I’m returning to some research that I was writing about earlier in the year – the involvement of Free Methodist women in the temperance movement. My husband has his own blog where the article below is also posted. While his research focuses mostly on the 18th century and mine on the 19th and 20th century, I thought this article does a great job setting up how conversion narratives can be used to promote a particular Christian interpretation in a publication. John Wesley used conversion narrative to fuel on the Methodist movement, and in the last 19th century the Free Methodists were continuing that tradition through their magazines and autobiographies they published through their publishing house in Chicago. I’ll begin returning to the stories of Emma Ray and Eliza Suggs and illustrating how their life stories are used rhetorically to promote their faith and vision for spiritual transformation in their communities.
Arminian Magazine and Lay Women’s Conversions by Andrew Winckles – originally published on 18th Century Culture
Methodism under its founder John Wesley presented an unusually open space for women in the eighteenth century. Though at the beginning of his ministry Wesley’s attitudes towards women reflected the cultural, social, and ecclesiastical prejudices of his day, this attitude shifted over time as he witnessed the powerful work of the women of Methodism. In fact women came to play a vital leadership role in early Methodism, leading devotional groups, Sunday schools, and even preaching. Furthermore, the influence of women within Methodism was so great that until 1830, nearly 57% of its membership made up of women (Hempton 137). Much good scholarly work has been done in the past twenty years on the extraordinary women of early Methodism and I will not retrace their arguments here1. Nevertheless relatively little work has been done on the contributions of religious lay-women like the largely unknown and forgotten female contributors to John Wesley’s Arminian Magazine. What I want to argue here is that by striving to listen to these women in their own terms and according to their own cultural and religious contexts we can begin to better understand how the women of early Methodism viewed the relationship between the inner experience of spiritual regeneration and speaking, writing, and acting in the public sphere.
The Arminian Magazine: History and Purpose
John Wesley founded the Arminian Magazine in 1778 in response to growing tensions within evangelical revival over the question of predestination. The evangelical revival in England was both diffuse and diverse with, by mid-century, this controversy spilled over into the pages of the religious periodical press. The Calvinist evangelicals launched the first salvos in The Spiritual Magazine and The Gospel Magazine, lampooning Wesley, satirizing his writings, and portraying his followers as enthusiasts(Heitzenrater 267). In reply, Wesley began publishing the Arminian Magazine: Consisting of Extracts and Original Treatises on Universal Redemption to counteract this Calvinist message.
Wesley’s introductory comments to the first issue reflect this tension by claiming that The Spiritual Magazine and The Gospel Magazine “are intended to show, that God is not loving to every man; that his mercy is not over all his works; and, consequently that Christ did not die for all, but for one in ten, for the elect only” (JWW 14:279). He then lays out in contrast the general plan of his magazine, saying that it will include:
First, a defence of that grand Christian doctrine, ‘God willeth all men to be saved… Secondly, an extract from the Life of some holy man… Thirdly, accounts and letters containing the experience of pious persons, the greatest part of whom are still alive; and, Fourthly, verses explaining or confirming the capital doctrines we have in view (JWW 14:280).
Thus the purpose of the magazine, for Wesley, was to defend “universal redemption” against predestination not only through polemic and theological argument, but also through the personal experiences of actual Methodist men and women. This real-life experience was proof positive for Wesley that the salvation experience was available to all.
It is in this context that Wesley solicited personal religious experience accounts for the Arminian Magazine. Because of his extensive correspondence and the fact that Wesley corresponded particularly widely with women, the influence of women on the pages of the Magazine prior to Wesley’s death is particularly striking. Of the 238 biographical accounts in the Arminian Magazine, 79 are about women(Tolar Burton 200). Interestingly enough, 113 of these accounts were published between the inception of the magazine in 1778 and Wesley’s death in 1791 (Jones 275), at which time men’s and women’s accounts were almost equally represented(Tolar Burton 200). Furthermore, according to Jones, nearly forty percent of all biographical material published under Wesley’s editorship was by or about women, though only fourteen accounts can be directly attributed to women authors(Jones 276-277). Finally, even after Wesley’s death, Tolar Burton estimates that almost a quarter of the published accounts were about women, though even fewer were authored by them(200).
Even more interesting is the fact that, despite the clear evidence of John Wesley’s editorial hand, the Arminian Magazine narratives written by women about themselves have a quality quite distinct from both the accounts about men and the accounts by men about women. Instead of being stories of chaste and upright women, these women often spend relatively little time on their lives and family and instead focus on their intense experiences of inner spiritual transformation. It is this intense sensible spiritual experience that both sets these narratives apart from conversion accounts written by and/or about men and prompts these women to speak and act publicly. In doing so, they move women’s religious experience out of the limited domestic sphere traditionally assigned to female piety, into the broader religious community.
Women’s Experience and Public Space in the Arminian Magazine
Broadly speaking, the religious experience accounts by women that appear on the pages of the Arminian Magazine fall into a relatively consistent seven part narrative pattern: 1. Consciousness of sin; 2. Acquaintance with Methodism and search for salvation; 3. Justification; 4. Opposition from within and without; 5. Search for “Christian Perfection”; 6. Achievement of perfection; and 7. Evidence of God’s grace in life and community.
In exhibiting this pattern, these narratives thus perform the mimetic function that John Wesley hoped to instill through his own Journal and published narratives. Furthermore, they also indicate that these women saw themselves as part of a larger community of readers and writers, all of whom were pursuing the same spiritual goals. As Hindmarsh has pointed out:
Through these communal practices they learned what was commonly expected in religious experience, and what was common became, in literary terms, conventional…. In expectation of conversion, evangelical discourse acted like a map, identifying the sort of terrain one might cross and the sort of destination one might arrive at if one chose to venture out, waiting upon God in the means of grace (157).
Of course, as Hindmarsh also makes clear, just because these narratives were conventional, does not mean that they lack originality or insight. Instead, Methodist women appropriated readily available genres as a means to relating their own personal experience in a way that would be better understood by the broader Methodist community. It was precisely by using these conventions that Methodist women were able to form a unique sense of identity grounded in the broader religious culture. Thus, it is in this light that we must interpret the various manifestations of these generic conventions.
The first narrative convention that appears in all the Arminian Magazine narratives is consciousness of sin and the need for salvation. As with many Methodist women whose writings have survived, all four of these women were relatively religious girls, who tried to observe all outward signs of piety. Elizabeth Scaddan recalls that from an early age she was taught by an older pious woman to observe her duty to God and neighbor and that “the duties of religion demanded my chief concern. Her endeavours so far succeeded, as to give my mind a religious turn; and before I was ten years old, I felt a concern whenever I thought I had offended God”.
Nevertheless, these women come to believe that this is not enough and that they are in reality slaves to the “sins” of dancing, card playing, novel reading, and vanity. This conviction of sin and the need for salvation intensify after their encounters with the Methodists and they begin to earnestly seek for their salvation. These portions of their narratives are particularly vivid as the women almost literally wrestle with God and the knowledge that they can do nothing for their own salvation except believe. Mrs. Planche, for example, writes of her palpable desire for justification that she fears will never come:
My state of mind was now distressing. I had many doubts and fears, the burden of sin lay heavy upon my conscience, and I groaned under it…. O how I longed to come to him; but found I was shut up in unbelief, and could not break my chain…. I found a divine attraction upon my heart, and had many visits of God’s love; but I wanted justifying faith, and a clear sense of my interest in Christ, and determined not to rest till I found it.
Like many women who wrote their conversion accounts, Mrs. Planche feels that she knows the way to salvation and even possesses the desire to be saved, but cannot achieve it herself. As such, this portion of the narratives is often filled with stops and starts, with intense spiritual experiences that almost result in a sense of justification, but always fall short.
Though this struggle for justification could often last months or even years, in the relatively short Arminian Magazine narratives this time frame is compressed and the account of justification often directly succeeds spiritual struggle. This is arguably the most important point in the narrative for these women, and their descriptions of the moment of justification are remarkably similar. In every case, justification is preceded by some sort of religious activity – prayer, scripture reading, religious services – and the sense of justification comes to these women without the effort or striving that characterizes their earlier attempts. Mrs. Planche writes, “the Lord then spoke peace to my soul. He took away all guilt and condemnation from my conscience, and shed abroad his love in my heart. I knew my sins were forgiven, and that I was accepted in the Beloved”. Thus, what distinguishes these moments from their previous religious experiences is that they mystically feel their sins have been forgiven – that they have been justified to God. There is a sensible, experiential quality to these narratives that reflects John Wesley’s belief that the individual could experientially know that he or she was saved and that God loved them.
However, this sense of justification is often frequently questioned and opposed from within and without as the women begin to question their own spiritual state and friends and family members ridicule them for becoming Methodists. Elizabeth Scaddan was given an ultimatum from her own family who told her she “should no longer remain with them; that they would disown me [for associating with the Methodists]; and accordingly I had only till the next morning to determine what answer to give them”. In the end her family backed down, but it was not atypical for family members to be distressed at their daughters or wives becoming Methodists. This concern reflected not only contemporary prejudices against the doctrine of justification by faith, but also the prevalence of false rumors that were widely spread about the Methodists accusing them of Popery and even sponsoring orgies at their “love feasts,” or communal gatherings.
For Methodists, however, justification was only the first step on a journey to salvation that ended with Wesley’s doctrine of “Christian perfection,” otherwise known as sanctification. The achievement of this most esoteric of Methodist doctrines was the ultimate goal of the Christian journey and Wesley believed it could be obtained instantaneously, before the moment of death. Wesley defined Christian perfection or sanctification as the elimination of all intentional sin, which he believed to be attainable in this life. However, by sin Wesley does not mean any unintentional wrongdoing but a “voluntary transgression of a known law” of God.
Of the women under consideration here, all but Elizabeth Scaddan relate their struggle for and ultimate achievement of Christian perfection. Much like justification, these three women experience Christian perfection only when they give themselves over to God. Furthermore, they tend to represent this experience in almost erotic terms – using the figurative language of love and affection to describe the feeling. Mrs. Planche combines this erotic language with the language of liberation to describe her experience:
He came into my soul with such a display of his grace and love, as I never knew before. All my bands were loosed, and my spirit was set perfectly free. I felt an entire deliverance from all the remains of sin in my nature; and my precious Jesus took full possession of my heart.
Thus in each case these women represent sanctification as an overwhelming experience of God’s love that destroys sin and then works outward into the community.
If we follow Wesley’s positive construction of Christian perfection as pure love for God and neighbor, it naturally leads to the final step of the religious experience narrative: evidence of God’s grace in life and community. For not only are these women’s accounts constructed according to specific community conventions, they also describe how these women see themselves as part of a unified religious community within which they have found a scope for speech and action. As Mrs. Planche writes following her justification, “I did indeed love him with all the powers of my soul, and made a free-will offering of myself to him, to be his for ever. O what a heaven did I enjoy in his favour and love; and how did I feel my soul united to his dear people!” (emphasis added). This is an especially bold statement from Mrs. Planche as she lived a full forty miles from the nearest Methodist society. Her experience prompted her to not only be active within her community, but also advocate with Wesley himself for the stationing of a lay preacher at Kelso, in Scotland. These communal bonds further empowered women to become involved in visiting the sick and poor, lead classes and bands, correspond with the most powerful people in the Methodist movement, and even record their religious experiences for the broader Methodist community. Though many felt inadequate to do so, the outpouring of love they experienced through sanctification provided the undeniable impetus to enter public space.
The fact that all four of these women were ordinary laywomen and not female preachers, teachers, or well-known writers further emphasizes this point. Despite the massive amount of scholarship on the Methodist movement as a whole, there is still relatively little research on lay piety in general and lay female piety in particular. What has been done has primarily focused on the exceptional Methodist women, like the preachers, who felt called to radically challenge eighteenth century cultural norms by speaking to men. The four women whose narratives are presented here, however, are quite different. Their entry into public space on the pages of the Arminian Magazine came not so much because they felt called to challenge cultural assumptions in the way the women preachers did, but because Wesley asked them to write about their conversion and they felt compelled to by that experience. These, then, were not the voices of the educated or pious elite, but regular Methodist laywomen who wrote in spite of these perceived inadequacies simply because they felt their experience demanded it.
1. See Paul Wesley Chilcote, John Wesley and the Women Preachers of Early Methodism. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1991. for the foundational study of women preachers in Methodism, D. Bruce Hindmarsh, “’A Nail Fixed in a Sure Place’: The Lives of the Early Methodist Preachers.” The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England. Oxford: Clarendon, 2005. 226-260. for an exploration of the lives of women preachers that appeared in the Arminian Magazine, and Vicki Tolar Burton, “The Mystic and the Methodists: An Account of the Experience of Hester Ann Rogers.” Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism: Reading, Writing, and Speaking to Believe. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008. 197-231. for the most comprehensive study to date of the most famous Methodist woman writer.
References and Further Reading
Bruff, Rachel. “The Experience of Rachel Bruff, of Talbot-County, Maryland [Written by Herself].” Arminian Magazine March 1787: 135-137, April 1787: 191-192, May 1787: 243-246.
Heitzenrater, Richard P. Wesley and the People Called Methodists. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995.
Hempton, David. Methodism: Empire of the Spirit. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2005.
Hindmarsh, D. Bruce. The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.
Jones, Margaret P. “From ‘The State of My Soul’ to ‘Exalted Piety’: Women’s Voices in the Arminian/Methodist Magazine, 1778-1821.” Gender and Christian Religion. Woodbridge: Suffolk, 1998. 273-286.
Mack, Phyllis. Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.
McInelly, Brett C. “’I had rather be obscure. But I dare not’: Women and Methodism in the Eighteenth Century.” Everyday Revolutions: Eighteenth Century Women Transforming Public and Private. Ed. Diane E. Boyd and Marta Kvande. Newark, DE: U of Delaware P, 2008. 135-158.
Planche, Mrs. “An Account of Mrs. Planche. [Written by herself sometime before her death.].” Arminian Magazine August 1791: 416-423.
Scaddan, Elizabeth. “The Experience of Elizabeth Scaddan: in a Letter to the Rev. Mr. Wesley Feb. 3, 1783.” Arminian Magazine April 1791: 182-188.
Taylor, M. “The Experience of M. Taylor. [Written by herself.].”Arminian Magazine December 1791: 613-619.
Tolar Burton, Vicki. Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism: Reading, Writing, and Speaking to Believe. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008.
Wesley, John. The Works of John Wesley. Ed. Thomas Jackson. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007.