Rosemary Raughter, The Journal of Elizabeth Bennis 1749-1779, Columba Press, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, 2007.

Rosemary Raughter, The Journal of Elizabeth Bennis 1749-1779, Columba Press, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, 2007. £13.99, 978 1 85607 566 4 (paperback), pp 344.

 

Reviewed by: Janice Holmes, Department of History, The Open University in Ireland, March 2009

 

As the academic community expands and more and more scholars do more and more research, as archives become more professional and digitise more and more sources, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that there can possibly be, in attics, cupboards and under beds, any more ‘lost’ sources waiting to be found. Surely the days of fortuitously stumbling upon some lost correspondence or missing volumes are long gone? Thankfully not. Rosemary Raughter, an historian of eighteenth-century Irish religion, while working in the archives at Old St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia, discovered a volume of the manuscript journal of Elizabeth Bennis, a prominent eighteenth-century Irish Methodist. Thus began the hunt which led to the discovery of two further volumes and culminated in their being brought together and published here for the first time. The result is a lovely edition of one of the few surviving spiritual diaries to be written by an Irish woman.

Elizabeth Bennis (nee Patten) was born in 1725 in Limerick into a well-to-do Presbyterian family. In 1845 she married her cousin, Mitchell Bennis, an Anglican hardware merchant, saddler and ironmonger. In 1749, aged 24, she heard a disturbance outside her window: it was a crowd of people following a Methodist preacher who had recently arrived in the town and was preaching in the open air. Elizabeth determined to go and hear him and within a few months, on 23 June, ‘the light broke in upon me in a moment and banished all the shades of darkness…I could now believe in and lay hold of Christ as mine, and appropriate his mercy to my own soul.’ This conversion experience formed the foundation for the rest of her life. She went on to join the emerging Limerick Methodist ‘society’ and over the next forty years developed into one of its leading members. Her correspondence with John Wesley and other leaders of early Methodism was published in 1802 by her son and she is mentioned in C.H. Crookshank’s Memorable Women of Irish Methodism in the Last Century, published in 1885. Until now, her journals, which extend from 1749-1779, have remained undiscovered.

This book is an abridged version of that journal, with two prefatory essays and extensive annotative footnotes. Of the essays, the one written by Dudley Levistone Cooney, a historian of Irish Methodism, is the weaker but provides a useful survey of the local context to Bennis’ journal, in particular, the rise and fall of the family’s fortunes. Cooney reveals that Mitchell Bennis was not only a hardware merchant, but also speculated in property, thus accounting for Elizabeth’s frequent concerns about his business practices and sudden falls into debt. The second essay, by Raughter herself, is an impressive introduction to the journal and places it in its wider religious and historical context. She rightly points out that Bennis’ journal is not, in its content or tone, exceptional. It is, however, for its length and for the fact of its survival. Few eighteenth-century spiritual journals survive. Raughter mentions Alice Cambridge, Theodosia Blachford, Mary Tighe, Dorothy Johnson and Angel Anna Slack but these are all limited in terms of their length and accessibility. This edition, therefore, makes this genre of religious writing available in a modern, affordable form for the first time.

With Bennis’ manuscript running to approximately 250,000 words, it is a source of considerable length. Raughter has tried to make this edition readable, by omitting ‘much repetitious material’, while at the same time trying to preserve the journal’s original purpose: ‘to record the author’s ongoing journey of faith’. In this, Raughter has done an excellent job. While it is impossible not to wonder what some of the omitted material might have been, the text reproduced here successfully conveys the cadence and tone of a deeply religious woman who was firmly rooted within the temporal concerns of family, household and community.

Although Elizabeth’s primary intention was to record the progress of her faith, and to keep an account of God’s dealings with her, she inevitably touches on a range of other subjects. For example, she offers tantalising windows into the social life of Limerick Protestants, of eighteenth-century property speculation and business practices. She provides an honest insight into the growth and development of Irish Methodism, including the petty infighting and financial struggles of a small group. She reveals the vulnerability of even the affluent to disaster and disease. Between 1750-1760 six of Bennis’ children died and most of her diary is punctuated with anxious entries over the health of her family, relations and friends. While Bennis’ seemingly endless supply of self-doubt and self-recrimination appears excessive to our modern sensibilities, her arguments with her mother-in-law, her disagreements with her husband and her efforts to preserve her work-life balance are all scenarios with which the modern reader is more than familiar.

Probably the most significant contribution this book makes is its depiction of the leadership roles early Irish Methodism offered to women. Over the course of these thirty years, Bennis was a band and class leader and a member of the ‘select band’. She was an influential correspondent and she promoted individual conversions and the wider Methodist cause through personal conversations and visits. Her husband, it is suggested, provided the site for the society’s meeting house. By the 1770s she had become what might now be called a highly effective networker and power broker. In his introductory essay, Cooney briefly falls into the trap of trying to measure Bennis’ largely informal contribution to Irish Methodism against the standard of public preaching. For the most part, however, Bennis is credited for her efforts on their own terms. By any standards her achievements were impressive. Methodism clearly provided women like her with, as Raughter says, ‘a forum’ within which they could exercise their ‘considerable talents to their fullest extent.’

This is a wonderful journal which has been edited with great care. Not only has it made a unique primary source available to a wider audience, it has also contributed to our growing understanding of eighteenth-century Irish Methodism and the women who operated so successfully within it.