The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England

The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England

The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England

The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England

Synopsis

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, thousands of ordinary women and men experienced evangelical conversion and turned to a certain form of spiritual autobiography to make sense of their lives. This book traces the rise and progress of conversion narrative as a unique form of spiritualautobiography in early modern England. After outlining the emergence of the genre in the seventeenth century and the revival of the form in the journals of the leaders of the Evangelical Revival, the central chapters of the book examine extensive archival sources to show the subtly different formsof narrative identity that appeared among Wesleyan Methodists, Moravians, Anglicans, Baptists, and others. Attentive to the unique voices of pastors and laypeople, women and men, Western and non-Western peoples, the book establishes the cultural conditions under which the genre proliferated.

Excerpt

The idea for this book emerged while I was still writing John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (Oxford, 1996). in that book I devoted a chapter to studying Newton's famous autobiography, An Authentic Narrative (1764), and I became intrigued by the whole genre of conversion narrative and more attentive to how widespread this form of spiritual autobiography was during the eighteenth century. But although I could find dozens of studies of the Puritan conversion narrative in the seventeenth century, I could not point to a single book-length study of the genre as it reappeared and proliferated in England during the Evangelical Revival. So from a biography of an individual, I turned to a biography of a genre.

My sense that conversion narrative was widespread and Germane to the period—not merely a residue of the spirit-drenched universe of the seventeenth century, or a sectarian backwater in the forward current of secular enlightenment—was confirmed by my research. Spiritual autobiographies that took evangelical conversion as their leading theme were numerous in the period (and more so as the century advanced) and such narratives were spoken or written by people from all walks of life. I had little trouble finding a wealth of examples in manuscripts and printed books from a variety of sources. the very sites that are so problematic in discourse today, such as race, class, and gender, appeared together in this genre, as black Nova Scotians, women servants in Scotland, and London apprentices wrote about their conversion experiences alongside university educated clergy. To be sure there were variations on a theme, but a theme there was. the resurgence of conversion narrative in the eighteenth century was as a phenomenon as Germane to the period as the Gin Craze of the 1730s or the rise in the price of wheat in the 1750s, and the study of conversion narrative therefore holds much promise for a better understanding of religion and culture in the early modern period.

It seemed to me, therefore, that this was an important story to tell. in my generation many scholars have come to reflect upon, and some to worry about, the modernist identity; the sense of self, that is, which is organized as a narrative of individual achievement. As I studied these evangelical narratives, I found that they bore witness to a religious understanding that was only ever a vector of the Enlightenment, and that did not succumb to the

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