- Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism
Methodism has been preponderantly a women’s movement, although its history and historiography have been male-dominated. Perhaps this is true of most churches. In this ground-breaking book, Phyllis Mack explores the experiences, place, and feelings of women during the outset of the Methodist movement, essentially the eighteenth century, in Britain. She wrote Heart Religion, she states, to explore the “seismic shift from the religious culture of the seventeenth century to the ‘disenchantment of the world’ that developed in the wake of the Enlightenment” (p. 8).
She shows that received negative depictions of women are inaccurate and different from men’s, but her essential thesis argues for a broader view of “agency”; how believers (and Methodist women specifically) understood the reality of their religious experience within the no less real context of their world. Against past historians such as E. P.Thompson who interpreted the Methodist movement in terms of class struggle and sex (memorably describing revivalist meetings as “psychic masturbation”),Mack endeavors to assess religious narratives on their own terms: that when someone stated [End Page 594] that they felt the burden of their sin or found happiness in God, that is just what they meant.
A key quality of this book is the use of primary sources. Mack has assembled an impressive array of original material, much of it dealing with Mary Bosanquet-Fletcher (1739–1815) and her networks, drawn substantially from the extensive Fletcher-Tooth Papers at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, United Kingdom. Bosanquet-Fletcher came from a wealthy London family who left home because her beliefs and ran two Christian community settlements before marrying Reverend John Fletcher (1729–85), vicar of the busy proto-industrial parish of Madeley, in 1781. Following his early death, she, in effect, ran the parish for thirty years and was succeeded after her death by her protégé Mary Tooth, who carefully preserved her papers.
What this book offers most significantly is a discursive, rather than merely descriptive, framework for understanding and interpreting the religious experience of women. So in a chapter “Mary Fletcher on the Cross,” Mack “explores two elements of the early Methodists’ spirituality: their understanding of the body and the meaning of pain, and the relationship between their views of health and illness and the images of a wounded Christ that abound in Methodist hymns” (p. 173). It takes little to recognize that such an approach has a potentially wider application.
The book, however, is overly Wesley-centered. Historians are tending to move toward viewing Methodism as a much broader movement than Wesley’s tightly-knit “connexion,” to which Bosanquet-Fletcher sat loose. In addition, John Fletcher is barely mentioned. Although their marriage was brief, they knew each other for twenty years, and she was devoted to his memory. An account of her that all but ignores him is surely incomplete. Interestingly, Mack includes a section on Adam Clarke, an important but underresearched early Methodist figure.
Factual errors are few and far between. Wesley’s “Aldersgate” experience preceded his visit to the Moravians at Herrnhut (p. 36); John Fletcher was not a vegetarian (p. 196); and Mack seems not to have grasped the distinction between “itinerant” and “local” preachers (p. 270). These should not detract from the caliber and importance of this book, whose relevance and appeal goes beyond the narrow bounds of early Methodism. It is an important treatment of women’s religious experiences in post-Enlightenment Western society.
Oxford Brookes University