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Thinking about devotion in its slippery religious and secular senses requires us to take a stance on to what extent beliefs, habits, behaviours, and rituals may acquire special significance in a range of performative contexts—on the stage, in the public sphere, as a performance of personal identity, as texts, and as acts of worship, whether liturgical or private. There are two related features that emerged from the forum's conversation. The first is that the call to focus on devotion encourages us as scholars to attach significance to the practices of adherents (whether religious believers or devotees of more secular objects) and, at least in part, to direct our attention away from doctrinal and political questions and towards the reconstruction of personal theology as enacted and experienced. Such a shift of attention is important because it validates the lived experience of devotees, especially of women. It is no coincidence that so many of the contributors have chosen women devotees as the basis of their case studies, since reformulating religion as devotion precisely invites us to think about the impact of theology and of politics on individuals who are traditionally estranged or excluded from positions of power.

The second feature to which I wish to draw attention is that a great deal of the contributors' discussion revolves around the policing and regulation of such devotional experience. As Stevens notes in her introduction, the lack of fixed meaning attached to the word devotion in the eighteenth century is both a challenge and an opportunity for us to open a conversation about [End Page 283] the boundaries between secular and sacred. It is, of course, not the case that devotion simply bifurcates around a secular-religious split. But in many cases, the etymological as well as ideological fault line can be thrown into sharper relief by attending to moments in which the borders between secular and religious devotion are transcended or transgressed, and, significantly, by asking how (and by whom) they are policed.

Whilst acknowledging the messy overlaps between the experience of secular and religious devotion, it is also possible and helpful to distinguish the two, and, especially, to notice the ways in which the two were distinguished in eighteenth-century discourse. When are devotional practices such as prayer and meditation to be thought of as truly sacred, effective ways of communicating with God; when are they mere enthusiasm? When does the practice of fandom stray into idolatry? The devoutness of Mary-Catherine Cadière or of a preacher like George Whitefield inspires fandom and devotion only so long as it is irregular, visceral, and extreme; what is more, the attachment of the devotee to her saint or idol uncouples her from the final and absolute object of religious attachment, God. As Gibson explores, in the case of a secular celebrity idol such as Sarah Siddons, we have a double uncoupling of legitimate devotional experience: the fanatical devotion to Siddons substitutes for the devotion to a prophet or preacher who, it could be feared, already substitutes for authentic devotion to Christ or to God.

When, as Schoen argues, the devotion of the scientific virtuoso is judged to have immoderately attached himself to the objects of his experimentation instead of to the larger commitments of science and religion, we might characterize this judgement as protective of an outward-facing, masculine, Protestant societal structure that abhors solipsism and indulgence. For an author like Norris, as Pritchard demonstrates, the scientific and rational bases of devotion may be established only by keeping in sight what he and his followers considered the end of all human endeavour: knowledge of and acceptability to God. Haynes's discussion of the double role of the image as a channel for and challenge to worship also revolves around the possibility that representational art, especially portraiture, not only replicates but also replaces its object. That the problematic possibility of idolatry remains at stake across Haynes's sources underlines the ways in which the imperative theologies we might associate with Puritanical thinking retained their currency in popular discourse well into the period we associate with Romanticism and, rightly or wrongly, with the beginnings of modern secularism.

Perhaps the clearest examples of devotional policing and the question of where religion becomes idolatry arose around the Protestant, anglophone reaction to Catholicism in Britain, and the heightened, defensive rhetoric and [End Page 284] actions that monitored slippage between Protestant and Catholic devotion. In Airey's discussion of Cadière, questions of legality rub against questions of religious legitimacy. Even at a time when female prophecy was taken seriously by both religious authorities and individuals, Cadière's power, whether as a secular idol or a religious prophet, derived its validity from its visceral bodily expression—through stigmata, fits and convulsions, and even in the physical and sexual violence that she endured. The actual words and import of her prophecies are lost under a raft of cult British legalistic and voyeuristic publications, many of which refuse to take seriously any claim of true prophetic power and focus instead on her female body and on the affective rather than sacred dimensions of her experience.

In Volk-Birke's consideration of the policing of physical devotional attitudes for meditation and prayer as they move between Catholic and Protestant tradition, the same refusal to countenance the reality or sacredness of Catholic devotion seems almost to lead to a denial not only of Catholic praxis but also of the entire possibility of prophecy, transportation, ecstasy, or communion with Christ for Protestant adherents. Volk-Birke shows us how the de-emotionalized, rationalized English adaptations of François de Sales perpetuate his concern to stipulate and guide devotion, but they simultaneously downgrade the role that psychology has to play in religious experience, making devotional activities a pathway to a moral Christianity rather than to any mystical union with God.

In both of these cases, a larger political and legal context affects the creation and reception of texts that have at their heart questions of spirituality, sacredness, and religious experience. But as I have argued, it is equally the case that individual, lay devotional practice may inform political and theological policy on a larger level. The ways in which adapted Catholic devotional books like those of de Sales were used in English Protestant households could not but have influenced the practice of English Protestantism. Davies's insight into the mimetic principles that served to canonize testimonial patterns in Methodist conversion experiences give us another example of the way that devotional practices fluctuate between what Volk-Birke calls the micro- and macro-layers of a religious group's habitual and ritual activities, from individual to wider community, from singularity to norm. In this movement lies the possibility of aberration and of heresy, and it is for this reason that the policing of lay and female devotion remains culturally urgent within religious traditions.

Literary texts serve as a bridge between sanctioned and unsanctioned forms of worship, allowing for both the policing and modelling of religious habits either by state or Church authorities as well as for the recording and dissemination of religious experience by the laity. As Tessa Whitehouse has [End Page 285] recently shown, "the relationship between texts, behaviour, and taste is a complicated one: books, periodicals, lectures, letters, diaries, essays, and conversation reflect the intellectual and cultural trends of their time but also contribute to them."1 In adopting literary-critical approaches to the study of eighteenth-century religion, the contributors to this forum examined devotion as a phenomenon that can be only observed and understood in action and in practice; consequently, this forces us to consider the ways that the boundaries of secularity and religion reveal themselves in the establishment's proclivity to regulate the behaviours, experiences, and beliefs of individual devotees.

Emma Salgård Cunha

Emma Salgård Cunha is associate member of the faculty of English at the University of Oxford. She is the author of John Wesley, Practical Divinity and the Defence of Literature (2018) and co-editor with Laura Davies of a special edition of the Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies on the subject "Writing Eighteenth-Century Religion" (2018).

NOTES

1. Tessa Whitehouse, The Textual Culture of English Protestant Dissent 1720–1800 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015) 7.

Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
283-286
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-21
Open Access
No
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