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Fits, Trances, and Visions:
Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James
Ann Taves

Book Description | Reviews | Table of Contents

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 1999, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to permissions@press.princeton.edu

Explaining Enthusiasm

David Hume looms large in the philosophy of religion and in recent histories of the modern academic study of religion, but little attention has been paid to the role of enthusiasm in his thinking about religion. In relation to the academic study of religion, Hume's theory of religion is typically linked, not implausibly, with superstition. Without detracting from that reading, we may also locate Hume and the emergence of the modern study of religion in relation to a narrative oriented toward the history of psychology and the engagement with enthusiasm. Framed in this way, Frank Manuel's observation that the study of psychology emerged in England, not as a dispassionate science of human nature, but as "the newest handmaiden of true religion" becomes particularly pertinent. As the handmaiden of true religion, psychology's initial task was to explain and thus discredit enthusiasm.

    Building on this, I argue that in the wide-ranging struggle against enthusiasm, as in their engagement with superstition, promoters of the Enlightenment forged weapons that became standard tools of the academic study of religion. Foremost among them was the power to explain religion in secular terms. Here, however, the development of secular explanations was not the straightforward result of conflict between moderates and radicals or the enlightened and the orthodox. In contrast to the engagement with the "other without," stalwart defenders of orthodoxy such as Jonathan Edwards played as important a role as enlightened skeptics such as Hume. All participants in the conversation—revivalist, anti-revivalist, and skeptic alike—framed their attacks in terms of true religion and enthusiasm. The attack on enthusiasm so narrowed the evidences for true religion that in the end little was left tangibly present in the world that could reliably count as true religion.

    The context of this chapter is the transatlantic awakening or revival of the 1730s and 1740s. The revival encompassed Pietists in Germany, the Methodist movement within the Church of England (in both its Calvinist and Wesleyan variants), and the Reformed (Congregationalist and Presbyterian) revivals in Scotland and the American colonies. All the authors I consider—Charles Chauncy (New England Congregationalist minister and anti-revivalist), Jonathan Edwards (New England Congregationalist minister and moderate defender of the revivals), James Robe (Scottish Presbyterian minister and moderate defender of the revivals), and David Hume (one-time Scottish Presbyterian layman turned Enlightened skeptic)—wrote on enthusiasm between 1740 and 1743, as the awakening peaked in Scotland and New England and Methodism began its rapid expansion in England. My discussion extends beyond the peak years of the awakening to include Jonathan Edwards's Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections and David Hume's Natural History of Religion.

    During the peak years of the revival, the pace was intense and events intertwined. Note, for example, that Hume had a spiritual crisis of sorts in 1734, Edwards in 1737, and the Wesleys in 1738. Benjamin Colman's abridgment of Edwards's Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God appeared in 1736. From 1738 to 1741, George Whitefield, the awakening's preeminent preacher, published his Journal in a series of six installments. In 1739, Hume published A Treatise on Human Nature and Whitefield left the Wesleys in England for his first preaching tour of the American colonies. Whitefield's Short Account of his life and the first of John Wesley's Journals appeared in 1740. In September 1741, Edwards preached his famous sermon on the "Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God" at Yale in the wake of the radical preacher James Davenport's departure from New Haven. Hume's Essays: Social and Political were published in Edinburgh the same year, including one titled, "Of Superstition and Enthusiasm." In 1742 revival broke out in the Scottish towns of Cambuslang, outside Glasgow, and Kilsyth, outside Edinburgh. Five months later, Whitefield arrived in Scotland for a preaching tour. That same year, James Robe, minister at Kilsyth, having read Edwards's "Distinguishing Marks," published his Narrative of events in Scotland. Shortly thereafter, and during James Davenport's visit to Boston, Charles Chauncy, minister in that city, preached "Enthusiasm Described and Cautioned Against," following the next month with "A Letter ... to Mr. George Wishart," principal of Edinburgh University, Hume's alma mater. Just after Davenport reached what some called the "zenith of fanaticism," Edwards published Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival of Religion in New England, which was countered six months later by Chauncy's Seasonable Thoughts on the same subject. After this flurry of activity, things quieted down. Edwards's most significant thoughts on the awakening, his Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections, did not appear until 1746. The first volume of Hume's History of Great Britain was published in 1754 and his Natural History of Religion in 1757.

    Given the flurry of overlapping and sometimes repetitious writing in the early 1740s, I do not proceed in a strictly chronological fashion. I begin with the writings of Charles Chauncy, the leading anti-revivalist among the Protestant clergy, and as such the theologian with the greatest investment in explaining enthusiasm. I then turn to Jonathan Edwards, foremost among the moderate defenders of the revival, and, in passing, his Scottish colleague, James Robe. I conclude by locating the work of Hume in relation to the problem of enthusiasm and efforts to explain it.


Charles Chauncy on Enthusiasm


The Puritan tradition to which the eighteenth-century awakening was heir expected individuals to undergo a process of conversion. From a distance, this process can be understood as one in which individuals internalized basic Calvinist doctrines and thereby were transformed both internally and in relation to God. The classic Puritan conversion account can be broken down into two movements. The first centered on the internalization of the Calvinist view of God as judge and humans as totally sinful or depraved, in need of salvation, and yet unable to save themselves. Fears of damnation and feelings of terror or despair often accompanied this "downward" movement. This movement typically ended as individuals "let go" of efforts to save themselves, resigned themselves to the will of God (whatever that might be), and acknowledged their total dependence on God's grace. The second movement centered on the internalization of the Calvinist view of God as gracious and loving. This "upward" movement was often accompanied by feelings of hope that one might indeed be saved, moments of intimate communion with a loving God, and feelings of joyous assurance. The behaviors that Chauncy viewed as enthusiastic in the context of the New England awakening were linked to these two movements. With respect to the first, he was disturbed by the appearance of "strange Effects upon the Body" and, with respect to the second, the appearance of "raptures," "extasies," "visions," "trances," and "revelations."

    Under the heading of "strange Effects upon the Body," he described "swooning away and falling to the Ground, where Persons have lain, for a Time, speechless and motionless; bitter Shriekings and Screamings; Convulsion-like Tremblings and Agitations, Strugglings and Tumblings." These "Effects," he indicated, were not "peculiar to some particular Places or Constitutions; but have been common all over the Land." People had different subjective experience while undergoing these "strange Effects upon the Body." Some, Chauncy said, reported that they were "insensibly wrought upon, they can't tell how." Others were presented with "a Sight of their Sins," while still others saw devils "ready to ... draw them away to Hell" or saw Hell itself and "felt as they were about to fall in." Generally speaking, according to Chauncy, persons experiencing these bodily effects were "fill'd with great Anxiety and Distress, having upon their Minds an over-powering Sense of Sin, and Fear of divine Wrath."

    Those who experienced the assurance of salvation, Chauncy reported, were almost universally given to "Raptures and Transports." Many "shew[ed] this Joy by clapping of Hands, by jumping up and down, by CCongratulations in the Way of Kissing, by breaking out into hearty loud Laughter." Others manifested it through "Swoonings, and Out-cries, and Screamings, so like to these same Effects under Terror, that it han't been known, whether persons were in Joy or Sorrow." The expression of joy did not stop there. In "too many Instances," according to Chauncy, "Raptures and Extasies" gave way to "Visions, and Trances, and Revelations" (STSR, 126-27).

    Although Chauncy said he could "fill many Pages with the Accounts I have had of the Trances Persons have been in," he recounted only one in detail. In this instance, "two Women ... fell into a Trance together" while at a "private Fast, kept by a Number of the New-Light Party [i.e. the pro-revival faction among the Congregationalists]." There, Chauncy recounted, the women were "exceedingly fill'd with Zeal, and their Affections rais'd very high: They were, in some Degree, depriv'd of their bodily Strength; but yet, were by Turns able to speak, which they did, in Addresses and Exhortation to, and Prayers for, those present, who they supposed were unconverted." The following evening "they fell down unable to walk ... [and] continued in a Sort of Extasie, either lying as though in a Sleep, or uttering extatic Expressions of Joy, of the Love of Christ, and of Love to him; of Concern for the Souls of Sinners, and the like." Many came to see them. The women prayed for those who came "with great Earnestness" and addressed them with "awful Warnings, moving Perswasions, and pathetic Exhortations, in which they use some Expressions, from whence it seem'd that they suppos'd themselves to have a special Commission, or endow'd with some special Authority ... and indeed many People, especially those of their Party, seemed verily to believe they were inspir'd" (STSR, 128-29).

    Chauncy's explanations of these phenomena, largely derived from other thinkers, fall under two broad headings. While both types of explanations can be considered at least nascently psychological, the first, which was rooted in physiology, is more individualistic; while the second, rooted in epidemiology, was more social. Among his earlier writings, "Enthusiasm Describ'd and Cautioned Against" (1742) reflected this more individualistic viewpoint, while "A Letter ... Mr. George Wishart," written shortly thereafter reflected the more social.


Internal Dynamics


From the psycho-physiological vantage point, enthusiasm was above all the result of an overactive imagination. As Chauncy explained, "the enthusiast mistakes the workings of his own passions for divine communications, and fancies himself immediately inspired by the Spirit of God, when all the while, he is under no other influence than that of an over-heated imagination." Chauncy proffered various theories to account for the overheating of the imagination, all physiologically based. At one point, he claimed that the cause of enthusiasm is "bad temperament of the blood and spirits." At another point, he avered that it is "properly a disease, a sort of madness," to which none are more susceptible than "those, in whom melancholy is the prevailing ingredient in their constitution." At yet another point, he seemed to contradict himself by stating that the majority of enthusiasts "act [not] so much under the influence of a bad mind, as a deluded imagination." As we shall see, those with bad temperaments, weak minds, or melancholic dispositions were ultimately the most susceptible to delusion.

    Psychological theorizing about enthusiasm started with the simple observation that, when frightened by natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, people often experienced bodily effects much like those seen in religious contexts. Theorizing began, in other words, with comparison. The anti-enthusiasts' disproportionate emphasis on the role of terror (and a deluded imagination) in inducing bodily effects reflected the seeming aptness of their comparisons and their resulting explanatory confidence about what caused physical disturbances at the outset of the conversion experience. While no less confident that a deluded imagination could account for the raptures, ecstasies, and visions associated with the second phase of the conversion experience, the thinness of explanations at this point reflected a general inability to account for involuntary sensory phenomena in any detail.

    Chauncy thus focused on the first stage of the conversion experience, reminding his readers that "the Passion of Fear may be excited, not only from a just Representation of Truth to the Mind by the SPIRIT of GOD, but from the natural Influence of awful Words and frightful Gestures." Fear, even fear of "the Torments of another World," may be excited, he says, by "a mechanical Impression on animal Nature" (STSR, 80). He did not go so far as to claim that all of the conversions with bodily effects should be explained by such mechanical impressions nor did he claim that the presence of natural effects necessarily invalidated a conversion. He did, however, argue that the majority of the alleged converts were wrought upon, not by "the proper Influence of Truth," but by "a sudden and strong Impression on the animal Oeconomy" (STSR, 80). Even in those unusual cases where lasting change, and thus genuine conversion, had been effected in those who "have been frighten'd into Shrieks and Fits," he argued, their experience did not differ significantly from that of those who were genuinely converted in response to such natural phenomena as "a terrible Clap of Thunder, or the Shock of an Earthquake" (STSR, 109).

    For Chauncy, the clergy and the lay exhorters produced these effects through the use of "awful words and frightful gestures." He quoted "a Friend in the Country," who provided a graphic description of their "boisterous and shocking" manner, a manner adapted, he said, "to the best of their Skill to alarm and surprize the Imagination and Passions." On one occasion, the preacher was only a short way into his sermon when "there began to be some Commotion among the young Women." This, the writer said, "inspired him with new Life," such that "[h]e lifted up his Voice like a Trumpet, plentifully pouring down Terrors upon them." Half a dozen of the "young Women were presently thrown into violent histeric Fits" (STSR, 94-95).

    Chauncy also cited an account published in the Boston Post-Boy in which the content of the terrifying rhetoric was spelled out. According to this source, the itinerant preachers were telling congregations "that God is doing extraordinary Things in other Places, and that they are some of the last hardened Wretches that stand out; that this is the last Call that ever they are likely to have; that they are now hanging over the Pit of Destruction, and just ready, this Moment, to fall into it; that Hell-fire now flashes in their Faces; and that the Devil now stands ready to seize upon them, and carry them to Hell!" And they will often, the writer concluded, "repeat the awful Words, Damn'd! Damn'd! Damn'd! three or four Times over" (STSR, 96). Here, using a technique we will encounter again, the preacher created a vivid verbal picture of hell, into which he rhetorically placed his listeners. While Chauncy did not identify the rhetorical strategy involved, he and many of his informants clearly recognized the impact of this kind of preaching on lay audiences.

    Chauncy argued that "true joy" was the result of regeneration made evident in a "renewed Heart ... [and] in Newness of Life" (STSR, 120-21) and "false joy" the result of "meer sensitive Passion" or "sudden Impressions" (STSR, 123). He did not, however, offer compelling examples of naturally induced "raptures and trances" to complement his examples of naturally induced bodily effects. He assumed on theological grounds that "true joy" resulted in a lasting change of heart manifest in discernable alterations in behavior. Thus, only in retrospect did some come to realize that "their Joy was nothing more than a meer sensitive Passion, and have own'd they were under a Delusion, while they imagin'd it was of a divine Origin." Others, he said, "have made it evident by their after-Lives, that their Joy was only a sudden Flash, a Spark of their own kindling" (STSR, 121). While Chauncy placed the far more troubling "Visions, and Trances, and Revelations" under the rubric of "Impulses and Impressions," his explanation was limited to deploring the "Aptness [of persons] to take the Motion of their own Minds for something divinely extraordinary, or to put those Constructions upon common Occurances, which there is no Ground for but in their own Imagination" (STSR, 189).


Theoretical Background


Chauncy's psycho-physiological explanation of enthusiasm reflected both his reading of earlier theorists of enthusiasm and the general scientific thought of his era. Three broad layers of thought informed his psycho-physiological explanation. The oldest layer, dating back to the classical era, was that of the tripartite psyche or soul that informed traditional scientific thought into the Reformation period. The second layer was the Cartesian science of "mechanical Impressions" and "animal spirits" that displaced Scholasticism at colonial universities, such as Harvard, during the latter third of the seventeenth century. The third, and most "modern," layer was the post-Lockean science of nerves and nervous disorders.


PSYCHES/SOULS


Renaissance philosophers and scientists used the newly minted Latin term psychologia to designate a subfield within natural philosophy concerned with the philosophical study of the soul. They approached the study of the soul, as they did the other subfields within natural philosophy, through the work of Aristotle. Most specifically, then, we can say that the term psychologia designated the traditional complex of problems associated with Aristotle's De Anima and the Parva naturalia.

    Aristotle and his followers defined the soul as the life principle and thus that which differentiated living from nonliving things. In this tradition, the soul was divided into three parts—the natural or vegetative, characteristic of plants; the sensitive or animal, characteristic of animals; and the intelligent or rational, characteristic of humans—in an ascending hierarchy of complexity. The natural soul of plants, being without parts, was the simplest. The sensitive soul of animals contained two parts, one natural (as in plants) and one sensitive. The intelligent soul of humans contained three parts, natural (as in plants), sensitive (as in animals), and intelligent (unique to humans). The plant and animal parts of the human soul together were referred to as the "organic soul" and contrasted with the higher or "intellective soul."

    Faculties, from whence comes the term "faculty psychology," were associated with each of these parts of the human soul. Faculties of nutrition and generation common to plants, animals, and humans were associated with the natural part of the human soul, while the higher functions of sensation, emotion, imagination, and memory understood to be common to animals and humans were attributed to the sensitive part of the soul. The will and the understanding or intellect were attributed to the intelligent or rational part of the soul. The organic soul was responsible for all functions that were inextricably linked to the body; the intellective soul for those functions that, in the view of most philosophers, did not require physical organs for their operation. Because it did not require the physical body to function, philosophers believed the intellective or rational part of the soul capable of surviving the death of the body and thus making it alone "immortal." In this schema, both biology and psychology were subsumed under the heading of natural philosophy. Psychologia, with its concern for the principles governing animate bodies (as opposed to plants), was both the culmination of natural philosophy and the foundation for a number of other disciplines including theology, metaphysics, and medicine.

    The seventeenth-century debates among New England Puritans over the relationship between the will and the intellect raised long-standing questions regarding the nature of the will (Is it really a "rational appetite"? Could it be confined to the "rational soul"?) that had consequences for locating the passions. This debate carried over into the eighteenth-century awakening with Chauncy taking the "intellectualist" and Edwards the "voluntarist" positions. Although both positions were represented in Scholastic thought, the roots of the intellectualist position were in classical philosophy and the voluntarist in Augustine. As an intellectualist, Chauncy held that the will was a rational appetite that could be confined to the rational soul and that the passions were sensitive appetites located, logically enough, in the sensitive or animal part of the soul. In this understanding, the will as the rational appetite was to govern "the lower sensitive appetites, though ... unruly vehement sensitive appetites, or passion, [might] carry one forward independently of intellect and will, anticipating and obscuring rational judgment."

    Thus when Chauncy referred to "animal nature" or the "animal Oeconomy," he was referring to what would traditionally have been called the "sensitive" part of the soul. It would have been understood even in a post-Cartesian world as that aspect of the person which animals and humans have in common. Chauncy located fear or terror, like all the other passions, within this animal-like part of the human. The placement of the imagination in the sensitive or animal part of the soul, alongside the passions, explains the close connection in Chauncy's mind between the "workings of the passions" and the "over-heated imagination" of the enthusiast. And it is evident, given this understanding, why he complained about preachers who "aimed at putting their (hearer's) Passions into a Ferment, [rather] than filling them with such a reasonable Solicitude, as is the Effect of a just Exhibition of the Truths of GOD to their Understandings" (STSR, 93).

    Since the views of Edwards and Chauncy on the passions have been overly polarized at times in the past, it is important to point out that Chauncy did not condemn the passions. Indeed, in "Enthusiasm Describ'd," he indicated that the passions were inevitably excited "in the business of religion: And 'tis proper they shou'd [be]." The function of the passions, he said, was to "awaken the reasonable powers" of the rational part of the soul such that "the understanding [was] enlightened, the judgment convinc'd, the will perswaded [sic], and the mind intirely [sic] chang'd." It is only when "transports of affection" did not lead to the "awaken[ing] of the reasonable powers" that individuals were in "great danger of being carried away by [their] imaginations" and thus, into enthusiasm. The key to avoiding enthusiasm lay not in the denial of the passions, but in keeping them "in their proper place, under government of a well informed understanding." The passions could and should awaken the reasonable powers, but they could not and should not rule them.


ANIMAL SPIRITS


Descartes challenged traditional philosophy at a number of important points. Most crucially, for our purposes, he made a new distinction between life (which he equated with the body and motion) and soul (which he equated with the mind and thought). The divide between the living body and the thinking soul followed the old line of demarcation between the organic and intellective souls. In his "Treatise on Man," Descartes compared the body to a machine and ascribed to this self-moving machine or "automaton" all the functions traditionally attributed to the vegetative and sensitive parts of the soul, including the "internal movements of the appetites and passions, and ... the external movements of the limbs." To explain these functions, he stated that "it is not necessary to conceive of this machine as having any vegetative or sensitive soul or other principle of movement and life, apart from its blood and its spirits, which are agitated by the heat of the fire burning continuously in its heart—a fire which has the same nature as all the fires that occur in inanimate bodies." The crucial points, here, were (1) that plants and animals no longer had souls; and (2) that the functions once assigned to the souls of animals and plants, and to the corresponding parts of the human soul, now could be accounted for mechanistically in terms of blood and spirits.

    Animal spirits were simply a rarefied portion of the blood. They were produced by the heat of the heart and likened by Descartes to "a very lively and pure flame." Animal spirits, unlike "less fine" parts of the blood, could pass from the bloodstream into the nervous system, by way of the pineal gland ("situated near the middle of ... the brain"). From the pineal gland, they gained access to the cavities of the brain and ultimately the nerves. By traveling through the nerves ("little threads or tubes"), the animal spirits could then affect muscles throughout the body. Although the soul was joined to the whole body, it exercised its functions most directly through the pineal gland ("the principal seat of the soul"). The pineal gland was suspended in the passageway between the anterior and posterior cavities of the brain, an area suffused with animal spirits. It was here, above all, that body (animal spirits) and soul (rational mind) affected one another. Thus, as described by Descartes, "the slightest movements on the part of the gland may alter very greatly the course of these spirits, and conversely any change, however slight, taking place in the course of the spirits may do much to change the movements of the gland."

    Descartes used the example of a "strange and terrifying" shape to illustrate the way in which different passions (e.g., anxiety, courage, terror) are aroused in the soul, "depending upon the particular temperament of the body or the strength of the soul." While the temperament effected the deployment of the animal spirits and consequently the movements of the body, the strength of the soul determined the soul's ability to "conquer the passions and stop the bodily movements which accompany them." Descartes explicitly recast the traditional conflict between the sensitive and rational parts of the soul (or "between the natural appetites and the will") in terms of conflicts "between the movements which the body (by means of its spirits) and the soul (by means of its will) tend to produce at the same time in the [pineal] gland."

    In this contest between the spirits and the will, it is the "strongest souls" that conquer, while the "weakest souls ... constantly allow [themselves] to be carried away by present passions." In asserting that "the Passion of Fear" could be excited by the "mechanical impression" of "awful words and frightful gestures" on the "animal nature," Chauncy was stating a commonplace of Cartesian thought. Moreover, that those "whose preaching has been most remarkably accompanied by those Extraordinaries, ... [preach] in such a Manner, as naturally tends to put weaker Minds out of Possession of themselves ... 'tis too well known [Chauncy said] to need much to be said upon it" (STSR, 94). Enthusiasts, thus, were those who by virtue of "bad temperament of the blood and spirits" and/or "weak minds" were least able to "conquer" the passions aroused by the "new Method" of preaching.

    Although Chauncy, in keeping with the leading thinkers of his time, assumed a connection between the imagination and the passions aroused by the animal spirits, debates raged during this period over the precise nature of their interaction. In fact by 1740, there had been so much controversy about animal spirits specifically in relation to the physiology of the imagination that literary satires started to appear and a few scientists rejected the idea of animal spirits altogether. For our purposes, the details of such controversies are unimportant. What is crucial is that in eighteenth-century Europe and America many came to accept that scientists could provide mechanistic explanations for the functions of the sensitive part of the soul, including its higher sensory and imaginative functions, and that for much of the eighteenth century these scientific explanations involved animal spirits. As a result, until well into the nineteenth century the mere mention of animal spirits in religious circles signaled the user's belief that an alleged religious phenomenon was inauthentic and could be better accounted for in scientific (i.e., secular) than religious terms.

(Continues...)

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