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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 96-97

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Fits, Trances, and Visions:
Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James

Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James. By Ann Taves (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1999) 449 pp. $65.00 cloth $22.95 paper

Fits, Trances, and Visions is an ambitious book, not only in its chronological reach but also its methodological and theoretical stretch. Traversing the decades between the mid-eighteenth-century Great Awakening and the coming of age of professional psychology, Taves approaches the historical questions of the conceptualization and fluctuating reconstruction of religious experience. She tracks not only a changing idea but also the parallel, and changing, ideological paradigms that framed those perceptions and interpretations. She develops her analysis with infinite care, moving with facility from popular experience and enthusiastic expression to cautious theologians' explications and psychologists' scientific configurations. Taves has produced a fascinating history of ideas through a tricky theoretical navigation that applies insights of recent cultural theory alongside the Enlightenment discourse articulated by her eighteenth- and nineteenth-century subjects.

Despite the complexity of her analysis, and its theoretical inclusiveness, Taves' masterful construction of the argument and her impressively lucid style weave a pattern that is both comprehensible and persuasive. Fits, Trances, and Visions moves between insiders who experienced involuntary reactions to religious stimuli and outside observers and between the sympathetic and the skeptical—between, in essence, the objects of study and the scholars themselves.

She constructs the argument in three parts defined by chronology and intellectual system. The first part explores the development of Methodism, an enthusiastic religiosity always on the edge of excess. Taves casts particular light upon the intersection of the rise of Methodism and Enlightenment thought, focusing not upon the parallel development, per se, but the manner in which rationalist philosophies impacted [End Page 96] the structures and language used by theologians and secularists alike to describe and affirm/denounce spiritual enthusiasm. In other words, Taves argues for the centrality of hegemonic intellectual frameworks that will, themselves, become determinative not only for philosophers but also for believers' own self-understanding.

As she moves to the raucous camp meetings of the early nineteenth century, she articulates a central transitional argument in which the effects of the spirit, inscribed upon the body, served to sacralize the body itself. This insight prepares for the leap to psychology, the modern scientific system that connected mind and physicality. Just as rationalist investigators began to find empirical causes for what had once been judged supernatural; religionists were locating in the language of science rationalist proofs for faith healing. Against the growing ethos of clairvoyance, somnambulism, and the Holiness movement, the embryonic field of neurology established counter-claims in terms of the body's relation to the mind.

Out of these multiple explanatory possibilities, the new academic psychology discovered the subconscious, providing William James, among others, with a scientific paradigm through which to describe the connection between the mind and the physical manifestation of the sacred. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, psychological theories of religion and the subconscious espoused by James gave way to the Freudian emphasis upon repression. Despite this early turning to Freudian structures, the theories of James, and later Carl Jung, would become the foundation of a new sub-field, psychology of religion. This professionalization of psychology coincided with increasing elite theological hostility to supernatural interpretations of involuntary religious experience, while such interpretations (and experience) flourished in, for example, Pentecostalism.

By necessity, the book is complicated, grounded in a comparative methodology in which the systems compared include psychoanalysis and mesmerism, as well as Methodism and Pentecostalism. Ideas are examined through theorists, promulgators, and popular consumers. Taves argues that experience and explanation are dialectical; her analysis focuses upon neither religious experience nor the idea of religious experience but the dialogue between the two. This theoretical emphasis upon intersection and interstitial space provides an excellent model for cultural historians tracking multiple systems in conversation with each other, particularly those who...


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