The Performance of Religious Language in the Eighteenth-Century Conversion Narrative

In his writing on the physiology of reading in Restoration England, Adrian Johns recalls a story concerning the natural philosopher Robert Boyle. Finding himself with a ‘tertian ague’ whilst at school, Boyle was encouraged to divert his melancholy by reading romances, which far from curing him, ‘unsettled his thoughts’, and as Johns concludes, the ‘effects of reading those romances […] proved permanent, and Boyle simply had to live with them’. To a modern reader, the prescription of a written romance as cure for a physical ailment seems bizarre, but such an example serves to illustrate the eighteenth-century’s continued anxieties surrounding the behavioral effects of reading upon the reader, illuminating to us the invested belief in the ability of words and language to perform action or enact change in some way. Since the seventeenth century, private reading had become increasingly normalized as puritanism placed an emphasis on private devotion to God, and the picture of the private reader that emerged at this time was one Johns describes as ‘intimate involvement of the reader with the text’, and a picture ‘with far-reaching implication for this and later periods in its emphasis on the potential hazards of that involvement.’ Such ‘implications’ can be detected in the conversion narratives of the eighteenth century, in which words and turns of language are accredited with a huge amount of actual power over events and people, but most particularly over the body and whole being in relation to God. George Whitefield and William Cowper, though writing years apart, both produce narratives that hold up biblical and religious language as the saving grace to the individual reader or speaker in danger of erring against God. Outside of sermons and church, God can be found to the individual in the Bible, and thus biblical language unites and connects man to God, containing both the reader, (by the process of their reading), and God (contained in the text) simultaneously. By this standard, religious and biblical language in the conversion narrative becomes performative, a notion J.L Austin explores in his lectures on words ‘doing’ things: ‘to utter the sentence […] is not to describe my doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it’. In other terms, both Whitefield’s A Short Account of God’s Dealings with the Reverend George Whitefield and Cowper’s Adelphi detail the importance of using language in the ‘right’ way for salvation, and the consequences of carelessness or irresponsibility with language, perceiving language as an active mode, or bridge, through and over which one is able to unite the self to God.

Isabel Rivers, writing on the language of religion between 1660-1780, addresses two crucial shifts which she believes took place in the period, the first being ‘an emphasis in Anglican thought on the capacity of human reason and free will to co-operate with divine grace in order to achieve the holy and happy life.’ the second is ‘the attempt to divorce ethics from religion, and to find the springs of human action not in the co-operation of human nature and divine grace but in the constitution of human nature alone’. In short, the responsibility of the individual in reconciling with God is great in this period. With print culture on the rise in the eighteenth century, literature of all kinds was increasingly becoming available to those it hadn’t been before, namely women and the lower classes. As James Raven notes, some attempts to control this were made by making libraries and library subscriptions expensive or exclusive: ‘As both radicals and conservatives emphasized, knowledge was power. Prints and books and book furniture and libraries were the protectors of that power – a power not to be abused and not to be widely shared’. However the conversion narrative, as instructional literature, took a different stance of instead guiding reading and consumption of literature and encouraging the idea that the only important Knowledge is that of God and Christianity. Whitefield’s narrative for instance suggests that God is latent in everybody, though one might not realize it: ‘but he who was with David when he was following the Sheep big with young, was with me even here’. Establishing this as so, he goes on to reveal that in the midst of his ungodly and irreligious behavior, some words come to him: ‘in the midst of these Illuminations something surely whispered , ‘this will not last’’[16]. Here, we see ‘illuminations’ in parallel with a ‘sure’ whisper, painting even the ‘whisper’ of words as more solid here than the illusory life he is leading. Thus we see the first nudge in Whitefield’s narrative towards a more Godly life, brought about by a voice that enters into his mind from an apparently unknown source. This anonymity is another pointer towards Whitefield’s shrouded goodness, as his actions and devotion to God are not enough for him to connect with God as of that point, and we see that or words without thought behind them are not enough to bridge a way to God.

Indeed, to clarify this further, Cowper’s narrative places particular stress on the idea of some words or language as unreachable or incomprehensible, most particularly in the case of prayer: ‘I then for the first time attempted prayer in secret, but being little accustomed to that exercise of the heart and having very childish notions of religion, I found it a difficult and painful task and was even then frightened at my own insensibility’. It is clear that the language of prayer carries a great deal of weight and importance here, as it is described in physical terms as ‘difficult’ and ‘painful’ to merely produce the words he desires. This can be explained in the same terms as Whitefield’s inability to listen to, or detect the importance of the whisper he hears, as Cowper’s whole being is described in very clear terms as uncoordinated: his notions of religion are ‘childish’ and his heart is quite literally unable to partake in the prayer. What emerges then is a need for religious language, and professions of duty to God, to be spoken or read in a condition in which the whole body and mind is united and in agreement. The pursuit of reading or speaking to reach God is not an act of merely reading or speaking simple words with nothing more behind them, but requires specific conditions of the self in order for them to have any effect or impact.

Furthermore, it is the corporeal body and all the temptations that come along with it which creates such a barrier in both Cowper and Whitefield’s narratives to religious language, and subsequently God. This is best exemplified in Cowper’s narrative, where he recalls being:

‘half intoxicated in vindicating the truth of scripture [while] in the very act of rebellion against its dictates. Lamentable inconsistency of a convinced judgement with an unsanctified heart!’[11]

Whilst Cowper is indeed declaring scripture as true, and verbally dedicating himself to God by this, it is stressed that again, because his body is ‘inconsistent’ and intoxicated, his declarations cannot possibly be sincere, and most importantly, have no performative effect. Whitefield, in similar error, admits to taking measures to ‘adorn his body’ but ‘little pains to deck and beautify [his] soul’,[17] and whilst doing so cannot find God through language. In Cowper’s narrative particularly, though also Whitefield’s, there are a number of attempts to use religious language as a crude, quick-fix way in which to prove his faith and devotion to God:

‘Having an obscure notion about the efficacy of faith, I resolved upon an experiment to prove whether I had faith or not. For this purpose I began to repeat the Creed. When I came to the second period of it, which professes a belief in Christ, all traces of the form were struck out of my memory, nor could I recollect one syllable of the matter.’[28]

The notion of ‘efficacy’ of faith immediately betrays Cowper’s misguided practice here, much like in the case of Robert Boyle, as he attempts reading the creed in order to quantitatively prove his faith and reconnect with God. However, this simple repetition without sincerity comes to no avail, and the words on this occasion actually disappear and escape from him, burning his bridges to connect with God.

We have seen then that reading or speaking the language of religion, and the Bible, whether in thought or out loud, provide neither Cowper nor Whitefield with a bridge to God whilst their thoughts, and particularly their bodies, remain disarrayed in sin and confusion. As Dr Bruce Hindmarsh highlights in his writing, with the eighteenth century revival, preaching of the gospel had been perceived as ‘“nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to him”‘. This gives us a good locus for looking at speaking and reading in the conversion narrative, as it emerges that personal devotion through religious language and study can only get one so far; one must also approach it in the right way in order that space can be made for God to also bridge some of the gap between himself and man. This notion is perhaps best explained with example, as we see in Cowper’s narrative in his ‘conversion’ moment:

‘I flung myself into a chair near the window seat and, seeing a Bible there, ventured once more to apply it for comfort and instruction. The first verse I saw was the twenty-fifth of the third chapter to the Romans where Jesus is set forth as the propitiation for our sins, immediately I received strength to believe it. Immediately the full beams of the sun of righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of my justification. In a moment I believed and received the Gospel.’[39]

Firstly, his approach of ‘comfort and instruction’ here are crucial in priming his moment of conversion, standing in contrast to his previous desire to test or prove his fate. Such an attitude makes him unified in body and ready to receive God, and the words of the Bible suddenly become performative, allowing him to accept the Gospel, and thus the God contained within it. It is also interesting to note here that reading the words becomes an instantaneous action, happening in a ‘moment’ of perception, and notably the verb ‘saw’ instead of ‘read’ suggests the moment of perception is the same moment as the action upon the reader. Whitefield experiences something similar, as rather than mindlessly repeating religious words or reading the Bible on a surface level, but instead reads that ‘“true Religion was a Union of the Soul with GOD and Christ formed within us”‘,[28] and in parallel to Cowper, ‘ a Ray of divine Light was instantaneously darted in upon [his] Soul’.[28] Whitefield realises that his body and mind must be open to God, and his reading of this passage performs this action, allowing ‘divine light’ to penetrate his body and reconcile him with God.

Cowper declares at at the close of Adelphi, ‘what a word is the Word of God when the Spirit quickens us to receive it and gives us the hearing ear and the understanding heart to take it’, neatly summarizing the role of religious language in the conversion narrative. Religious and Biblical language can hold great power in these narratives, and by their mimetic suggestion, in their contemporary world. If the individual reader is to guide not only their eye, but also their body and ‘spirit’ to reading those words of, or about God, only then can language become performative, and work beyond the page they are written on as a mode of salvation.