I am on the verge of finishing up the last little section of content—first draft—of this dissertation (this does not include intro and conclusion chapters). Yet the closer I get, the more confused I am. So I figured I’d turn to you, Internet, to talk this through.
My problem is this: I’m working on the final diary section, describing the religious experience of CML, a teacher, wife, mother, and Methodist. The chapter’s purpose is to demonstrate the “modernity” of late antebellum religious institutions and religious practice. (In my chapters, I’m juxtaposing traditional surveys of a theme in public with the interior writings of a couple of diarists, on the same theme. Because of these perspectives, the two sections of each chapter don’t always coincide, but a “synergy” does emerge. That’s not happening in this chapter in any obvious way. Yet.)
So I’ve got to demonstrate that in the larger context of “modernizing” religion, CML exercized contemporary faith practices. Not as easy as it sounds because an easy reading of her diary suggests a very traditional, personal, and stultifying religious life. In writing it out, I have a bunch of pages that go like this:
*Intro to CML and her immediate context (poor, Methodist, married well, etc.)
*Description of her conceptualization of human life as a “veil of tears,” beset by temptation and death
*CML’s methods of dealing with this balance, with prayer and church attendance CML’s equation of utility to God’s will and happiness
*CML’s (Wesleyan) perfectionist tendencies
*Her crippling anxiety arising from doubt about her spiritual health
*How CML understood submission as a source of fortitude; not secular submission to masculine authority or racial hierarchy, but the submission of the personal ego to the will of God.
*Narrative of CML’s spiritual struggles during pregnancy as a way of illustrating it all.
I guess my point in all this is that, contrary to some historiographical descriptions of late antebellum religion as bereft of emotional connection, faith continued to be a vital and tangible part of ordering people’s lives. I had thought I’d contrast CML to Phoebe Palmer, as a way of distinguishing rural southern Wesleyanism to urban northern materialistic perfectionism, but that’s not working out because reading further about Phoebe Palmer has only convinced me that she and CML have more in common than not.
But this whole argument is kind of limp and vague and I’m not happy with it. Just earlier, I was sketching out some things and came up with a configuration that might work better, but will require rewriting everything. Goes something like this:
CML is a representation of “modern” religious practice because
1. She operated in a modern Protestant world that prioritized the destruction and recreation of the individual through conversion. Duh, this is kind of a cornerstone of how historians think about western history.
2. CML’s ruminations on self and self-abnegation are complex, and illuminate certain relationships critical to understanding southern history. She obsessed with submission, but not to her husband, or her church, but to God himself. She, and I suspect most like her, simply did not prioritize the gender dynamic of husband and wife—instead, ordered her world around the relationship between herself and God, with no earthly or secular substitution for God (i.e. a husband). (Her husband prayed and went to church, but did not experience conversion; she was the dominant spiritual leader at home.)
3. Because of this relationship, and because of her struggle of sanctification, she equated not just submission and fortitude, but more importantly, secular usefulness and holiness, and made that the primary motivator of her life. To that end, she considered the people and relationships in her life as the fulfillment of a vocation: teaching, Sunday School teaching, Methodist, mother, and wife (much of which will be covered in another chapter.) In this prioritization, she is almost just like Phoebe Palmer, and you can’t get much more “modern” than to be almost just like Phoebe Palmer.
Anyhow, thanks for listening.