Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Religion in the Age of Enlightenment, British Enlightenment, gender, methodism


Problems of agency often materialize as problems of attribution. Early in her remarkable new study, Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment, historian Phyllis Mack describes how eighteenthcentury Methodists are typically viewed as either "emotionally needy followers or ... a mob of hysterical worshippers run amok:' Such Methodists, Mack contends, "have rarely been viewed as thinkers and actors" in their own right (5). To make amends, Mack delves into the agency of the everyday. She discloses how lay Methodists and leaders, men and women alike, used various forms of writing as tools for the work of emotional self-fashioning. What made that labor so strenuous-and what gives traction to Mack's project-are the complex interrelations between "Enlightenment ideals and Protestant theology:' The author argues that these relations, sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting, "heightened the tension inherent in Christian thought between the desire for passivity and self-abnegation on the one hand, and the urge toward self-transformation and world-transformation, on the other" (14). Mack's effort to take seriously such tension of the heart leads her to the documented emotions and spiritual struggles of early Methodists, which she unstintingly reads as sincere. She reads them so, and, indeed, she writes them so: Mack's book teems with extended quotations drawn from hundreds of published and unpublished manuscript sources. Mack gives ordinary Methodists their say. Thus the printed text, even more than the argument of Heart Religion, redresses the problem the historian identifies early on. The study provides an archive of eighteenth-century Methodist feeling, a body of recovered material that, Mack hopes, can enable secular historians "to share, however imperfectly, the struggles of ordinary Methodists and lay preachers" (7).