Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Flutters, Feelings, and Fancies: John Wesley's Sentimental Sermons and the Spirit of the Age

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Flutters, Feelings, and Fancies: John Wesley's Sentimental Sermons and the Spirit of the Age

Article excerpt

The entertainingly colorful old maid Tabitha Bramble, we learn midway through Tobias Smollett's The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771), "has been praying, preaching, and catechizing among the methodists." Her perhaps feigned "manifestations and revelations" spread, virus-like, to her maid, Winifred Jenkins, who "has also her heart-hearings and motions of the spirit"--physical anomalies that she attributes to the growth of Christ within her, to her regenerating spiritual self, less than to her habitual nervous "flutter" and "vapours" (266). For Smollett the "inward motions" so integral to Methodism are grounds for critique: that Winifred Jenkins could take her quasi-hysterical flutters as signs of divine favor, he asserts, signals a fundamental confusion of universal faith with private feeling, of eternal grace with fleeting sensation. Versions of this critique have haunted cultural history well beyond Smollett, in the form, for example, of the popular minister Edward Irving's 1828 assertion that Methodism privileges "feelings" and "fancies" over the objective, real "sacraments and ordinances of the church" (42). Irvhag's claim rests on the notion that private emotion cannot stand for or verify abstract theological truth, an assumption traceable through literary history as well in, for instance, the Romantic ultra-subjectivity of William Wordsworth's tranquil recollections or, conversely, the social determinism of George Eliot's Middlemarch. Both of these texts operate in a paradigm that sets the individual against culture and private experience at odds with the social stream. Post-Romantic critiques of Wesleyan Methodism suggest the inherent separateness of the universal and the particular, the social and the personal, and the eternal and the finite; they assume, in other words, that the body cannot logically serve as a proving ground for abstract truth. Even as Methodist flutters and vapors sow the seeds for such critiques, however, the ongoing presence of Wesleyan conversion tropes in literature may lead us to revise our understanding of the relationship between theology and physiology and to see the epistemological opposition of body to spirit and truth as something less than natural.

In this essay I want to trace the relationship between the conversion narratives we see in literature and John Wesley's homiletics of conversion. This relationship, I will argue, informs the way we speak not only about how individual characters learn to live in the world (and in their bodies) but also about how literary periods come to see themselves as such. The frequent post-Wesley apparitions of Methodist conversion tropes suggest not just that we can understand literary selfhood in terms of conversion but also that such tropes provide a productive site on which culture as a whole can construct a self-image. This self-image takes the form of periodization--the movement, for example, from Sentimentalism to Romanticism to Realism. This, however, is an ironic movement: to the extent that Wesley was himself an eighteenth-century literary figure, shaped by sentimental literature and himself shaping later understandings of Sentimentalism, his conversion narratives carry sentimental baggage--especially the notion that the body can tell the truth or that, for instance, collective weeping over Clarissa's death suggests something significant about the way the world works. Insofar as it uses Methodist structures of conversion as a way to think of identity as a coherent, self-aware turn away from whatever period of artistic sin came before, post-1740s literature is thus built on a contradiction. Literary movements would see themselves as complete, self-enclosed, and redeemed from the past, yet Wesley's own literary influences inform and constitute the very terms in which we think of the process of conversion. A realist Wesleyan conversion is therefore also a nod to Realism's buried sentimental roots. We can see the lineaments of these roots most plainly, I will argue finally, in literature's ever-changing relationship to the body. …

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