Dissenters and Spiritual Autobiography

This examination of the physical in terms of gaining spiritual knowledge was manifested in the propensity of the Dissenting community to keep journals,

"By keeping a diary, the individual (even a common man) helped to record human history and was, in a sense, a divine amanuensis if he reported fully and accurately". From J. Paul Hunter The Reluctant Pilgrim (Baltimore, 1966)

If we are to believe Defoe that his writing has some moral agenda, his background as a Dissenter should be kept in mind. N.H. Keeble (The Literature of Nonconformity (Leicester, 1987)) has gone so far as to draw a link between 'prohibition', the discriminatory legislation against the dissenting community and publication, keeping faith solid through the written word. One example of the discriminatory legislation passed is the Clarendon Code (including the Corporation Act and the Act of Uniformity), which required magistrates, officers, clergymen and those that taught to take oaths which were in contradiction to Dissenting beliefs and sometimes other oaths. The oaths demanded absolute loyalty to the King under any circumstances, subscription to the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England's creed and other religious restraints such as the prayers to be used and the ceremonies for baptism and death. Another Dissenting writer, John Bunyan, wrote from prison for the edification of his congregation (see The Pilgrim's Progress). J. Paul Hunter (Before Novels) notes the use of spiritual biography (that is, the noting of physical events to mark spiritual growth, often, but not exclusively, written by men of God) to show a conversion or repentance. In this, Moll Flanders is ostensibly a fictional Spiritual Biography, although Hunter also makes it clear that while, "Spiritual biographies are filled with incidents of conversions through affliction... most conversions are then supported by evidence of the person's continued godliness and righteous action". The idea of repentance, as used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and, more specifically, by Defoe in Moll Flanders is discussed in Themes: "Repentance".

Another aspect to Defoe's study at the Charles Morton Academy which ought to be known is the use of 'particular providence' or casuistry. This is an approach to ethics which attempts to bridge between the individual and the abstract rules of morality in society. The family pastor that the Foe's had followed into the Dissenting community, Samuel Annesley, had his preaching described as, "cases of conscience, or practical matters of Christian conduct and belief". Max Novak, in his article 'Defoe's Theory of Fiction' (Studies in Philology vol. 61, 1969) says of Defoe that, "The morality of his fiction is based on a frequently confusing conflict between natural law and a Christian ethic".

Clearly then the importance of one's conscience, and individual responsibility to God, was important in Defoe's education and family life. In applying this knowledge to Moll Flanders, we may see Defoe doing one of two things: either he believes the 'wise man's prayer', "Give me not poverty lest I steal," or else he sees Moll as one not taking responsibility for her actions and using her situation as an excuse for her actions. In either case, it seems that Moll feels sympathy enough for her own various predicaments that the reader has room to doubt her continuous protestations of necessity and to wonder whether blame is being passed on rather than faced.

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