Misty G. Anderson Imagining Methodism in 18th-Century Britain: Enthusiasm, Belief & the Borders of the Self Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2012, 279
I grew up in a place where immediate heartfelt religion -the experience of conversion and being born again – was extremely important. The passing of years, and an education in reading both literature and scripture, have led me to an uncomfortable distancing from that past. Many of my own experiences have become, for me, tainted with the suspicion of charlatanism and theatricality and I struggle to make sense of them.
In many respects this experience, the struggle to balance emotional immediacy with an appropriately rational approach to life, is mirrored in the experience of eighteenth-century Methodism, and especially its reception in the popular media of the day. Misty G. Anderson’s work Imagining Methodism in 18th-Century Britain paints Methodism as a movement that at once attracted and repelled. John Wesley’s literary contemporaries, such as Henry Fielding and Samuel Foote, all had much to say about Methodism, much of it not very nice. Methodism, Anderson argues, inspired the eighteenth-century imagination with admiration and disgust. It was viewed as on the margins of what was acceptable in modern rational culture, and served as “a sign of sexual, cognitive, and social danger.” The language of the Methodists was, often, perceived as too visceral and bodily, lacking the appropriate detachment of civility. Methodist preaching led workers away from their labour, upset gender roles, and was tainted with theatricality and sexuality.
At the same time Methodism inspired even its harshest critics with a certain admiration for its zeal and commitment. Anderson proceeds through an examination of the perception of Methodism as it passes from virulent satire to lighthearted ridicule. Throughout this passage Methodism, as it is imagined, functions in a conceptual way, interrogating the self and its various fluid relationship. What is the relation between enthusiasm and reason, or religion and literature? The verbal battles fought between actors of the stage and theatrical preachers like George Whitefield make the distinctions between religious and secular less clear. Common desires and struggles inform both the enthusiastic believer and the aesthete.
The lesson Anderson draws from this history is the necessity to “move beyond the recalcitrant religious and ideological fundamentalisms of a worldview that pits secularism against religion in a deadly contest.” (Imagining, 238). For someone who has been at the brink of both fundamentalisms it is an important lesson, and one which Anderson analyzes with humour and a keen eye for detail.