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Turning Inside Out: Reading and Writing Godly Identity in Seventeenth-Century Narratives of Spiritual Experience

Writing about personal experience was a central component of early modern Protestant devotional practice. It was also, this dissertation argues, a creative and social practice through which the godly imagined and crafted their own spiritual identities and constructed interpretive communities into which these identities might be accepted and valued. Exploring the ways in which seventeenth-century Protestants examined interior experience and transformed interiority into a legible expression of the spiritual self, this project proposes that believers used spiritual autobiography to substantiate the intangible and invisible signs of God’s grace, employing narrative and imaginative structures to render idiosyncratic personal experiences familiar, shareable, and recognizably Christian. Spiritual autobiographies are often approached as transparent records of past experience or as sources of information about the spiritual lives of believers. By contrast, this project reads personal narratives as literary texts and as creative exercises in spiritual interpretation. In order to draw out and examine the fictive and transformative elements of these “truthful” documents, I explore the autobiographical “experience” narratives of Dionys Fitzherbert (c. 1580-1641), Agnes Beaumont (1652-1720), and John Bunyan (1628-88) alongside more ostensibly literary or innovative texts like John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624) and, most experimentally, the spiritual narratives constructed by characters in John Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671). I argue that the process of creating and structuring godly identity through autobiographical writing cultivated spiritual assurance by providing imaginative access to inaccessible salvific truths. Looking specifically at texts that were written for circulation (in print or in manuscript, for friends or for the public), I further investigate the social functions of these deeply introspective texts, arguing that autobiographical writing allowed individuals to affirm personal godliness through shared interpretations of events and communal validation. The project complicates the notion of an “inward turn” in Protestant spirituality and alternatively offers the concept of turning the self “inside out”: using the text to place the self on display, seventeenth-century spiritual autobiographers materialized subjective experience and forged godly identities through the processes of sharing their stories with like-minded believers.
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