Kingdom of God – Kingdom of Man: Freedom, Identity, and Justice in Charles Wesley and William Blake

This paper will be presented at the 2011 North American Society for the Study of Romanticism Conference in Park City, UT – August 12, 2011

As the Eighteenth century drew to a close, the Lockean philosophy of the individual autonomous subject endowed with inalienable rights was increasingly manifested in the political revolutions in America and France and the aesthetic revolutions of Wordsworth and Coleridge.  As Makdisi argues, this brand of liberalism generally attempted to rid itself of “its other, which for its part summoned forth a world of visionary prophecies and divine interventions… a world, in short, in which ‘eternity is in love with the productions of time’” (301).  In doing so, these radicals attempted to erase any type of alterity that threatened individual autonomy and property or threatened to spill over into religious “enthusiasm.”

Nevertheless, though both the liberal radicals and the state strived to suppress such visionary religious enthusiasm that threatened the status quo, subversive cultural voices still existed who challenged the supremacy of the autonomous subject and instead constructed freedom and identity in alternative, communitarian terms.  Coming from radically different traditions and cultural perspectives, both Charles Wesley and William Blake used their religious, “enthusiastic” poetry to articulate a definition of human freedom and agency founded upon the Biblical construct of the “kingdom of God” which they variously develop as an intersubjective experience with the other that comes to define human actions and relations in the world and create true justice.  Justice, in this sense, is not an impartial judgment in the interest of order and individual rights, but a radical embrace of the other.

At first glance, speaking about Wesley and Blake together may seem like a rather odd decision. In fact to date Martha Winburn England’s Hymns Unbidden, remains the only study that takes seriously the similarities between Wesley and Blake, pointing out that Blake seems to have admired elements of the Evangelical Revival (including John Wesley and Whitefield in Milton) and in fact owned copies of Charles’ work.  Still, the differences are significant – the two men never met and Wesley’s life and career were ending just as Blake’s poetic work was beginning.  Wesley was a Tory Church and King man to his dying day, while the radical Blake excoriates both Church and King throughout his work.  Wesley’s hymns and poetry are largely conventional (in a good sense), while Blake’s are wildly experimental.

That said, it is precisely because of these seeming contradictions that I think the two poets are so interesting in conversation for, despite their radically different religious inclinations, both men were painted as “enthusiasts” throughout their lifetime – both claimed to directly hear from God and proclaim that message in their poetry.  For this reason the work of Wesley and Blake is unique in that its conjunction between religion and poetry works to explore the tensions between internal religious experience and public social action in ways that reinvent the subject itself.

Crucial to this fundamental redefinition of the subject is the way both Wesley and Blake use religious poetry to redefine both the experience of the self and the relationship between the self and the community.  In doing so both men work to break down the ideal of the autonomous self based on individual rights – instead locating freedom in the experience of the community and otherness.  It is this concept that I am terming the “kingdom of God,” for though the ideal meant different things for both men – both seem to have firmly believed, with Christ, that the “kingdom of God is within you.”  In doing so I hope to suggest that the ideals of freedom and agency need to be redefined within a religious context and that both Wesley and Blake use their poetry to express and emotive and affective encounter with the other that finally leads outward into life and community – the kingdom of God come down and embodied in the kingdom of Man.

Charles Wesley’s Affective Hymns and Methodist Community

Charles Wesley

For John and Charles Wesley the kingdom of God was fundamental to their attempt to renew the Church of England.  Crucial to their theology was the idea that humans could be saved instantaneously by faith and both know and feel that their sins were forgiven.  This element of feeling, or spiritual sense, comes to pervade almost every aspect of Methodism, and Charles’ hymns are no exception. Take, for example, Hymn 130 which begins:

Jesu, if still the same thou art,
If all thy promises are sure,
Set up thy kingdom in my heart,
And make me rich for I am poor:
To me be all thy treasures given,
The kingdom of an inward heaven.

Instead of the kingdom of God (or heaven) being something literal that the Christian waits and hopes for – performing good works in expectation of heaven, in the hymns the kingdom becomes something that is lived and experienced.  As John Wesley writes in his preface to the 1777 Hymns and Spiritual Songs, “none but those who either already experience the kingdom of God within them, or, at least, earnestly desire so to do, will either relish or understand them [the hymns].  But all these may find either such prayers as speak the language of their souls (JWW 14:339).

Tied up in this sense of the kingdom as something embodied, is the deeply Wesleyan (and Lockean) idea that all knowledge is based on the evidence of the senses and experience.  In fact, in his preface to the seminal 1780 Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists Wesley famously describes the hymnal as “a little body of experimental and practical divinity.” Likewise in his Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, he argues that faith cannot be based on natural sense, but spiritual.  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. 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.  He thus treads a careful line between “enthusiasm” and “experience” – validating the supernatural, while testing it via Lockean empiricism.  For this reason Methodist hymns 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.

But for Methodists this internal transformation was not enough – the true evidence of the kingdom of God in heart and life was in how it worked outward into community.  This ideal is reflected in the structure of the 1780 Collection of Hymns for the People Called Methodists, which leads the reader from inward devotion to outward action – the five major sections move from “exhorting the believer to return to God” and “describing the pleasantness of religion,” to “inward religion,” to “prayer,” and then outward in the final two sections first to believers acting in a variety of life circumstances to finally hymns explicitly for the society meeting.  It was in the classes, bands, and society that Methodists truly came together for fellowship and renewal, but also to organize action in the world.  As Phyllis Mack writes, “Methodist hymns…enabled communication between self and community and between self and God, and they stood as models of sincere speech and authentic emotion.  Taken together, their impact was to instill in the worshipper a movement toward self-effacement and surrender to God’s power on one hand, and a heroic energy, both in conquering the self and in serving God, on the other” (48).

This reality is reflected in the hymns themselves take, for example, hymn 489 in the 1780 Collection which reads:

Help us to help each other Lord,
Each others cross to bear;
Let each his friendly aid afford,
And feel his brother’s care

Or hymn 495:

Why hast thou cast our lot,
In the same age and place?
And why together brought
To see each other’s face;
To join with softest sympathy,
And mix our friendly souls in thee?

Didst thou not make us one,
That all might one remain;
Together travel on
And bear each other’s pain?
Till all thy utmost goodness prove,
And rise renewed in perfect love!

In both of these cases the singers come together in community to express their sense of what God has done in their lives and how this has transformed their relationship with others in the community and the world.  Embedded in these two hymns is a sense in which the Methodists, though individuals, are one through and in Christ – they have found a new family.  As Hindmarsh argues, “the convert felt connected through Methodism to a shared experience with others and to larger, unitary patterns of belief and practice.  If the converts of the early Evangelical Revival appear as individualists of a sort, they were also communitarians of a sort” (150).

Ultimately these two elements – affective experience of faith and outward connection with community come to define a uniquely Methodism religious subjectivity – a subjectivity founded not upon individual autonomy and rights but on the freedom to do God’s will, to enact the kingdom on earth.  This is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in Wesley’s famous hymn, “And can it be:”

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell of, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

Packed within these seemingly simple lines is both a complex theology and subjectivity.  Not only do we have the images of imprisonment and freedom from chains, but also a liberated heart and an impetus to follow out into the world.  This, likely written after his own conversion, was the kingdom of God for Charles Wesley.

William Blake’s Radical Embrace of Justice

William Blake

Likewise Blake also uses the symbol of the kingdom of God throughout his work – building a conception of the millennium as an ontological space for freedom and justice that lies outside of individual subjectivity.  Especially in Jerusalem Blake locates this space within the symbol of embrace of otherness that nevertheless does not erase heterogeneity.  Indeed, he writes that, “We cannot experience pleasure but by means of others, who experience either pleasure or pain thro us” (E 600).  Thus for Blake the Enlightenment notions of selfhood cut the individual off from this intersubjective experience with the other that makes freedom and justice possible in the first place.  Like Wesley, Blake is concerned to restore human relations within a community of love that is based on a recognition of the other’s fundamental otherness and an understanding of justice that elevates the marginal.

By pushing back against contemporary definitions of millennium that are bound up in temporal political and revolutionary progress towards a new world order, Blake is thus able to interrogate and disrupt all narratives of power that seek to conspire against the marginal.  As Makdisi points out, Blake not only interrogates the Church and King ideology of conservatives like Burke, but also the rational radicalism of Tom Paine and Mary Wollstoncraft, which reifies existing property relations through the constitution of the Lockean individual subject (19). True liberty and the kingdom of God is, for Blake, properly located within the individual and the individual’s power to enact justice within the community.

This vision of justice is primarily concerned with the marginal and the other not the protection of property rights for citizens.  In this Blake anticipates Levinas, who argues that justice is founded not on traditional notions of “freedom” but on a relationship with the other.  “Ontology, which reduces the other to the same,” he writes, “promotes freedom – the freedom that is the identification of the same, not allowing itself to be alienated by the other” (42). Instead, Levinas argues that “The presence of the Other, a privileged heteronomy, does not clash with freedom but invests it” (88) and that it is only by inviting the other, in all its heterogeneity, into conversation that justice can be enacted:

The other qua other is the Other.  To “let him be” the relationship of discourse is required; pure ‘disclosure,’ where he is proposed as a theme, does not respect him enough for that.  We call justice this face to face approach, in conversation.  If truth arises in the absolute experience in which being gleams with its own light, then truth is produced only in veritable conversation or in justice. (71)

Thus truth cannot be known nor true freedom and justice produced without the acceptance of the other as other – without acknowledging the difference of the other and inviting it into conversation with the self.  Thus justice is not an impartial judgment in the interest of order, but a radical embrace of the other.  It also refuses to fall into the cycle of revenge and retribution against the oppressor, but works to restore him or her to the community through the action of embrace. Furthermore, this is not an embrace that erases difference, but celebrates radical alterity. Thus it is in this space for the other that true justice and forgiveness are located, in the gesture of radical embrace; and it is in this space that Blake ultimately locates the kingdom of God.

Jerusalem Plate 76 - Illustration of Gesture of Embrace

In this light, Blake’s epic Jerusalem works throughout to both criticize the existing order and create a space within which his vision of justice is possible.  For example, after Albion falls asleep, his sons and daughters, under the veil of Vala, utilize the moral law to oppress and impoverish:

The Twenty-eight Cities of Albion stretch their hands to thee:
Because of the Opressors of Albion in every City & Village:
They mock at the Labourers limbs! they mock at his starvd Children.
They buy his Daughters that they may have power to sell his Sons:
They compell the Poor to live upon a crust of bread by soft mild arts;
They reduce the Man to want: then give with pomp & ceremony-
The praise of Jehovah is chaunted from lips of hunger & thirst!
(J 44: 27-33, E 193)

This brutal oppression is thus the direct result of law and justice based upon the rule of the powerful over the weak.  It is based on a notion of social progress that relies on the labor of the poor and weak to create stability and order. Driven from their land and literally compelled to live on crusts of bread distributed by “charity,” the poor and marginal are constant victims of a logic of control ostensibly based on justice and stability.  For Blake this was the result, not of injustice, but the “progressive” definitions of justice and rationality upon which society was founded.

This brand of order and justice also has the effect of perverting human nature.  Albion’s error is not simply rejecting Jerusalem, but embracing the self over the other.  Thus Albion enters the “State of Satan” (J 35, E 181), which is characterized by the embrace of self over the sacrifice of self for the other.  This has the effect of perverting humanity even further, of turning man into a fiend:

O! how the torments of Eternal Death, waited on Man;
And the loud-rending bars of the Creation ready to burst:
That the wide world might fly from its hinges. & the immortal mansion
Of Man. for ever be possess’d by monsters of the deeps:
And Man himself become a Fiend. wrap’d in an endless curse.
Consuming and consum’d for-ever in flames of Moral Justice.

A nether-world must have recievd the foul enormous spirit.
Under the presence of Moral Virtue. fill’d with Revenge and Law.
There to eternity chain’d down, and issuing in red flames
And curses. with his mighty arms brandish’d against the heavens
Breathing cruelty blood & vengeance, gnashing his teeth with pain
Torn with black storms, & ceaseless torrents of his own consuming fire:
(J 36: 26-31, 35-40, E 182)

Thus humanity, left to the influence of selfhood and moral law devolves into a state of perpetual, bloody vengeance under the guise of “Moral Justice.”  Because the ethic of embrace and forgiveness, embodied by Jerusalem, has been abandoned the only option left is the revenge of the law, which is “Consuming and consum’d for-ever;” a cycle of vengeance and oppression.

The solution to this problem is the forgiveness of sins, the radical embrace of the other (both oppressed and oppressor) and the absolute rejection of a definition of justice based on retribution.  It is only through these apocalyptic methods that the millennium can be brought to earth and Albion awoken from his slumber.  It is also only through these methods that a mental apocalypse can be performed in the minds of the reader that spurs them to actively bring Jerusalem to earth.  Thus the key to this radical apocalyptic turn is to create the millennial space within which the other can be embraced unconditionally, severed from cultural and political power structures. This creation of a space for radical justice is reflected in Blake’s representation of the “Spaces of Erin,” which are located West of Albion and come to stand for the hope provided by otherness:

Then Erin came forth from the Furnaces, & all the Daughters of Beulah
Came from the Furnaces. by Los’s mighty power for Jerusalems
Sake: walking up and down among the Spaces of Erin:
And the Sons and Daughters of Los came forth in perfection lovely!
And the Spaces of Erin reach’d from the starry heighth, to the starry depth.
(J 11: 9-13, E 154)

Thus Erin (Ireland), with its literal distance and alterity becomes the space within which Los and his children can work for Jerusalem’s regeneration.


The lines of connection I have traced here between Charles Wesley and William Blake are preliminary at best.  I have no intention of arguing for something as simplistic as “influence” or “causality.”  However I do think that these two great poets can be put into productive conversation in ways that have eluded us in the past.  Both operated within the dynamic nexus of religion, politics, and subjectivity that animated the late eighteenth century and this common landscape pervades their poetry.  They may have come from opposite ends of the political and ideological spectrum, but both were men who firmly believed that an individual man or woman could hear directly from God and both privileged the subjectivity gained through this experience over any liberal political or economic policy. As such, both Charles Wesley and William Blake use their poetry to subtly critique the spirit of the age and the discourses of liberty that dominated the late eighteenth century.  By developing the kingdom of God as a communal space for the embrace of the other, both men in their own way manage to locate freedom and justice outside the categories of individuality and autonomy – pointing the way towards a definition of identity rooted in a community of love and forgiveness.

Works Cited

Blake, William. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. Ed. Morton D. Paley. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.

Erdman, David V., ed. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. New York: Anchor, 1988.

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

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2007.

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

Mack, Phyllis. Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Wesley, John & Wesley, Charles. A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists. London: Paramore, 1780.

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


Conceptualizing an 18th Century Religious Public Sphere

Since the publication of Jurgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Spherethe concept of the public sphere as a freestanding institution of bourgeois society has been progressively modified, including by Habermas himself.  What has emerged since that time is the conception of multiple public spheres that often overlapped and sometimes conflicted.  Of particular interest to me is the way that a religious public sphere emerged and matured over the course of the long eighteenth century.  This was something that first erupted during the tumultuous years of the English Civil War when the disestablishment of the Church of England led to a proliferation of religious sects that splintered the population.  Even after the Restoration and the reestablishment of the Church, though, the genie was out of the bottle.  After attempts to proscribe dissent in the Clarendon Code and the Test and Corporation Acts largely failed, Parliament passed the Toleration Act in 1689 which, while continuing to bar dissenters from the universities and government, lifted the most burdensome restrictions.

It was within this religious climate that the Evangelical Revival arose in England for, though Methodism itself began as a movement within the Church of England, it quickly located itself within the developing religious public sphere. The fact that there was so much anti-Methodist literature from writers ranging from Smollett to Fielding to people like the anonymous pamphleteer who wrote The Story of the Methodist-lady; or, The Injur’d Husband’s Revenge: A True History indicates the extent to which religious debates were very much a part of the public consciousness. As Fielding’s character Parson Adams says in Joseph Andrews men like Wesley and Whitefield, “set up the detestable Doctrine of Faith against good Works… for surely, that Doctrine was coined in Hell, and one would think none but the Devil himself could have the Confidence to preach it” (70). As strange as it may seem to a post-modern audience, such questions of religious doctrine were very much part of the public conversation in the eighteenth century.

On the other end of the spectrum spiritual experience diaries and narratives proliferated as people like John Wesley and George Whitefield cannily utilized print as a means of spreading their message.  Both men’s journals were best sellers and indeed religious literature as a whole dominated the literary marketplace. Of course, this spiritual experience genre no doubt existed well before the eighteenth century.  Catholic mystics like St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila on the continent and Julian of Norwich in England recorded powerful, intimate, and deeply symbolic mystical experiences that continue to influence generations of readers.  However their writings, beautiful though they may be, are largely bound up in the representational symbolism of the established church.  They are internal spiritual experiences first and though are presented largely as models for spiritual devotion.  In this sense these religious experience accounts largely mirror Habermas’ category of the “representational” public sphere.  The authority of the church largely mediated how spirituality was transmitted and experienced by the public at large and as a result relatively few members of the general population ever got to read about these great saints.

The evangelical conversion narrative, however, is a different story and, as I have argued elsewhere, it largely follows the general eighteenth century trend towards the development of a complex internal subjectivity that interacts in innovative ways with the developing public sphere.  Starting roughly with Bunyan’s Grace Abounding, the evangelical conversion narrative in fact acted like a spiritual solvent – eroding the artificial divide between private and public. Unlike earlier spiritual experience account the evangelical conversion narrative is clearly oriented towards a broader audience embodied in a specific religious community.  Individuals like John Bunyan, John Wesley, and Hester Ann Rogers were not and never claimed to be part of the spiritual elite, instead they represent their experience as a constant struggle.  For the tinker John Bunyan there is nothing of the heavily symbolic spiritual rapture of St. John of the Cross, only honest struggles with sin, doubt, and oppressive local authorities.  Just as Addison and Steele attempted the reform and democratize manners in the emerging bourgeois public sphere so Bunyan brought legitimate spiritual experience and struggle to a much wider swathe of the British population – a population that was still largely dependent on the representational forms of worship and not the subjective experience of religious faith.

Furthermore, these authors utilized the burgeoning print culture to transmit their experience to a much wider, and much more socially variegated, audience.  Drawing upon the “private” diary and letter form, spiritual experience authors oriented their texts towards a specific audience – probing the developing space that was opening up in print.  As Habermas writes, “From the beginning, the psychological interest increased in the dual relation to both one’s self and the other: self observation entered a union partly curious, partly sympathetic with the emotional stirrings of the other I” (49).  By thus appropriating these forms in print, early eighteenth century conversion narrative writers (like novelists) began to develop a complex internal subjectivity that was both rooted in internal experience but oriented towards a public space.  People like John Wesley published their spiritual experiences not only or primarily for their own sakes, but in order to elicit mimetic spiritual experiences in rapidly expanding reading public.

As the century progresses, however, this divide is almost entirely erased (especially for women) as individuals begin to see religious experience, and especially writing about religious experience, as a means to entering into a developing public conversation about the role of religion in British life.  John Wesley, for example, published his Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion as an explicit response to the early criticisms of Methodism.  Even more interesting, however, is how the women of the early evangelical revival used the space they found within religious experience to express themselves publicly.  I have written about this at length elsewhere, but in general the women of early Methodism used their private, internal experience as a way to disrupt the categories of public and private themselves.  Religious experience in this sense gave them the language to enter a public space and explode any distinction between inner emotion and outer action.  Thus it was not so much that evangelical religion appealed to women because it was inherently more suited to private and domestic consumption, but because it allowed for participation in a conversation beyond those bounds.

In this sense a new sort of religious “public sphere” emerges during the eighteenth century within which gender and the role of gender within religion become part and parcel of more abstract discussions about doctrine and theology.  Thus I would argue that the debates over doctrines like justification by faith or religious “enthusiasm” were in reality expressions of deeper seeded concerns over the role of marginalized members of society – women, the poor – in organized religion.  Over the course of the nineteenth century the roles of these women were gradually circumscribed as religious movements like Methodism became centralized institutions.  Once again women were used as representational religious symbols – the “angel in the house” of domestic piety.  This is not to say that women did not find ways to counteract this narrative even well into the nineteenth century, it is just that such excursions into the religious public sphere were looked upon with far more suspicion.


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

17th Century Women and the Perserverance of Prophecy in Print

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

That sermon is in a strain which I believe has not been heard in this kingdom, in any of the pulpits which are tolerated or encouraged in it, since the year 1648, when a predecessor of Dr. Price, the Reverend Hugh Peters, made the vault of the king’s own chapel at St. James’s ring with the honour and privilege of the Saints, who, with the “high praises of God in their mouths, and a two edged sword in their hands, were to execute judgment on the heathen, and punishments upon the people; to bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron.” Few harangues from the pulpit, except in the days of your league in France, or in the days of our solemn league and covenant in England, have ever breathed less of the spirit of moderation than this lecture in Old Jewry…. This pulpit style, revived after so long a discontinuance, had to me the air of novelty, and of a novelty not wholly without danger (13-14).

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

This threat was exacerbated (in Burke’s mind) by the proliferation of cheap printed prophecies that were distributed to the general population. Thus Burke’s harangue is also a testament to the long life of prophecy in print.  By drawing up the specter of the Civil War prophets Burke is also drawing attention to the complex connections between printed prophecy then and the perseverance of those prophecies throughout the eighteenth century – prophecies that would be echoed in the millenarian works of people like Richard Brothers.

The millenarian prophecy of the Civil War has been amply examined by people like Christopher Hill who, in his foundational The World Turned Upside Down, illustrates that religious groups like the Familialists, Ranters, Quakers, and Diggers were an integral part of creating the political landscape of the 1640’s and 50’s.  Absent from this work, however, is much recognition of prophetesses who proliferated during this time period.  As Phyllis Mack puts it, Hill has a tendency to, “subsume the category of ‘woman’ within that of class and would interpret the prophet’s attack on the enrobed Anglican priest as one aspect of a wider and more significant dynamic of class conflict” (3). This does not to say that class does not figure into the equation – during the turbulent 1640’s this was unavoidable – but it is to say that many of these prophetic women have been overlooked as important thinkers and writers of the time period.  For example, one of the most prolific prophets of the time period, Lady Eleanor Davies, is practically relegated to a footnote in Hill’s book, where he notes that she was “an eccentric personality who regarded herself as a prophetess [and] deserves more space than she can be given here” (128).

Furthermore, though modern feminist scholarship has done much to rescue these important women from the dustbin of history, relatively little work has been done on women as prophetic printers and writers – women who used the medium of print (often illegally) to project a prophetic voice.  In the case of Lady Eleanor Davies, her prophetic voice operated only through illicit print – print laden with her prophetic ideology.  As such her vision of millennium was as much a product of its mediation technology as its actual prophetic content, a fact that she herself acknowledges. In the case of a prophetess like Fifth Monarchist Anna Trapnel, on the other hand, her prophecy undergoes multiple layers of outside mediation before reaching the printed page, thus calling into question the very notion of a stable authorial persona.  As Lisa Maruca argues, in cases like this the printing process itself operated as a gendered space within which multiple subjectivities could be negotiated (15).  It is within this space that the prophetesses Davies and Trapnel thrived, working to create an alternative, gendered, public space that was gradually regulated and shut down over the course of the century.

Anna Trapnel, Fifth Monarchist Prophetess, Misidentified here as a Quaker

Lady Eleanor Davies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna Trapnel

Anna Trapnel was the daughter of a shipwright.  Her mother died when she was nine after praying that the Lord would “Double thy spirit upon my child” (Trapnel 7). Unlike Lady Eleanor, who was not associated with any of the major religious movements of the English Civil War, Anna Trapnel was one of the most prominent Fifth Monarchist prophets.  The Fifth Monarchists interpreted the prophecies of the book of Daniel as predicting four successive corrupt empires to be succeeded by the glorious reign of King Jesus, who would come to earth to restore his kingdom (Hinds xxvii).  As such, Fifth Monarchists welcomed the overthrow of the monarchy and initially embraced Oliver Cromwell as God’s chosen tool to restore his kingdom – many prominent Fifth Monarchists even served in the Barebones Parliament.  However, after Cromwell was named Lord Protector, many Fifth Monarchists became disillusioned and it was in this political atmosphere that Trapnel made her most famous prophecy, The Cry of a Stone (Hinds xxxi-xxxii).

Also unlike Lady Eleanor, Anna Trapnel did not write her prophecies; they were recorded as she spoke in a trance then edited and printed later.  The particular trance that resulted in The Cry of a Stone occurred in January 1654 and lasted eleven days and twelve nights.  The fact that it occurred in Whitehall (the center of government) is significant, as is the fact that the Barebones Parliament had been only recently dismissed and Cromwell made Lord Protector.  In fact, Trapnel specifically singles out Cromwell, figuring him as the Biblical Gideon, for special condemnation for what she sees as his abdication of his divine role.  Thus, though the prophecy is not written by Trapnel, it is clearly in her own voice and reflects her interpretation of current affairs.  In fact, Trapnel was considered so disruptive that, while prophesying later in Cornwall, she was arrested and brought before the magistrates, a fascinating account that is laid out in her Report and Plea.

The co-construction of A Cry of a Stone by prophet, relator, editor, and printer allows the printed text to operate on multiple levels.  At the same time that it engages in radical social critique of the Cromwell Protectorate it also carves out a gendered space in print and works to further elide the category of the author.  Anna Trapnel is simultaneously the author and subject of her own text – it is within the editing and printing process that her subjectivity is recursively shaped just like the letters on the page.

The first level of mediation that occurs in A Cry of the Stone is between Trapnel herself and the (likely male) relator of the text who writes down her prophecy and ostensibly helps edit it for publication.  This is a situation already fraught with interpretative difficulty as Trapnel was ostensibly not even conscious at the time of her speech.  However the situation is further complicated by the fact that the relator’s transcript of the prophecy is incomplete.  He frequently comes into the room late, having missed part of the prophecy and at other times “because of the press of people in the chamber” (18), or Trapnel’s dying voice he is unable to transcribe all of her words.  At other times he seems to silently edit out passages that do not relate to the current political situation.  This elision seemingly occurs at times of little importance as much as at times of tremendous moment.  For example towards the end of the prophecy, right as Trapnel is beginning to elaborate her magnificent vision of the New Jerusalem, the relator maddeningly writes, “Having uttered many other things, she sung of the glory of the New Jerusalem, which escaped the relator’s pen, by reason of the lowness of her voice, and the noise of the people; only some pieces were taken here and there, but too broken and imperfect here to relate” (63).  Thus the relator functions both to relate the prophecy and shape the reader’s view of the prophet.  This is not to say that his/her view is inaccurate, only that both are working to co-construct the text.

A further level of mediation occurs, however, at the level of printing the text.  After the Civil War the monopoly of the Stationer’s Guild was broken and pre-publication censorship fell to the wayside.  This was not to say that a person could print anything without consequence, but in the chaos that followed the Civil War the amount of print exploded and became increasingly difficult to regulate.  In the case of Trapnel there is no printer listed on her text, but it is clear that it was printed quickly and cheaply, that the printer had editorial input, and that the materiality of the text shapes the content.

Of particular interest is that way in which the printer navigates the multiple voices and genres of the text – shaping reader perception through his choices of font, type, and spacing.  In the figure below, for example, we can see the printer navigating three very distinct textual spaces.  The page to the left includes the end of one of Trapnel’s prose prophecies, in this case one that includes biographical details.  The text here is small, closely printed, and in a regular font type.  On the top of the next page, however, the printer has to transition into the voice of the relator and for this he selects a larger font that frames the following section of Trapnel’s verse prophecy.  This prophecy in verse is printed in two columns of italic font which are roughly separated into stanzas of four – though this would seem to be primarily for ease of reading as the stanzas to not exhibit any consistent rhyme pattern.

Each of these seemingly small details are nevertheless important to how we understand the text.  Especially in the use of the italic stanzas the printer is clearly intervening in the text – suggesting how it should be read.  As Lisa Maruca has illustrated, in the eighteenth century such italic fonts were considered more “feminine” (51).  Thus even at the level of the printing process Trapnel’s gendered subjectivity is being shaped by forces outside her direct control.  The fact that we do not notice these types of details when reading itself indicates the extent to which our reading practices have been informed by the post-Romantic theory of authorship.  The material text has become transparent to us to the point that we find it difficult to read a text as it would have been read at the time.  As Maruca points out, this transparency must be interrogated for, “that which is the most ‘internalized’ or ‘intuitive’ is that which is also the most ideological” (6).

In the case of Davies and Trapnel I am by no means suggesting that they lack their own agency or voice.  Both women clearly had a distinct vision for their public role.  In fact if at any time there was a relatively open space for women to express themselves publically it was during the turbulent decades of the 1640’s and 50’s.  In fact after the Restoration we see women’s participation in print gradually diminishing – a story that is admirably related in Catherine Gallagher’s Nobody’s Story.  Ultimately, though, I would argue that the modern difficulties that these texts produce in terms of understanding how these women thought, spoke, and acted reflects more on our culture than theirs.  Religious and prophetic discourse was one of the dominant forms of public expression in the seventeenth century and it would not have seemed to strange at the time.  Thus, as Paula McDowell suggests, “By pursuing what makes us uncomfortable in early modern print culture… we may begin to understand not only our own literary values and agendas, but also… those values’ original socio-cultural functions and consequences” (16).  Furthermore, the perseverance of Davies and Trapnel’s prophecies in print is a testament to the power of the medium.  Despite attempts to limit, control, or destroy it these women’s words lived on long enough in print that Edmund Burke could draw upon cultural memory to condemn them afresh in 1790 and worry over the return of enthusiast prophets to “England’s green and pleasant land.”


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

Hill, Christopher. The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. New York: Penguin, 1972.

Mack, Phyllis. Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.

Maruca, Lisa. The Work of Print: Authorship and the English Text Trades, 1660-1760. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2007.

McDowell, Paula. The Women of Grub Street: Press, Politics, and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace, 1678-1730. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

Trapnel, Anna. The Cry of a Stone. Ed. Hilary Hinds. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000.

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.