Sensing salvation: accounts of spiritual experience in early British Methodism, 1735-1765
Stalcup, Erika Kay Ratana
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This dissertation examines the spiritual experiences of the first British Methodist lay people and the language used to describe those experiences. Within the historiography of Methodism, such physical manifestations as shouting, weeping, groaning, visions, and out-of-body experiences have often been relegated to the periphery of scholarship. It would seem, however, that for many laity, they played a significant role in their process of spiritual development. This work aims to explore the perspective of Methodist laity through manuscript accounts of conversions and deathbed moments. It reveals lay people’s first impressions of Methodism, their conflicted feelings throughout the conversion process, their approach toward death and dying, and their mixed attitudes toward the task of writing itself. Relying heavily on firsthand accounts solicited by Charles Wesley in the 1740s, this work features the voices of women and men of varying literate abilities and social status. This study examines firstly the multiple media through which lay people received evangelical messages, expanding the term “media” to include not only traditional printed sources such as sermons and devotional reading, but also such phenomena as divine voices, visions and other direct supernatural encounters. It then turns to the task of expressing spiritual experience, revealing the problematic nature of early Methodist spiritual autobiography and the passive strategies employed by laity to legitimate writing about the self. This dissertation demonstrates the struggle to rely on unreliable “feelings” (both emotions and physical sensations) as an indicator of spiritual progress. Far from peripheral, the body and bodily language played important roles in spiritual transformation, even as they were constantly renegotiated as part of that transformation. For instance, the visualization of the “vile self” signified the activation of the “eye of faith,” which enabled many early writers to transition from a “worldly” conception of self-sufficiency to a new kind of subjectivity based on being subject to a divine authority. This study follows the trajectory of spiritual development into the final moments of life, which often proved a prime opportunity for mutual evangelization between the dying individual and her spectators. Taken together, these experiences offer an intimate perspective on the origins of the evangelical revival.