Tag Archives: Nineteenth Century

Methodism and the Redefinition of Religious Intolerance in England, 1688-1791

This paper was presented at the 2012 American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies Conference in San Antonio, TX – March 24, 2012.

John Wesley at Wednesbury

On October 20, 1743 John Wesley rode into the town of Wednesbury in the West Midlands.  As was his custom, he proceeded to the middle of the town and began to preach in the open air.  On this particular occasion his text was Hebrews 13:8 (Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever) and he remarks in his journal that there was a “far larger crowd than expected.”  After preaching, Wesley retired to a local Methodist’s house.  There he was engaging in his endless correspondence when a mob beset the house and forced Wesley to come with them to the local magistrate.  This is how Wesley describes the scene in his Journal:

To attempt speaking was vain; for the noise on every side was like the roaring of the sea. so they dragged me along till we came to the town; where seeing the door of a large house open, I attempted to go in; but a man, catching me by the hair, pulled me back into the middle of the mob. They made no more stop till they had carried me through the main street, from one end of the town to the other. I continued speaking all the time to those within hearing, feeling no pain or weariness. at the west end of the town, seeing a door half open, I made toward it and would have gone in; but a gentleman in the shop would not suffer me, saying they would pull the house down to the ground. However, I stood at the door, and asked, “Are you willing to hear me speak?” Many cried out, “No, no! knock his brains out; down with him; kill him at once.”Others said, “Nay, but we will hear him first.” I began asking, “What evil have I done? Which of you all have I wronged in word or deed?” And continued speaking for above a quarter of an hour, till my voice suddenly failed: then the floods began to lift up their voice again; many crying out, “Bring him away! bring him away!” (5:418).

What is remarkable about this story is that 1. Wesley was an ordained Anglican priest who always preached (even in the open air) in his cassock and bands, 2. The text and message he presents are completely orthodox – in complete agreement with the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles, and 3. the vehemence of the mobs reaction and their willingness to use physical violence against the famous John Wesley.

Such incidents were by no means isolated in the early years of Methodism.  Methodists, though legally still part of the established Church, were routinely harassed by fellow citizens who looked upon them with suspicion and contempt. Riots regularly broke out at Methodist meetings, chapels were vandalized and destroyed, preachers were attacked and/or pressed into the army and navy and Charles Wesley was brought before the magistrates on charges of Jacobitism.  Clearly toleration had its bounds even within the establishment.

What these brief examples clearly illustrate is that “toleration” and indeed intolerance took on a very different cast in Britain during the years following the Toleration Act of 1689.  Though the state officially tolerated religious difference – opening the way for a more individual system of religious belief; nevertheless local circumstances continued to dictate how toleration was applied. As in the example of John Wesley at Wednesbury illustrates, though Methodists were ostensibly a part of the establishment yet they faced localized persecution in some cases far more severe than that suffered by Dissenters. Thus, what I want to argue is that tolerance in England during the eighteenth century was about far more than religious doctrine or right belief.  Instead, intolerance persisted precisely because official toleration gave the public license to overlook belief.  As the example of the Wednesbury mob illustrates the attacks against Methodists, up to and including John Wesley himself, had little to do with doctrine and everything to do with how Methodists used the discourse structures of orality and print to reach a wider audience.  It was the unboundedness of the revival – the circulation of people and print, along with the willingness to ignore local customs and boundaries – that was really at issue.

Bearing this in mind, I want to do two things.  First, I will lay out some basic background on the controversy over Methodism.  Specifically, I will use the complex interplay between orality and print that characterized early Methodism to illustrate how the movement disrupted public space and created what became a developed evangelical public sphere by century’s end.  Secondly, I will turn to the question of Methodism and gender as a lens through which to interpret the intolerance that Methodists faced – by examining this potent socio-cultural issue I will thus be able to illustrate that the objections to Methodism by the general public had little to do with doctrine and everything to do with the evolving definition of the religious self.

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” (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). Thus the Evangelical Revival was in large part made possible by the expanding technologies of print and the increased venues for circulation that the developing capital economy produced.  It is to these technologies and products of mediation that we must attend if we are truly to understand the discourse of popular evangelicalism and how this discourse interacted with society at large.

In the case of the discourse culture of Methodism that was fostered by John Wesley there was an inherent relationship between circulating orality, manuscript culture, and print that came to define the Methodist media environment. 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 his published Journal, for example, 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 and the close relationship between orality and print that defined early Methodism.

However it was this 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 circulated 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 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.  Towards the beginning of her narrative Rogers relates her reaction to the new Methodist preacher in Macclesfield, 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…. 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 (15-16).

Thus Rogers’ objection to the Methodist Mr. Simpson has very little to do with anything he actually believes or preaches (she has never even heard him) 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 by participating in the discourse of Methodism, then, Mr. Simpson calls up the specter of unbounded enthusiasm and disruption of the social order.

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 John Wesley’s 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 to some specific and local examples of the types of intolerance early Methodist converts faced. For, though the generally unbounded (in every sense of the word) nature of the Methodist movement and spirituality was crucial in forming attitudes towards Methodism, these attitudes were shaped and enacted according to local circumstances, customs, and mores. This is especially apparent in the case of Methodist women. 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 fact the role of gender within evangelical religion and the appeal of evangelicalism to women was one of the roots of the controversy the Revival engendered. Thus the reaction to Methodism was in reality an expression of deeper seeded concerns over the role of marginalized members of society – women, the poor – in organized religion.  This anxiety is 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.

Hester Ann Rogers, for example, faced intense persecution from her mother and family upon her conversion to Methodism. Swayed by rumors about Methodism and Methodist teaching her mother “threatened, if ever she knew me to hear them… [to] disown me. Every friend and relation I had in the world, I had reason to believe, would do the same” (22). Rogers continues to attend Methodist meetings, however and “when my mother heard of it, a floodgate of persecution opened upon me!” (22). Her mother responds by confining her to the house for eight weeks, bringing in her godmother and the local clergyman to council her, and taking her away from Macclesfield, but to no avail. Upon returning home Rogers told her mother “in humility, and yet plainness,” that she “must seek salvation to my soul, whatever is the consequence” (23). She then says that she will leave and become a servant rather than renounce Methodism and goes on to offer her mother a deal:

Yet if you will consent to it, I should greatly prefer continuing in your house, though it should be as your servant: and I am willing to undertake all the work of the house, if you will only suffer me to attend preaching. She listened to my proposals; and after consulting with her friends, consented to comply on this last condition (23).

Rogers then proceeds to work for her mother as a servant for over a year before finally convincing her of the authenticity of Methodist experience. What was at stake here clearly had nothing to do with the actual content of Methodist belief – Hester goes to great lengths to articulate its orthodoxy to both her mother and godmother – but the erosion of family and community bonds and loyalties through spiritual experience.

Likewise the intense persecution that Mrs. A.B. experienced following her decision to become a Methodist illustrates the localized nature of Methodist experience and the ways in which persecution was very much tied to the disruption of social and culture norms. Mrs. A.B. was born to a Catholic family on an island of Lough Key in Ireland. Through the influence of an old Protestant woman who boarded with the family during Mrs. A.B.’s childhood, she was convinced of the error of the Catholic Church and the necessity of salvation by faith.  When she was fifteen, Mrs. A.B. was sent to the local priest for religious instruction – she refused to take part in Catholic rituals and openly defied both the priest and the Bishop, to whom she was sent to cast the “witchcraft” out of her. When she was twenty-one she came in contact with the Methodists and was sensibly converted.  She then publically recanted the Catholic Church, causing the parish priest to say he “would make hawk’s meat” of her.  After this she applied to the Rector of the Church of England parish for admittance and protection, but was rejected due to her belief in the ability to sensibly know her sins were forgiven. She then applied to another clergyman, who agreed to receive her into the Church. After this her friends and family attempted to marry her to a Catholic by force – rather than comply she fled, covering over seventeen miles by foot in a single day and contracting a life threatening fever.  Eventually she was taken into the house of a local Methodist and eventually married a Methodist man. What is crucial to recognize here is that Mrs. A.B. was an obscure, young woman who dared subvert local cultural norms because of her evangelical conversion.  She was willing to stand up to religious authorities up to and including a Bishop and flee her family and friends rather than marry someone against her will.

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 Hester Ann Rogers’ and Mrs. A.B.’s testimonies illustrate, they were willing to give up everything to do so. This disruption of social and cultural norms was then reflected in the concern on the part of fathers, mothers, husbands, and communities.  By developing a grassroots system of classes, bands, and select bands in order to foster a unique Methodist social community, Wesley created and 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.

What these concerns indicate is that controversy over religious doctrine in eighteenth century England was rooted in the discourses of religion, gender, and publicity.  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.  Furthermore, 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. Thus, under the guise of toleration religious belief became individualized, localized, and incorporated into a developing consumerist media culture. Individuals were now free to choose belief from a variety of options, but it was precisely in this move towards general toleration that localized intolerance became tolerable.

Works Cited

The Experience of Mrs. A.B.” Arminian Magazine XII (1789): 414-417, 463-466.

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.

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

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.

Agnes Bulmer – Methodist Poetess

When most people think of “Methodism” and “poetry” together they naturally think of Charles Wesley.  Indeed, it could rightly be argued that the great poet and hymnist shaped the Methodist movement at least as much through his poetry as his more famous brother did.  However, scholarship on Methodist poetry (scanty as it is already) rarely moves beyond Charles and, when it does, it mainly considers such religious poets as curiosities – it generally makes no attempt to regard such poets in their own terms and take them seriously as poets – it most certainly never considers women.  Of no one is this truer than Agnes Collinson Bulmer.

Agnes Bulmer was the most notable poet of second generation Methodism – her epic Messiah’s Kingdom runs to twelve books and over 14,000 lines, a scale of ambition rarely seen since Milton.  It is certainly one of the longest poems of the nineteenth century and perhaps the longest poem ever written by a woman.  And yet this magnificent and important poem has received no serious scholarly attention.  This is due, in part, to long-standing elision of explicitly religious eighteenth century poetry in general and religious poetry by early evangelical women in particular.  Though feminist critics have done an admirable job of reintegrating women into the canon over the past thirty years, religious women continue to be written out or, when they are included (as in the case of someone like Hannah More) their writings are largely considered primarily in terms of gender, class, or politics and rarely in terms of the more primary category of religion.

This is especially true of writers like Bulmer who wrote almost solely on religious topics and who dared to do so in an epic poetic genre largely dominated by men.  Instead of being considered for their own literary and cultural merits, these works have largely been laid to the side as the cliché moralistic devotional poetry of the religious fanatic.  Indeed this is too often the case as religious writers of lesser talent (both women and men) often turned to scripture and sentimental cliché as a substitute for poetic vision; but it is not true of Bulmer, who used the materials she was given craft a cohesive and original poetic vision that speaks beyond its limited religious sphere to address the key moral, social, and political questions of the day in an original and powerful voice.  That subsequent critics have not recognized this has more to do with our preconceptions than the actual content of the text.

Agnes Collinson was born in London on August 31, 1775 to Edward and Elizabeth Collinson.  Both her parents were devout Methodists and personal friends of John Wesley.  She was baptized by Wesley and received her first Methodist class ticket from him in 1789.  By this time Wesley was a venerated figure both within and without Methodism and London had become the one of the key centers of the Methodist movement.  Here Agnes would have rubbed shoulders with the Methodist elite, her first class leader was Hester Ann Rogers and she also became acquainted with Elizabeth Mortimer – both major female leaders of early Methodism who present at Wesley’s death.

Early on Agnes exhibited a keen intellect and a marked talent for writing.  Her favorite book, aside from the Bible was Young’s Night Thoughts, a work that would have a profound influence on her later work.  She also began composing poetry early in life and her first poem, “On the Death of Charles Wesley,” was published in the Arminian Magazine in 1788, when she was just fourteen.  It is hardly great poetry, but it exceptional for a fourteen year old girl.  She also contributed a longer, more polished poem, Thoughts on a Future State to the posthumous 1794 edition of Hester Ann Rogers’ famous Account. It is a far more developed poem and one that indicates the direction her poetic vision was taking – incorporating a thoroughgoing knowledge of Scripture with a keen ear for poetic diction.

In 1793 Agnes married Joseph Bulmer, a London merchant and one of the stewards of the famous City Road Chapel.  By all accounts the marriage was a happy one and Joseph’s relative wealth allowed Agnes the leisure to pursue both poetry and deep involvement in the Methodist societies.  She was a frequent contributor to the Arminian Magazine, the later Methodist Magazine, and Youth’s Instructor.  She also carried on an extensive correspondence with the luminaries of the second generation Methodism, some of which was published after her death as Select Letters (these are currently unavailable in an electronic edition – I have a copy and will be transcribing at a later date).  Some of her notable friends included the prominent Methodism theologian Adam Clarke and Jabez Bunting, the powerful leader of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection.

It seems, however, than much of Bulmer’s greatest poetry revolved around and was spurred on by the experience of death.  Her husband Joseph died in 1822 and her mother in 1825.  It was after this second experience of nursing her mother during her final illness that Bulmer began her magnum opus: Messiah’s Kingdom.  Published in 1833 in twelve books, Messiah’s Kingdom is a momentous achievement by any standards.  At 14,000 lines it is 4,000 lines longer than its most obvious literary forbearer, Paradise Lost, and only 2,000 lines shorter than one of the longest poems of the Romantic period, Don Juan.  Its scope is tremendous, beginning (like Milton) with the fall of man and proceeding through the major events of the Old and New Testaments, the establishment of the Church, the Reformation, and up to the contemporaneous evangelical fight against slavery and social ills.  Its overriding theme is the establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth, first through his redemptive work on the cross and then through the actions of the individual Christian in society.

Length and scope, however, are not necessarily the best indicators of poetic worth.  This, combined with the fact that the subject matter of the poem is so explicitly religious, no doubt explain why it has been overlooked by serious scholars for so long.  Nevertheless, careful attention to the poem clearly indicates a marked poetic talent – a clear grasp of both content and form that are married together seamlessly.  As late nineteenth century biographer Annie Keeling put it, Bulmer composed the poem, “with a rare fervour and depth of conviction, with impassioned eloquence, and a style always musical and graceful, often rising in power.  The whole poem presents an attractive unconscious picture o a high, pure spirit delighting itself in the loftier regions of thought and speculation; and in the frequent lyrical outburst which break the flow of its rhymed heroic verse there is a certain swift and fiery quality, an airy grace of flight…” This quality is best exhibited in the lyric sections, like this one which links God’s promise to Noah to his promise to redeem humankind through the coming Messiah:

GLOOMY cloud, that, lowering low,
    Shadowest nature’s lovely light,
Wide thy deepening darkness thrown
    Catch the sunbeam bursting bright;
Gently on thy humid breast,
Bid its soften’d splendours rest.
Wild the wind, and fierce the flood
    Foaming, roaring, raved, and rush’d;
Thunder’s roll’d, – the voice of God: –
    Now the angry storm is hush’d,
Now the eddying whirlwind sleeps,
Ocean seeks its barrier deeps.
Hush! the word of promise breaks,
    Not in thunders hoarse and loud:
Lo! the covenant Saviour speaks
    Softly from the symboll’d cloud.
Rise! the storm of wrath is pass’d;
Judgment shall not always last.
From the cross, where darkness shrouds
    Him who suffer’d there for me,
In the fearful tempest clouds,
    Resting, dread, on Calvary,
Mercy’s beaming sign appears,
See, believe, and dry thy tears!

Not all passages of the poem are (or could be) this moving, but even Milton had his bad lines.  This style may not be to everyone’s taste, and Bulmer is no Milton, but the fact that Milton’s epic religious poem has be endlessly dissected and connected so clearly with social and political events, while Bulmer’s has not, says more about the state of scholarship on religious women poets than it does about Bulmer’s poetry.  Bulmer is just as much of an engaged social poet as Milton was, she just exhibits this engagement in different terms in a different time and place.

However Messiah’s Kingdom was not what Bulmer was most famous for, even during her lifetime.  In 1836, after the death of her friend and Methodist fore-mother Elizabeth Mortimer, she edited the Memoirs of Elizabeth Mortimer, which became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.  She also wrote several volumes of Scripture Histories, prose re-workings of Biblical stories mainly targeted to children. Indeed, all of these works were picked up by the formidable Methodist publishing machine and circulated widely.  This alone makes her a writer who deserves considerable attention.  Methodist membership in England and America during the 1830’s was sky rocketing and it would be no exaggeration to say that a fair portion of the population was familiar with her work.

Agnes Bulmer died on August 20, 1836 on the Isle of Wight.  Her funeral sermon was preached by William Bunting, the son of Jabez Bunting, who later wrote that Bulmer was “one of the most intellectual and holy women, probably, whose presence ever adorned this world,” while Adam Clarke wrote, “That woman astonishes me.  She takes in information just as a sponge absorbs water…. Whether it be philosophy, history, or theology, she seizes upon it, and makes it all her own.”

These tributes are touching, but they also clearly reveal the crucial tension between official Methodism and the role of women in the movement during the nineteenth century.  During John Wesley’s lifetime women like Hester Ann Rogers, Elizabeth Mortimer, and Sarah Crosby were given prominent roles in the movement – allowed to preach publically and express themselves in official publications.  After Wesley’s death official Methodism moved quickly to proscribe the roles that were available to women within the movement and under Jabez Bunting women were further confined to a space of Victorian domestic piety.  This move is revealed in the tributes to Bulmer after her death.  Both William Bunting and Adam Clarke treat Bulmer as an anomaly – the intellectual woman – not the rule.  The fact that Bulmer was largely confined to the private world of correspondence with other women and poetry instead of public speech and preaching indicates just how far the Methodism of the early nineteenth century had moved from its roots.  Indeed, at the end of the century, Annie Keeling frames Bulmer in explicitly domestic terms:

This beautiful nature, rich in thought and in love, shy and retiring as regarded all public manifestations, yet abounding in the beneficent activities of private life, has a right its own peculiar place among our types of Methodist womanhood, exemplifying as it does the union of high intellectual gifts with a saintliness no less pure and true than that of any martyred and canonized virgin, though displayed in the quiet, sheltered station of an ordinary English matron.

According to Keeling, Bulmer was skilled in the “activities of private life,” and an “ordinary English matron.”  The fact that she was a serious intellectual and poet is secondary to her role as faithful Methodist wife and matron – it is just an added benefit.

We cannot know for certain what Bulmer herself thought of this tension between gender and religion because she left no written record.  After her death her Memoirs were edited and published by her sister, but they are mainly a collection of her extant pious letters that tell us little about her inner life.  What we are left with, then, are her impressive literary productions which reveal a woman of deep learning, keen intellect, and immense poetic talent.  If this record is any indication, Bulmer found a way of expressing herself despite a religious culture than confined women to a private domestic piety.  It is my hope that, by drawing more attention to Bulmer and her poetry, religious women poets in general will begin to receive more attention from the scholarly community.

For this reason I am embarking on sustained scholarly work on Agnes Bulmer on this blog.  In addition to research on her life and work, I will be slowly transcribing and posting the entirety of Messiah’s Kingdom.  Through the magic of Google Books, an entire facsimile text of Messiah’s Kingdom is now available online.  However, this is truly a poem that deserves more scholarly and critical attention – attention that would be much assisted by a modern annotated critical edition.  Since such an edition is unlikely to appear anytime soon and I am currently in no position to make that happen, I am in the process of making the complete text available here.  As of today both the Introductory Stanzas and Book I are posted under “Primary Sources.”  Over time I will also be creating eBook versions of the text (currently unavailable through Google), working up some annotations, and posting some of her letters and minor works.  My hope is that making this fascinating poem more readily available will encourage more scholarship on Bulmer in particular and on early evangelical women poets and writers in general.

References and Additional Resources

Primary Sources:

Bulmer, Agnes. Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Mortimer. New York: Mason & Lane, 1836.

Bulmer, Agnes. Messiah’s Kingdom. New York: Waugh & Mason, 1833.

Bulmer, Agnes. Scripture Histories. London: Mason, 1837.

Collinson, Anne Ross. Memoir of Mrs. Agnes Bulmer. London: Rivington, 1837.

Keeling, Annie E. Eminent Methodist Women. London: Kelly, 1889.

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

Secondary Sources:

Chilcote, Paul Wesley. Early Methodist Spirituality: Selected Women’s Writings. Nashville: Kingswood, 2007.

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

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.

Early English Sunday Schools and Literacy Instruction at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century, Pt. 2

In my last post I laid out a brief overview of the origins and development of Sunday Schools in England.  Now I want to turn more specifically to what was taught in Sunday Schools.  I have already laid out the contours of the debate over reading and writing instruction, but now I will more closely examine some of the most popular Sunday School textbooks.  These textbooks speak for themselves as a living record of how early Sunday School organizers, teachers, and students viewed the tasks of reading and writing instruction.

Early Sunday School Textbooks

Textbook publication by and for turn of the eighteenth century Sunday Schools was a major enterprise.  Laqueur estimates that, between 1809 and 1830 over 10 million copies of two of the most popular Sunday School readers were sold (114). The non-denominational Sunday School Union was especially active in producing Sunday School materials that were used by schools across the denominational spectrum.  Broadly speaking, though, Sunday School textbooks can be divided into two categories: Readers/Spellers and Catechisms/Moral Literature.  The aims of both were relatively similar and there was inevitably some cross pollination between the two genres, but each served a defined purpose within the Sunday School classroom.  Both were cheaply mass produced for a vast audience and distributed across the country.  As such, though the goals and aims of each Sunday School may have been different, many used the same curriculum.

Readers and Spellers

The first category of Sunday School textbook are the Readers and Spellers.  The most popular readers and spellers remained relatively consistent throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century as they were both cheap to produce and readily available.  They included: William Paley’s Reading Made Completely Easy, T. Wise’s Reading Made Easy and Best Guide to Spelling, and Joseph Brown’s New English Primer, or Reading Made Easy.  Each textbook followed a relatively similar graduated curriculum that stressed progressive exercises in reading and spelling. Students would first be introduced to the letters of the alphabet and then progressively work through one, two, three, and multisyllable words.  Each unit also usually contained a short story or scripture passage that used many of the words included in the lesson.  These stories, if not from scripture itself, usually contained an explicit moral lesson for the child to learn.  Furthermore, rough woodcuts often accompanied the stories or words to illustrate the concepts visually for the student.

In this these early readers and spellers incorporated much of the Lockean educational theory that had been popularized by educators like Anna Barbauld and Sunday School advocate Sarah Trimmer.  John Locke’s 1693 treatise Some Thoughts Concerning Education essentially applied the conclusions of his Essay Concerning Humane Understanding to the education of children – arguing that children’s mind’s were essentially blank slates and that all ideas are gained through the senses.  As such, children should be taught to read and write through an approximation of sensual experience:

If his Aesop has pictures in it, it will entertain him much better, and encourage him to read, when it carries the increase of knowledge with it: for such visible objects children hear talked of in vain and without any satisfaction whilst they have no ideas of them; those ideas being not to be had from sounds, but from the things themselves or their pictures.  And therefore I think as soon as he begins to spell, as many pictures of animals should be got him as can be found, with the printed names to them, which at the same time will invite him to read, and afford him matter of enquiry and knowledge.

In thus arguing for the incorporation of pictures of animals and other natural objects into a text, Locke posits a pedagogical role for illustrations which, according to Schultz, worked to “extend… the limits of the children’s knowledge and help… them to connect with a world larger than that of their immediate circumstance” (88).  This theory was picked up by Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) who in 1778 published Lessons for Children – a groundbreaking children’s book which not only included pictures but led children through basic concepts step by step – mirroring the complexity of the subject matter with the complexity of the language.

Paley’s Reading Made Completely Easy, for example, which was one of the most widely used Sunday School texts (Laqueur 114) was subtitled: A Necessary Introduction to the Bible: Consisting Chiefly of Scripture Sentences; Each lesson of which is disposed in such Order, as the Learner is led on with pleasure, Step by Step, from simple and easy, to compound and difficult words: which is allowed by All to be the most regular, speedy, and rational Method of Teaching.  By thus adopting the Lockean method of leading the student step by step through graduated lessons that stressed experience, Reading Made Completely Easy adopts a decidely “rational” approach to education that is based on theories of cognition instead of innate knowledge.  Furthermore, by explicitely illustrating its lessons through “scripture sentences,” and by concluding with a brief catechism that leads students through the basic tenants of the faith, it fulfills the other chief goal of the Sunday School – instruction in Bible reading and Christian living.

Likewise, as Shultz has pointed out, the woodcuts that accompany such texts cannot be ignored as tools of instruction (88).  The Lockean theory of education privileged sensory experience of the world and the illustrations that accompied the text worked to reproduce this experience.  Both Reading Made Completely Easy and Reading Made Easy, for example, begin with an illustrated alphapet that includes images that correspond to each letter:

This provided a concrete image that the student could then associate with each letter of the alphabet.  Likewise the New English Primer includes woodblock illustrations of scenes from everyday life that subtly inculcate a moral or social message:

Here children are encouraged to associate specific simple words and phrases with still life representations.  Representations that, interestingly enough, confirm the established divide between king and beggar and the traditional societal role of the farmer or miller.

Thus, even when the material included in the Readers and Spellers is not explicitely religious, it is specifically moral.  Reading Made Easy, for example, includes an entire section of fables that include a specific moral.  In the fable of “The Lion and the Mouse” the moral is that “the great and little may need the Help of one another – the most powerful or wealthy Person on Earth may want the Assistance of the smallest or poorest, in some Way or other. – for who could have thought that the Lion, so powerful as he is, could have been indebted to a Mouse for his Life.”  Even here, then, the reading exercise seeks to promote virtue and knowing one’s place in the social order.  And the woodcut that accompanies the story provides a vivid visual example for the young reader.

Overall, then, the Readers and Spellers that were used by Sunday Schools served a variety of purposes.  Not only did they teach reading and writing based on Lockean educational theories about experiential, graduated knowledge – they also promoted social and religious virtue through the reading exercises that accompanied the texts.  In some texts (Reading Made Completely Easy) the scriptural component was more pronounced than others, but all sought to promote literacy within the context of societal order.

Catechisms and Moral Literature

The second category of Sunday School textbook that was used by almost all the schools was some form of catechism and/or moral literature.  Remember that Hannah More only allowed the use of “two little tracts called ‘Questions for the Mendip Schools,’… the Church Catechism… the Catechism broke into short questions, Spelling-books, Psalters, Common Prayer-book, and Bible” (6).  We have already seen how catechistic and moral material could be woven into the readers and spellers that most Sunday Schools used, but there was also an entirely separate category of moral and religious literature that was used alongside these core texts.

In the case of catechisms, such texts were often abridgements of standard catechisms adapted to both the age of the audience and particular denominational differences.  Hannah More’s Questions and Answers for the Mendip and Sunday Schools is a brief (eleven page) text which abridges the Church of England catechism, asking questions like “Who made you and all the world?” and “Who redeemed you?”  By thus applying reading instruction to Church doctrine, More was able to both control what children read and inculcate religious virtue.  In this she also follows Locke who suggested that “as soon as he can say the Lord’s Prayer, Creed, the Ten Commandments, by heart, it may be fit for him to learn a question every day, or every week, as his understanding is able to receive and his memory to retain them.”  Thus progressive reading and memorization are combined to instill moral principles for, as Locked argues in his Essay on Humane Understanding, these are the principles that, if learned while young, will guide a child through the rest of his or her life.

Likewise, the cheap moral literature spawned by More and the Sunday School movement worked to not only provide acceptable reading material for children, but also counteract a nascent popular culture that reformers like More thought both immoral and potentially politically radical.  Though little studied today, there was a tradition of cheap popular literature in England that dated to the early seventeenth century.  Broadside ballads, cheap pamphlets, and bawdy tracts were produced cheaply and en masse and then sold throughout the countryside by ballad hawkers (Pederson 87).  Such literature was tremendously popular but also deeply troubling to someone like Hannah More who objected to the often immoral sexual content of the broadsides.  This concern was exacerbated in the years after the French Revolution when pamphlets like Tom Paine’s Rights of Man began to circulate in cheap editions among the poor.

To counteract these influences, More first published Village Politics in 1792 and then began the Cheap Repository Tracts in 1795 (Pederson 84).  Village Politics is an explicit reaction to the French Revolution controversy.  It uses the characters of Jack Anvil, the blacksmith, and Tom Hod, the mason – two workmen on opposite sides of the controversy – to argue that the existing social system works in the best interests of rich and poor.  Likewise, the Cheap Repository inculcates these ideas on a more subtle level.  In The Cottage Cook, for instance, More introduces the character of Mrs. Jones, a middle class woman who (much like More herself) moves to the country and begins to teach the local population how to live moral, upright lives.  In The Cottage Cook she goes about teaching the women of the parish how to make the most of their meager resources and accept their social place.  Then, in The Sunday School she begins a Sunday School despite the opposition from local farmers and prevalence hawkers out selling their “immoral” literature to the young ladies of the parish.  By the end of the tract, however, she has established her Sunday School and is busy teaching moral virtue.  Finally, The History of Hester Wilmot follows the history of one of Mrs. Jones’ star pupils who, by exhibiting the Christian virtues she learns in Sunday School, leads her parents to lead better, more religious lives.  Thus, the Cheap Repository Tracts worked not only to provide acceptable reading material for the Sunday Schools, they also modeled More’s vision for how the schools could counteract the influence of popular, radical culture and reform society.

Finally, such works proved to be tremendously successful. In the case of More’s  Cheap Repository Tracts, 300,000 were sold or distributed between March 3 and April 18, 1795; 700,000 by July 1795; and over 2 million by March 1796 (Pederson 112).  Furthermore, More’s work paved the way for an explosion of nineteenth century moral periodicals written explicitly for Sunday Schools.  Titles like the Sunday School Magazine, which was published and distributed by the Sunday School Union, sprung up and gained circulation numbers the millions.  In fact, by 1839 25-30 million of such moral tracts and literature had been distributed – outselling even the most popular bestsellers (Laqueur 118).  Clearly, then, such literature worked to shape the way children learned to read, write, and relate to key social institutions throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


Thus we return once again to the questions of class and social relations in Sunday Schools.  While this brief survey of Sunday School literature and practice is far from comprehensive, nevertheless is suggests some of the interrelated and complex ways that class and literacy interact both in the eighteenth century and today.  For if we take seriously Ruggles Gere’s argument that the extracurriculum is an important site of instruction that deeply influences how students think and write, we need to start to think past easy assumptions about the interplay between religion, social class, and education.  In particular we need to carefully reassess the class assumptions that have been made about eighteenth and nineteenth century Sunday School students and then apply these lessons to current composition practice.

In the first case it has been long assumed that Sunday Schools operated more as instruments of social control than social liberation.  This is primarily due to the influence of E.P. Thompson and to the fact that the early Sunday School reformers like Raikes, Hanway, and More were so socially conservative.  Furthermore, as an analysis of the actual Sunday School literature shows, many early texts did work to subtly inculcate religious virtues and stable class relations.  Nevertheless, here as elsewhere I would argue that Marshal McLuhan’s famous dictum that “the medium is the message” applies more than ever – for despite the texts socially conservative messages, the medium was really quite progressive.  Using progressive exercises and woodblock illustrations these early textbooks created a sort of spiritual literacy that grew out of the forms and structures of the classroom exercises.  Much as I learned to read and write through gradual repetition and structured scripture memory, millions of eighteenth and nineteenth century children also developed these skills in this way – skills that often opened avenues far beyond the intent of a Hannah More or a Robert Raikes.  Thus, not only did these children learn how to read and write in Sunday School, they learned how to relate to their rapidly changing world.  In this sense Sunday Schools became a sort of refuge for children from the brutal factory owner or mill foreman instead of a further instrument of repression.

Secondly, the study of these early Sunday Schools has clear implications for modern English and composition practitioners.  The Sunday School as a specific site of extracurricular instruction suggests ways in which locations outside of traditional schools can have a profound impact on the way students think, read, and write even today.  As in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of our students come to us with literacies that are shaped far more by extracurricular learning than school learning.  Teaching, as I do, in urban Detroit many of my students have had as little structured literacy instruction as the eighteenth century child. Nevertheless they have been shaped by writing and reading practices they have learned in their communities and/or religious institutions.  Thus it is that one of my African American students struggles to construct a coherent scholarly argument, but is brilliant at writing social commentary poetry in the tradition of religious spirituals.  By recognizing these extracurricular sites of instruction as important we can both legitimate our students’ literacy practices and begin to think about how we can better incorporate their literacies into our discourse.


Laqueur, Thomas Walter. Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture, 1780-1850. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

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

More, Hannah. Mendip Annals: Or, A Narrative of the Charitable Labours of Hannah and Martha More in Their Neighbourhood. London: Nisbet, 1859.

Pederson, Susan. “Hannah More Meets Simple Simon: Tracts, Chapbooks, and Popular Culture in Late Eighteenth Century England.” Journal of British Studies 25.1 (1986): 84-113.

Ruggles Gere, Anne. “Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms: The Extracurriculum of Composition.” College Composition and Communication 45.1 (1994): 75-92.

Schultz, Lucille M. The Young Composers: Composition’s Beginnings in Nineteenth-Century Schools. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1999.

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.

Early English Sunday Schools and Literacy Instruction at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century, Pt. 1

This is the first part of a larger project on the early English Sunday School movement and the literacy practices it inculcated through the use of graduated readers and moral literature.

As far back as I can remember words have always been a part of my life.  From the time I was an infant, my parents read to me constantly – The Wizard of Oz, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Chronicles of Narnia were only a few of my favorites that absorbed before I could even read.  We had a televisionbut this was before cable and satellite (we couldn’t have afforded it anyway) and my television watching was limited primarily to Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Reading Rainbow – all programs that were full of stories and words.  I didn’t have access to the internet until I was in junior high school and, even then, my usage was strictly limited.  By the time I was in kindergarten I could already read and write simple sentences.

When I entered kindergarten, I was exposed to different types of literacy practices.  I attended a conservative religious school where my father taught and where modern literacy theories like “whole language” were viewed with suspicion.  Instead, I was given a Victory Drill Book, a navy blue, hardback volume with gold lettering on the cover.  It was filled with list upon list of words – single syllable words, multiple syllable words, rhyming words.  Each week, it would be my task to learn all of the words on one page of the Victory Drill Book and read them to my teacher, without error and within a prescribed amount of time.  I quickly became a master at this, completing the entire book before all but one of my classmates.

Finally, my journey towards literacy was deeply informed by my experiences at church.  Sunday School, though a far cry from the educational Sunday Schools of the 18th and 19th centuries that are the focus of this essay, was a focal point of my life.  Each Sunday I would attend a graded Sunday school class in the morning and “Children’s Church” during the adult service.  In these classes the focus was on learning to read and understand Scripture.  Bible stories were taught through a combination of memorization, activities, and instruction as we learned the make the Bible the focus of our lives.

As my own experience makes clear, my journey towards literacy and writing was informed by powerful forces both inside and outside the classroom.  Moreover, each of these literacy influences continues to inform how I think about reading and writing to this day.  While ample scholarly research has been conducted on the development of literacy and composition within school walls, little has focused on what goes on outside them, in what Anne Ruggles Gere terms the “extracurriculum.”  This is in part because, as Ruggles Gere points out, “we in composition studies have sought to establish our right to a place in the academy by recounting our past, and this historiography has focused inside classroom walls” (78).  Furthermore, histories of composition studies that have considered the extracurriculum have largely viewed it as a stopping point on the way to scholarly engagement with writing instead of as something that, “extends beyond the academy to encompass the multiple contexts in which persons seek to improve their own writing; … includes more diversity in gender, race, and class among writers; and… avoids, as much as possible, a reenactment of professionalization in its narrative” (Ruggles Gere 80).  By thus considering the extracurriculum (in this case the Sunday School) in its own terms, we can better gauge how specific sites influenced the literacy and composition practices of a far wider group of people.

In this early Sunday School textbooks are a particularly important resource for understanding the broader implications of the movement.  For, while few actual Sunday School exercises by children are extant, many of the most popular textbooks are available in the Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) database, though little scholarly work has been conducted on them.  As Ferguson Carr, Carr, and Schultz argue in their study of nineteenth century American textbooks, this is largely because such texts are considered largely derivative:

Textbooks have a particular status in the history of the book.  They are unusual and difficult books in the variety of their parts, the mode of their author, and their publication history.  Like cookbooks, children’s books, and popular fiction, they often slide beneath bibliographers’ and historians’ radar, mentioned as a totality rather than in their particularity or difference (11).

It is in this particularity and difference, though, that we can begin to unravel what influenced these texts and how the texts were used in early Sunday Schools; and it is in tracing the multiplicity of these texts that we can begin to understand the far reaching effects of Sunday Schools in late eighteenth century Britain and today.

Interestingly enough, each of my literacy influences illustrate the key aims and methods of turn of the nineteenth century Sunday Schools that I will trace in these textbooks.  For the eighteenth and nineteenth Sunday School, as for my Sunday School, the goal was scripture literacy and the methods employed to reach that goal were often repetition of lists of words, memorization, illustration, and imitation.  What I want to argue is that such methods, far more than larger social or cultural factors, subtly shaped the types of literacy that the early Sunday School produced.  These types of literacy in turn informed how an increasingly literate, industrial populace engaged with the larger social questions of the day.  Thus, by examining the material texts of early Sunday Schools – textbooks, spellers, catechisms – we can develop a clearer perspective on the often turbulent relationship between reading, writing, religion, and society at the turn of the nineteenth century.

A Brief History of Sunday Schools in England

Until the middle of the nineteenth century free public education did not exist in England.  While the aristocracy hired governesses or sent their children to expensive private academies like Eaton and later on to Oxford and Cambridge, there were few viable options for the vast majority of the population.  Though local grammar and finishing schools did exist, they were prohibitively expensive and families would send at most one child to such schools.  As such, the demand for basic education was high among England’s rapidly expanding working class population.  Parents realized that learning to read and write was a vital skill, but they simply could not afford it.  Thus Sunday schools are a case of a fortunate confluence of religious, social, and economic forces that collided to create a movement that, by 1851, served over two million children (Laqueur xi).

Robert Raikes

Though the Sunday School movement in England evolved slowly over the course of the eighteenth century, with isolated schools appearing across the country, it was Gloucester philanthropist Robert Raikes (1736-1811) who is credited with systematizing and popularizing the movement.  Raikes was the editor and publisher of the Gloucester Journal and he used his position to promote various causes, including prison reform, poor law reform, and the abolition of the slave trade (Tolar Burton 269).  A deeply religious man, Raikes was disturbed by what he saw as the abuse of the Sabbath by unruly poor children.  As he wrote in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1784:

I was walking into the suburbs of the city, where the lowest of the people (who are principally employed in the pin-manufactury) chiefly reside [when] I was struck with concern at seeing a group of children wretchedly ragged, at play in the street.  I asked an inhabitant whether those children belonged to that part of the town, and lamented their misery and idleness. – Ah! Sir, said the woman to whom I was speaking, could you take a view of this part of town on Sunday, you should be shocked indeed; for then the street is filled with multitudes of these wretches who, released on that day from their employment, spend their time in noise and riot and playing at chuck, and cursing and swearing in a manner so horrid, as to convey to any serious mind an idea of hell, rather than any other place (qtd. in Tolar Burton 270).

Robert Raikes on the Street

This was the impetus for Raikes’ founding of a Sunday School in Gloucester in 1780.  Other schools quickly sprung up in the area so that by November 1783 Raikes could write in his Gloucester Journal that:

In those parishes where this plan has been adopted, we are assured that the behaviour of the children is greatly civilized. The barbarous ignorance in which they had before lived being in some degree dispelled, they begin to give proofs that those persons are mistaken who consider the lower orders of mankind as incapable of improvement, and therefore think an attempt to reclaim them impracticable, or at least not worth the trouble (qtd in Power 35-36).

Thus as their inception Sunday Schools, much like the charity schools that had preceded them, sprung from a desperate need for education among the still coalescing working class.  Unlike Scotland, England had no system of free public education and most poor families could not afford to send their children to school; thus Sunday Schools filled a much needed gap in the education of children and illiterate adults.  Though expressed by Raikes as a concern for public order among the poorer classes, his Sunday Schools met a real social need and also responded to rapidly changing social conditions in England during the 1780’s.

Jonas Hanway

Like Raikes, London philanthropist Jonas Hanway (1712-1786) was also deeply concerned about the living conditions of the working poor and the moral effect these conditions had on individuals and society.  Best known for his work with foundlings, Hanway was a tireless advocate for what he saw as the inexcusable treatment of children (Taylor 286).  To this end, in 1785 he published A Sentimental History of Chimney Sweeps in London and Westminster Shewing the Necessity of putting them under regulations to prevent the grossest Inhumanity to the Climbing Boys with a letter to a London Clergyman on Sunday Schools calculated for the preservation of the Children of the Poor which detailed the deplorable conditions under which young chimney sweepers, or “climbing boys” worked.  According to Hanway, boys as young as five were apprenticed by master chimney sweepers who forced them to climb up “chimnies [sic] which are on fire; or to climb chimnies too strait in their dimensions” (xvii).  In addition, these boys would often be forced to live in filth and often contracted cancer from the amount of soot they had to breath in.  In response, Hanway urges his readers to both support reforms that would change the way such working boys were treated and proposes the establishment of Sunday Schools as a means shaping the boys moral education.

Indeed, in his 1786 Comprehensive View of Sunday Schools Hanway goes even further by laying out a justification for Sunday Schools that frames them explicitely in terms of a reformation of manners among the poor. “The better condition the labourer’s children are put in, with regard to moral and religious instruction,” he writes, “the less they will turn their thoughts to pilfering and beggary.  They will become more industrious, be tighter and cleaner in their garments, and be better nourished” (iii).  Thus, for Hanway, Sunday Schools were a means to raising the condition of the poor only as high as their societal station allowed.  By inculcating moral and religious principles, middle class philanthropists like Hanway hope to better regulate the poor so that they would quiescently accept their station in life.

Nevertheless, at least until 1800, there was a deep anxiety among the middle and upper classes over the wisdom of teaching the poor to read – nevermind write.  The fear among the ruling classes was that if the poor were taught to read they would be more susceptible to dangerous or seditious literature like Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man.  Especially in the years following the French Revolution when radical pamphlets and tracts abounded, the propriety of teaching the poor to read was profoundly questioned.  It thus became the job of Sunday School proponents to convince their wealthy donors that by teaching the poor to read they were actually guarding against radical activity.  As Hanway writes in Comprehensive View, “The better Christians they are, the better subjects they will make” (xii).

Hannah More

Hannah More (1745-1833) was one of the most visible proponents of this view. A prominent writer, poet, philanthropist, and social reformer More, with the help of her sister Martha and the financial support of William Wilberforce, founded a system of Sunday Schools in the poor Mendip Hills around Bristol in 1789.  Both deeply conservative and deeply evangelical, More was fundamentally interested in inculcating religion and social order among the poor.  In her account of the Sunday School project in Mendip Annals, More recounts how she structured her curriculum to instill these values through reading:

…my plan for instructing the poor is very limited and strict.  They learn of week-days such coarse works as may fit them for servants.  I allow of no writing.  My object has not been to teach dogmas and opinions, but to form the lower class to habits of industry and virtue.  I know no way of teaching morals but by infusing princoples of Christianity, nor of teaching Christianity without a thorough knowledge of Scripture.  In teaching in our Sunday-schools, the only books we use are two little tracts called “Questions for the Mendip Schools,”… theChurch Catechism (these are hung up in frames, half-a-dozen in a room), the Catechism broke into short questions, Spelling-books, Psalters, Common Prayer-book, and Bible (6).

For More reading was a vital skill, but it had to be the right kind of reading.  Thus she provided her students with a very circumscribed curriculum and supplemented it with her own Cheap Repository Tracts which were meant to explicitely combat the popular and/or radical broadsheets and pamphlets that typically circulated among the poor.  Her tract titled The Sunday School, for instance, includes an explicitely moralistic message about the transforming effect a Sunday School can have on individuals, families, and communities when everyone learns to make the best of their proper social place.

Note, though, that More explicitely opposes teaching writing in Sunday Schools.  In this she echoes the concerns of earlier middle class social reformers like Hanway who saw writing as unecessary to the poorer classes:

As to the connexion between reading and writing, as vulgarly understood, I discover none that concerns those who depend for their bread on their manual labour, and not on the pen.  The first is necessary to them for learning their religion, and filling up their vacant hours, and to prevent that vacuity of thought, or mischievous consequence which ignorance often occasions; the last is not necessary or expedient (Hanway, Comprehensive View xiii).

This disconnnect between reading and writing instruction is perplexing to a modern audience, but it was a fundamental principle to these early middle class social reformers and it became the defining controversy of the Sunday School movement in the nineteenth century.  Reading was so necessary for religious instruction that these early reformers were willing to risk providing people with the tools to also read what they considered “dangerous” literature.  Writing, however, was more closely associated with thinking and social action and thus for reformers like Raikes, Hanway and Hannah More it had no place in Sunday School.

Up to this point, the history of Sunday Schools in England would seem to accord with E.P. Thompson’s famous argument in The Making of the English Working Class that Sunday Schools mainly operated as middle class instruments of social control and indocrination (375-376).  Though no doubt prompted by the best of motives, reformers like Raikes, Hanway, and More did see themselves as defenders of the existing social order.  The conditions of the poor could be bettered and they could be taught to be better stewards of their time and money, but they ultimately could not expect to rise above their God-ordained place in society.  Nevertheless, recent scholarship has questioned the extent to which the ideas of these prominent Sunday School advocates spread to the Sunday School movement at large.  What began as a relatively circumscribed movement among middle class evangelical Anglicans quickly spread across the country and among Methodists, Dissenters, and even political radicals.  What is more, control of these local Sunday Schools rarely rested in the hands of wealthy patrons like More.  By 1800, 200,000 children attended Sunday Schools, by 1818 – 240,000, by 1833 – 1,400,000, and by 1851 – 2,100,000 (Laqueur xi).  Such figures are staggering and they indicate the extent to which Sunday School instruction quickly became far more dependent upon local and denominational circumstances than the opinions of a few influential reformers.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the question of writing instruction in Sunday Schools.  For conservatives like Raikes, Hanway, and More teaching writing was predominately a social and political question and that is how it has been portrayed in the literature since (see Thompson 377).  However, as Laqueur has pointed out, this rather limited view of the subject does not take into account the broader scope of the argument in the early nineteenth century (124-125).  In reality, many of the fears over writing instruction had faded after 1800 and the opposition to writing was based mainly on religious conviction and denominational politics.

In the case of religious conviction, many people were worried that teaching writing on the Sabbath violated the command to “honor the Sabbath day.”  Reading instruction was excused because children could be taught the Bible, but some argued that writing was not strictly necessary.  This did not indicate an opposition to writing instruction, in fact many Sunday Schools offered writing courses on weekday evenings, but it did limit the number of people who were able to learn to write (Laqueur 138-139). However in denominations like Methodism, which had the highest number of children in Sunday Schools and where the debate over writing was the most fierce, the issue went much deeper.  Here, the debate over writing instruction really came down to issues of control with Methodist leader Jabez Bunting attempting to bring the relatively independed Sunday Schools more closely under his supervision (Laqueur 142).  In both cases, however, class regulation was not really at issue and, despite the heat of this controversy, many Sunday Schools continued to offer writing instruction throughout the first decades of the nineteenth century.

In my next post I will explore how the textbooks of the Sunday School movement shaped both literacy and social practice in more depth.  Stay tuned…


Ferguson Carr, Jean, Carr, Stephen L. and Schultz, Lucille M. Archives of Instruction: Nineteenth-Century Rhetorics, Readers, and Composition Books in the United States. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2005.

Laqueur, Thomas Walter. Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture, 1780-1850. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

Power, John Carroll. The Rise and Progress of Sunday Schools. New York: Sheldon, 1863.

Ruggles Gere, Anne. “Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms: The Extracurriculum of Composition.” College Composition and Communication 45.1 (1994): 75-92.

Taylor, James Stephen. “Philanthropy and Empire: Jonas Hanway and the Infant Poor of London.” Eighteenth Century Studies 12.3 (1979): 282-305.

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.

Book Review: Archives of Instruction: Nineteenth-Century Rhetorics, Readers, and Composition Books in the United States

Archives of Instruction: Nineteenth-Century Rhetorics, Readers, and Composition Books in the United States. Jean Ferguson Carr, Stephen L. Carr, and Lucille M. Schultz. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2005. 283 pp.

Throughout Archives of Instruction, Ferguson Carr, Carr, and Schultz consistently challenge common assumptions about what archives are and how they operate.  For them, the term “archive” itself is one that is constantly shifting depending on context and perspective.  As they put it, “An archive is an official collection of written materials.  Any particular archive is at once a fragmentary and an interested record of textual production, the consequence of innumerable local decisions and unforeseen contingencies about the production and preservation of a large array of texts” (19).  The authors of Archives of Instruction illustrate these complexities by focusing on nineteenth century textbooks as the site of archival investigation – books that are themselves “sedimented artifacts” (12) that bear the traces of texts that have gone before.  By examining these artifacts, the authors seek not simply to provide historical perspective on the archives of composition, but to challenge the reader to consider the sources and sites of instruction that have been systematically written out of the history of composition and suggest some implications for modern pedagogy.  To do so, the authors break the archive into three broad categories, categories which are mirrored in the book’s three lengthy chapters: “Reproducing Rhetorics,” written by Stephen Carr; “Reading School Readers,” by Ferguson Carr; and “Constructing Composition Books,” by Schultz.  Each type of textbook bears its own particular purpose, place in the archive, and implication for modern practice.  By examining them separately and in detail, the authors are thus able to tease out the particularities of each genre and read these texts as living, breathing records of the past.

In “Reproducing Rhetorics,” Stephen Carr defines rhetorics as textbooks that “propose theoretical ways of mapping the instructional field and articulate systematic principles about language, style, invention, and discourse as well as a varied list of other topics: pronunciation, grammar, genres of writing, prosody” (17).  Rhetorics, he argues, are a particularly good example of how seminal works in the field shaped other textbooks at a later date.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the field of rhetoric was still dominated by British scholars, with Hugh Blair’s Lectures the most prominent and most reprinted rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic.  As the century progressed, however, other rhetorics began to appear that, while somewhat original, nevertheless copied entire passages (often without attribution) from Blair or Campbell.  This had the effect not only of cementing the status of these older rhetoricians, but it also insured that their interpretations became the standard by which all others were measured.  Thus, such rhetorics provide a vivid illustration of how textbooks themselves can operate as archives that bear interrogation for sources and influences.  Furthermore, the development of rhetorics over the course of the century in America also indicates the subtly shifting landscape of American letters.  While theoretical rhetorics by eighteenth century British authors like Blair, Campbell, and Whatley dominated in America at the beginning of the century, by century’s end they were far less reprinted and the new rhetorics by people like Hill and Genung focused more heavily on practical application than theoretical principles.

The second chapter of Archives of Instruction on “Reading School Readers,” shifts focus from the rhetorics that were largely used in universities, to school readers which, by century’s end, were used at all grade levels.  In performing this shift, Ferguson Carr implicitly points to some of the ways our discipline has privileged the textual productions of the elite, while labeling textbooks like the McGuffey Reader as derivative and not worthy of serious study.  By readers, Ferguson Carr specifically means textbooks which, “instruct students in the analysis of texts and provide a storehouse of cultural materials on which to practice the art of reading” (17).  The most famous of these readers is, of course, McGuffey’s and Ferguson Carr thus makes it the focus of her chapter, using it to illustrate, the shift from elocution to composition, the development of a “graded” system of readers, and the consolidation of cultural knowledge by committees of authors.

On the first point, Ferguson Carr highlights how the earliest nineteenth century readers encouraged students to read out loud and practice elocutionary skills by prompting them to follow specific instructions for pronunciation and intonation.  By century’s end, however, the focus has turned to composition – gone were the intonation marks only to be replaced by selections for imitation.  Secondly, the development of graded readers by the McGuffey series points to the clear expansion of education over the course of the century.  Serious textbooks were no longer aimed solely at universities, but at primary and secondary schools as well.  The rise of these “graded” readers also coincided with the rise of graded schools and continental educational theory which laid greater stress on cognitive development.  Finally, the very authorship history of the McGuffey Readers (only four of which were actually written by McGuffey) indicates the extent to which these readers were collaboratively compiled from a common store of knowledge that at least one group of people thought was important for the populace at large to be familiar with.

The final chapter “Constructing Composition Books,” by Schultz leads us to the very end of the nineteenth century and the development of dedicated composition books which “organize and invigorate activities of writing that earlier operated primarily to support instruction in reading and grammar” (17).  This chapter primarily offers close readings of two nineteenth century composition books: Parker’s 1832 Progressive Exercises and Frost’s 1839 Easy Exercises in Composition.  Both books illustrate the changing definition of writing during the nineteenth century and both also highlight how writing instruction shifted towards practical “exercises” that directed the writer progressively from invention through various simple genres like narration and description, to polished arguments on abstract subjects.  Thus composition books in the nineteenth century were in reality a new genre that provided detailed guidance for students of all ages.  In her close readings of these two books in particular, Schultz not only does an admirable job of highlighting their themes and implications for nineteenth century practice, but also points out some of the origins of modern compositions pedagogy in the experimentation of these early and influential texts.

Overall, Archives of Instruction is a significant and important work of scholarship.  Though our discipline as a whole has undergone a marked “archival turn” during the past decade, few works of scholarship match this in terms of sheer number (over 260) of primary sources consulted.  As Patricia Harkin notes in her review of the book in College English, “What impresses me about these books is their scholarship… Scholarship takes time – much more time than institutional mediation, teacher narratives, or institutional calls for reform” (90).  These three authors clearly invested the time in traversing these archives of instruction in as many directions as possible.  Though some (and especially this literary scholar) might wish that more space could have been given to extended close readings of the textbooks in question, nevertheless Archives of Instruction provides an important index to this archive that future scholars will benefit from tremendously.  For, as the authors remind us, the study of this archive has far reaching implications – both for how we read the past and how we understand our discipline today.

Works Cited

Harkin, Patricia. “Review: Historicizing Rhetorical Education.” College English 71.1 (2008): 82- 90.