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Enthusiastic Sensations: Religious Revivals, Secular Bodies, and the Making of Modern Sexualities in Early American Culture Open Access

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Abstract of DissertationEnthusiastic Sensations: Religious Revivals, Secular Bodies, and the Making of Modern Sexualities in Early American CultureEnthusiasm operated as a charge of disordered religiosity throughout the eighteenth-century Atlantic; it also indicated gender, sexual, and bodily deviance. Enthusiastic Sensations analyzes the ways in which religious revivalism and “enthusiasm” were linked to sexual depravity in the religious, political, and popular literature of early America. This connection between sex and enthusiasm was not simply a way of controlling bodies, as previous scholars of religion, gender, and sexuality have argued; rather, sexualized accounts of enthusiastic experiences—supernatural voices, visions, and ecstasies—offer new ways of understanding gender and sexuality in the context of the eighteenth-century Anglophone Atlantic. Religious revivalism and anti-enthusiastic skepticism remade sensorial orders by producing and regulating bodily pleasures. This regulation of bodily pleasure also made normative ability a central component of modern sexuality, rendering religious excess forms of sensorial and mental disability. My work recasts sexuality and religion in early American culture, first claiming that revivals produced “revival sexualities” in their emphasis on emotional and physical feelings of conversion, and secondly demonstrating how writings against “enthusiasm” produced secular bodies that sought to manage religious excitements.Enthusiastic Sensations engages methodological and theoretical questions of the history of sexuality about how scholars analyze “sex” or “sexuality” in history. Eve Sedgwick argues in Epistemology of the Closet that “the distinctively sexual nature of human sexuality has to do precisely with its excess over or potential difference from the bare choreographies of procreation.” My work asks how religious “excesses” offer new sites of studying the history of sexuality, and it argues that eighteenth century debates over “true” religion, enthusiasm, sexuality, and the order of the senses established a framework through which early American literatures such as Franklin’s Autobiography and Charles Brockden Brown’s gothic fiction sought to build and manage secular bodies. I demonstrate this argument through engagement with literary texts of the early Anglophone Atlantic, including Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, along with less widely known spiritual autobiographies and religious tracts, circulated journals, pamphlets, and newspapers. In particular, my research draws on critical and satirical writings regarding evangelical movements. While such works are unreliable documents of events, critical writings are useful because authors use humor to point out modes of sensuality unacknowledged by religious practitioners.. I balance these critical accounts by attending to the writings of individuals who claimed transformative religious experiences, particularly as they wrote accounts of God’s dealings in their diaries, dream journals, letters, and sermons. I primarily read these sources in historical context, within philosophical and theological debates over “enthusiasm,” and the rise of Protestant revival movements in the eighteenth century. In short, the dissertation engages queer theoretical debates over the analytic category of sexuality by reading literary texts in religious and historical context to argue that religious revivals and their critics produced revival sexualities and secular bodies.

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