18th Century Methodism (1): An Introduction to the Social Movement

Christians who look back to the 18th century usually focus on the spiritual revival that took place, often termed the ‘Great Awakening’. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, what can tend to be left-out and forgotten is the enormous social impact the movement had on society. Methodism was a movement that grew out of a society that was still damaged by the British Civil War and Jacobean rebellions. Many villages and towns had lost their churches and those in cities were insufficient to cover the whole population, i.e the Church of England wasn’t creating any new churches, despite rapid population growth. Partly based on research from my time at University I aim to address this issue in a series of posts, starting with an introduction to Methodism as a social force. I will aim to write a post on the key figures of the movement, the revolutionary and counter revolutionary questions as well as the direct social impact of the movement, but for now let’s start with defining the movement from a historical perspective and consider the terms revolutionary or counter-revolutionary, and where they originate.

Lessons

Methodists were originally connected with the Church of England; their aim was to go into the rural communities, places that were lost due to the British Civil Wars that happened a hundred years previous. Eventually, the movement separated from the Established Church after the deaths of both John and Charles Wesley. But during the eighteenth century the movement was still connected to the established church. Both Wesley’s were Arminian and both saw a need that had to be filled. They travelled about the country, wrote thousands of hymns, songs and preached thousands of sermons to thousands of willing listeners. Compared to our level of activity in this present-day, it’s kind of pitiful really. One lesson straight-away is to do more! Another lesson we can learn is that it doesn’t matter if you’re Arminian, Calvinist or Lutheran by persuasion, none of these stances make you special, nor are they as important as we often make-out. At the end of the age, when all Christians will be gathered up to heaven, these differences in theology will be irrelevant, we will be there along with the Wesley’s, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Whitfield, Spurgeon and Luther.

An important point to note is that the Methodists were seen as troublemakers, as ‘enthusiasts’, and as dangerous by other Christian denominations and by political leaders of the time. It makes me think of today; we have church and political leaders today who don’t want people being enthusiastic and evangelistic for the gospel. We have the current ‘extremist’ bill going through Parliament, and we have many stuck-up churches (particularly in Reformed circles) who want Christians to be emotionless beings, to hide their emotions, their feelings from God and others, and see anything or anybody else as ‘enthusiasts’ and theological wrong. Anything ‘new’ is viewed as heretical to be thrown away, much like the attitude of the Church of England back in the eighteenth century. The Methodists didn’t fit the bill, they weren’t normal in society’s eyes; they reached out to the outcasts, to those no one cared about, to those who couldn’t benefit the church coffers. They preached Jesus simply and they loved the Holy Spirit. In fact their meetings would probably be described as ‘charismatic’ in today’s terms, they were accompanied by many extraordinary outpourings of the Holy Spirit. If they were alive today, I might call them ‘Reformed-Charismatics’, a term that I like! The Methodists were different, and were despised by those in power, by the church leaders. I will come back to this in another article, but this is something to ponder.

Revolutionaries?

The question of whether Methodism was a revolutionary or counter revolutionary movement is one that has sparked much debate. Many Marxist historians who follow E. P Thompson would argue that it was counter revolutionary, arguing that it was a middle class movement aimed at keeping the working class subdued and de-revolutionising them. According to Thompson a ‘Methodist was taught …to bear his Cross of poverty and humiliation’.[1] Interestingly, historians in the Victorian age, such as Macaulay and Lackey tended to have a similar viewpoint to that of Thompson, suggesting that Methodism stopped a similar revolution from happening. However Thompson’s book The History of the Working Class, received much criticism. It prompted many conservative and religious historians to write books showing Methodism as a non-political organisation, or that being counter-revolutionary was beneficiary to the survival of England and not a hindrance as Left-wing historians would argue. Davies states that John Wesley ‘would not have tolerated in his followers any tendency towards violent revolution’.[2] Nonetheless it must be noted that at the time, during the eighteenth century, the Church of England and prominent politicians classed the movement as revolutionary, upsetting the class structure and would lead to events that were similar to that of France. The Church of England’s views are extremely important as they were the ones who were the most threatened by the rise and growth of the Methodist movement under the guidance of the main leaders, including the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield in England and America, and preachers in Wales, such as Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland.

Conclusion: Evolutionary!

We can see that Methodism’s role in the eighteenth century is certainly important, even as social force. The debate as to whether it was revolutionary or counter revolutionary has been going on for decades and will not end with this post, but what is key is that it transformed society from the ground-up. It was a huge movement in the eighteenth century and its impact should be looked at closely by historians and Christians alike. In later posts I hope to talk about the social impact of Methodism, the views and lives of the main preachers and ask was it actually revolutionary or not? In my essay I wrote a few years back (as awful as it was in terms of grammar, and historical writing goes), I concluded that Methodism wasn’t in fact revolutionary, and it wasn’t counter-revolutionary. I argued that the movement was evolutionary, and that you shall see explained later on!

[1]E.P. Thompson., The Making of the English Working Class (London : 1968), 406

[2]R. Davies., Methodism (Middlesex : 1963), 107

The Reformation: What were the consequences?

Happy Reformation Day everyone! What was the Reformation you ask?  Well it was when the Protestant church broke away from the Catholic Church, all starting with Martin Luther on the 31st October with his 95 theses which he nailed to a church door.  This along with the thoughts and ideas of other theologians were spread across the continents thanks to the recent invention in a printing press.  It was a movement that shocked the western world and made us who we are today.  In this brief post I want to state a few facts as to what the reformation achieved both good and bad!

  • Paved the way for ordinary people to read their bibles, which in turn allowed them to think about religion and faith themselves
  • Paved the way for the free trade and a rising middle class
  • It created a movement away from an established church and religion, but instead allowed for personal faith and freedom of religion
  • It ensured a more centralised government
  • It paved the way for science
  • It created the nation state. What we know as nations today are a result of the reformation! People settled where they found likeness in religion, whether that was Catholicism, or the varying forms of Protestantism. All the countries north of Germany became Protestant, whilst those below stayed Catholic, whilst the Holy Roman Empire was torn between the two.
  • It led to a surprising increase in Witch Trials. This was due to many reasons, one of which was difference in religion, the other being national identities. Most trials happened in across borders. Another reason for trials was that there was still a large amount of superstition in countries of witches and bad harvests
  • It led to the Thirty Years War, which was arguably the worst conflict Europe has ever seen. Every nation was involved across Europe, from Sweden with Gustav Adolphus to Spain, it was a war in which the rules of war were abandoned. This war could be argued as a war for freedom, a war for personal faith, but also a war about economic prosperity and land. Rulers saw what could be gained, such as Catholic France fighting with the Protestants due to their hatred of Spain. Whilst Gustav noted the trade that could be gained from entering the war.
  • It saw a rise in Propaganda, both Catholics and Protestants were writing things about each other, which hardly any of it was true. The main reason being is that they were scared of each other.
  • The Reformation showed the evilness of man. The Catholic Church wanted its control, whilst the Protestants were bickering amongst themselves. It also showed how great God is, raising men in difficult times to bring the word to ordinary people.
  • It showed that Protestants and Catholics cannot work together. Doctrinally, the churches are so different. This doesn’t mean we should start waging war again, far from it, love is always the answer, but we must distance ourselves from the Catholic leadership and doctrine.

The Reformation was and is a marvellous time for Protestants, God worked through it and brought the word to people like you and me. This doesn’t mean we should ignore the problems it did create because of mankind’s sin.  Total war saw hundreds of thousands perish, whole cities destroyed, because of a desire to control people.  So when we think on Reformation Day, be grateful to God for what he has done, for shinning the light, whilst remembering all those who died in a conflict that was born of sin.

It is a great period to study and 600 odd words won’t do it justice, but hopefully this has given you a brief insight!

October the Thirty-First: Ghoulish Grins or Revolutionary Rants?

The 31st of October is a day of historical significance for the Christian; although it is generally associated with Hallowe’en and all the gruesome fancy-dress parties and pumpkin-chiselling accompanying it. Then there’s the hideous figures frightening the life out of you with their screeches whilst you’re buying your sprouts from the supermarket.
That aside, today is also the 499th year since a random monk nailed a bit of paper to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Every year it is celebrated as ‘Reformation Day.’

On that bit of paper, the monk Martin Luther wrote a wordy rant against corruptions in the Catholic Church that has had lasting affects to this day, now referred to as ‘The Ninety-Five Theses’. It mostly consisted of attacks on the Church’s practice of taking money for indulgences. The saying of Tetzel characterises this practice that Luther contested: “The moment a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk disgruntled by the state of the Church around him, fuelling these notions was his discovery of the Bible for himself.

This event is significant, as it is widely regarded as signalling the start of the Reformation, a period of dramatic spiritual change; although seeds had been sown previously and a change was very much in the wind already. Everybody would be affected, kings, Popes, bishops, peasants, knights – the lot.

Europe in 1517 was very much still in the dark ages, superstition reigned supreme. The Church, led by the Pope, had fallen into a state of disarray, despite the valiant efforts and prayers of men like Girolamo Savonarola, John Wycliffe and John Huss. The clergy was in a lamentable state. Whilst the printing press had been invented the century before, the Bible had not been fully translated into common languages for the masses. Church services largely consisted of incomprehensible Latin chants.

In pre-Reformation Britain, the average Joe was illiterate, lived in relative poverty, threatened by disease and plague with an average life expectancy of 38 years; thirty per cent of children died before the age of ten.

The reaction to Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses was one of outrage. He was summoned to Rome and labelled a heretic. Theologians wrote whole treatises refuting Luther’s work. The situation started to get out of hand and violent, when university students burnt copies of Luther’s work. Opposition grew. Others joined Luther’s side.

Luther and the reformers stood up to this opposition with great fervour. Luther himself is forever famous for his bold words some time later, after refusing to recant his writings: “Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”

One of Luther’s primary contributions to this great revival of God was his translation of the Bible into German. Men such as William Tyndale followed suit, translating the immortal Word of God into their own native tongue. For me, this is the most important thing the Reformation has given us, and we bear the fruits to this day.

The end-result, with the two sides, refusing to back down and thereby irreconcilable, was a split from the Catholic Church, creating the Protestant Church. Over the next few years Europe battled it out, physically and spiritually.

First and foremost we have to acknowledge the hand of God working events. He used the divorce of King Henry VIII of England to split the English church from Rome. He used a portly middle-aged German monk to light a spark. The Lord moves in mysterious ways His wonders to perform!

The Bible enlightened the minds of the man on the street, fulfilling William Tyndale’s vision of, “a ploughboy knowing more of the Scriptures than a priest.” With the precious Gospel of Christ and the Biblical values of devotion to God, obedience to the king and diligence in service, Protestant nations prospered.

 

Whilst the world views Hallowe’en as of more importance than Reformation Day; we can always remember the day when the Lord brought light into our dark continent. Let’s not look down on the idle parties and smugly think we’re so much better, let’s pray that the Lord will bring us another Gospel Reformation! Oh, how we need it!