angelic visions, Betsy Babcock, William Smyth Babcock, genre, prophecy, religion, revelation, rhetoric, scripture, uptake, visionary texts
The material features of texts participate along with textual content in the rhetorical action that constitutes genre. Material text approaches, moreover, make visible otherwise occluded generic action. Approached from a material text perspective, for example, “Minutes, of Manifestations made to Elizabeth Babcock, by our Lord Jesus Christ, through his Angel” performs the generic aspiration of a book of scripture, distinct from a broader genre of revelation. Material approaches provide a way of thinking through what this distinction might be and what is at stake in discerning it.
When the booklet was created, in 1810, Elizabeth Babcock (1785–1865) was at the center of a group of Freewill Baptists on the central Vermont–New Hampshire border who believed themselves to be guided by angels. In 1805 she had begun recounting “manifestations,” as the community termed moments when an angel appeared to her. William Smyth Babcock (1764–?) was her most devoted audience for these accounts, and they were married in 1809. It was William who made the minute book.1
Elizabeth’s visionary performances were embodied, oral texts that cited the contemporary conventions of revelation, readily at hand in the Babcocks’ time and place because of the cultural importance of the Christian Bible and a culture of revelatory performance.2 As Elizabeth’s performances cited the genre conventions of revelation, people around her responded in generically appropriate ways.3 Writing the words down was one common [End Page 678] way of responding to revelation, and William started recording Elizabeth’s pronouncements in his journal in June 1805. Her manifestations had many other responses that participated in this same genre. When William bought a farm or went on a journey on the angel’s advice, as delivered by Elizabeth, such actions were uptakes of revelation—identifying Elizabeth’s words as information from God, William acted on them. This is the type of intersubjective recurrence that is constitutive of genre: Elizabeth spoke and behaved in a way that those around her responded to as revelation, on the basis of a shared sense of what revelation looked like and what one should do with it.4
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What is important about the minute book is that it marked a material change in the way William responded to Elizabeth’s manifestations. The surviving portion of William’s journal covers the period from 1800 to 1811 and contains records of something like 175 of Elizabeth’s manifestations.5 There they appear within the time line of William’s daily life—before a sermon he preached; after a trip he made; alongside notes on something he was reading. Early on, they even appear next to his private questioning of Elizabeth’s reliability—William was not initially convinced that Elizabeth was talking to an angel.
The material form of the minute book, by contrast, collected Elizabeth’s revelations and abstracted them from history and circumstance while making them available for reference and citation. “I have this day made a little memorandum Book,” William wrote in his journal on January 1, 1810, “in which I purpose to minute particularly those manifestation[s], it may please God to make to my wife, the present year through his holy Angel.” What survives of the “little memorandum Book” is a single folded sheet among William’s papers preserved at the American Antiquarian Society. The sheet has holes indicating that it was once sewn with others as the cover of a booklet, but those other sheets are lost. By appearances, William made all his notebooks and journals. His journals are thick little booklets comprising several signatures sewn together. The booklet that he made to separate Elizabeth’s manifestations from his journal—to record them “particularly”—was one of the larger, thinner, more or less square sort of books that he used to write out sermons and his lengthy, never published theological treatise...