The Politics of Enthusiasm in the Early Modern Anglo-Protestant World

AHA Session 229
American Society of Church History 30
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Marriott Balcony A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Phyllis B. Mack, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
Phyllis B. Mack, Rutgers University–New Brunswick

Session Abstract

Religious enthusiasm or ecstatic piety was a topic of intense disagreement, attraction, fear, and speculation in early modern Anglo-Protestant communities. This panel attempts to bring together what are the too-often divided fields of American religious history and early modern British history in a discussion of the politics and inner-workings of enthusiasm and its correlates.  It is hoped that this panel will appeal to those interested in British and colonial American political culture, historians of Quakerism, Anglicanism, puritanism, and Christianity generally, and scholars interested in the intersections of religious performance and political identity. 

A transatlantic look at ecstatic religion and its critics in the early Restoration reveals the broad political significance of "enthusiasm" in a tumultuous era. Adrian Weimer's paper asks how and why the habitual linkage of enthusiasm and sedition emerged in the courts and taverns of England and New England. These questions become especially important in understanding the role of Quakers in early modern political discourse, as well as the rhetorical strategies by which religious minorities defended their unique modes of affective piety while affirming their allegiance to king and Parliament. Further, the category of "enthusiasm" was used by English Protestants against Catholics, the topic of Paul Lim's paper. These polemics focus most frequently on English Catholic presentations of transubstantiation and miracles. This paper expands our understanding of the political uses of "enthusiasm" as well as its relation to larger European communication networks. The politics of enthusiasm are also uncovered through studying its inverse or negation: the feelings and performances of emptiness. Emptiness in John Corrigan's paper is construed in terms of the absence rather than the presence of certain enthusiastic emotions in American Christian communities. This inquiry reveals the ways emptiness and melancholy were expressed in internal and bodily disciplines, as well as articulated with reference to time and space, speaking directly to relationships among diverse religious groups such as millennialists and practitioners of meditation in early America.

    "Enthusiasm" was a term of religious and political opprobrium, targeting both Protestant minorities such as Quakers, and the Catholic minority. Those communities which embraced enthusiasm or intense emotionality became placeholders for certain fears about stability, order, and rationality, the definitions of which were hotly contested in the early modern period. Yet Protestants had a complicated relationship with affective piety, sometimes preferring to negotiate identities around its absence rather than its presence.  Together, these papers address the vexed question of how religious and political identities were established in relation to emotion, especially the emotional landscape of religious minority groups whose practices were feared or despised.

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