Hearing and Believing: Listening Experiences as Religious Experiences in Nineteenth-Century British Methodism

Clarke, Martin V. (2020). Hearing and Believing: Listening Experiences as Religious Experiences in Nineteenth-Century British Methodism. Nineteenth-Century Music Review, 17(3) pp. 381–402.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1479409819000557


This article uses Jeff Astley’s concept of ordinary theology (Jeff Astley, Ordinary Theology: Looking, Listening and Learning in Theology (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002)) to examine and interpret listening experiences from nineteenth-century Methodist sources. It argues that the participatory experiences of singing together with fellow believers were crucial to the development and sustenance of personal faith, and that believers shared accounts of such experiences in ways that they knew would be understood by their readers as indicative of the depth and sincerity of their spirituality. It further contends that the widely-recognized importance of hymnody in Methodism demands attention to its practice as well its content, and that while the lyrics of hymns set out Methodist theology and doctrine, the participative experience of communal singing was itself invested with meaning and value by many lay Methodists. Ordinary theology provides a framework through which common features of these accounts are identified and discussed, emphasizing the importance of various forms of life writing in understanding the ways in which religious practice shaped the lives and interactions of individual believers. The article also explores differences between different types of published and unpublished life writing. While examples are drawn from different branches of nineteenth-century Methodism, it is argued that hymnody’s potential for creating spiritually intense experiences was commonly recognised and affirmed across them. This article contributes to the wider discussion of the significance of listening experiences by emphasizing music’s vital role in the construction and communication of meaning between individuals on matters of deeply personal value.

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