“You Must be Born Again”: Pioneering Regeneration and Community in the Conversion Narratives of Early Methodist Women

This paper was presented at the 2010 International Conference on Romanticism in Lubbock, TX.

In his seminal The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson writes of the Methodists that, “At one level the reactionary – indeed, odiously subservient – character of official Wesleyanism can be established without the least difficulty…. He [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…. Thus, at this level Methodism appears as a politically regressive, or ‘stabilizing’, influence” (40-41).

In his identification of the Methodist movement as middle class and tending more towards social stability than revolutionary change, Thompson is fundamentally correct.  However, what he fails to fully recognize is that, far from disengaging from the crucial social and political debates of the day Methodists, under the direction of their founder John Wesley, engaged with the most critical social questions of the age in pioneering ways.  Furthermore Wesley himself, autocrat though he tended to be, encouraged public religious expression from groups traditionally excluded from religious discourse – including women, minorities, and the working class.  Thus what Thompson fails to recognize is that the inherent paradoxes of Methodism worked to develop a dialectical tension within which room for social change and empowerment existed side by side with middle class stability.

Some of the clearest examples of this space for the expression of marginal voices within Methodism are the conversion narratives of early Methodist women.  Women played a vital role in early Methodism, leading devotional groups, Sunday schools, and even preaching.  Furthermore, Wesley encouraged members to publish their personal narratives of conversion and rebirth for the populace at large.  The result was a rich and largely unexamined body of literature that provides a glimpse of how the women of early Methodism viewed the relationship between the inner experience of spiritual regeneration and outward social action.

In this light I want to examine the narrative of Hester Ann Rogers, whose An Account of the Experience of Hester Ann Rogers was edited and published by Wesley himself shortly before his death.  Largely because of Thompson’s famous denunciation, religious accounts like Rogers’ have, for a long time, escaped examination within the context of Romanticism.  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).  The same largely holds true of the study of Romanticism and religion.

As such, an examination of Hester Ann Rogers’ Account within the context of Romanticism is all the more important.  A careful study of her text illustrates that the literature and thought of Methodist women, which is largely written in the “language of the common man,” constitutes an important contribution to our knowledge of the cultural climate in which Romanticism emerged.  Most notably, Rogers’ Account largely works to break down binaries between public and private, internal experience and external expression, faith and works.  As such, works like the Account have much to contribute to our understanding of the trends and patterns of what we know as Romanticism.

Hester Ann Rogers

Hester Ann Roe was born on January 31, 1756 in Macclesfield, Cheshire.  Her father, a Church of England clergyman, died when she was young, leaving her to the care of her mother.  As with many Methodist women whose writings have survived, Hester was a relatively religious girl, who tried to observe all outward signs of religion.  Despite repeatedly falling into what she describes as the “sins” of dancing, card playing, novel reading, and fondness for fine clothes (usually followed by periods of ascetic repentance), she attended church regularly and seems to have been fond of private prayer.  Nevertheless, throughout her narrative, Rogers continually refers to this period of her life as one of darkness and sin, writing that, “I fell into all the vain customs and pleasures of a delusive world… Thus was my time misspent, and my foolish heart wandered far from happiness and God; urging me to endless ruin” (8).

In 1773, the young Hester Roe first heard Methodist David Simpson preach at Macclesfield.  Upon learning that he was a Methodist, Rogers writes that, “This conveyed to my mind as unpleasing an idea of him, as if he had been called a Romish priest; being fully persuaded that to be a Methodist was to be all that was vile under a mask of piety” (15).  She thus echoes many of the common perceptions of Methodists during this time: that they were Papists; that they were financial opportunists; and, worst of all, they were enthusiasts who, by preaching in justification by faith alone, gave license to sin without consequence.

Nevertheless, Hester continued to go listen to Simpson and eventually was convicted if her need for the “new birth” in Christ.  She writes, “I felt myself indeed a lost, perishing, undone sinner; a rebel against repeated convictions and drawings; a rebel against light and knowledge; a condemned criminal by the law of God” (22), and subsequently began to seek for this “new birth” through faith alone.  In fact, she goes home and destroys all her finery, cuts her hair short, and begins to pray for salvation, which comes in stages after a long struggle – she vividly describes the experience in a passage that bears quoting at length:

As Mr. Simpson was reading that sentence in the communion service, “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins,” a ray of divine light and comfort was darted on my soul, and I cried, Lord Jesus, let me feel thou art the propitiation for my sins.  I was enabled to believe there was mercy for me; and I, even I, should be saved!  I felt love to God spring up in my heart, and in a measure could rejoice in him, so that I would have given all the world to have died that moment. (23-24).

This experience inaugurates a longer struggle for justification that ends with her feeling, “My sins are gone, my soul was happy; and I longed to depart and be with Jesus.  I was truly a new creature, and seemed to be in a new world!” (31). Despite this sense of being a “new creature” in Christ, Rogers’ conversion and subsequent involvement with Methodism initiated a period of estrangement from her family, and particularly her mother, which continued for some time.

Despite this opposition from her family, Rogers continued her involvement with Methodism, rigorously seeking what Wesley termed “Christian perfection,” or the elimination of all intentional sin, which he believed to be attainable in this life.  To this end, she began to engage in a rigorous program of prayer and fasting which bordered on “holy anorexia” and, on multiple occasions, brought her dangerously close to death.  Eventually, however, she achieves a sense of this perfection, which she vividly describes in terms of mystical union with God:

He [God] desired to make me holy, but unbelief hid it from my eyes; accursed sin!  But now, Lord, I do believe, this moment thou dost save.  Yea, Lord, my soul is delivered of her burden.  I am emptied of all; I am at thy feet, a helpless, worthless worm: but I take hold of thee as my fulness! Every thing that I want, thou art.  Thou art wisdom, strength, love, holiness: yes, and thou art mine!  I am conquered and subdued by love.  Thy love sinks me into nothing; it overflows my soul.  O, my Jesus, thou art all in all!  In thee I behold and feel all the fulness of the Godhead mine.  I am now one with God: the intercourse is open; sin, inbred sin, no longer hinders the close communion, and God is all my own! (45-46)

In this, Rogers’ not only echoes the language of mysticism – describing her experience in terms of emptiness before God and an almost erotic filling and overflowing of this emptiness by the presence of God – she also frames this experience in explicitly Wesleyan terms, emphasizing that “inbred sin,” no longer comes between her and God.

Even within the extensive literature by and about the early Methodists, this experience is unique.  For, despite John Wesley’s firm belief in the possibility of reaching entire sanctification or Christian perfection in this life, before the moment of death, he never actually claimed this blessing for himself and in practice believed the experience to be extremely rare.  Wesley himself examined many of the people who claimed to have experienced Christian perfection in order to (in true enlightenment fashion) ascertain whether the signs of this transformation were genuine.  Hester Rogers was no exception and, in 1776, the two met for the first time and initiated an extensive correspondence.  In fact, Wesley came to believe that Rogers truly was one of the few to have obtained sanctification in this life.

After Hester’s marriage to James Rogers, one of Wesley’s lay preachers, the pair ministered together (Hester herself often lead prayers and class meetings) in England and Ireland until in 1790 Wesley transferred James Rogers to London, in part so that Hester could attend him as he approached his final days.  And in fact, Hester Ann Rogers was one of the few people actually present at Wesley’s death in 1791. During his last days Wesley helped edit the first edition of Roger’s Account, which was published shortly after his death in 1791 and which quickly became a bestseller.  Rogers herself died due to complications from childbirth on October 10, 1794, which only increased her fame in Methodist circles and led to the republication of her Account with appendices by both her husband and Thomas Coke.  This version of the Account was reprinted in hundreds of editions in England and America throughout the 19th century, making Hester Ann Rogers perhaps the most well known woman of early Methodism.

Personal Religious Experience and the Public Sphere

As Hester Ann Rogers’ Account clearly exemplifies, the personal religious experiences of individual Methodists indicates the extent to which their engagement the public sphere was founded upon a deeply personal and internal religious experience that was then translated into a brand of social action practically unheard of during the time period.  Furthermore, this internal religious experience often prompted individual lay Methodists to transgress social and class norms in obedience to a higher calling.

This is especially true of the early Methodist women.  From its inception, Methodism was predominately a women’s movement with, until 1830, nearly 57% of its membership female (Hempton 137).  The reasons for this go far beyond E.P. Thompson’s theories about sexual repression within the movement and extend to the liberated social space that many women found within the Methodism.  John Wesley himself valued the contributions of women, corresponding with them frequently (and often to the detriment of his own marriage) and publishing their conversion narratives in the Arminian Magazine.  Women were also vital to early Methodist communities, leading classes and bands, visiting the sick and poor, establishing Sunday Schools, and even (with Wesley’s blessing) preaching publically.  Thus, for many women, Methodism offered a more liberated social space than what was available to them in society at large.

Rogers, for example, explicitly frames her narrative in terms of an internal spiritual experience that motivates outward expression.  In fact, much like the canonical male Romantic poets, her account is organized around inspiration – in this case received from God through mystical spiritual experience.  This mystical experience experience is then translated into prose written (in true Weslyan style) in the “language of the common man,” and intended for the edification of her audience.  Throughout the text, in fact, Rogers constantly frames her writing in terms of this internal spirituality, using phrases like, “O the blessedness of this inward kingdom!  With streaming eyes, and heart overflowing with love, I could claim this portion mine; mine in possession, and mine for ever! O Lord, how shall I praise thee!” (50) This kind of internal narrative consciousness comes to so inform the narrative that details like her marriage, the birth of her children, and the daily conduct of her life are given minimal space – while the intimate details of her spiritual struggles are laid bare.

Not only does Rogers’ text work to deconstruct this internal/external binary, however, it also breaks down the divide between private devotion and public action.  For, though John Wesley certainly valued spiritual experiences like Rogers’, his definition of true Christian perfection was “faith working through love”.  By this measure, someone could not simply claim to have experienced perfection (as the anti-nomians often did); he or she had to provide evidence of this in their everyday life.  Thus, works were not the means to faith, but the product of perfection in love.  This philosophy is precisely what made it possible for women in the Methodist women to be integrally involved in the movement at almost every level.  Even though Hester Rogers was not one of the preaching women, her private devotion (a traditionally female space) is precisely what prompted her to visit the poor and sick, lead classes and bands, and assist her husband in ministry in a distinctly public space.  Finally, though publishing as a woman was hardly unique in the 1790’s, her Account represents a unique religious entry into the public world of ideas that would continue to resonate for over a century.

It would be a mistake, however, to view women’s participation in Methodism merely as overtly political or “proto-feminist.”  Instead, most Methodism women conceived of their participation in what was a traditionally male public sphere as a natural extension of their religious experience.  As McInelly states, “While social convention confined women’s religious activity to the domestic realm and insisted that spiritual experience remain deeply personal, the women of early Methodism conceived of public and even political activities as an extension of their private experiences” (141).  Thus public action, for these women, extended from their religious experience, not vice versa.

On the other hand, it would be equally mistaken to assume that, as Felicity Nussbaum has argued, the spiritual autobiographies of 18th century women, “largely reflect prevailing ideas about gendered identity, and the religious ideologies that inform them” (154).  While this is true in some respects and indeed many Methodist spiritual narratives do re-inscribe existing gender roles, others like Hester Rogers subtly interrogate these prevailing ideologies.  Not only does Rogers inscribe herself in terms of a individual gendered subjectivity founded upon spiritual experience, she also carefully avoids portraying herself solely as a wife and mother.  This characteristic of the narrative was apparently so problematic to male editors after her death that they felt the need to attach Thomas Coke’s funeral sermon and her husband’s reflections on her life to the text – both of which go to great lengths to emphasize her role as exemplary wife and mother.

Furthermore, as Phyllis Mack has pointed out, any attempt to understand these types of religious narratives in terms of modern theoretical constructs like “agency” and “individual autonomy” fundamentally miss the point of these narratives.  As she argues, “Methodists and others defined agency not as the freedom to do what one wants but as the freedom to want and to do what is right…. since doing what is right inevitably means subduing at least some of one’s own habits, desires, and impulses, agency implied self-negation as well as self-expression…. The sanctified Christian wants what God wants; she is God’s agent in the world” (9).  Thus, narratives like Hester Ann Rogers’ Account are best understood within the cultural context in which they were produced and valued for the unique perspective they provide on that culture.

Finally, the tendency to assign strictly political motives to women’s participation in Methodism indicates 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 and activities, nor that we necessarily take them at face value.  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).  Thus, by working to understand the complicated nature of these religious experiences and how they affected the lives and actions of individual Methodist women, 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.

Works Cited

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

Jackson, Ken, and Arthur Marotti. “The Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Studies.” Criticism 46.1 (2004): 167-190.

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.

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

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1966.

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