Friday 16 May 2014

Discovering Sarah Crosby: a historian’s journey

The journey to get to know Sarah Crosby continued during my research trip to Duke University in 2009 for the Summer Wesley Seminar. The letter I mentioned in the last post was published by Paul Chilcote in a collection of early Methodist spiritual writing, and he cited the source as a manuscript in the Duke archives. I was excited to see the artifact connected to the sources I had only been reading in a published form. 

The artifact in this case is a small leather bound blank journal that Sarah Crosby used for a letterbook and journal. She copied letters both sent and received into this book, which preserved the conversation that she had with John Wesley about his publication on holiness. He solicits her opinion, and she responds and he replies with his agreement at her assessment.

I spent an afternoon looking at this artifact in the Duke archives, which are housed in this slightly imposing Gothic building (as you can see from the picture). It made Sarah Crosby feel so human and real to handle her journal. 
I took a few pictures of the book while I was there. The handwritten page and the texture of the journal form the cover art for my book.

While at Duke I also took a look at the article written about Sarah Crosby by Frank Baker in the Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society. It was historian Frank Baker who acquired the letterbook and brought it to the Duke archives. I am grateful for the work of scholars who came before me for preserving the early history of Methodism. I feel blessed to follow in their footsteps, even as I ask different questions of the sources.

My questions are different because I come from a different historical context, but also because I am asking questions particularly about the spirituality of the Early Methodists. How did they experience God? How did they talk about these experiences? I think their voices are not only interesting and inspiring, I think they can act as a corrective to today’s spiritual ethos. Today when spiritual means anything but organized religion and organized religion to some means a particular political position, it is helpful to take some time to hear from another generation of people. 

The early Methodists gathered in local societies in the wake of a few decades of the evangelical revival. They were ardent about their faith, increasingly aware of their personal sin and they were bold to change their society in a time when industrialization, the trans-atlantic slave trade and imperialism marked the current reality. The more I read the accounts from this period of historical upheaval, the more I want to know these people. These accounts show how individuals and communities encountered God and responded with great love and devotion. This is what I long for today. 

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