methodism, orality, and literacy

Any academics out there want to read the draft of an article I’m working on? I really need some outside perspective. If you don’t have time or inclination to read the whole thing, do you have any suggestions for recent scholarly work on the interplay of orality and literacy? Here’s the introduction:

Over the course of the eighteenth century, the British religious movement known as Methodism created a sophisticated communications network. This network incorporated not only print, through the publication and distribution of millions of pages of material in a variety of formats, but also speech, specifically the highly systematized oral practice of hundreds of itinerant preachers at hundreds of Methodist preaching houses. Little scholarship on Methodists and print culture has appeared in recent years, which is surprising, given their prolific publishing and the recent growth of print culture studies. Similarly, although some have addressed Wesley’s reliance upon traveling lay preachers, we have yet to see a satisfactorily detailed picture of the preachers’ role in taking the movement’s message to hundreds of thousands of listeners. The histories of sound and of auditory culture are attracting a growing number of scholars who would do well to turn their attention to preaching.

However, any scholarship on eighteenth-century print culture or speech arguably provides a flawed, partial view of the communicative practices of the period by ignoring the dynamic interactions of literate and oral practices to focus on either independently. In fact, such independent focus risks adopting uncritically a limited conception of language first fully developed in the eighteenth century. Nicholas Hudson has traced the “slow and uncertain” emergence during this period of the concept of “oral tradition,” a belief that a “substantial body of knowledge or literature could be preserved without the use of letters.” Although, as Hudson explains, this concept gradually lost its controversial status, it leaves us with our modern understanding of orality and literacy as separate spheres of habit and thought. Counter to this understanding, D. F. McKenzie has argued persuasively that different modes of communication interact in complex ways: “None surrenders its place entirely; all undergo some adjustment as new forms arrive and new complicities of interest and function emerge.”

Following McKenzie’s lead, this essay analyzes early Methodism’s simultaneous embrace of the pulpit and the press, an embrace that placed the movement at the intersection of oral and literate cultures in Britain and that complicates any easy formulation of orality and literacy as separate cultures. For eighteenth-century Methodists, not only was the printed word enmeshed in a world of speech, but the spoken word often relied upon print in order to be most effective. What follows is an analysis of Methodist preaching, of Methodist publishing, and of the ways in which these two practices became inseparable. Finally, a discussion of one early Methodist publishing project, The Arminian Magazine, clearly illustrates the ways in which oral and literate practices complemented and competed with each other.

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4 thoughts on “methodism, orality, and literacy

  1. I remember having a fascinating conversation with you about this very subject at Didcot railway station many moons ago – great to see that it’s making its way into an article! I’d be interested in reading this although I’m flat out with two other projects for the next two weeks. As for orality/literacy, I presume you know of Adam Fox’s work…?

  2. I don’t know much about orality-literacy studies and Methodism, but Ong does have an article on Ramism and Methodism which dates to the 1950s. I’d be happy to read the piece, but I would need to hold off until September once the dissertation is behind me. And I meant to post this some time ago. In short, I’m not very helpful at the moment, but if you’re still working on this in September, I’d be happy to look at what you’ve got.

  3. Hey George,

    All this looks fine and good, and very plausible. I’m not a huge expert on the orality question in 18c writing, but I do think you need to look at Adam Fox’s Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500-1700, to see the current state of 18c research. You should also think about the importance of pamphlets or broadsides as opposed books, field preaching, itinerant preachers, and informal assemblies etc., as well as the relative prominence of black, female, or other kinds of uncredentialed preachers in the methodist movement. In other words, you’re looking at print as only one form of communication for what is probably a far more heterogenerous audience than you’d get in more established, property-based sects. These are groups that don’t possess a specific locus to operate from, right?

    You could also think about how other regional vernaculars, like Welsh or Cornish preachers, fit into this picture.

    But much of your thesis would fit into Fox’s picture of mutually reinforcing oral, scribal, and written cultures between 1500-1700. The real question would be, when did it end?

    Good luck,

    Dave Mazella

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