Enlightening enthusiasm

Prophecy and religious experience in early eighteenth-century England

Author: Lionel Laborie

This book examines the nature and significance of religious enthusiasm in early Enlightenment England. In the early modern period, the term ‘enthusiasm’ was a smear word used to discredit the dissenters of the radical Reformation as dangerous religious fanatics. In England, the term gained prominence from the Civil War period and throughout the eighteenth century. Anglican ministers and the proponents of the Enlightenment used it more widely against Paracelsian chemists, experimental philosophers, religious dissenters and divines, astrologers or anyone claiming superior knowledge. As a result, our understanding of enthusiasm is largely influenced by the hostile discourse of Augustan moralist and early Enlighteners. But who exactly were these enthusiasts? What did they believe in, how did they operate as a community and what impact did they have on their contemporaries? This book aims to answer these questions by concentrating on the notorious case of the French Prophets. It demonstrates how the understanding of enthusiasm evolved around 1700, designating anything from a religious fanaticism to a social epidemic and even a bodily disease. It offers the first comprehensive approach to enthusiasm, looking at this multifarious issue from a successively social, religious, cultural, political and medical perspective. Based on extensive archival research, it sheds new light on the reality of enthusiasm away from the hostility of Enlightenment discourse.

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