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“Experimental Proof of the Ever Blessed Trinity”: Personal Encounters with the Divine

Title“Experimental Proof of the Ever Blessed Trinity”: Personal Encounters with the Divine
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsCope, Rachel
JournalBYU Studies Quarterly
KeywordsConversion; Dream; Lee, Ann; Methodism; Roman Catholic Church; Second Great Awakening; Shakers; Trinity; Vision

Due to his interest in the experiential elements of religion and his desire to gain a greater understanding of holiness or sanctification, John Wesley wrote letters to some of his followers in the late eighteenth century, asking if they had “experimental proof of the ever blessed Trinity.”...The responses Wesley received to his intriguing question, combined with Joseph Smith’s 1838 and 1842 First Vision accounts that refer to his encounter with separate divine beings, have caused me to reflect upon similar manifestations and experiences in the lives of ordinary people across Christian traditions in the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenthcentury Atlantic world.4 Who did indeed receive proof, or a witness, of the Trinity? How and when did people commune with the divine? And was that communion tangible or ethereal? Did God speak in audible ways, or did his voice just reach spiritually attuned ears? Did the divine only appear in the context of visions and dreams, or was sacred presence manifest in a plethora of ways? Did the means and form of communication vary across culture and tradition? Did God individualize manifestations? And, finally, what made people seek and expect a personal experience with the divine? What circumstances brought seekers to their knees? What events made them plead for mercy, grace, relief, comfort, and hope? Indeed, what role did suffering play, and how did this suffering impact the quest to experience union with the holiest of beings?

In this article, I am going to consider how these kinds of questions play out in the lives of three deeply religious women: Ann Lee was a Shaker (1736–1784); Catherine Livingston Garrettson was a Methodist (1752–1849); and Elizabeth Bayley Seton was a Catholic (1774–1821).