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.
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. 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.
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’. 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’. 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.
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!
E.P. Thompson., The Making of the English Working Class (London : 1968), 406
R. Davies., Methodism (Middlesex : 1963), 107