Guest post: Searching for the ‘real story’ behind 18th century autobiography and conversion narrative

We have an early Easter treat for you with another guest post! Here, Bristol-based writer Lucienne Boyce considers the autobiography/conversion narrative of the eighteenth century figure Silas Told. As always, we look forward to reading your thoughts and responses in the comment section below.

“Instantly I felt it in my soul”: some thoughts on interpreting the life of Silas Told

Silas Told (1711-1779), Bristol-born sailor, slave-trader, teacher and Methodist, published his autobiography in 1786. A second (or possibly third; sources differ) edition appeared in 1790 entitled The Life of Mr Silas Told: Written by Himself. It is a fascinating tale. That, however, is the problem. As I read it, I became more and more convinced that it was a tale and not a true story at all. This was in spite of the fact that the book contains a great deal of detail, much of which is capable of corroboration, such as the names of streets, institutions, and ships. Furthermore, John Wesley has provided a “note to the reader” in which he recalls Told’s work, and there are references to Told in Wesley’s Journals.

Why was it so hard for me to believe that Silas Told’s were real experiences? The reason is that his book is so formulaic. It is a conversion narrative which so rigidly adheres to the rules of the genre it is difficult not to suspect its veracity. It also put me in mind of Daniel Defoe’s fictional Robinson Crusoe, with which it has much in common (in particular, the theme of Providence), and which in its turn was influenced by the conversion narrative.

These narratives, popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, followed a set pattern: the subject has an innocent childhood, a sinful youth/adulthood, suffers, repents, has a religious conversation and is saved. Such are the experiences of Told. After a childhood spent in “the bliss of the ever-blessed…Jesus”, he is apprenticed on a slave ship where, thrown into bad company, he is soon participating in the slave trade, “one of the basest practices under the sun”, swearing, drinking, and “overcome with…lewdness”. This causes him agonies: “I never was without fear of death, hell and judgement”. He quits the sea, vowing to live a better life.

Sometimes the narratives contain more than one conversion: an earlier one which lacks conviction, followed by a genuine conversion. Accordingly, Told spends some time amongst orthodox churchmen – “dead Christians” – before becoming a Methodist. Even then he has to wait several years before he attains true belief in his redemption. He spends the rest of his life teaching in Wesley’s school and ministering to condemned criminals at Newgate. This leads him into another form of conversion narrative, the Newgate narrative, where the criminal is brought to a sense of his or her guilt, confesses the crime, and dies knowing their sins are forgiven. Indeed, the last three chapters of The Life of Mr Silas Told are mostly taken up with Newgate narratives.

One of the major influences in Told’s narrative was Wesley himself. Wesley commissioned and published numerous spiritual autobiographies, and his ideology shaped them. Wesley’s tale of being rescued from a fire as a child is mirrored by Told in several accounts of his own childhood brushes with death, and these continue throughout his adulthood. Told also shares Wesley’s belief in the supernatural. One of his stories features a mysterious dog which disappears after leading Told and his siblings out of Kingswood Forest. Many of Told’s religious experiences involve supernatural events – twice he is touched on the head by invisible hands.

The result is that though Wesley encouraged, even required, his followers to share their personal experiences, the narratives are so structured that the personal seems to be lost. Told’s life is written in the language of Methodism and his interpretation of his experience is Methodistical. When he undergoes his first conversion on hearing Wesley preach “a still, small voice entered my heart with these words, ‘This is the truth!’ and instantly I felt it in my soul”.

What did this mean to Told? What are we to make of his experience when it is articulated within such strict guidelines it appears as if Told is simply writing what he thinks he ought to write – and feeling what he thinks he ought to feel? Yet we know there was a real, human experience behind these formulaic words, there was a Silas Told. The issue, then, for the modern reader and biographer is how to find it. This is particularly problematic in an age that does not routinely discourse of the soul, and to which Told’s language is archaic and alien. Indeed, if belief in the soul has been rejected, can we accept that the sort of experience Told relates was even possible? We may dismiss it as delusion, or an undiagnosed medical condition, or the result of stress.

Perhaps the subject could be explored thematically, by studying the cultural and social background to Told’s life and trying to place him in it. This could consider areas such as education, charity, slavery, Methodism, the criminal justice system and so on. A major theme could be an exploration of the conversion narrative itself, looking at how and where it originated, what influenced it, how Methodist narratives fit into the genre, and how people responded to it. Since men and women wrote conversion narratives there are gender issues to consider too. It has, for example, been suggested that Wesley planned to publish Hester Rogers’s autobiography as a female counterpart to Silas Told’s.

Another possibility is to focus on the action. Told’s was an exciting life, full of adventure, with sex, danger, violence and death aplenty in his voyages and Newgate stories. On these lines, it would be possible to portray his religion as heroic, in terms not only of the struggle with his internal demons, but the battles with hostile jailers who tried to prevent his Newgate ministry.

Which of these approaches (which need not be mutually exclusive), if any, would tell the story of Silas Told? Of course, this question leads into wider issues of whether it is even possible to convey someone else’s experience, to “tell” a life. These are important matters that need to be addressed, but my focus here is on Silas Told and his life. I am still pondering how to interpret “instantly I felt it in my soul”.

Bibliography

Bristol MShed, Silas Told, Sailor, http://mshed.org/explore-contribute/themes/transatlantic-slave-trade/workers-in-enslavement/silas-told,-sailor/

Burton, Vicki Tolar, ‘John Wesley and the Liberty to Speak: The Rhetorical and Literacy Practices of Early Methodism’, College Composition and Communication, Vol 53, No 1 (Sep 2001), pp 65-91, National Council of Teachers of English, http://www.jstor.org/stable/359063

Collins, Vicki Tolar, ‘Walking in Light, Walking in Darkness: The Story of Women’s Changing Rhetorical Space in Early Methodism’, Rhetoric Review, Vol 14, No 2 (Spring, 1996), pp 336-354, http://www.jstor.org/stable/465860

Defoe, Daniel, Robinson Crusoe, (London: Penguin, 1994, first published 1719)

Hindmarsh, Bruce, D., ‘ “My Chains Fell off, My Heart Was Free”: Early Methodist Conversion Narrative in England’, Church History, Vol 68, No 4 (Dec 1999), pp 910-929, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3170209

Rack, Henry D., ‘Wesley , John (1703–1791)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2012 [http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.londonlibrary.co.uk/view/article/29069, accessed 10 April 2014]

Told, Silas, The Life of Mr Silas Told: Written by Himself (London: the Epworth Press, 1954, first published 1786)

Vickers, John A., ‘Told, Silas (1711–1778)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.londonlibrary.co.uk/view/article/40215, accessed 10 April 2014]

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Lucienne Boyce is a Bristol-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. In 2012 she published To The Fair Land, a historical novel set in the eighteenth century about a fictitious voyage of discovery to the South Seas. In 2013 she published The Bristol Suffragettes (non-fiction), a history of the Bristol militant suffragette movement. She was brought up a Methodist, but ceased to have any connection with the church many years ago. http://www.lucienneboyce.com/

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