Tag Archives: Hester Ann Rogers

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

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

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

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

In these extracts from John Wesley’s Arminian Magazine we see the complex interplay between orality, spiritual experience, belief, conversion, and print that characterized early Methodism.  This complex nexus worked to produce a developed culture of evangelicalism during the period that worked to form a fully developed religious public sphere.  Since the publication of Jurgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere the concept of the public sphere as a freestanding institution of bourgeois society has been progressively modified, including by Habermas himself.  What has emerged since that time is the conception of multiple public spheres that often overlapped and sometimes conflicted.  Of particular interest to me is the way that a religious public sphere (something Habermas never even considered) emerged and matured over the course of the long eighteenth century in conjunction with the liberal “secular” public sphere.  As Jon Mee has pointed out:

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

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

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

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

Furthermore, aside from their own publication successes, the journals of Whitefield and Wesley provoked further writing and further print in the mode Clifford Siskin has detailed in The Work of Writing – turning readers into authors (163-170).  Individual converts imitated Wesley’s confessional style and utilized the burgeoning print culture to transmit their experience to a much wider, and much more socially variegated, audience.  Drawing upon the “private” diary and letter form, spiritual experience authors oriented their texts towards a specific audience – probing the developing space that was opening up in print.  As Habermas writes, “From the beginning, the psychological interest increased in the dual relation to both one’s self and the other: self observation entered a union partly curious, partly sympathetic with the emotional stirrings of the other I” (49).  By thus appropriating these forms in print, early eighteenth century conversion narrative writers (like novelists) began to develop a complex internal subjectivity that was both rooted in internal experience but oriented towards a public space.  People like John Wesley published their spiritual experiences not only or primarily for their own sakes, but in order to elicit mimetic spiritual experiences in rapidly expanding reading public.

This proliferation of print that the Evangelical Revival spawned was, of course, in direct conversation with the “secular” public sphere – indicating not so much a binary relation, but a close, symbiotic relationship tied together through mediation and circulation.  In conjunction with attacks on Methodist preachers and meeting houses, anti-Methodist literature proliferated during the period.  Novels by Smollet (Humpry Clinker) and Fielding (Joseph Andrews) lampooned Methodists as deranged enthusiasts.  Pamphlets by religious leaders like the Bishop of London compared them to Catholics and cheap print like The Story of the Methodist-lady; or, The Injur’d Husband’s Revenge: A True History, cast Methodists as disturbers of the social and domestic order. As Fielding’s character Parson Adams says in Joseph Andrews men like Wesley and Whitefield, “set up the detestable Doctrine of Faith against good Works… for surely, that Doctrine was coined in Hell, and one would think none but the Devil himself could have the Confidence to preach it” (70). As strange as it may seem to a post-modern audience, such questions of religious discourse were very much part of the public conversation in the eighteenth century in large partbecause of the medium of print.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To better illustrate how this evangelical public sphere operated and was contested I want to turn now to the role of women writers within the Evangelical Revival.  For not only do these evangelical women writers illustrate how print could be used to blur gendered distinctions between public and private, they were also the locus for much of the anti-Methodist criticism and satire.  In general the women of early Methodism used their private, internal experience as a way to disrupt the categories of public and private.  Religious experience in this sense gave them the language to enter a public space and explode any distinction between inner emotion and outer action.  Thus it was not so much that evangelical religion appealed to women because it was inherently more suited to private and domestic consumption, but because it allowed for participation in a conversation beyond those bounds.

In this context I would argue that the role of gender within religion was at the root of the doctrinal controversies that the Revival engendered. Thus the debates over doctrines like justification by faith or religious “enthusiasm” were in reality expressions of deeper seeded concerns over the role of marginalized members of society – women, the poor – in organized religion.  This anxiety is everywhere apparent in Leigh Hunt’s Attempt to Shew the Folly and Danger of Methodism in which he states, “We may see directly what influence the body has upon this kind of devotion [Methodism], if we examine the temperament of its professors.  The female sex, for instance, are acknowledged to possess the greater bodily sensibility, and it is the women who chiefly indulge in these love-sick visions of heaven” (55).  Thus what is really at stake in the print wars over Methodism is not so much the doctrine of justification by faith but the eroding of social boundaries via spiritual experience.

Women’s Conversion Narratives and the Arminian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Book Review: Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism

Vicki Tolar Burton. Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism: Reading, Writing, and Speaking to Believe. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008. [388 pgs].

For far too long the complex issue of the relationship between Methodism and 18th century literary practices and social roles has been overlooked.  Although the disciplinary turn to new historicism and cultural studies has allowed literary scholars to examine texts and contexts through a broad variety of cultural lenses, a serious consideration of religion has rarely been one of them.  As Ken Jackson and Arthur Marotti note in their study of “The Turn to Religion in Early Modern Studies,” this is not so much because religion has disappeared as a topic of study but because it has been “somewhat pushed to the side by most New Historicists and cultural materialists, who pursued other topics and, when they dealt with religious issues, quickly translated them into social, economic, and political language” (167).  The same largely holds true 18th Century studies as is evidenced by E.P. Thompson’s famous representation of Methodism in The Making of the English Working Class as an autocratic, repressive, and bourgeois movement intent on reifying class hierarchy.  In Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism: Reading, Writing, and Speaking to Believe, Vicki Tolar Burton takes on these issues by arguing that John Wesley, autocrat though he was, actually promoted a form of “spiritual literacy,” that located the practices of reading, writing, and speaking within a particularly communal and religious space.  In doing so she both situates Methodist literacy practices within the broader literature on 18th century literacy and education, but also reassesses Methodism’s role in promoting the voices of women and the working class.

Tolar Burton’s key argument is that one of the unique factors that determined the success of Wesley’s Methodism was the types of literacy he promoted among its adherents.  Thus literacy, for the Methodists, was located in and revolved around a communal religious space and specific religious practices.  Wesley himself placed a high value on literacy – an attribute he learned in childhood from his brilliant mother Susanna – and kept both a personal spiritual diary and published journal (which often varied greatly) throughout his long life, a practice he expected his followers to emulate.  As such, he both promoted and expected literacy practices from both his lay preachers and lay people – both men and women.  To this end Wesley engaged in an extensive publishing venture which not only published his own works and those of his brother Charles, but also abridged versions of works in “practical divinity” that he thought would be helpful to his flock.  Wesley fully expected that his lay preachers (who were not college educated and not ordained in the Church of England) would read these works and thus improve their education and literacy.

Not only did Wesley promote reading among his preachers and lay members, he also promoted speaking and writing.  In reaction to the growing demand for preachers and the lack of ordained Anglican clergy associated with the movement, Wesley controversially began appointing (though not ordaining) lay preachers to circuits around England.  These preachers were encouraged (nearly fifty years before Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads) to speak in as plain and understandable style as possible without the rhetorical flourishes that characterized the belle lettristic tradition.  Even more controversially and after initial opposition, Wesley began to allow women who possessed an “extraordinary call” to preach publically to mixed crowds.  Women like Mary Bosanquet Fletcher (the wife of the famous John Fletcher), Sarah Crosby, and Sarah Mallett, though not appointed to a circuit, travelled around England preaching and ministering to large crowds.

Unfortunately, the writings and sermons of many of these women preachers do not survive; however there is a clear print record of many other Methodist women who, encouraged by John Wesley, wrote spiritual diaries and journals.  Wesley often solicited these spiritual accounts as “seals” of his ministry and proofs of his controversial doctrine of Christian perfection.  Thus many men and women, even if they did not preach, wrote their own religious experience diaries – many of which were published in the pages of Wesley’s Arminian Magazine or in standalone editions.  The most famous of these accounts is The Experience of Hester Ann Rogers which was published by Wesley shortly before his death and was a best seller throughout the nineteenth century.  Though not a preacher, Rogers was one of the few people who he believed had achieved mystical union with God on earth and her account is an engaging testimony to that fact.

Finally, Tolar Burton includes a chapter on Wesley’s role in the Sunday School movement which, though not founded by the Methodists, was quickly appropriated and expanded by their extensive organization.  By Tolar Burton’s estimation, nearly 2 million children had made their way through Methodist Sunday Schools by 1850 – thus educating an entire generation of working children (and their parents) who had no other options for learning to read.  Thus, she argues, in all of these instances the Methodists were able to use an explicitly religious and spiritual space to both promote literacy practices and reach the poor and marginal (including women), who lay outside of traditional religious and educational structures.

Thus, in reading Methodism as a movement that envisioned literacy as part and parcel of spiritual development, Tolar Burton both expands the existing literature on literacy and education during the eighteenth century and modulates the perception of Methodism as a socially repressive force – a perception that has existed at least since Thompson.  On the first count, Tolar Burton’s chief contribution is to call into question the admittedly shaky analysis of literacy conducted by scholars like Harvey Graff who base their estimates of literacy in the period on signatures on public documents.  As has long been recognized, this is a problematic approach because it privileges writing over reading – ignoring the fact that, while many individuals during the period could not write, this did not mean they could not read.

Tolar Burton makes this especially clear in her chapter on the Sunday School movement, in which she details the controversy even within Methodism over whether to teach the children to write.  Though both reading and writing were considered dangerous skills for the lower classes to obtain, writing was considered to be far more dangerous than reading.  As such, every Methodist Sunday School taught reading (basing the lessons on the Bible) but not all taught writing.  This indicates that, not only was the practice of reading intimately tied to the Protestant ideal of reading the Bible, but that perhaps a higher percentage of people than previously thought were taught to read through Methodist Sunday Schools.

Not only does Tolar Burton interrogate literacy practices and research that privilege writing over reading, she also highlights oratory as a vital Methodist literary practice.  In two key chapters on men and women preachers in early Methodism, she emphasizes the impact the extempore, open air preaching style Wesley encouraged his preachers to adopt affected the spiritual literacy of the movement.  Classically trained at Oxford, John Wesley was more than familiar with all of the major schools of preaching rhetoric – from Ciceronian to Belle Lettristic – nevertheless the style he came to both practice and advocate was far different from anything he learned at Oxford.  Instead, Wesley suggested that his preachers preach simply, on a single scripture passage, without a written text, and in a natural manner (Tolar Burton 114-115).  This style was not only radically different from his contemporaries (especially Hugh Blair) but it also points to the fact that, for Wesley, reaching the broadest possible audience with his message was the paramount concern.  No doubt one of the reasons that preachers like John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield were reported to have spoke to open air crowds as large as 10,000 was due to the fact that their style of preaching was far different and far more engaging than the alternative.

Furthermore, in an excellent chapter on Hester Ann Rogers, perhaps the best known of the early Methodist women due to her bestselling Account, Tolar Burton lays out engaging theory of female textual materiality that examines the way in which texts themselves are reshaped in print after the author’s death:

In order to understand and critique the function of women’s rhetoric in the cultural formation of women’s lives, it is helpful to read closely not only the disembodied content of rhetoric written by and for women, but also the embodied texts – the material elements of production and distribution – with particular attention to how publishing decisions and practices affect ethos as it functions in women’s texts and women’s reading.  I am referring to the actual physical changes in the printed texts (211-212).

Hester Ann Rogers’ Account, she argues, is an especially good example of this due to its complicated and revealing publication history.  Originally published on its own in 1793, subsequent editions of the text published after her death in 1794, while still containing the main body of her text, also included significant additions.  Most notably, a funeral sermon by Methodist leader Thomas Coke and personal reflections by her husband James Rogers were appended to the text – both of which went to great lengths to portray Hester as an exemplary wife and mother, a feature notably lacking from the original, intensely spiritual, text.  Furthermore, though there were numerous women preachers in early Methodism, it was the non-preaching, privately religious Hester Ann Rogers that the Methodist leadership post-Wesley chose to uphold.  Thus the internalized spirituality of Rogers’ text, along with the way her image was shaped by her later editors, paradoxically worked to canonize her as a symbol of quiescent female spirituality.

That said, Tolar Burton’s contribution to the literature on eighteenth century literacy practices in only half the story.  Not only does she point out that the practices of literacy were far more extensive and complex than has previously been recognized, but she also challenges the long dominant perception of Methodism as a largely reactionary bourgeois movement.  To be sure, John Wesley was a Church and King man till the day he died but nevertheless, as Tolar Burton points out, a large portion of his ministry was directed to and for the poor, the laboring classes, and women.  In fact, not only were many of Wesley’s preachers drawn from the trades, but some of his first successful ministries were to the Kingswood miners.  Furthermore, as several chapters of Tolar Burton’s book point out, women were an integral part of early Methodism – leading classes and bands, teaching Sunday Schools, and even preaching.

This portrayal of Methodism explicitly challenges its portrayal by people like E.P. Thompson who argue that Methodism operated as an instrument of oppression:

At one level the reactionary – indeed, odiously subservient – character of official Wesleyanism can be established without the least difficulty…. He [Wesley] rarely let pass any opportunity to impress upon his followers the doctrine of submission, expressed less at the level of ideas than of superstition…. Thus, at this level Methodism appears as a politically regressive, or ‘stabilizing’, influence (40-41).

Instead, while in no way denying the fact that Wesley was an unabashed autocrat and defender of the established order, Tolar Burton complicates the portrayal of the movement as a whole by examining the lives and literacy practices of actual Methodist people – both preachers and lay members.  In doing so, she echoes historian Phyllis Mack’s recent call to locate “an angle of vision that allows [us]… to accept these spiritual concerns as sincere and legitimate,” and also “share, however imperfectly the struggles of ordinary Methodists and lay preachers, to stand with individual men and women as they worked to shape their own subjectivity, not in a single cathartic moment at a revival meeting, but over a lifetime” (7).  By doing so, Tolar Burton seeks to move beyond the monolithic figure of John Wesley and understand how ordinary Methodist men and women conceived of the connection between faith, spirituality, literacy, and the public sphere.

In sum, Tolar Burton’s Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism is truly one of the first comprehensive studies (with Phyllis Mack’s Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment) of early Methodist literacy practices and is indicative of a growing trend within literary and rhetorical scholarship to take religious texts and traditions seriously.  Though some of the terrain Tolar Burton covers, especially the history of the Methodist movement and early Methodist diary writing, has been admirably and more comprehensively covered elsewhere (see especially David Hempton’s Methodism: Empire of Spirit and D. Bruce Hindmarsh’s The Evangelical Conversion Narrative) overall her book represents a significant contribution to our understanding of how ordinary Methodists experienced and enacted their faith through “spiritual literacy.”

Works Cited

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

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

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

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