“The greater part of an author’s time is spent in reading,” Samuel Johnson is widely reported to have said. “He must turn over half a library to write one book.” What Johnson didn’t say is that in the process of turning over half a library, one inevitably comes across tantalizing narratives – and sometimes an absence of narratives – that lie outside the scope of the project at hand and that therefore have to be set aside for another time. While digging about in archives for Pulpit, Press, and Politics: Methodists and the Market for Books in Upper Canada, I stumbled across a number of tempting byways I had not the opportunity to pursue at the time – among them one particularly striking example of what I suspect was a widespread practice on the part of early Methodist historians to progressively erase the dramatic roles women played in Methodism’s early proselytizing successes.
Detecting absences in historical narratives of this kind is a tricky business – not least because it requires the survival of documentary evidence describing the same set of events, but written with different agendas, and even by different hands, over a relatively long period of time. What follows is a consideration of one such collection of documents describing the role a group of Methodist women played in what was considered by nineteenth-century historians to be a watershed moment in Canadian Methodism’s early rise to prominence: the all-but-legendary Hay Bay Camp Meeting that took place in the waning days 1805 just outside present-day Belleville in Prince Edward County, Ontario.
Women have always occupied a place of special importance in Methodism. John Wesley – though he formed some very strange and unlucky romantic relationships with women over the course of his own long life – is often remembered for a willingness to overlook St. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians to “let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak.” Methodist women, at least as long as Wesley was alive, did not keep silent. In British Methodism, women were visible not only as nurses and visitors to the sick, not only as Sunday school teachers and school operators, but also as band and class leaders and even as exhorters and lay preachers. This was no less true in North America where, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, women routinely gave public exhortations and served as class leaders in the Methodist Episcopal Church at least until the end of the War of 1812. Alongside Methodism’s striking readiness to allow women to occupy leadership roles was the denomination’s willingness to use wild revivalist camp meetings to attract new converts. An American innovation, camp meetings were typically centered on one or more makeshift stages from which preachers would proclaim the Word of God as they led singing, performed miraculous healings, and even exorcised the occasional demon. Thousands flocked to witness these spectacles, hundreds were converted, and no doubt hundreds more were left appalled by the unhinged “enthusiasm” they had witnessed. Indeed, clergy and laypersons belonging to some of the more respectable denominations thundered against them as sensational charlatanism of the most deplorable sort. Even British Wesleyans rejected these raucous affairs – banning them outright as “highly improper” and “likely to be productive of considerable mischief.”
As the nineteenth century progressed, Methodism in North America became increasingly concerned with taking its place among more staid and financially successful denominations. And that meant that both the frequency and the fervid revelry of camp meetings steadily decreased. At the same time, and with some notable exceptions, women found themselves pushed to the margins of leadership despite the fact that they invariably made up the bulk of the membership. I was struck by the way one could discern both these trends as they evolved in the writings of two prominent Methodist historians – Nathan Bangs and Abel Stevens – in their descriptions, separated by both time and place, of the memorable conversions of two sisters at the Hay Bay Camp Meeting in Upper Canada in 1805.
Nathan Bangs and Abel Stevens both wrote multi-volume histories of Methodism in America in the nineteenth century. Stevens, moreover, was a great admirer of Bangs – calling him the “principal founder of the American literature of Methodism.” It was an apt moniker. Bangs, born in New England and converted in Niagara in 1800, soon applied himself as a travelling preacher and is credited with being among the first Methodists to preach to Indigenous communities in Upper Canada. After marrying a Canadian woman, Bangs returned to the United States and eventually assumed the reins of the Methodist Book Concern as Senior Book Agent between 1820 and 1828. Bangs spent those years aggressively expanding the Concern as he added new printing presses, founded a wildly successful weekly newspaper, established a course of study of aspiring preachers, and rapidly expanded the Concern’s offerings for children then flocking to North America’s burgeoning Sunday schools. In all this, Bangs was driven by a lifelong desire to make Methodism more respectable. Its preachers, he was determined, would be more than illiterates easily accused of “teaching what they do not know” by rival clergymen. As American Methodism’s first official historian, moreover, Bangs was ideally placed to shape and fashion the way in which insiders and outsiders would perceive his denomination. As it turned out, he did more than steadily deemphasize the extent to which he and his coreligionists had once relied on that hair-raising supernaturalism so characteristic of early camp meetings to bolster their numbers. He also played a part in both documenting and erasing the role women played at those camp meetings as well.
When, in the autumn of 1805, Nathan Bangs arrived at Peter Huff’s farm on the shores of Hay Bay in Adolphustown he was still a young and inexperienced preacher in his twenties. Having travelled on horseback more than thirty miles across poor roads and trackless wilderness from his own preaching circuit, he was no doubt relieved to be greeted by two veteran preachers, William Case and Henry Ryan, who had already arrived. About two hundred and fifty laypersons, Methodists and non-Methodists, were also milling about waiting for the preaching to begin. This was on a Friday and for the rest of that day and the next, these and other preachers spelled one another off as they led worshippers in singing and called sinners to repentance. By the time Sunday arrived, more than two thousand had joined the meeting and the air was charged with excitement. That day witnessed both miraculous healings and at least one exorcism. At least as striking as these events, however, was a drama that unfolded between two sisters who had been swept up and drawn into the meeting by sheer curiosity. Bangs describes these women in his 1805 journal as being of “high rank” – a phrase indicating that they were probably loyalists who belonged at least nominally to the Church of England. One of these women, immediately after receiving “the sacrament,” found herself “struck,” as Bangs put it, “by the power of God” and was reduced to incessant weeping over her sins. Her sister, “a wolf,” according to Bangs, aghast at this unseemly display of emotion on the part of her sister, “took her away by force from the multitude.” Breathlessly, Bangs goes on to note that, “Some of the daughters of Jerusalem seeing the daughters of Pride running away with one of Christ’s lambs pursued after them, retook the broken hearted sinner, and brought her back.” In this first telling, the whole of Bangs’s story is driven by female agency: the initial conversion, the attempt to interfere in that conversion, and then, most importantly, the courageous intervention on the part of Methodism women to ensure that the new convert is not lost. And, as is only fitting, Bangs concludes his narrative by noting that the unrepentant sister is also converted, and that God “changed her ferocious nature into the lamblike nature of Christ.” Thus were both sisters saved – not by Bangs, Case, Ryan or any of the other male preachers – but through the combined intervention of God’s unmerited grace and Methodism’s own “daughters of Jerusalem.”
These journal entries were never published. Bangs kept them safe, however, and obviously returned to them when he settled down much later in life, probably not fewer than fifty years later, to pen his autobiography. In this revised version of events, those same women Bangs valorized in 1805 with the glorious epithet “daughters of Jerusalem” are stripped of that heroic moniker and given a role that is unmistakably secondary and assistive in nature. “Immediately after the sacrament,” Bangs writes, “a young lady of some standing in society was struck under conviction, & while engaged in a prayer, surrounded by a praying circle, her sister, assisted by some wicked blasphemers, came & took her away by force.” So far the events seem merely embellished, perhaps from memory, but it is worth noting that even the unrepentant sister does not act unaided by others. Far more striking than this, however, is the fact that Bangs assigns to himself the central heroic role in the drama. “While eating my dinner,” he continues, “some good sisters came & told me what had occurred, & entreated me to go & try to rescue her out of their hands.” Bangs, in the company of both men and women, pursues the young woman in this version, and asks the young woman if she wishes to return to the meeting. After she confirms that she does, Bangs directs subsequent events: “I told two of the sisters who accompanied me, to take hold of her arm, & I would go before, & they follow me & the rest of the brethren follow behind so as to keep opposers off.”
In this remarkable second retelling, the Methodist women in the story are no longer agents in their own right. Instead, they flee as a group to Bangs and petition for his intervention rather than intervening on their own. And, though they continue to be credited with bringing the young woman back to the meeting, they do so in direct obedience to Bangs’s instructions. Bangs, meanwhile, bravely protects the entire group of women from anyone who might interfere. The reader is left with a narrative that is no longer constructed around female agency, but instead that relies on Bangs himself as the male hero and protagonist. One can only imagine what might have motivated Bangs to make these editorial changes. Perhaps he believed his original journal was mistaken. Perhaps he concluded that the original version left the impression that he had somehow shirked his own duty as an authority figure. Or perhaps he knew that, like the colourful language he had used earlier to describe the immoderate supernaturalism of the camp meetings themselves, it has become an affront to social respectability to describe women as the central heroes – the “daughters of Jerusalem” – in what some might now interpret as an almost embarrassingly dramatic spiritual struggle.
When Nathan Bangs died in 1867, it fell to Abel Stevens to write and publish his biography. Relying heavily on Bangs’s own writings, including perhaps his journals but without doubt his long and unpublished autobiography, Stevens offers a third retelling of these same events in which the agency of Methodist women is not only pushed even further to the margins: Stevens writes them out of the story entirely. “After the sacrament,” he writes, “a young woman, of fashionable and high position in society, was smitten down, and with sobs entreated the prayers of the people.” Again, her unrepentant sister intervenes and forces her away from the gathering. In Stevens’s version, however, Methodist women neither pursue her nor seek the intervention of male preachers. They are simply absent. Instead, “a preacher went forth without the camp and led them both back, followed by quite a procession of their friends.”
In this third telling not only is the whole affair drained of its original energy and colourful language, the role that Methodist women undoubtedly played in the event is dissolved impenetrably into whatever agency one might infer was played by “a procession of their friends.” It is hard to imagine that the emptying of this story of both its unruly supernaturalism and its original female agency was not accidental. More likely Stevens crafted it with purpose to serve the agenda of an institutional Methodism continued in these years to be recast as a socially acceptable expression of Christianity worthy of the same reverence and respect accorded to other branches of the Protestant church. “The unawakened sister was soon upon her knees praying in agony, and was first converted,” Stevens concludes, “the other quickly after received the peace of God, and wept and rejoiced together.” The end result – a sisterly conversion – remained the same in all three versions. But the means of arriving there could hardly have been more different. Indeed, without the transitional version of the story Bangs penned in his autobiography, a modern reader might pause to wonder if the story in Bangs’s 1805 journal and the narrative published by Stevens in his 1867 biography in fact referred to the same events at all.
It is impossible to know, because evidence of this kind is so sparse, how often the male writers seamlessly and without vestige erased the roles women played among Methodists and other denominations in these early years. From a methodological perspective, what is particularly striking about these three narratives is that only the last – the version in which Methodist women play no role at all as active agents in the conversions – was ever published. The other two – the first from Bangs’s 1805 journal and the second from his undated autobiography – are available only to those with access to original archival documents held at the United Methodist Archives at Drew University in the United States. One can only wonder at how many other narratives like these lie dormant in the enormous bulk of handwritten narratives, journals, diaries, and letters left behind by both the men and women who lived in the years preceding Methodism’s determined rise to denominational dominance and social respectability in North America.
Scott McLaren is a faculty member in the graduate programs in Humanities and History at York University and an associate librarian in the Scott Library. He is co-editor of the Historical Papers of the Canadian Society of Church History, and the author of Pulpit, Press, and Politics: Methodists and the Market for Books in Upper Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019).
 For more on Wesley’s unusual relationships with women, see Henry Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism (London: Epworth Press, 2002). 125-130, 262-269; Henry Abelove, The Evangelist of Desire: John Wesley and the Methodists (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 19-20, 36-37, 56. For more on women in early British Methodism see Phyllis Mack, “Women in love: Eros and piety in the minds of Methodist women” in Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 127-170.
 See Laceye Warner, “American Methodist Women: Roles and Contributions” in The Cambridge Companion to American Methodism Ed. Jason E. Vickers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 316-334.
 See Scott McLaren, Pulpit, Press, and Politics: Methodist and the Market for Books in Upper Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019), 35-7.
 Nathan Bangs, A History of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 4 vols. (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1838-1841); Abel Stevens, History of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America, 4 vols. (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1866-1867).
 Abel Stevens, Life and Times of Nathan Bangs (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1867), 13.
 See Curtis Fahey, In His Name: The Anglican Experience in Upper Canada, 1791-1854 (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991), 95.
 Manuscript – Autobiography, 194-5, Nathan Bangs Papers 1802-1859, United Methodist Archives, Drew University, Madison, New Jersey.
 Stevens, Nathan Bangs, 153-4.
Featured image: Camp-meeting (detail), by Hugh Bridport, c. 1829, Library of Congress