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By R. Marie Griffith

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A second set of disciplinary practices in Christian history with lasting durability, albeit shifting form, pertains to sexual restraint. Like other appetites, sexuality—a capacious category meant here to include the discursive and material contours of desire, the boundaries of purity and transgression, and the means of private discipline and public punishment—operates at the juncture of intersecting cultural concerns. Saint Paul’s elevation of celibacy over conjugality received wide-ranging attention and debate, and various historical models emerged to enjoin both temporary renunciation and permanent virginity.

Yet whereas few of his colleagues may have been concerned by the decline of what was perceived as a primitive, superstitious asceticism now associated with Methodist excesses, for Miller the shift was an ominous one. 32 It had not been so long ago that fasting had been central to Presbyterian devotion, not only prior to the sacramental occasions noted earlier but also in ordinary, private life. The Scottish-born Isabella Graham (1742–1814), a highly influential reformer among widows, orphans, and poor immigrant women in New York City around the turn of the nineteenth century, recorded many occasions when she set aside a private fast and time for humiliation, grief, and repentance, to inventory and confess her iniquities and to ponder mournfully her baseness as a sinner.

The English Richard Dugdale, known as the “Surey Demoniack,” 32 / Gluttons for Regimen received treatment from a doctor, a cunning man, and two Roman Catholic priests until finally being cured through prayer and fasting. In Salem Village, Massachusetts, the “possessed” Elizabeth Knapp was prescribed prayer and fasting for her fits, just as several fasts were called to relieve Knapp and the village’s other possessed women and children. 17 Just as fasting remained central to Puritan devotion in both communal and private forms, it served similar purposes elsewhere.

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