LESTER RUTH, ED. Early Methodist Life and Spirituality: A Reader. Nashville, Tennessee: Kingswood Books, an imprint of Abington Press 2005. Pp. 300, introduction, bibliography, indices. $34.00 (paper).
According to the editor of Early Methodist Spirituality, Lester Ruth of Asbury Theological Seminary, this collection of primary sources on American Methodism differs in three ways from previous printed collections of Methodist documents. It focuses only on the first half century of Wesleyan Methodism in the United States (1770s-1810s), it gives priority to lesser-known Methodists, including women and African Americans, and it deals primarily with one topic, spirituality. Ruth rarely strays from his chosen half century. Within this period, he includes a large number of documents from the period around the start of the nineteenth century, but has relatively few from the earliest years of American Methodism. This pattern is somewhat obscured by the fact that even though Ruth provides brief introductions to each document, he does not always provide dates. This then helps to give the impression that relatively few changes occurred in this period, that most aspects of spirituality were the same in 1820 as they had been in 1770. By including more dates and pointing out more of the developments that were changing Methodism over time, Ruth could have provided readers with a better sense of Methodism's transformation from religious arriviste in the age of the American Revolution to its status of respectability and influence by the 1820s.
Of the sixty or so writers whose works are included in the collection, many are indeed little-known. Two relatively neglected visionaries, Sarah Jones and Catherine Garrettson, are among the best represented women. Ruth perceptively links their visionary experiences and their "spirituality" in general to their solitary and ascetic practices. He does not go further and point out how common it has been for people to offer supernatural explanations for hallucinations induced, at least in part, by isolation and fasting. Of the small number of African Americans whose writings Ruth includes, Phillis Wheatley and John Jea are represented by only one item each. Wheatley, of course, is now widely known, but the writings of both individuals could have been used more extensively. In the end, and despite his stated intentions, Ruth clearly found it difficult to abandon the famous white Methodist men. Extracts by Freeborn Garrettson and Nathan Bangs (on a camp meeting in Canada, oddly enough [205-11]) are among the longest in the collection, and writings by Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke are among the most numerous.
There are various ways that the collection could have been improved. The average length of the selections is short, often only about a page or so. …