The sound of the spirit Auditory enthusiasm and the attack on Methodism in the eighteenth century

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Denney, Peter
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Denney, P

Buchan, B

Ellison, D

Crawley, K

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‘The Importance of Sound and Noise in the Gospel of Methodism is truly great,’ proclaimed an anonymous author, probably William Combe, in a caustic satire on this popular religious movement. Published in 1778, Combe’s satire everywhere implied that Methodist spirituality had an acoustic orientation. From loud extempore preaching and voluble prolix prayer to inarticulate vocalisations like shouting and crying, Methodist worship was portrayed as a thoroughly noisy affair. Moreover, the alleged sonic disorder of Methodism made it the epitome of religious enthusiasm, threatening civility, reason and social stability. According to Combe, the noisy quality of this form of enthusiasm was linked to the plebeian status of its adherents, since the labouring classes found in evangelical acoustic practices an outlet for their fondness for raucous behaviour. Upon hearing the ‘joyful News’ of salvation, for example, these vulgar Methodists opted for inspiration over industry, and, leaving their workshops and mines, started singing ‘Hallelujahs’ instead of ‘Ballads.’ In addition, they regarded learning as an impediment to zeal, for their worship emphasised strong emotions which, free from ‘Reason,’ tended to ‘give their Frenzies wing, | Groan, weep, rave, rant, confess, exhort, and sing.’ Due to this conduct, Combe concluded that, among Methodists, noise was a sign of godliness, with praise being reserved for those with ‘Tongues that rave and flow.’ As a result, prayer was a voluble activity, a kind of ‘rapt’rous Talk’ with an audible, omnipresent God. Similarly, preaching was a noisy event, as popular orators treated spoken words as missiles to be fired at their auditors. By discharging their ‘Thunder,’ enthusiastic preachers aimed to induce an ‘assenting Groan’ in the ‘Mob’ or provoke some other impulsive, acoustic response. Alarmingly, in Combe’s view, such ‘oratorical Graces’ made Methodists resemble the ‘Tub-Orators’ of the Civil War, because the saints of the commonwealth also used groaning, crying and other vocalisations to incite the passions of their listeners. For Combe, ‘Scripture’ constituted the ‘Rule of Manners,’ and the noisy style of Methodist devotion functioned to ‘vindicate Indecency’ by misinterpreting the holy book. Referring to a ‘fiery’ Methodist preacher, who never entered ‘a Pulpit without lifting up his Voice like a Trumpet,’ for instance, he noted that this ‘boist’rous’ 124style of speech, perhaps based on a belief in the power of sound, as conveyed by the story of Joshua at Jericho, contradicted an important biblical principle. For unlike Methodism, the bible taught that ‘there came a great Noise and a Whirlwind, but the Lord was not there; and afterwards there was a still small Voice, and the Lord was there.’ 1

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Sound, Space and Civility in the British World, 1700-1850

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Historical studies

British history

Arts & Humanities

Literary Theory & Criticism

Literature, British Isles


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Denney, P, The sound of the spirit Auditory enthusiasm and the attack on Methodism in the eighteenth century, Sound, Space and Civility in the British World, 1700-1850, 2019, pp. 123-144