The Visionary World of Maritime New Lights

By David Bell

Some years ago a Vermont family kindly allowed access to the Maritime portions of the journal of their ancestor, Ziba Pope. Pope (1779-1852) was a Massachusetts-born trader and entrepreneur. By ca 1807 he was living in the Passamaquoddy Bay region, first at Eastport (Me) and then St George parish (NB). Not long after the US declaration war in 1812, he was in course of driving contraband cattle from Maine towards Fredericton when he paused at a fording place on the Oromocto River, attended a New Light meeting and experienced religious conversion. Soon, Pope the convert was Pope the preacher, and he began recording his gospel travels in northern New England and the Maritimes in a journal. Soon also, he was identifying himself with the New Light tradition associated with the charismatic but long-dead Henry Alline (“there never lived a more Godly man”).

Pope’s journal implies that for a time during the conversion drama, and again in days afterward, he was in a state of trance (“I was lost to any thing here below”). Remarkably Ann Phillips, one of those assisting him to conversion, had already written an account of “discoveries” made while she herself was in trance. This coincidence prompted me to look for other glimpses of the visionary world of turn-of-the-century Maritime converts. At Birchtown there were Calvinist Methodists who fell “apparently dead” for hours. At Sackville a servant in a Wesleyan household lay three days entranced. But it’s an elusive subject. I would be grateful to hear from researchers with further leads on contemporary Protestant visions, trances, immediate revelations and episodes of photism.

*     *     *

In conversion’s afterglow Ziba Pope experienced God’s gracious ordering of his affairs to an extent unique in the journal. The Spirit stayed by him in wonderful ways. Now, even his cattle seemed to drive more easily. He entered a space where religious seekers stood on psychic tiptoe to discern what Jonathan Scott disparaged as “Visions and Revelations of Things that are not contained in the Bible”. This ran counter to orthodox opinion that the age of immediate revelation had closed with the Apostles. To Bishop Inglis it seemed also to threaten “many and crying irregularities”, civil as well as religious.[1] Usually such illuminations arrived in dreams but sometimes as waking visions or trances. Two contemporary cases, one of them linked to Pope personally, give insight into the visionary world of turn-of-the-century converts.

One favoured soul was Mary Coy (1771-1859), a child of Connecticut migrants to the central St John River valley in the 1760s. Coy was eight in 1779 when Henry Alline’s preaching set her on the path to awakening. By the point of conversion, at age 15, she was writing down her spiritual impressions. God sent a rich though unsettling train of whispers, visions, dreams and what look like trances, giving views of the “upper world”, hell and judgement. Obscure personally and remote from the great events of the age, she brooded nonetheless to find meaning in the revolutionary upheavals in America and France until God revealed the pattern of “past, present, and future events — religious and political: time like a wheel rolling round, the events of providence and the transactions of the world forming a wheel within a wheel…”. Other perceptions were domestic, as when flames shot out from hell for a backslidden brother.[2]

During adolescence and even after marriage, Coy felt called to exhort in religious meetings and evangelize door to door, a prompting she never dared answer. Apparently it did not occur to her that she might share her impressions in print.[3] It was different for Pope’s friend Ann Phillips (1787-1860), a second generation New Jersey Loyalist living in the Oromocto River valley. A fortnight after her 1811 conversion, God began reaching out through trances.[4] Encouraged by local New Lights, she managed via Pope to circulate some of these “discoveries” as A Vision of Heaven & Hell. Printed on the cheapest paper and running to only four pages, it was literature of the type peddlers sold to an immediate audience for a couple of cents, not for shelving in village book-rooms or including on a publisher’s list. Copies are powdery, chipped and torn but the wonder is that any survives at all.[5]

Vision locates its author to the parish of “Lincoln, (Province of N. Brunswick)” but otherwise the text is without geo-political flavouring. It is ungendered, classless and might have come from nearly any awakened Protestant anywhere. Ephemeral in its day and unremembered now, its account of spirit travel is nevertheless the earliest known imprint by a woman living in what would become Canada. Yet as a specimen of turn-of-the-century visionary literature it had quite a few contemporary precedents, several by women.

Phillips’s tale is a late, brief, otherwise typical instance of the genre of heavenly journey by dream or, as in her case, catalepsis.[6] It features episodes of falling “dead as to knowing any thing in time”. Once, she had “no appearance of life for three hours as they told me”. Guided by a male angel, she had views of hell and heaven. In both spheres there were folk she knew. Hell’s devouring red dragon (as depicted in the book of Revelation) terrified but could not harm her. In heaven she was privileged to see Enoch and Elijah (Hebrew Bible figures taken from Earth without dying) and other “Scripture Worthies” and even God’s throne (though alas not God). Finally, she was returned to consciousness in order to “declare to a dying World what I had seen”. Overcoming writer’s block, she did so “by the desire of many of God’s people”. Supplementing her narrative was editorial filler intended to bolster credibility: praise for her character (“a young woman of an excellent understanding, eminent for her piety, and…an Ornament to the Religion she professes”) and sundry vision-affirming scripture verses. Her publisher added Emanuel Swedenborg’s argument that God had not confined visions to the Apostolic age.[7]

Literature of heavenly travel was typically undoctrinal and in that sense uncontroversial, but Phillips seized on her moment of favour to wonder whether the “cruel” but orthodox “doctrine of Reprobation” reflected a right understanding of God’s will. Viewed theologically, the Second Great Awakening that began with Henry Alline in the 1770s and climaxed in the revivalism of the 1830s was in good measure a revolt against the Calvinist understanding that God had elected only some to salvation. The rest would be damned inevitably. The very phenomenon of awakenings — evangelists preaching for clustered conversions — eroded the notion that those who repented lacked ability to influence their eternal fate. Alline was greater New England’s first notable evangelical anti-Calvinist theologian, an outlook spread by Benjamin Randel and the Freewill Baptists and shared by Methodists, Universalists and the Christian Connexion. In the second decade of the 19th century the contest between Calvinistic determinism and the optimistic, seemingly democratic belief that God allowed freedom of will — self-determinism — was still in issue, as Phillips and “God’s people” in the Oromocto valley were obviously aware. What her vision revealed, to her satisfaction, was that Christ’s death opened the door of salvation for “the whole World of Mankind”. A decade earlier Mary Coy had worked her way through to the same conclusion. Ziba Pope would spend 20 years of his life upholding it.

Visions and dreams carried the seeds of antinomianism. Someone waking from a tour through the unseen world might claim anything. Revelations in the 1790s to Mary Coy’s neighbours that “lambs of God” might “play all together” brought them scandal and criminal prosecution.[8] Joseph Smith’s angel visions from the 1820s would launch a new religion. But Ann Phillips’s message was simple: heaven and hell were real, and God granted people the free ability to choose their eternal portion. Its warning to repent was earnest to the point of naïveté, a mark of truthfulness. It did not tend to antinomianism, either personally or socially. No Anglican justice of the peace need take alarm. “God’s people” on the northwest Oromocto might lack for a pastor and regular preaching but Phillips did not seek to supply the need by building a following of her own. Unlike a notorious pair of teenagers half a dozen years earlier in New Brunswick’s Shediac district, she did not pivot from her status as visionary to that of prophet. She did not profess to hear the “midnight cry” of Matthew 25, announce the pending return of Christ or consign folk around her to salvation or perdition.[9] Her divine discoveries were not the sort to incite the credulous to murder, as had the lurid Shediac pronouncements.

The acute visionary mind-frame of Ann Phillips and Mary Coy was shared by Pope for a time. Religious conversion puts everything into a new light. Converts embraced the Bible as a fresh, meaning-filled book: “oh I never read the bible before”, exclaimed Pope.[10] Conversion might also transform perception. In the early days of post-conversion spiritual travel, Pope detected signs and marvels largely absent from his later narrative. Revelations to Phillips and Coy addressed great questions of the age: What does Bonaparte signify in God’s plan? Can all who repent be saved? Pope’s divine discernings were on a personal scale: the sudden healing of a persistent leg sore, guidance derived from opening the Bible to a random passage, clairvoyant dreams.[11] The convert recognized these as God’s doings. One special providence came in a humble cabin on a tributary of Maine’s Penobscot River.

as I sat in this Dudley’s house and speaking of the crucifiction of our blessed Saviour how the rocks rent & there was a bake kettle which stood perhaps 7 feet from the fire came in two pieces and rang/ on examination found the kettle to be a new one and entirely sound and no visible cause but the power of god[12]

This was a divine intervention, “worthy of naming and very remarkable”.

Another of his very remarkable experiences was episodes of photism, the perception of God’s presence in bright light. Once, on Long Island (NB), “[t]here apeared to be lights about me flashing and darting by me”. In reducing this experience to words, Pope blurred a distinction the orthodox drew between perceptions attributable to pious imagination (“eyes of my mind”) and visions claimed as experienced literally (“with my natural eyes”), which tended to delusion.[13]

I thought I saw them with my natural eyes but have no idea that I did but it was the eyes of my mind/ it seemed as though the heavens where opened to me/ oh Glory to God for his goodness to the children of men/ I then knew that I felt something that I never felt before and believed that the Lord was to work with me and it gave me great Strength/ it seemed that my boddy was a Clog of clay that kept me out of heaven and it appeared to me that my body was very light/ I thought I could almost fly from this earth…[14]

Only later would he read of similar photistic episodes in Alline’s Life and Journal but he knew of supernatural light at the conversion of St Paul.[15] For the Popes, Phillipses and Coys, these visitations and discoveries at the margin of seen and unseen worlds were gracious favours worthy of writing down and perhaps sharing, but they were not bewildering or alien. What they brought Pope was validation of his call to preach. Such journal references are concentrated in the months just following conversion, though he continued ascribing agreeable coincidences to divine favour and praised God on encountering occasional “Mericals” of healing.[16]


David Bell is legal advisor to a large New Brunswick non-profit.


Notes:

[1] J. Scott, Brief View of the Religious Tenets and Sentiments…of Mr Henry Alline (1784), 252-53, invoking cautions from Jonathan Edwards (101-02) and David Brainerd (259); C. Inglis, Steadfastness in Religion and Loyalty Recommended (1793), esp 21-22. As with most New Light traits, the direct precedent for receipt of visions, visitations, immediate revelations, portents and the like was set in the 1730s-40s: D. L. Winiarski, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (2017), esp 251-58. On the role of dreams and visions for the New Light/Baptist preachers Harris Harding, Joseph Crandall and Edward Manning, see D. C. Goodwin, Into Deep Waters: Evangelical Spirituality and the Maritime Calvinistic Baptist Ministers, 1790-1855 (2010), 48-49, 77-79, 110-12, 238.

[2] Narrative of the Life and Christian Experience of Mrs Mary Bradley of Saint John, New Brunswick (1849), 23, 35, 38-41, 54-55, 59-60, 76-77, 131, 142.

[3] The persistence of Coy’s sense of call to exhort/preach is outlined in D. Bell, “Allowed Irregularities: Women Preachers in the Early 19th-Century Maritimes”, Acadiensis, 30/2 (2001), 6-8.

[4] Were trance incidents recorded not as remarkable in themselves but when some feature was unusual? After a 1786 sacrament meeting at Birchtown (NS), three people fell “apparently dead” for many hours: Journal of the Rev John Marrant [1790], 33-34. In the 1790s a servant in Sackville (NB) was entranced for three days, though she would seldom speak of what she had seen and heard: J. Marsden, Narrative of a Mission to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Somers Islands (1816), 24.

[5] K. A. Friedman, “Soul Sleepers: A History of Somnambulism in the United States, 1740-1840” (Doctoral dissertation: Harvard University, 2014), 62. Though written at Lincoln (NB) in January 1812, Phillips’s Vision was published at Barnard (Vt) in March 1813. Six copies are extant. Probably those at American Antiquarian Society, Vermont Historical Society, University of Vermont and Hamilton College survive because they became bound up with other pamphlets.

[6] Historians identify about three dozen of these heavenly vision pamphlets, beginning in the 1770s. Phillips (1813) was one of the last, as converts replaced the ephemeral chapbook/pamphlet format with more substantial autobiographies, such as that of Mary Coy Bradley in 1849. See R. L. Bushman, “The Visionary World of Joseph Smith”, BYU Studies, 37/1 (1997-98), 183; A. Kirchner, “’Tending Astonish, and Instruct’: Published Narratives of Spiritual Dreams in the Early Republic”, Early American Studies, 1/1 (2003), 198; J. I. Little, “The Mental World of Ralph Merry: A Case Study of Popular Religion in the Lower Canadian-New England Borderland, 1798-1863”, Canadian Historical Review, 83/3 (2002), 338.

[7] Treatise Concerning Heaven and Hell, Containing a Relation of Many Wonderful Things therein (1778), iv.

[8] D. Bell, Newlight Baptist Journals of James Manning and James Innis (1984), 80-83, 132-44, 360.

[9] Id, 182-86, 331-54. The Shediac prophets were Sarah Cornwall and Mary Babcock.

[10] Similarly, for Mary Coy (“the Bible seemed entirely [n]ew to me”), see Life and Christian Experience, 35; for Alline (“the first time I ever saw the word of God”), see Life and Journal of the Rev Mr Henry Alline (1806), 33, 38; for Crandall (“the bible was altogether a new book”), see J. M. Bumsted, “The Autobiography of Joseph Crandall”, Acadiensis 3/1 (1973), 88.

[11] On episodes of clairvoyance by Eunice Kinney Churchill, Joseph Bubar/Booby and Pope himself, see ZP Journal, 22 Nov 1812, 30 Nov 1812, 29 May 1814. Mary Coy, too, practiced bibliomancy: Life and Christian Experience, 56.

[12] ZP Journal, 17 Nov 1812.

[13] E. L. Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism (2001 edn), 147-50.

[14] ZP Journal, ca 27 Sept 1812. Pope also experienced photism at his conversion.

[15] On Alline and photism, see Life and Journal, 20-22, 27-28, 36; W. James, Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902), 246. Another who experienced photism was a NB Baptist preacher with whom Pope would have fellowship: Bumsted, “Autobiography of Joseph Crandall”, 82-83.

[16] Pope encountered or learned of healing miracles in Lower Canada, Vermont and NS: ZP Journal, 20 Feb 1814, 27 Feb 1814, 21 Aug 1815.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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