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  • Shouting, Embracing, and Dancing with Ecstasy: The Growth of Methodism in Newfoundland, 1774-1874
  • Denis McKim
Shouting, Embracing, and Dancing with Ecstasy: The Growth of Methodism in Newfoundland, 1774-1874. Calvin Hollett. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010. Pp. 368, $85.00

In Shouting, Embracing, and Dancing with Ecstasy Calvin Hollett fundamentally rethinks Methodism's early history in Newfoundland. He convincingly demonstrates that, rather than being an elite-driven phenomenon, the denomination's expansion during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was fuelled by lay initiative.

Hollett is concerned mainly with debunking a longstanding interpretation of Methodism's development in Newfoundland — that isolated population centres and a forbidding set of environmental circumstances combined to stunt the denomination's growth prior to 1815, which witnessed an influx of clergymen dispatched to the colony by the metropolitan Wesleyan Methodist Church. The activities of these elite clerical figures have traditionally been credited for sparking Methodism's growth in Newfoundland, which in turn 'rescued' inhabitants of remote communities from the state of moral destitution in which they had purportedly languished before the clergymen's arrival.

Hollett rejects the notion that clerical elites were responsible for bringing about Methodism's expansion in Newfoundland in the years after 1815, maintaining instead that the denomination's growth was nurtured and sustained by spontaneous expressions of religious fervour [End Page 359] by members of the laity beginning in the late eighteenth century. His analysis ambitiously covers the hundred-year span between the 1780s, which witnessed early outpourings of Methodist enthusiasm in such communities as Island Cove and Old Perlican, and the 1880s, by which point Methodism's distinctive evangelical characteristics had been tempered as a result of the denomination's absorption into Newfoundland's socially respectable Protestant mainstream. As for its spatial parameters, Hollett's discussion concentrates on several communities clustered around the six following bays: Conception, Trinity, Bonavista, Notre Dame, Placentia, and Fortune. He contends that 'ordinary' inhabitants of Newfoundland derived from Methodism a heady sense of spiritual liberation and were responsible primarily for precipitating the denomination's expansion within the colony. The mobility of the colonial populace, Hollett explains, was instrumental to the extension of Methodism's spiritual influence across large swaths of territory. Rather than being isolated in remote settings, lay adherents of the denomination were able to propagate Methodism's tenets and traditions in numerous outport communities as a result of their participation in such economic pursuits as fishing and sealing, which often involved travelling from one location to another. It was thus not the clergy, who frequently proved reluctant to leave the confines of St John's, but rather the laity who were responsible for bringing about the spiritual invigoration of communities scattered along Newfoundland's northern and southeastern coasts.

Newfoundland's religious character was significantly altered as a result of the rise of Methodism, which assumed a position alongside Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism as one of the colony's most influential religious entities. Hollett argues that Methodism's growth in Newfoundland was aided by developments taking place within the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, both of which gravitated during the nineteenth century toward hierarchical doctrines — tractarianism and ultramontanism, respectively — that reinforced the authority of their churches' clergy. Methodism, by contrast, was an informal 'vernacular' religion that downplayed the importance of clerical influence and encouraged repentant individuals to pursue a personal — and potentially soul-saving — relationship with God and to propagate the Gospels among their fellow citizens in as vigorous and wide-ranging a manner as possible. Such characteristics, which differed dramatically from the increasingly top-down orientation of Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, empowered 'ordinary' people and contributed to Methodism's growth. [End Page 360]

Hollett's analysis brings into focus the pronounced extent to which Methodism's expansion in Newfoundland contributed to a decline of deference among the denomination's laity. Rather than looking to clerical elites to mediate between themselves and divinity, zealous lay Methodists attained confidence in their own ability 'to communicate with God and to communicate God to others' (6). Hollett intriguingly hypothesizes that the waning of deference among lay Methodists may have had important ramifications beyond the religious realm, potentially contributing to demands...


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