Shouting and dancing with ecstasy

Hans Rollmann
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Ever since the Reverend Laurence Coughlan, that outspoken and quarrelsome Irish-born Anglican missionary and founder of Newfoundland Methodism, turned Conception Bay society upside down during a powerful 18th-century revival, Methodism has provided religious meaning and excitement to many Newfoundland men, women and children.
Although its early societies nearly vanished in the upheavals and social dislocation during the American Revolution, this religious renewal movement initiated by John Wesley and others in England reinvented itself in the 19th century and became in Newfoundland a third force and alternative to the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.
Until now, we had to make do either with the seriously dated, triumphal account in William Wilson's Newfoundland and its missionaries, or theses and specialized studies that sketched parts of this religious movement's history in Newfoundland. No comprehensive historical-critical study had appeared in print that examined this dynamic religion as it spread in the 19th century well beyond Conception Bay to Trinity, Bonavista, Notre Dame, Placentia and Fortune bays.
This obvious neglect is now ably remedied through a detailed study, based on primary sources, by Dr. Calvin Hollett. His "Shouting, Embracing, and Dancing with Ecstasy: The Growth of Methodism in Newfoundland, 1774-1874," began as a PhD dissertation in Memorial University's history department.

Revisionist history
In nearly 400 pages, published this month by McGill-Queen's University Press, Hollett presents an insightful and well-
documented history of the dynamic spread of Methodism - by lay people, not clergymen.
Although the book could be understood as social history, it does not reduce religion to something else, such as politics or sociology. Hollett, instead, takes religion seriously as an authentic experience of the holy that provides meaning and forges a distinct religious identity for fisher folk in Newfoundland and Labrador. He has also laid to rest any notion that Methodism merely provided hope to desperate and severely isolated people.
Hollett argues this powerful lay movement spread among common people who found genuine satisfaction, even ecstasy, in their religious quest. They were by no means marooned on a desolate rock in desperate straits.
"The most prominent characteristic of the residents," Hollett writes, "was not isolation but mobility, expediting the spread of Methodism as a religion of experience."
Any serious student of Newfoundland history and culture cannot neglect reading this book, which revises our view of this important 18th- and 19th-century movement. Its current heirs include not only the United Church but also the Salvation Army and the Pentecostals, as well as numerous modern people who treasure freedom, individualism and communal responsibility.

In his own words
I put some questions to Hollett about his book, which is available through and, as well as through other bookstores by special order.
Q: What, in your judgment, has previous historical scholarship gotten wrong about Methodism in Newfoundland from 1774-1874?
A: "It has perceived Newfoundland to be in a degenerated state due to isolation and focused on Methodism as a moral rescue by clergy, instead of as a popular movement of spirituality."
Q: What was the most significant contribution of 19th-century Methodism to Newfoundland religion, history and culture?
A: "In religion, it pointed to a popular thirst for Christian spirituality, which went beyond that offered by the religious institutions of the day.
"In history, it created a critical mass of people, over one-quarter of the population, who voluntarily associated with one another and appropriated an expansive freedom and responsibility in society.
"It gave Newfoundland culture a third dimension - the acceptability of the vernacular and, with it, a freedom and self-assurance which militated against the ever-increasing hierarchical direction of the Church of England and Roman Catholicism at the time, and against the entitlement mindset of the dominant class."
Q: Who are the heirs of this vital and ecstatic religion, and does it still speak to people in the 21st century? If it does, what is its message?
A: "Ecstasy was appropriated afterwards by the Salvation Army and Pentecostal churches. Today, however, both hear only a faint echo of it, the United Church not at all, since they are now well ensconced in respectability and propriety in their denominational phase. Yet Methodism is still a challenge and a reassurance to those who believe that a fresh vision of Christianity is possible. In a secular way, we are all heirs to the Methodist boost to social equality and popular self-assurance."

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University and can be reached by e-mail at

Organizations: Church of England, Conception Bay society, Roman Catholic Church United Church Salvation Army McGill-Queen's University Press

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, England, Notre Dame

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