Fits, Trances, & Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James

By Williams, Peter W. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Fits, Trances, & Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James


Williams, Peter W., The Catholic Historical Review


Fits, Trances, & Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James. By Ann Taves. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1999. Pp. xiii, 449. $23.95 paperback.)

Ann Taves's study of the interaction between the experience of religion and the interpretation of that experience throughout much of the history of American Protestantism is one of the most important contributions not only to the study of American religious history, but more broadly to the study of religion, which has appeared in recent years. Taves, who teaches at Claremont and who has previously written about Roman Catholic devotionalism, sets herself the task of tracing the history of some of the more dramatic forms that religious experience has taken-"fits, trances, & visions" and the like-from the time of the awakenings of the 1740's through the early twentieth century. Her study, however, is "intertextual" -to use a currently fashionable term-in that she continually cross-cuts between accounts of such religious manifestations and the attempts of contemporary observers to make sense of such phenomena. The cast of characters in each category, which sometimes overlap, changes over the decades from the time of John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards to that of William James and his contemporaries, to name three of the most important interpreters of religion. The experiencers similarly range from those converted during the Awakenings of the 1740's to Spiritualists and Pentecostals, with those in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition receiving particular attention.

Another sort of cross-cutting in which Taves consciously engages is between "high and low," reminiscent of the exhibit of that name at the Museum of Modem Art a few years ago as well as Lawrence Levine's Highbrow, Lowbrow, which concerned themselves with interaction between the intelligentsia and popular culture which was much more the case in nineteenth-century America than is so today.

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