Saturday, January 7, 2023

Rodney Hessinger's "Smitten"

Rodney Hessinger is Professor of History and Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at John Carroll University. He is the author of Seduced, Abandoned, and Reborn.

Hessinger applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Smitten: Sex, Gender, and the Contest for Souls in the Second Great Awakening, and reported the following:
Page 99 concerns the relationship between Eliza Wintringham and her pastor William Parkinson. It reveals the close and complicated relationships that sometimes developed between women and ministers in the early nineteenth century. Wintringham had been a leading advocate for Parkinson as his church underwent a bitter schism. But they had a complicated falling out after Parkinson sexually assaulted Wintringham. Parkinson's subsequent trial helped reveal how church disputes could become sexually loaded. In an era when ministers were actively competing for adherents, they tried to win the hearts of followers, adding an intimacy to their mission. Assuming he had her heart, William Parkinson had taken liberties with Eliza Wintringham's body.

Page 99 gives a solid, but unsurprisingly, a partial, view of my book. Part of what I try to accomplish in my book is to connect strange bedfellows: I show that very disparate religious groups, upstarts like the Mormons and Shakers, foreign-tinged churches like the Catholics, and mainline evangelicals like the Methodists and Baptists, were all subject to the sexual dynamics of the "contest for souls" in the Second Great Awakening. This particular page is centered on a dispute within a Baptist congregation. Churches varied in how imaginatively they redefined gender roles. The Baptists certainly did not go as far as the Shakers, a group that had imagined a woman as a female Christ. But like most other churches in this era, Baptists were pulled into empowering women as a way to win their adherence. This page shows the empowerment, but also the vulnerability, of Eliza Wintringham, a woman who had taken a leading role in a church contest.

My book is about the intersection of sex and religion, but I also try to tell a larger story, that of the rise and fall of the Second Great Awakening. Page 99 shows one of many examples of church sexual scandal from this era. Publishers in the nineteenth century helped amplify local sins, ultimately bringing disgrace on enthusiastic religion writ large. My book shows how churches that engaged the heart first invited, but ultimately repelled, many Americans.
Learn more about Smitten at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue