Subscribe to Christianity Today
Lake Methodism (Literature, Religion, & Postsecular Stud)
Ohio State University Press, 2013
272 pp., $69.95
Jeffrey W. Barbeau
Every enthusiast," John Wesley believed, "is properly a madman." The popular term of abuse took on a life of its own in the 18th century—a commonplace label for not only participants in the evangelical revival, but also for the more controversial prophets, visionaries, spiritists, and mystics who claimed religious inspiration in an age of polite, reasonable society. The Methodists were frequently labeled fanatics and madmen alike. Their emphasis on individual religious experience, appeals to laborers and commoners, and willingness to eschew ecclesial patterns in favor of new methods of evangelism and church organization all contributed to their notoriety in England. Romantic authors, similarly, clashed with the establishment. Their emphasis on poetic feeling, intuition, subjectivity, and the revitalization of the creative imagination signaled a shift in the literary landscape and rankled critics.
The association between Methodism and English Romanticism, of course, has a long history. Most of the early Romantics had some connection to the Methodists—if only an antagonistic one. Leigh Hunt wrote a six-part series of essays on the "folly" and "danger" of Methodism for the Examiner in 1808. And in 1820, Robert Southey, though showing more restraint than Hunt, published the first non-Methodist biography of John Wesley. Southey's biography countered Methodist hagiography, finding in Wesley tendencies toward mysticism and fanaticism, and portrayed many of the leaders of the movement in critical snapshots of the early life of the societies. The relationship between Romanticism and Methodism first came to critical prominence, however, with Frederick Gill's The Romantic Movement and Methodism: A Study of English Romanticism and the Evangelical Revival (1937). Gill not only discovered a shared literary repository for the Wesleys and the Romantic poets in figures such as John Milton but also described a common thematic ...