it is a spiritual power, a “divine attraction,” that operates upon the physical body, causing “palpitation of the heart.” Like many women who wrote their conversion accounts, Mrs. Planche feels that she knows and feels the way to salvation and even possesses the desire to be saved, but cannot achieve it herself.
Though this struggle for justification could often last months or even years, in the relatively short Arminian Magazine narratives this time frame is compressed and the account of justification often directly succeeds spiritual struggle – but this sense of justification always comes without the effort or striving that characterizes their earlier attempts. Rachel Bruff writes that, praying one night, “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,” while Mrs. Planche says, “the Lord then spoke peace to my soul. He took away all guilt and condemnation from my conscience, and shed abroad his love in my heart. I knew my sins were forgiven, and that I was accepted in the Beloved.” What distinguishes these moments from their previous religious experiences is that they mystically feel their sins have been forgiven – that they have been justified to God. There is a sensory, experiential quality to these narratives that reflects John Wesley’s belief that the individual could experientially know that he or she was saved and that God loved them.
For Methodists justification was only the first step on a journey to salvation that ended with Wesley’s doctrine of “Christian perfection.” Wesley defined Christian perfection as the elimination of all intentional sin, which he believed to be attainable in this life. However, by sin Wesley does not mean unintentional wrongdoing but a “voluntary transgression of a known law” of God (JWW 11:396). Thus, throughout his life, he worked to construct a definition of perfection predicated on positive, libratory action instead of legalistic rules and requirements. For Wesley perfection, like justification, is something granted by God instantaneously and is ultimately evidenced through outward action that springs from inner spiritual renewal.
Of the women under consideration here, all but Elizabeth Scaddan relate their struggle for and ultimate achievement of Christian perfection. Much like justification, these three women experience Christian perfection only when they surrender themselves to God. Furthermore, they tend to represent this experience in almost erotic terms – using the language of love and affection to describe the sensory feeling of sanctification. This would seem to suggest that these women view perfection in much the same terms as a human relationship – their relationship with Christ is cemented in Christian perfection through the mystical union of their soul and body with Christ. Unlike similar accounts by men, perfection for these women is an intensely embodied experience. For example, Rachel Bruff describes sanctification thus:
One day I bowed myself at the Redeemer’s feet, and determined not to let him go without the blessing. And glory be to his Name! in a moment my burden was gone. My soul was now so enraptured with a sense of his love, that I was constrained to praise his name aloud. From that time he has been constantly with me, and has borne me up above all my sins, temptations, and sufferings.
Likewise, M.Taylor writes, “There is now a free and open intercourse betwixt God and my soul…. My soul cries out for love, and hungers and thirsts for more, and to be more united to him who is my all in all.” And we’ve already heard how Mrs. Planche uses the language of liberation to describe how, “All my bands were loosed, and my spirit was set perfectly free.” In each case these women represent sanctification as an overwhelming experience of God’s love that destroys sin by entering into them and taking possession of their hearts. Intentional sin is no longer an option because, as Bruff states Christ is “constantly with me.”
Much like the medieval female mystics, Christian perfection for these women represents a sort of quasi-erotic union with God that comes to pervade every action. In fact, this language of emptying oneself before God and then being filled with his love is far more prevalent in the spiritual narratives of Methodist women than those of Methodist men. Part of the reason may be, as Phyllis Mack suggests, that “women were more comfortable with the language of dependency or self-emptying than men, and more able to appreciate the relationship between dependency and an intense experience of love or grace” (132) Following in this vein it would appear that women, more than men, saw their sanctifying submission to God (paradoxically) as an empowering or agency-granting experience in the sense that their primary allegiance was to God, not men. In this sense, the experience of sanctification empowered them to speak and act in ways that would have been inconceivable before because they believed they were operating as God’s agent in the world.
Clearly, then, women did have a voice within the pages of the Arminian Magazine, though Nussbaum is correct in pointing out that the narratives about women written by men are largely formulaic stories of “chaste and upright women” who lived exemplary lives. Furthermore, John Wesley’s editorial hand is clearly evident in all of the women’s accounts in how he edited them for length and content to highlight the aspects of their lives he wanted highlighted. Nevertheless, as is evidenced by the precipitous decline in accounts by and about women after Wesley’s death, he clearly valued the experiences of women and went out of his way to include them in the magazine. Despite his editing, the Arminian Magazine narratives written by women about themselves have a quality quite distinct from both the accounts about men and the accounts by men about women. As we have seen, these women spend relatively little time on their lives as virtuous wives and mothers and instead focus on their experiences of inner spiritual transformation. It is this intense, often sensory, spiritual experience that both sets these narratives apart from conversion accounts written by and/or about men and prompts these women to speak and act publicly. In doing so, they move women’s religious experience out of the limited domestic sphere traditionally assigned to female piety, into the broader religious community.
Despite the potential usefulness of these spiritual representations, the explicitly religious content of these experiences has led to their being generally discounted by modern scholars as a legitimate avenue for inquiry. This is perhaps due to evangelical religion’s inherent pre-enlightenment alterity and the foreignness of such experiences to post-enlightenment readers. Within feminist scholarship especially, religion is often read as fundamentally oppressive to women. This seems to indicate that as scholars we are unwilling to, as McInelly puts it, view “religious activity as just that: religious activity, as a sincere expression of faith that, from the point of view of the religiously devout, overshadows the political” (136). This does not mean that as secular scholars we must accede to the metaphysical truths inherent in these religious experiences, nor that we necessarily read them uncritically. However, it does mean that, as Phyllis Mack puts it, we need:
an angle of vision that allows… [us] not only to accept these spiritual concerns as sincere and legitimate, but to share, however imperfectly the struggles of ordinary Methodists and lay preachers, to stand with individual men and women as they worked to shape their own subjectivity, not in a single cathartic moment at a revival meeting, but over a lifetime (7).
This can be particularly difficult for scholars who, as Hempton states, “inhabit the intellectual space of the Enlightenment, which… has condemned as fanciful the very enthusiasm that we are now called upon to interpret” (149). This is further complicated by the fact that such expressions of enthusiastic experience have so often been framed in either socio-political or psychosexual terms. Instead of reading these women’s religious narratives as sincere accounts of lived experience we have instead insisted that such experiences are in reality simply expressions of repressed political or sexual energy. While there may be some truth in these assumptions, to interpret these texts only through such lenses is ultimately to deny these women their own voice in how they perceived their own subjectivity. However, in locating this “angle of vision” we not only gain a better perspective on the true role and influence of such spiritual texts and religious enthusiasm, but also the cultural and religious contexts that shaped the subjectivities of Methodist women and, by extension, how the faith traditions that so dominated eighteenth century life interacted with the formation of Enlightenment subjectivity at large.
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.
Hempton, David. Methodism: Empire of the Spirit. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2005.
Hindmarsh, D. Bruce. The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.
Jackson, Ken, and Arthur Marotti. “The Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Studies.” Criticism 46.1 (2004): 167-190.
Jones, Margaret P. “From ‘The State of My Soul’ to ‘Exalted Piety’: Women’s Voices in the Arminian/Methodist Magazine, 1778-1821.” Gender and Christian Religion. Woodbridge: Suffolk, 1998. 273-286.
Mack, Phyllis. Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.
McInelly, Brett C. “’I had rather be obscure. But I dare not’: Women and Methodism in the Eighteenth Century.” Everyday Revolutions: Eighteenth Century Women Transforming Public and Private. Ed. Diane E. Boyd and Marta Kvande. Newark, DE: U of Delaware P, 2008. 135-158.
Nussbaum, Felicity A. The Autobiographical Subject: Gender and Ideology in Eighteenth Century England. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989.
Planche, Mrs. “An Account of Mrs. Planche. [Written by herself sometime before her death.].” Arminian Magazine August 1791: 416-423.
Scaddan, Elizabeth. “The Experience of Elizabeth Scaddan: in a Letter to the Rev. Mr. Wesley Feb. 3, 1783.” Arminian Magazine April 1791: 182-188.
Taylor, M. “The Experience of M. Taylor. [Written by herself.].”Arminian Magazine December 1791: 613-619.
Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1966.
Tolar Burton, Vicki. Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism: Reading, Writing, and Speaking to Believe. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008.
Wesley, John. The Works of John Wesley. Ed. Thomas Jackson. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007.