What’s in a Revolution? Revival Sexualities in the Age of Revolutions

“Sexing Histories of Revolution” Roundtable – Post #4
In this series, contributors explore sex and sexual revolutions in the revolutionary era. 

By Scott Larson

The history of sexuality is often told through the framework of “revolutions,” from “The” Sexual Revolution of the 1960s to scholarly applications that argue for sexual revolutions in other historical moments, such as Richard Godbeer’s groundbreaking Sexual Revolutions in Early America. Such histories have used the framework of “Sexual Revolutions” to offer critical reinterpretations of contests over individual sexual freedoms in eras commonly believed to be dominated entirely by “puritanical” sexual repression.

Moreover, historians like Clare Lyons and Susan Juster have pointed to transformations of sexual practices and the emergence of newly mutable sexual identities as key contributors to the American Revolution, as well as to counter-revolutionary backlash in the decades that followed. Sexual freedoms acted, as Lyons argues, as a “Springboard to Revolution,” as common women and men challenged sexual norms and social structures in ways that linked social and political revolution to individual transformations and personal liberties. In such histories, the framework of “Sexual Revolutions” has crucially expanded both the temporal reach and the critical political potential of histories of sexuality.

But what might historians make of un-revolutionary sex? How do historians talk about sexual transformations that lead neither to individual liberties nor to political revolution? How have “revolutions” framed histories of sex in ways that have served to limit what historians may recognize as sex? Bruce Burgett and Peter Coviello have prompted historians of sexuality to attend critically to “early” modes of sex and sexuality that may bear little resemblance to commonplace ideas of what sexuality looks like today. How might a historian of sexuality encounter the past differently if sex is not presumed to be either revolutionary or liberating?

In my work, I explore the emergence of what I call “revival sexualities” — modes of sensorial excitement and public intimacies incited by highly emotional and feelings-centered evangelical Christian preaching that swept the Atlantic world in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Assembled religious seekers sought to open themselves up to the Holy Spirit to feel–sensibly–the power of God’s judgment and God’s grace. Rev. Francis Ward’s 1806 account of New York Camp meetings reported that redeemed sinners, “enfolded in the arms of redeeming love, would sink down and swoon away into an extacy [sic] of bliss. … Now shrieks and groans of terror and distress issue from hearts pierced with the arrows of the Lord.” As converts felt assurance of God’s grace and their own salvation, they clapped, cried, and shouted: “their joy was full, their cups were running over, and others catched the streaming bliss.”[1] In public, shared, bodily practices of religious feeling, revivalists created sexual counter-publics and counter-intimacies. Revivalists rolled on the ground, shouted, screamed, and held each other. They gathered outside physical structures of church buildings, sometimes in racially segregated groups, and sometimes mingled “promiscuously” without regard to race, class, or gender segregation.  They challenged ecclesiastical and familial orders as they “catched the streaming bliss.” Mass revivals sought to spread the fire of religious feeling, and published narratives sought to instruct and guide penitents as they worked towards their own assurance of salvation: religious experience, no matter how private, was framed as a public pedagogical device, and radical sensation made new and often unsettling intimacies in revival culture.

Drawing of a crowd gathered for religious worship.

Hugh Bridport’s 1829 lithograph Camp-Meeting has become one of the most commonly used images depicting American revivalism in historical scholarship – and this despite its rather critical portrayal of the sensory, social, spatial, and sexual disorder associated with camp meetings. The image foregrounds nubile young women who shed their clothing, dance, and prostrate themselves before a public audience. As the centerpiece of the image, the young women displace the exhorter in the primitive speaker’s box; he appears to mirror them in their enthusiasm, overturning social and ecclesiastical order. Between these parties, a man holds a fainting woman on the “anxious bench,” his hand above her womb, while in the left foreground, two men attempt conversation with young women. The mirrored scenes suggest that revival encounters, while ostensibly religious, opened the door for unchecked male sexual exploitation of women, of the sensual display of uncontrolled female bodies and animal sexuality.

Such bodily and sensorial excitements of revival movements acted as forms of eroticism that should be understood as part of the history of sexuality, if quite different from forms of sexuality that emerged following nineteenth-century scientific and psychological accounts of sexuality, and distinctly different from any overt “sexual revolution.” In particular, sensorially excessive religious experience offers an avenue of investigating non-instrumental bodily sensations that have shaped emerging historical inquiries into sex before modern sexual sciences and sexualities.  Religious sensations on display at revivals — screaming, crying, shouting, shaking, dancing, fainting, wallowing on the ground — were, according to religionists, effects of religious experience, and moreover, were responses to an overwhelming experience of God’s power and God’s judgement. These were not chosen, even if they were desired.

Moreover, while the relationship between evangelical religious movements and Atlantic revolutions have been hotly debated, few revivalists associated themselves explicitly with American colonists’ political rebellion. Some, like black Loyalist and Methodist John Marrant, fought with the British in the American Revolution. Others like followers of the Public Universal Friend (born Jemima Wilkinson in 1752, and resurrected in as a genderless spirit in 1776) sought to separate themselves entirely from the “wicked world.” While most revivalists did not establish new and separate communities, nearly all of them emphasized the kingdom of God over the political affairs of humans.

Revival sexualities and the intimate publics they created operated outside of direct connection to political revolutions and sexual liberty. In order to understand this history of sexuality, scholars must break with contemporary frameworks that engage sexuality primarily through personal interiorities and individual freedoms. Revivals produced sexualities, but they did not produce a sexual revolution.

Scott Larson is a Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies at George Washington University, where he teaches courses in transgender and women’s history, sexuality studies, and early American cultural history.  He is a scholar of religion, secularity and sexuality in the early Anglophone Atlantic, and his work has appeared in the Journal of Early American Studies and on Notches history of sexuality blog. He studied theology at Yale Divinity School and completed his Ph.D. in American Studies at George Washington University. He can be reached at smlarson@gwu.edu.

Title image: Hogarth, Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, 1762.


[1] Francis Ward, An Account of Three Camp-Meetings Held by the Methodists (Brooklyn, 1806), 5-6.

Further Reading:

Coviello, Peter. Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: New York University Press, 2013.

Godbeer, Richard. Sexual Revolution in Early America. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Heyrman, Christine Leigh. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Mack, Phyllis. Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Stein, Jordan Alexander. “Mary Rowlandson’s Hunger and the Historiography of Sexuality.” American Literature 81, no. 3 (September 1, 2009): 469–95.

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