- Fits, Trances, & Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James
H. L. Mencken, in his explorations into American linguistic usages once pointed out that “to get religion” was an American coinage. In traditional societies, particularly in the Europe from which so many United States citizens came, one inherited religion. It came with the genes or the territory. In the rough and tumble of American life it was necessary to acquire a faith, to make a commitment. Citizens have never lacked alternatives as they made decisions about things of the spirit. But through the centuries, at least since the colonies-wide Great Awakening of the 1740s, the main way in which most people “got religion” was through personal experience, often of emotional, sometimes of extreme expressions. Some of the gotten religions were direct heirs of European faiths. But for whites and African-Americans alike, it turned out that most of these faiths had to undergo transformations west of the Atlantic. The official culture did not favor a single set of symbols and transmit them through formal inherited institutions. Instead, someone would ride into town on a horse, call into question the staid and stuffy ways of establishment ministers and cold-fish parishioners, and, through rhetoric and devices, create drama that led to writhings, barking, swooning, or, for the quieter sorts, mystical experiences. [End Page 492]
Thus the Anglicans-turned-Episcopalians adapted slowly and slightly in the colonies, while the new Methodists, who eventually broke with mother-Anglicanism, worked the experiential front more efficiently. Among African-Americans, limited by the demand by Presbyterians and Congregationalists for an educated ministry and for adherence to discreet and often prim approaches, it was those Methodists and Baptists who encouraged emotional responses and diverse experiences. Where these inherited denominations did not contain all the “enthusiasm”—a key word in the first chapter of the book here under review—others came along with extravagant effervescences. Among these were spiritualists, who encourage seances; Adventists, who looked to an early end to the world as known; Pentecostals, who spun off from the “holiness” wing of Methodism when that movement turned somewhat stale; Quakers and Shakers and importers of Theosophy found their place.
The stories of many of these have been told in discrete narratives; what we have lacked until now are histories that ask what, for all their maverick character, these have in common. Couple the response to that lack with the need to attempt some explanations, particularly of the “why here?” and “why now?” and “why this form?” character, and you have made room for the new book by Professor Ann Taves. It is a pioneering work in an emerging field of inquiry. It will help resituate inquiries about religion toward the center of American historical research, and bring emphasis to one dimension of religion that has always fallen somewhere between the desks of historians and psychologists. Taves picked the right moment, or helped produce it.
Fits, Trances, & Visions is evidence of a trend that sees a reduction in tension among choices on the part of American historians. Ann Taves is at home with both poles in a variety of polarities, and subtly negotiates among them.
Thus the sharp division that has produced much conflict in the profession between “narrative” and “theory” is much reduced in Professor Taves’s work. Must one determine whether to treat the past as only a set of “social constructions of reality” or can one propose that there is some sort of approachable reality behind the constructions? The author of Fits, Trances, & Visions is highly aware of the issues that went into the debate behind that question, but is not stunned by it. Is historical writing about “mentalités” and emotions chancy, or does it have its place alongside consideration of “events”? Taves treats successive unfoldings of emotions as events, and thus contributes to another form of synthesis. Should one concentrate on political history, full of documentable events as it is, or should one...