History of religion, History of Methodism, Marriage, Family, John Wesley
Many historians have observed that John Wesley's followers, those people called Methodists, employed familial titles and intimate language with each other throughout the eighteenth century. But none have explored the full implications of that language as much as Anna Lawrence in One Family under God, an original contribution to the study of Methodism and the early modern family.
Lawrence's subject matter is not new, but her approach is creative. Lawrence is concerned with discourse, a cultural study of language and gender roles, and her focus is explicitly trans-Atlantic. But her specific case studies prevent the study from growing overly abstruse. She regularly considers the Wesley brothers' (John and Charles) checkered romantic and marital experiences as models for the group. She offers particularly strong analysis in juxtaposing anti-Methodist tracts, essays, novellas, and prints with Methodist diaries, letters, and conversion narratives. This analysis provides a deep and many-faceted consideration of the full ramifications of Methodist experience.
Lawrence characterizes the Methodist movement as mobile and collaborative, extra-institutional, and (at first) informal. The author stresses Methodists' dissenting status, placing them alongside such sects as the Quakers, Shakers, and Moravians—groups that similarly reformulated conceptions of family, marriage, sex, and gender. But in remaining under the Anglican umbrella, Methodists stopped short of the most radical innovations that other dissenters posed.
Converts to Methodism often stated that they felt different from their birth families, a sense of social isolation or melancholy that critics deemed mental illness. Lawrence explains that converts behaved in ways that challenged their natal families' conceptions of proper class or gender roles. Once converted, Methodists comprised a new family, broader than even the most extended kinship networks. These included close-knit bands and classes, but also encompassed circuit preachers, traveling missionaries, and even print culture, which carried Methodist words around the world. Their language of love for God, and for each other, was sexually tinged. [End Page 569]
While Methodists spoke sexually, they often acted chastely. They condemned marriages that involved unconverted or abusive spouses. Celibacy attracted many believers who feared the snares of marriage in their path to becoming holy. When they did marry, Methodists minimized parental involvement by seeking providential authority for their matches. Ironically, this search privileged individual choice, as those seeking to marry closely monitored their prayers, and their dreams, for divine intervention.
Lawrence underscores the egalitarian impulses within this family, for all Methodists were, to some degree, brother and sister with each other. Spiritually charismatic women could become "Mothers in Israel" and achieve a level of authority unknown outside Methodist circles. Black Methodists found the group's extended kinship complemented their own experiences of family. Lawrence argues that Methodist impulses ultimately transformed family life as a whole, as the rise of Methodism coincided with a rise in sentimentality. Methodists' passionate and intimate language directed toward fellow believers, and their ideal of a spiritual soulmate in matrimony, would influence the ideal of romantic, companionate marriage in the Victorian age.
The American Revolution exposed different models of thinking about family on either side of the Atlantic. English Wesleyans favored John Wesley's patriarchal inclinations, while American Methodists preferred the movement's egalitarian and fraternal tendencies. The Revolution spurred institution building in both places, as Methodism emerged from the war as a separate denomination. This process removed women from their earlier prominence: Wesley's loose connection, in which extra-church societies served familial roles, gave way to a more formal ecclesiastical bureaucracy that had no official place for women. Further, while egalitarian American Wesleyanism converted African Americans, its southern branch jettisoned antislavery to placate converted slaveholders, offering only a tepid paternalism as solace. Only among the institutionally separate African Methodist church in America, or in splinter sects in England, did the full ramifications of Methodist egalitarianism remain.
Lawrence's trans-Atlantic emphasis is slightly misleading, and might be more properly presented as a dialectical relationship. The Wesleys did develop many of...