The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Brown-Bag Lunch Talk: “Drops of Grace and Mercy”

On Wednesday, 1 June, past and present fellow Rachel Cope of Brigham Young University gave a brown-bag lunch talk on her current book-length project “Drops of Grace and Mercy: How Women Cultivated Personal Change Through Conversion Processes.” Much of the existing scholarship on the Second Great Awakening of religion in American life focuses on what Cope identifies as external forces. Scholars ask what socioeconomic forces, such as industrialization and migration, precipitated the culture of religious revival life during the first half of the nineteenth century. Cope argues that this emphasis on externalities has lead to an inordinate focus on male participants, since men were most often the visible preachers and organizers. When women appear in the existing scholarship, it is most often in the aggregate, as a demographic very likely to participate in the revivals. In part because of the equation of femininity with spirituality, women’s participation in religious movements has been understood as natural rather than worthy of particular note. Thus, there has been a dearth of critical historical analysis of women’s involvement in revival activities.

Seeking to address this gap in the scholarship, Cope focuses on women’s spiritual experience as religious seekers, asking how and why they came to religious conversion and what women did after they chose a certain spiritual course. Recently, Cope has begun to think about the concept of “agency,” an idea that has a lot of currency in present historical scholarship. When historians speak and write of agency, they are trying to understand the degree of freedom individuals and populations had, within a certain historical context, to make meaningful choices and pursue their desired life course. Because of the emphasis on personal freedom, discussion of agency has often emphasized people whose life choices are radical, people who are obviously pushing the boundaries of what is expected of individuals in their situation. Cope would like to consider not only the agency of exceptional women, but also the agency of women whose spiritual experiences and choices “fit the mold,” or supported (rather than resisted) existing structures. As she says of these women, often “working within the box is [just as] meaningful” as working outside of it.

Discussion following the presentation revolved around how Cope will situate her subjects within broader contexts, even as she focuses on their internal experiences and women’s interpretations of their spiritual lives in diaries, letters, and other forms of autobiographical writing. Those who attended the brown bag asked questions about comparing the female subjects’ writing to the voices of male counterparts; about socioeconomic commonalities among the women who left a spiritual record; about comparisons between religious and non-religious women; and about the possibility of change across time from the early 1800s to the 1850s, when Cope’s research ends.

As Rachel Cope continues her fellowship here, and moves forward with her project thereafter, we wish her the best in forming this valuable contribution to the fields of religious and women’s history.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 8 June, 2011, 8:00 AM


Jun 14, 2011, 12:10 pm


This sounds like a fascinating and seemingly uncharted area of research. Does Cope have a website, or is there a way to subscribe to her work?

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