Anna M. Lawrence combines family, gender, and religious history to chronicle the rise of Methodism in England and America during the Revolutionary period. Focusing on the transatlantic Methodist notion of family, this book speaks to historical debates over what family means and how the nuclear family model developed over the eighteenth century.
2011 | 296 pages | Cloth $55.00
American History / Religion
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Transatlantic Methodist Family
Chapter 1. Transatlantic Methodism: Roots and Revivals
Chapter 2. Loosening the Bonds of Family and Society
Chapter 3. The Best of Bonds: Joining the Methodist Family
Chapter 4. Religious Ecstasy and Methodist Sexuality
Chapter 5. Celibacy in the Methodist Family: The Case Against Marriage
Chapter 6. "The Whole World Is Composed of Families"
Chapter 7. One Family, Two Nations
List of Abbreviations
The Transatlantic Methodist Family
In 1771, Freeborn Garrettson had a life-changing conversation with Methodist preacher Francis Asbury. Their talk was so affecting that Garrettson wondered, "How does this stranger know me so well!" Many Methodists in the eighteenth century described their entry into the group in a similar fashion. "He spake to me," converts recounted, feeling that the preacher knew their own story, marking the intimacy of the moment of awakening. As a result of Asbury's instrumental role in his conversion, Garrettson claimed Asbury as his "spiritual father." Like most Methodists at this time, Garrettson was not born into the Methodist church; his parents had been members of an Anglican church in Maryland. After Garrettson's conversion, he wrote, "something told me, these are the people. I was so happy in the time of preaching, that I could conceal it no longer; so I determined to chuse God's people for my people." These people would become Garrettson's Methodist family.
In this book, I examine the Methodist family as paradigmatic of the influence of religious ideas on the eighteenth-century family. During these formative years, Methodists used the central metaphor and organizational principle of "family" to organize themselves across a great geographical expanse. Methodism was a movement that spanned the transatlantic world, spreading throughout England, Wales, Ireland, and America during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By the late eighteenth century, Methodism was the fastest growing denomination in America. In the early nineteenth century, Methodists and Baptists competed to claim the greatest number of souls in Protestant America. In England, Methodists dominated the revivalist scene of the eighteenth century and became a serious challenge to the Church of England. This group rose originally as a subset of the Anglican church, but they sought to associate with each other in a closer, more spiritually watchful way than could be done within a formal denomination. Instead of starting by building churches or congregations, they began by forming societies and bonds between each other as evangelicals. In this book, I explore how men and women related to one another within this rapidly growing transatlantic network of familial relations and how they claimed authority over the personal decisions within their own lives and within the family as a whole.
This book addresses contemporary disputes over the history of family and marriage by examining this crucial period in which the contexts and meanings of family were open to debate. Most research has confirmed the dominance of the nineteenth-century romantic marriage model in both England and America, by opposing it to the earlier mode of spousal choice, in which economic concerns and parental control were the primary considerations. In examining this shift, historians have often pointed to secular literature, legal trends, the rise of the romantic novel, and prescriptive literature, but the roles of religious families and the significance of religious literature are almost entirely left out of the conversation. For the most part, we have assumed that religion had a conservative effect on the rise of individualistic, love-based marriages. I argue that we should revisit and reassess religious families to understand their effect on the formation of the modern family. I measure their impact on family history along three interrelated trajectories: (1) religious families were quite elastic in their ideas of membership, since unrelated evangelicals became "brothers," "sisters," "mothers," and "fathers"; (2) this flexibility of familial association strengthened the emotional bonds of family by emphasizing the intimacy of this chosen family; and (3) evangelicals accelerated the turn toward romantic marriage through their exaltation of the "soul mate" as a central consideration for marriage.
While it is easy to associate religious notions of family with conservative, backward-looking principles, religious groups have also prompted radical reconsiderations of family formation, gender roles, and marriage. This is particularly true of dissenting religious groups, which critics have frequently characterized as sexually deviant. Early Quakers excited suspicion for the ways that they allowed women to preach in public, and critics accused Quakers of sexual flagrancy behind closed doors. Similarly, antipopery movements in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, France, and America fostered the idea that Catholics were sexually aberrant; images circulated of publicly prudish priests and nuns who were secretly lascivious. The Moravians, who were Methodists' contemporaries, shared similarly pietistic, ecstatic language with Methodists. Moravian communities also challenged the normative patriarchal family through their separation of the sexes in worship and life. Polygamous Mormons in the nineteenth century faced violent public opposition to their marital practices. A common component of these religious dissenters' challenge to the larger society was their countervailing notions of gender and sexuality.
The preponderance of anti-Methodist literature written in the eighteenth century demonstrates how disturbing and provocative this group was to outsiders. During the eighteenth century, critics contributed to a deluge of material written against Methodists, and publishers turned out more than six hundred anti-Methodist pamphlets. Common themes in this literature were the interdependent ideas of evangelicalism's power and women's susceptibility to that power. The writings characterized itinerant preachers as poor, uneducated, irrational, self-interested, rapacious, seductive, and dangerous.
The opposition to this group illustrates the ways in which early Methodists were a revolutionary community. While we are now more likely to associate modern Methodism with middle-class morality, conservative denominationalism, and temperance, Methodism is historically rooted in dissent. In the eighteenth century, Methodists dissented from the Church of England to form their own religious and social culture. In opposition to the dominant social and political beliefs of broader secular society, early Methodists championed antislavery, women's religious participation, and leadership from a variety of social classes.
"Family" as a term does not have a static meaning throughout history. The sociological conditions of family have always been contextual, and the cultural and emotional meanings of family changed rapidly during this period in history. There were also variations among families, due to location, race, class, and ethnicity, which make it difficult to speak of "the family." The geographic scope of Methodists ranged across a variety of settings from London to the newly industrialized areas of North England, and from the American South and Middle Atlantic to the Northeast. Methodists came from elite families and very poor families. Methodists drew from primarily English ideas of family, but the American Methodist family encompassed African Americans as well, especially in the South and Middle Atlantic.
The eighteenth century marks an important, but also a somewhat ill-defined, period in family history. In 1976, Nancy Cott marveled that "the eighteenth century is the most mysterious of times in the history of American families." In 2003, Ruth Bloch reiterated the call for further definition of eighteenth-century family culture. "The transition from seventeenth to eighteenth century ideas about sex and marriage was far from smooth . . . and remarkably little has been done by historians to give an account of the change." Evangelicalism was the predominant emergent moral and religious movement of this era, and it brought a new sensibility to the domestic and social ideas of family in this "mysterious" eighteenth century.
In this study, I analyze the Methodist discourse of family with a concern for both the language and roles of the Methodist family. In using the concept of "family" as a broad association of unrelated people, I depart from family histories based in demographic surveys, a field that has been well established since the late 1960s. In going outside the definition of "family" as a unit of the household, I seek to understand how evangelicals used the terms of family as a broader measure of association.
At the outset, this book asks the reader to think of family in two ways: family as metaphor for a profound sense of association for people with few blood ties; and family in the more traditional sense of legally defined families. Just as the alternate metaphorical meaning of family is distinct from the traditional blood family, the religious family is also distinct from the more concrete sense of community. In this current virtual age, a nonphysical community seems very familiar and probable. In the eighteenth century, community was largely a local identification, with a bounded set of peoples and territory. The eighteenth-century evangelical family certainly had a sense of its own membership, but its people were scattered throughout the Atlantic world. Its members were drawn from multiple denominations, races, and nationalities. This was the essence of the evangelical mission, to expand the work of God in every direction. Thus, evangelicals necessarily saw the scope of their mission spreading beyond the boundaries of community.
The Methodist family pulled people out of their identification with local communities into an expansive sense of identity within the larger world of godly people. Furthermore, the Methodist sense of family went beyond the shared elements implied by a community to emotional, personal ties that one finds in affectionate blood families. Family also implied the sense of eternal bonds for Methodists, who saw their commitments to each other and God as eternal ones that would exist beyond the world of the living. As an interesting point of contrast, eighteenth-century Moravians had both a community and a religious family. For Moravians, founding local communities was just as important to their mission as expanding the sites of those communities and reaching various different kinds of people throughout the Atlantic world.
Methodists evoked the ideas of family by widespread use of terms such as "fellowship," "our people," "our society," and "the connection" when referring to the broader group of Methodists. While eighteenth-century people generally used the term "connection" to refer to extended kinship, the Methodist "connection" meant the whole group, or Methodist associations in different geographical areas. When Methodists employed broader associative terms like "our people," it was a way of talking about their sense of being a distinct family, their shared sense of religious experience, and their linked fates in the world beyond. The concept of "family" underlies all of these terms and encompasses their shared sense of intimacy, obligation, and cohesion.
In researching the accounts and letters written by early Methodists, I came across a consistent use of family terms to describe various kinds of evangelical relationships. The use of the family as metaphor is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere in studies of Methodism. Almost every work references the titles of "brother" and "sister," but very few examine the context and meaning of those titles. At the same time, there has been little attention paid to the exact nature of early Methodist approaches to individual family formation and sexual activity. In 1984, religious historian David Hempton wrote, "The influence of Methodism on family life is also under-researched. On one level, families could be useful in recruitment, as converted parents or children shared their faith within the household. . . . On another level, however, the austerity of Methodist religion could be recognized by their dress, hairstyles and physical detachment from the world of revelry, sports and dancing." Hempton's call to study Methodism's influence on family life underlines the need to study family from both the perspective of conjugal families and the broader body of believers. Hempton wonders how Methodist families expanded the sect's membership, but also how converts joining the "the austerity of Methodist religion" might have ignited segregations of or divisions within individual families. This book expands on Hempton's questions by looking at how individual families viewed their children's conversion and how these adult children took up new roles in the "Methodist family."
Familial language and organization defined the first sixty years of Methodism in particular, and it pervaded early evangelicalism in general. From the 1730s into the 1790s, the language and institutions of the religious family helped to incorporate newly converted individuals like Freeborn Garrettson into a larger organization and culture. On the individual level, Methodists like Garrettson, who took "God's people for my people," were born again into a religious family, often after painful separations from their own parents' religious traditions. As individuals, they were welcomed into the Methodist fold with the alternative bonds of a voluntary family. Unrelated Methodists called each other "brother," "sister," "father," and "mother," and they offered one another spiritual, emotional, and economic support as family members. Often these familial bonds helped to loosen or dissolve ties to their birth families. At the same time that individuals temporarily or permanently broke their bonds with their blood families through conversion, Methodist leaders and laity provided a way to assuage this loss through the institutions and culture of the religious family.
In the eighteenth century, men and women used "family" flexibly, and it took on varying meanings in different religious associations during this period. I argue that eighteenth-century Methodists understood family in a way that seemed compatible with current models, yet they also redefined them. They based their family on the model of the nuclear family, but they were also operating outside of nuclear families. If they challenged nuclear families in some ways, they also expanded and elaborated on nuclear families, providing crucial support from outside of nuclear families. When Quakers and Baptists called themselves brother and sister, their language and actions implied the erasure of hierarchical distinctions between people, acknowledging each other, to some extent, as real equals. When Methodists used the terms "brothers" and "sisters," they also evoked egalitarian spiritual bonds. Fathers and mothers held more authority, having earned those titles by being mentors and leaders to other converts. As Susan Juster shows in her work on American Baptists, evangelical use of family terms changed distinctly over the course of the eighteenth century. It generally evolved from a fraternity of equals to an association of duty, rule, and authority. The metaphor of family was a sword that cut both ways in the Methodist family as well. Sometimes the family ideal emphasized the equal nature of believers and. at other times, highlighted the need for conformity to the rule and discipline of the fathers and mothers.
Anti-Methodists saw the bonds of family as a sect-like encroachment on legal families and as a unifying force that caused divisions outside the Methodist family. The religious divisions within their own families often alarmed parents of converted Methodists. Parents witnessed psychological and social transformations in their children after they joined the Methodist family, and parents often blamed the religious group for radically altering their children's behavior. Examining anti-Methodist literature is crucial to understanding how Methodism became synonymous with insanity, infidelity, illness, and insurrection. Consistently, anti-Methodists accused this group of causing converts to reject their families' ways and prevailing cultural mores, to wear serious clothes, to think serious thoughts, and to avoid irreligious company including their friends and family. So unified did this religious family seem that it caused its opponents to charge that, like a close family, they seemed to care only for their members and to shun everyone else. Juster writes, "Evangelicals did consider themselves a 'family' united by the bonds of grace, but they were nonetheless a peculiar family—one in which the parental authority was reserved for God alone and earthly domestic ties were irrelevant." A family of like-minded converts who created a unified culture and closed ranks was not a comforting idea to those who fell outside those bonds.
The Methodist family did not replace individual nuclear families altogether. However, I argue that the religious family did affect the meaning of family bonds, both natural and chosen. Although nuclear families have been central to European societies for more than five hundred years, their emotional, social, and economic meanings have changed. A significant trend in the development of modern families has been the growing concentration on emotional relationships and the focus on children as the center of family life. In the eighteenth century, families were cultivating this mode of affective relationships, developing some of the hallmarks of what would become the domestic Victorian model. Another aspect of the family that has changed remarkably over the modern period is the extent to which families were dependent upon a network of associates outside of the nuclear family. In the eighteenth century, extended family members and close family friends were invaluable to children and young adults. The Methodist family was similar to an extended kinship network, forming a voluntary network around individual converts. Although Methodists used the titles of the nuclear family, they did not entirely replace nuclear family bonds; rather, they supplemented the converts' nuclear family and became a kind of familial network. Methodists further imbued their religious family members with a more modern emotional significance, coming closer to the sorts of sentimental bonds exhibited among Victorian family members. Significantly, evangelicals assigned these meanings to chosen family members, not reserving them for their blood family ties.
Gender and the Methodist Family
In the First Great Awakening, women's spirited participation in revivalism concerned some Protestant onlookers, even though women were only a slight majority of all converts. Anti-Methodists claimed that preachers like George Whitefield drew women away from their fathers and husbands and then encouraged these unruly women to take over roles normally reserved for men. As Gentleman's Magazine complained in 1741, "Many silly women" attended Methodist meetings "every morning, leaving their children in Bed until their return, which sometimes is not til 9 O'Clock." This movement caused women to neglect their duties as mothers, "contrary to the Laws of Nature." The vocal participation of early American Methodist women drew the criticism that in Methodist meetings "women often prayed, and even stood up and made speeches just like men."
This study of gender within evangelicalism uncovers not simply the participation of women but also the way that both women and men took up new roles within the evangelical family, influencing broader secular understandings of marriage, sexuality, and familial roles. By examining the particular language and practice of evangelical sexuality and family formation, I highlight how the evangelical movement in the eighteenth century was central to the rise of familial and romantic discourse in England and America.
To understand the roles that evangelicals enacted within their chosen religious families, we must first understand the gender implications of evangelical discourse and practice. Philip Greven was one of the first historians to specifically categorize evangelicalism and its gendered discourse, both masculine and feminine. In The Protestant Temperament, Greven paints a portrait of the evangelical temperament: "While the aggressive and bold public behavior of evangelicals who saw themselves as soldiers in Christ's army provided many people with a sense of self-assertion and of manliness, the ideal evangelical, nevertheless, was self-less and feminine." Greven argues that in order to be saved, men and women accessed and emphasized their feminine sides; they had to become submissive, passive, and guilt-ridden in order to be fit for conversion. Susan Juster's work on Baptists, Cynthia Lynn Lyerly's study of early Methodists in the South, and Christine Heyrman's expansive study of southern evangelicals also demonstrate how eighteenth-century men and women tapped feminine language and affect, which was particularly challenging to codes of masculinity in the American South.
Establishing the feminine discourse and behavior of evangelicals alongside the broad swell of women involved in this movement could lead us to the conclusion that eighteenth-century evangelical movements empowered women. Methodist women did have more powerful positions within this group than in the Church of England, due to the increased emphasis on lay participation. Even though female preaching was not broadly encouraged, Methodist founder John Wesley approved some English female preachers. There was an expansive network of female leaders within English and American Methodism. Many women took on a more widely acceptable feminine role as exhorters, who spoke publicly to lead prayer or expand on a particular biblical passage, oftentimes in connection with a preacher's sermon. Women also assumed other forms of lay leadership as class and band leaders, two of the basic units of Methodist organization. Classes were groups that met regularly to provide discipline and improve each other spiritually. Female band leaders organized selective groups of women, who met in small, intimate sessions to provide spiritual support. Similar to other evangelical movements, Methodism seemed initially open to female lay leadership and even preaching, but by the nineteenth century most Wesleyan Methodist women were limited to being band leaders and exhorters. As the nineteenth century progressed, an increasingly hierarchical conservatism was compounded by the embourgeoisement of Wesleyan Methodism as a whole.
Yet, early Methodism did not always mirror the larger Anglo-American society. In the evangelical family, separation and isolation from the corrupting influences of the world were the optimum conditions for leading religious lives. This tendency to separate from the world, Greven argues, intensified both the cohesion of the nuclear family and the authority of parents over children, as well as husbands over wives. I complicate some of Greven's assertions by demonstrating the ways in which many Methodists loosened ties to their birth families. This work illustrates how Methodists formed an alternative family, which lessened the cohesion and isolation of the traditional hierarchal, patriarchal family. Though early Methodists formulated a strong sense of hierarchy and men were at the top levels of institutional power, the extent of female participation in this group tended to mitigate patriarchal tendencies both within individual families and in the religious group as a whole.
The test for eighteenth-century Methodists was to be truly "one family under God" and to expand this family in a coherent way over a large geographic area. The Methodist family was transatlantic in the sense that there was a steady interaction between English and American religious culture in this period. For example, the popular preacher George Whitefield was a member of the Holy Club, the Oxford meeting that helped formulate Methodism in the 1730s. He was also one of the main engineers of the Great Awakening in America, which spread to broad areas of the eastern seaboard in the 1740s and 1750s, even while he continued his ministry in England. The exchange of ideas between America and England continued in the eighteenth century, as American revivals greatly influenced English Wesleyan Methodism. John Wesley's emphasis on the conversion narrative, his encouragement of evangelical visions, his establishment of the band meeting, and the basis for his pietistic theology all reveal the deep and lasting influence of Wesley's visit to America and his interest in American religious ideas.
The chronology of Methodism's rise on both sides of the Atlantic makes it a difficult story to tell within the existing categories of revivalism in American and English history. While the Methodist movement had a role in sparking the Great Awakening in America, Methodism did not establish itself as a distinct religious group in America until the 1760s. Thus, it was only at the end of the Great Awakening that American Methodists began to organize (and to catch the attention and resources of English leadership). Paradoxically, while every other religious group was struggling to get their congregants to attend church through the American Revolutionary War, Methodists were gaining in numbers and growing their organization.
Scholars of English Methodism have been for the most part unconcerned with its connections to American Methodists, and vice versa. Histories of American evangelicalism have been very good at explaining the regional forces that have complicated or abetted in the rise of revivalism but have sometimes slighted the wider transatlantic connections and contexts. In the established historiography, the calls for revival were issued locally and triggered by regional issues: in the case of New England, the dissipation of the Puritan community; in the Middle Atlantic, with the diversity of eighteenth-century immigration; and in the South, opposition to the gentry class and the low levels of ardent religiosity within many southern communities. Methodist histories of the South have been particularly convincing in showing how evangelicalism appealed to southern men and women by overturning embedded class and race hierarchies. Yet, by expanding the framework into the much broader situation of early Methodism in England and America, we obtain a different picture of early evangelicals; we see a constant exchange of religious ideas and practices that influenced the way that Methodism was enacted on both sides of the Atlantic. As Methodist personnel and print culture circulated throughout the Atlantic world, evangelicals in England and America shared common views about how to live a religious life, a common language to speak about their deepest spiritual desires, and common ideas about their place in society. English and American Methodists also shared the same organizational structures; bands, classes, circuits, and conferences took root on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the recent decades, religious historians have delved into these transatlantic waters; transatlantic studies of revivalism, Quakerism, and Moravianism expand our understanding of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century religious culture. Scholars of transatlantic evangelicalism in particular have focused on the extent to which eighteenth-century print networks helped to create a transatlantic culture of revivalism. Frank Lambert's study of George Whitefield, for instance, emphasizes the commercial aspects of revivalism and the many ways in which his success relied upon newspapers and evangelical magazines to spread the news of his preaching. Similarly, Susan O'Brien's research on transatlantic networks shows how the fervid letters exchanged between preachers and the laity became fodder for a transatlantic print culture. Crucial to transatlantic studies, however, is the recognition that the Atlantic was a circulatory system of culture, rather than a unidirectional transmission of people and practices.
This book looks at these transatlantic cultural links in order to examine the cohesion of the Methodist family. Transatlantic religious links were present throughout the eighteenth century, but they also persisted beyond the American Revolution and into the early nineteenth century. As the Methodist movement circulated evangelical experience, ideas, and persons throughout the Atlantic world, it became a family bound together across national, regional, racial, and political lines.
The Politics of Early Methodism
Political developments of the eighteenth century obscure rather than clarify the boundaries of this emergent transatlantic movement. In many ways, English Methodists envisioned American Methodists as simply a branch of the same family, one that included Irish, Scottish, and Welsh Methodists under the same umbrella. In other ways, American Methodism quickly emerged as a distinctive branch and during the Revolutionary era became a peculiar branch with its own problems, in terms of integration into the English Methodist religious structure. As the Revolutionary era progressed, English and American Methodists struggled to redefine the purpose, organization, and scope of the collective Methodist mission. This book, spanning the first eighty-five years of Methodism, circa 1730-1815, examines the ways in which religious communities reformed themselves during the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary era.
During the Revolutionary and early national period in America, Methodists experienced a crisis of identity. As the American Revolution progressed, divisive politics and the ultimate formation of the Methodist church as a distinct denomination challenged Methodists on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1770s and 1780s. Whether American and English Methodists could remain a coherent, unified transatlantic family was subject to intense debate.
Even as they struggled to formulate possibly opposing political and social identities, Methodists on both sides of the Atlantic tried to maintain symbolic, political, and pragmatic ties that they conceived and enacted as familial bonds. By examining the Revolutionary era, and by focusing on the transatlantic network, this work highlights the lines of evangelical power and filial duty. John Wesley expected American Methodists to respond in accordance with his own wishes by staying out of the political fray. He hoped that his American coreligionists would send their preachers back to England for the duration of the conflict. Yet, English and American Methodists found themselves divided politically over the issue of American sovereignty. They were torn over whether Wesley had the power, as the "dear old Daddy" of Methodism, to recall American ministers and, further, to expect a unified political response to the issues of the Revolution.
E. P. Thompson argued that the Methodist movement preempted the revolutionary impulses of the eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century working class, since Methodist empathetic and emotional language coopted the revolutionary sentiments of the English working class. Thompson's branding of Methodism as antirevolutionary prompts questions about how to understand the relationship between religious faith and political movements. In many places, Methodists sought to separate political and religious beliefs, denying that the spiritual should ever associate with the secular. John Wesley drew this distinction when he wrote to his American and English ministers that they should stay out of political disputes in the case of the American Revolution. He wrote that because this was not a religious dispute, Methodists should not take sides or arms in it.
In contrast, Bernard Semmel counters Thompson's thesis by arguing that English Methodists were indeed revolutionary. According to Semmel, the Arminian Methodist theology of universal grace incited social liberalism, formulating an English quasi revolution. On the other side of the Atlantic, historian Dee Andrews demonstrates that American Methodism benefited from and absorbed the rise of republican languages and ideas. In her view, Methodism provided the best fit with this nascent political ideology. Her work emphasizes the elements of Methodism that drew from this Revolutionary period, specifically the republican elements of democratic decision making and religious equality. The underlying question for historians on both sides of the Atlantic was: how revolutionary were the Methodists? One particular way to measure the political impact of Methodism is to examine the movement's ability to promote the leadership of dispossessed sectors of society, particularly white women, African American men and women, and the lower classes. But historians must still grapple with the relationship between spiritual and secular forms of authority. Therefore, Andrews can credibly point to measurable claims of authority by these groups within Methodist societies, while Thompson is also correct in his view that the Methodist hierarchy failed to assuage the serious class divides in English society more generally.
Methodist Conformity and Divine Providence
The Methodist family, like all families, reflected the limitations of family unity, on multiple levels, from demands for uniform responses within political disputes to prescriptions for social and sexual control. These social and political struggles reveal that Methodism was never monolithic in definition or in practice. This evangelical movement combined both primitive and modern forms of Christianity; it joined individualistic and hierarchical impulses. The disestablishment of churches following the Revolution was a key moment in American religious history, paving the way for a proliferation of sects and churches, including Methodism. However, scholars debate the relationship of institutional proliferation to populism. On the one hand, Nathan Hatch argues that the early national period witnessed the realization of American democratic ideals precisely through this proliferation of denominations. On the other hand, Jon Butler contends that while Methodism and other evangelical movements were individualistic in many ways, the eighteenth century was paradoxically a period of increasing denominational authoritarianism. Susan Juster also argues that the early national period marked an era of increasing power for evangelical denominations, but that this came at the price of marginalizing Baptist women.
Part of the disagreement about how to characterize the political impact of evangelicalism is that this movement simultaneously emphasized rigid authority, collective identity, and individual religious expression. Methodists' ability to redefine the family allowed them to move between these polarities of absolute individualism and committed adherence to collective codes of conduct. Methodists formulated many different levels of authority in the various relationships among family members, and Methodist authority asserted itself in a multitude of ways. There were the standard nodes of religious authority, including the quarterly and annual meetings and conferences that issued rules of discipline. Authority was further reinforced through the letters that preachers and exhorters wrote to the laity, through the sermons that preachers delivered, and through the publications that proliferated in this period.
Yet, Methodists still retained their individualism, varying their responses to official directives and other authorities within the group. While this disjuncture is present in any religious tradition, early Methodists had a particular way of making life decisions that empowered the layperson to act in accordance with individual impulses rather than conformity to external rules and leadership. Particularly regarding questions of social practices and ecclesiastical organization, Methodist men and women called on providence to demonstrate the correct path. Sometimes providence aligned with Wesley's or other preachers' directives; at other times, it produced a subversion of hierarchical power in favor of individual autonomy. In the case of celibacy, for instance, Methodists interpreted this injunction from Wesley as a call to consider marriages more seriously in some cases, to delay marriage indefinitely in others, and in still others to deny completely the practicality of celibacy. An entire spectrum of response came out of even the innermost circles of prominent Methodist ministers and laypersons, and Wesley himself debated the merits of celibacy and marriage.
Laity and ministers alike described the source for their spiritual authority as providential and based in a communication between God and the individual. Providential signs could appear in randomly occurring dreams, but at other times they arose directly in response to petitions and prayers, combined with the individual's sense of God's will. Methodists formed close relationships with God, so much so that many believed that they could ascertain divine will in diverse arenas. Women and men relied on providential signs to point the way in deciding whether they should marry, where they should minister, how they should worship, and in making every kind of religious, social, or political decision.
This book opens by describing the span and sociability of early Methodism. As Methodists began meeting during American and English revivals from the 1730s to the 1760s, they established themselves as a transatlantic group. The central chapters of the book engage the social and emotional design of early Methodist life through an examination of the early narratives and personal writings of English and American Methodists. In Chapter 2, I discuss the themes found in conversion narratives, the single most important genre of early evangelical literature. In Chapter 3, I trace the familial culture of evangelicals in both the structures and the discourse of Methodism. This book explicates the basic organization and ethos of the Methodist family, the classes, bands, circuits, and larger print culture that connected this group. I also examine the specific roles of brother, sister, mother, and father within the family of Methodism. In Chapter 4, I explore the ways that early Methodists talked about sexuality by analyzing not just the self-definition of early Methodists, but also anti-Methodist views of evangelical language and behavior. In Chapters 5 and 6, I turn to an examination of how early Methodists approached the questions of marriage and celibacy. These chapters consider how Methodists debated the utility of marriage and their views on forming individual families. In Chapter 7, I examine the political dimensions of this group and the ways in which they struggled to balance their social and organizational imperatives toward the end of the eighteenth century. As the group matured and became more successful throughout the Atlantic world, American Methodists began to define themselves as a separate denomination in order to be able to act more like a traditional church with the power of sacraments and ordination. In many ways, this ethos of establishing themselves as a denomination warred with the original intent of being a social group that provided fellowship and familial support. As such, John Wesley and all Methodist preachers found themselves at a crossroads in the 1780s.
This study focuses on the Methodist family, but I also see this as an opportunity to rethink the concept of family more generally. This book is about the centrality of love and authority in the formation of the modern family and the role of religious groups in that development. In the eighteenth century, Methodist men and women negotiated their sense of self and individual authority within the terms of family. Early evangelicals infused a strong sense of religiosity into their social bonds with each other, and, conversely, they infused religious practices with social and intimate meanings. I hope this work sparks further exploration into the emotional and social history of the family, both blood families and metaphorical families like the Methodists. By more closely examining these historical senses of family, we also understand how we situate ourselves in the world, among the bonds of family we presume and the bonds of family we choose.