Tolar-Burton, Vicki. Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism: Reading, Writing, and Speaking to Believe. Waco: Baylor UP, 2008. Print.

Chapter One:  John Wesley and the Rhetorical and Literacy Practices of Early Methodism


There’s a lot going on in this section as it introduces the reader to Wesley’s program and also serves as the blueprint

for the remainder of the book.    Early in the introduction, VTB lays out a couple of different goals for her work:

  • Describe how Welsey’s Methodism encouraged/sponsored “spiritual literacy” that took place in private, communal and institutional contexts (2).
  • Illustrate how Wesley – due to his understanding of the transformative power of language in spirituality –  wanted to make “ordinary” Methodists readers, writers and public speakers (1).
  • First contextualize then “tell the story” of the opportunities that Wesley offered ordinary, “lower-class” folks through a community literacy that “included personal practices [journals/diaries], small group leadership, distance learning, and publication” (4).  In this process, Burton hopes to demonstrate how Wesley’s rhetoric was representative of the doctrine of “priesthood of all believers” that emphasized egalitarian spiritual principles and the importance of lived, personal experience.

In the sections that follow, VTB contextualizes the Methodist movement in the contexts of religious rhetoric and the religious and political climate of the early 18th century.  After building context, VTB explains the philosophic theories undergirding Wesley’s program (Lockean  emphasis on the primacy of experience) before briefly sketching the class tensions that arose because of Wesley’s community literacy efforts.  The first chapter closes with a mapping of the book in total.


  • In addition to laying out these broad goals for the study, VTB also discusses her method in bits and pieces throughout the introduction.  She is primarily interested in composing an account that treats with equal measure the principles and questions of New Literacy Studies scholars like David Barton, Mary Hamilton, Deborah Brandt, Ellen Cushman, and Beverly Moss as well as historians of literacy like Heidi Brayman Hackel and Jonathan Rose.
  • VTB also recognizes that her study takes up intimately the study of women.  In this way, VTB’s work is one of feminist historiography as it employs both a “her-story” approach to the literacy practices of women in the early Methodist movement as well as a narrative reconstruction of how women were integrated “into the fabric of Methodist history” (5).  In so doing, she hopes to demonstrate women’s agency and power in this particular sociohistorical moment.

Useful Quotes:

  • My approach to early Methodist texts is influence by the work of David Barton and Mary Hamilton, who suggest that literacy practices are “the general cultural ways of utilizing written language which people draw upon in their lives” and include people’s “awareness of literacy, constructions of literacy and discourses of literacy, how people talk about and make sense of literacy” (7) (9).
  • My study stands with the poor, the ordinary people of early Methodism, by seeking to identify, describe, and understand the literacy and rhetorical practices available to the poor and laboring classes in eighteent-century Methodism and by including their texts and voices as they participated in practices of private, communal, and institutional spirituality. (7)
  • John Wesley advocated a number of specific modes of public expression for Methodist women, including spiritual conversation, speaking or praying in bands and classes, public prayer, public testimony or witness, exhortation, and expounding upon a scriptural passage or some other text, which might be accomplished by reading it aloud and asking questions of those gathered as to meaning.  (18)
  • For Wesley, the rhetoric of experience begins with the perception of the inner and outer experience (which he describes using rhetorical language as a kind of testimony to the self from the senses).  (24)
  • This book describes the order of discourse in early Methodism, a new order that disrupted the British rhetorical hierarchy at the point of sexuality and politics.  The uses wich Methodist women, the lower order, and the poor made of spoken and written discourse both threatened the existing order. . . and worked against revolutionary change. . . (30).


  • I find the sort of work that VTB is doing to be really, really interesting.  I wonder what sorts of studies of “community literacy practices” are made possible through historiography?
  • What are some of the ethical dilemmas of representation involved in rhetorical histories of literacy?  How do we represent research subjects that are already in the process of being represented (through archival materials, second-hand sources, etc.)?
  • Where do we start to look for materials like VTB is using in this text to examine the “lower ranks” of folks in the past?  How is this process one of representation vs. re-creation?  Does this diminish the ethos of the study at all?
  • In keeping with the previous question, how do reclaimed rhetorical histories – I’m thinking of Glynn’s Rhetoric Retold or Unspoken: the Rhetoric of Silence – complicate our idea of historiography?  How do the politics of research methods play into these reconstructions/re-evaluations?  Are any historical methods apolitical?  ( I doubt it, but it’s worth asking)

3 Responses to “CCR691 – VTB’s Spiritual Literacy – Ch. 1 for Comment”

  1. eileen E Schell

    I like your questions, and I was particularly stimulated by question #1–how can we study community literacy through historiography? And also by your question about how “we look for materials” to “examine the ‘lower ranks’ of folks in the past.”
    This is really an interesting set of questions because of the challenge of social history. Archives do tend to preserve the lives of those who may have the money or power in a society (what Bob Connors called “kings and battles” approach to history or what Nietzsche calls monumental history).

    It’s more possible to find material by and about John Wesley in archives than about the working people attending the field preaching at 5:00 a.m. But there are ways to find that information and cobble together accounts–whether from diaries, records, demographic information, court house records, pamphlets, working men’s/women’s associations, etc. But it means a more piece meai kind of archival research and detective work that might go above and beyond the detective work that already takes place around archival research….

    Recreation vs. representation is an interesting comment, too. Isn’t the writing of history a re-creation, in many ways, that involves complex choices about representation?

  2. Luce

    Eileen has hit on a number of interesting points in your questions, so I want to take a bit of a different tack.

    The “lower ranks of folks” recalls fondly my reading of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. Not sure if you’ve read it (most folks know heteroglossia), but in his work Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics Bakhtin talks about writing meant to be mimetic of carnivalesque. One of the key features of carnival culture is a celebration of the “lower stratum” or low and bawdy humor. This is kind of like our version of toilet humor but with an authority figure in the mix.

    Anyway, all of this to say that there seems to be a backlash (nod at Faludi here) toward high theory and history proper in movements like feminism and queer studies, which at their heart call into question what counts as acceptable materials to mine rhetorical and subjective experience. We often critique postmodernism for desubjugating experience, but history proper has in many ways done just that by providing a naturalized version of history that authorizes only certain types of materials that count as history.

    Like Bakhtin, I wonder if our penchant for lower humor isn’t a metaphor for our own resistance to forms of history proper. Burton just gives that resistance a method and justification from a feminist standpoint, but that resistance is there in the ways we choose to laugh as well.

  3. Anna

    Your second question about the ethics of representation in historical work speaks to a lot of the thoughts I’ve been having as I’ve been reading this week. This particular chapter of VTB’s book, along with her article on material rhetoric, reminded me of a comment LA made in the research colloquium last week when she said that she tries to go into her work assuming that every person she’s writing about was trying to do their best. This strikes me as an important kind of ethical stance towards representation in historical work–assuming a kind of generosity or “affectionate interpretation” even as critique things that are problematic.
    I read VTB as assuming a similar stance, while also emphasizing that doing so doesn’t mean overlooking the less pleasant parts of people’s lives (Wesley’s patriarchal position, for example).

    When we were talking about research ethics with regard to person-based research last week, it seems like we were really connecting questions of ethics with questions about our research might affect people in the here and now. It seems like thinking about ethics with regard to historical research requires thinking about ethics in a slightly different light. I’m not entirely sure that I know how to articulate what that approach to ethics is supposed to look like, except to say that it might serve us well to think about ethics beyond the site of individual bodies or particular communities.

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