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Visible Deliverances: The Fact and Figure of Miracle in Eighteenth-Century America


In my dissertation, "Visible Deliverances: The Fact and Figure of Miracle in Eighteenth-Century America," I argue that the idea of the miraculous was a vital resource for the representation of physical and spiritual experience in eighteenth century America. If the peculiar power of a miracle is that it can disrupt apparently fundamental systems like time and causation, that same unique power constituted its great virtue for the Protestant thinkers in my study. The idea of the miraculous suspension of natural law dramatized the subordination of all perceived order to the will of God. Consequently this shock of divine power was a useful construct for the purposes of pious exhortation. In a deeper sense, however, it allowed the clerical writers I focus on to imagine the link between divine power and the contingent structures of human understanding. In "Visible Deliverances" I argue that this work of writing the human relation to the divine through miracle took place in the imaginative space of literary representation. Faced with the incommensurability of human perception and divine force, these writers turned to allusive figural strategies. It was only figural comparison - a practice of spiritualizing analogy - that could place human experience in a defensible relation to the immensity of God's greatest works of power. In an initial chapter on miracles stories in Cotton Mather's medical writing, I argue that he advocated for these stories as necessary evidence for understanding the full scope of physical experience. In my second chapter I read George Whitefield's sermons on Christ's miracles in the context of early-eighteenth-century English religious controversies. In a final chapter, I describe the complexity of Jonathan Edwards' approach to the persistence of miraculous power in the world, an idea that he disavowed, but could not fully relinquish. Ultimately I argue that the principle of contemporary miracle is what allows these writers to describe the full power of the essential evangelical experience of spiritual rebirth.

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