Sunday, 18 August 2013

Methodism and "Heart Religion"

I'm finishing up Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment. This is an extraordinarily deep intellectual work by Rutgers Professor of History, Phyllis Mack. After seeing Bruce Hindmarsh's review of Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment in Books and Culture, I've wanted to read Mack's book, and I am glad that I did.

In many ways, Mack's Heart Religion is set up as a polemic against E.P. Thompson's classic, The Making of the English Working Class in which he portrays early Methodists as emotionally repressed. Mack seeks to overturn Thompson's thesis, presenting early Methodists as thoughtful, and, in many cases, active agents of their own spirituality.

Mack wants to show that early Methodists fit within the culture of the Enlightenment at that time while remaining true to the beliefs and practices that John Wesley taught. Mack critiques scholarship that rejects zealous Christians as capable of acting as agents of their own behavior. Because Methodists are seen by secular scholars as being unduly influenced by religion, they are supposedly incapable of making objective decisions. Countering this notion, Mack writes, "Clearly, if we want to understand the early Methodists on their own terms, we need a more complex definition of agency than the liberal model of individual autonomy used by most secular historians, for Methodists and others defined agency not as the freedom to do what one wants but as the freedom to want and to do what is right. Since 'what is right' was determined both by absolute truth or God and by individual conscience, agency implied obedience and ethical responsibility as well as the freedom to make choices and act on them. And since doing what is right inevitably means subduing at least some of one's own habits, desires, and impulses, agency implied self-negation as well as self-expression" (p. 9). To make her case, Mack has mined an enormous amount of unpublished and published writings (letters, diaries, autobiographies, pamphlets, etc.) from ordinary folks, and spends the bulk of her book presenting case after case of men and women who consciously tried to live as exemplary Christians in the midst of experiencing the realities of physical and emotional pain. Throughout her book, Mack contends that Methodists sought to understand and control their emotions, and were thus not enslaved to their passions.

A secondary theme in the book is Mack's focus on gender roles in Methodism, spending much of her energy in redeeming women from their perception as either emotionless or incapable of self-control. Mary Bosanquet Fletcher, Sarah Crosby, and Hester Ann Rogers feature prominently in Heart Religion, which presents a compelling case for the "agency" of Methodist women.

A word of caution: Mack's book is not light reading. I wouldn't suggest reading Heart Religion shortly before bed as it requires regular pauses to reflect on her thesis as it pertains to the enormous evidence that Mack has garnered. But the careful reflection and intellectual rigor that Heart Religion demands seems to be exactly the point of the book as Mack seeks to change the public's perception of early Methodists as blind enthusiasts.

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