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During the American Revolution, many American Methodists opted for neutrality, claiming that warfare would distract them from their spiritual battle for salvation. By 1861, however, American Methodists viewed the Civil War as a cosmic battle and had no qualms embracing physical violence for the sake of the nation. How did American Methodists navigate this historical stream that began with prioritizing redemptive violence in the spiritual realm and ended with championing redemptive violence in the social realm? Jeffrey Williams describes this transition, showing that even as Methodists' spiritual practices lost their sharp edges, their Wesleyan heritage of holy fighting resurfaced during the Civil War to provide "a powerful justification for social violence" (p. 5).
The fight of Methodists against evil inhabited otherworldly and this-worldly realms. In tracking where Methodists happened to locate the battle over time, Williams looks to "practices and experiences" rather than "institutional formation and formal theological expression" (p. 8). Thus, he examines such popular shifts as increasing skepticism about the power of Satan, the rise of Phoebe Palmer's holiness movement, and Methodist rationalizations for frontier and wartime social violence. Religious periodicals and autobiographies form the bulk of his sources for the nineteenth century.
Williams begins with John Wesley's views of the "good fight" against sin, the "world," and Satan. Although Wesley never prohibited social violence, American Methodists did not interpret the Revolution as part of "their greater battle for salvation" (p. 42). This individual battle initially involved physically overpowering conversion experiences, but Methodists gradually cordoned off their bodies from otherworldly forces. At the same time, they began to accept frontier violence and to imbue politics with spiritual significance. Eventually, with social respectability, "Methodists recast their conversions and [End Page 268] sanctification experiences as peaceful retreats … rather than violent struggles with spiritual forces" (p. 143). Nevertheless, they used the idea of Christian warfare to justify participation in the Civil War.
Williams provides an ironic narrative of the Methodist inversion of otherworldly and this-worldly violence. Yet his conclusion that belief in a cosmic battle against evil, on one hand, and participation in social violence, on the other, can be either mutually exclusive or mutually reinforcing demonstrates that historical contexts are essential to fully explaining these different permutations of redemptive violence. Williams alludes to some kind of self-conscious, causal link between the abandonment of an individual spiritual battle and support for this-worldly violence—e.g., "Methodists offset this limitation of the powers of spiritual beings by extending the powers of human beings"—and yet their shifting views of holy violence appear to have been both unselfconscious and entirely determined by outside factors (p. 129). Williams considers some of these factors, but, for example, never mentions that the new, militant posture in the public sphere was a distinctly male phenomenon. In turn, the rise of a sentimental and refined Methodist piety at least began as a female (and northern, middle-class, white, urban) innovation—some of which he acknowledges before too quickly generalizing to all Methodists. Williams seems to be tracking two distinct, gendered pieties that varied by region and race, but he downplays these nuances by privileging the homogenizing, disembodied "Methodist" category. Indeed, "Methodist" loses most of its explanatory power in specific contexts and at times seems indistinct from American Protestantism more generally.
Williams's project withstands these criticisms by offering a worth-while inquiry into Methodist rationalizations of social violence and a persuasive corrective to "soft" accounts of eighteenth-century Methodism. His treatment of transatlantic exchanges between Methodists during the American Revolution is especially informative. Those interested in religion and violence, and in locating a "Methodist" strain in American culture, should read this book. [End Page 269]
Laura Rominger Porter is a doctoral candidate at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. She is currently writing her dissertation on white evangelicals and politics in the Upper South during the Civil War era.