Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment

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“Faith cometh by hearing”—so said Saint Paul, and devoted Christians from Augustine to Luther down to the present have placed particular emphasis on spiritual arts of listening. In quiet retreats for prayer, in the noisy exercises of Protestant revivalism, in the mystical pursuit of the voices of angels, Christians have listened for a divine call. But what happened when the ear tuned to God’s voice found itself under the inspection of Enlightenment critics? This book takes us into the ensuing debate about “hearing things”—an intense, entertaining, even spectacular exchange over the auditory immediacy of popular Christian piety.
The struggle was one of encyclopedic range, and Leigh Eric Schmidt conducts us through natural histories of the oracles, anatomies of the diseased ear, psychologies of the unsound mind, acoustic technologies (from speaking trumpets to talking machines), philosophical regimens for educating the senses, and rational recreations elaborated from natural magic, notably ventriloquism and speaking statues. Hearing Things enters this labyrinth—all the new disciplines and pleasures of the modern ear—to explore the fate of Christian listening during the Enlightenment and its aftermath.
In Schmidt’s analysis the reimagining of hearing was instrumental in constituting religion itself as an object of study and suspicion. The mystic’s ear was hardly lost, but it was now marked deeply with imposture and illusion.
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Editorial Reviews

David Hall
This engaging book is remarkable for the breadth and depth of its research, its freshness and analytical power, and its fluid and witty style. Leigh Schmidt makes a persuasive and essential argument for the recovery of religion as a matter of senses, while exploring the ironies of 'secularization' in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Mark Noll
Hearing Things is a profound meditation on the surprisingly enduring dialectic among pre-modern, Enlightenment, and post-modern attitudes toward human experience, merged with a thoughtful account of supernatural and charismatic forms of Christianity. This is an important and an unusually insightful book.
Roy Porter
Insightful, witty, succinct--would that more academic books possessed the qualities which Hearing Things displays in abundance. This is a major contribution to the analysis of a key historical problem.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The narrator in the hymn "Amazing Grace" speaks of finding God in terms of sensory experience: "Was blind but now I see." This innovative study narrates a fall from sensory grace. According to Schmidt, a historian of American religion at Princeton University, Christians once inhabited a rich soundscape, what critic Marshall McLuhan called "the magical world of the ear." They heard heavenly voices, conversed with spirits and debated demons, and when they were called to preach, the voice of the Lord was loud and clear. The occasional prophet excepted, few people today seriously advance such bold claims. Who silenced the angels? For an answer, Schmidt turns back to the 18th and 19th centuries to look at Enlightenment philosophers and traveling ventriloquists, at acoustic engineers, anatomists and alienists, each of whom demonstrated in his own way the structures that undergirded claims of the miraculous. In later years, mystics and psychical researchers co-opted rationalist claims, and asserted that mechanical devices such as telephones and telegraphs were authentic means for communicating with spirits. But they proved to be lonely voices in an increasingly disenchanted sound stage. This densely argued, fascinating story features a panorama of colorful characters, from the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg to the traveling showman William Frederick Pinchbeck and his Pig of Knowledge. Schmidt's study offers an important chapter in the genealogy of the modern religious imagination. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
The mid-19th-century was a time of religious revival in America, as well as a time of great scientific experimentation, with the science of acoustics developing instruments to aid hearing just as the science of optics had previously done for sight. At the same time, hearing voices was a growing phenomenon in religion. In this intriguing, heavily researched study, Schmidt (religion, Princeton Univ.; Consumer Rites) considers the interaction between American Christianity and the Enlightenment with regard to hearing in an era when ventriloquism became a popular entertainment and Thomas Edison invented his phonograph. The very tools that had been developed to debunk spiritism were now being used to advance it. The author studies hearing as a cultural phenomenon, both scientific and religious, in this fine interdisciplinary study that sheds much light on a particular period of American history. Highly recommended for larger collections of American religious history and cultural studies. Augustine J. Curley, Newark Abbey, NJ Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674009981
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 11/30/2002
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 0.70 (w) x 6.14 (h) x 9.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Leigh Eric Schmidt is Professor of Religion at Princeton University.
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Table of Contents

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Responding to a Revolutionary Tradition
  • 3. Enterprise
  • 4. Careers
  • 5. Distinctions
  • 6. Intimate Relations
  • 7. Reform
  • 8. A New National Identity
  • Notes
  • Index

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