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Methodism and Church History

The eighteenth century is commonly viewed by historians as a period of decline for the Anglican establishment which suffered increasing losses in its authority over local parishes and failing to respond adequately to the changing society of the early industrial age and challenges over the nature of religion and its role in the lives of individuals.In the 1740s, Samuel Wesley and his sons began to preach outside the confines of the Church, advocating a more voluntary approach to religious devotion and encouraging increased involvement of laymen in the work of the parish.

Methodism was effectively born out of societies set up to integrate the church into the community, but in carrying voluntarism to its logical conclusion, argues Gilbert, such a movement would naturally come into conflict with the establishment by offering an alternative to the prescribed methods of religious practise and undermining the ministerial authority and organising machinery of the Church.Although the Wesley family were conservative Tories and John Wesley, who was to become the leading Methodist figure, always expressed a keen desire to remain within Anglicanism, he told a inaugural conference in 1744 that Methodism would either leave the whole church or “be thrust out of it” Whether the Methodists were in essence a radical or conservative group was at the time, and remains a much debated topic.

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In an essay on Methodism, Dissent and Political Stability2, Gilbert argues that it was in fact both.

Methodism was a means of taking a stand against prescribed religion and the status quo of social organisation through the withdrawal of status respect and assertion of freedom. Methodism was in effect a radical means of political and social protest in an era of new ideas and social instability, epitomised abroad by the violent revolutions in France, and yet the movement was unobtrusive in its politics and the moderate nature of this radicalism had a stabilising effect on society, acting as a “safety valve” that contained tension and helped avoid the polarisation of opinions.

Looking at the religious history of other European nations, Methodism is quite the anomaly, a dissenting movement, cast out of the Anglican Church that eventually serves to prop up the traditional order. Weakness in the Anglican establishment dated back to the reformation, which had been a break away from authority from Rome, but had also meant an increase in secular authority over the ecclesiastical, through the judicial courts, some tithe taxes and rights of patronage.

Though the clerical influence in national politics and in local parishes was still strong, it was no longer as an independent body, but in conjunction with secular authorities. Loss of influence in the upper echelons of power, with monarchs of differing faith on the throne and the abbots losing their majority in the Lords was coupled with strain on authority in the parishes through lack of adequate funding or dynamism.

The demographic boom of the late eighteenth century and the breakdown of the traditional parish based organisation of ancien regime society with the increase in manufacturing towns left many outside the network of pastoral oversight, as Ward notes, this and toleration laws paved the way for eager dissenters to exert influence3. However, the first half of the century is more commonly characterised by a mood of religious apathy. Numbers attending Anglican services were declining, but Gilbert argues, Protestant dissent was also in a state of atrophy in 1740.

Looking at statistics, this could be seen as a dramatic turning point in the history of religious dissent, but it must be remembered that after new toleration acts were passed it became necessary for all groups to register, nevertheless, this was a period when old dissenting movements were being surpassed by the new evangelicals, who could serve the community where the Anglican church could no longer cope. Naturally there was a certain discontinuity of dissent, with different traditions declining and growing in different patterns across the country.

The chapel movement was one that responded to local needs, in some areas lay societies along evangelical lines were even encouraged by the local clergy, but the most prominent groups inevitably sprang up where the church was least effective and inevitably would become a source of conflict with the establishment. The evangelical revival of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was above all a popular movement, and with no central driving force, it is difficult to define the limits of the movement.

Dissenters within the orthodoxy of the Church had existed before, but a newfound zeal, enthusiastic conversion methods and a more coherent programme now developed into a single, if multiform, religious phenomenon. Although there were divisions between Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists and Independents, they were not fundamental. All relied on lay preachers and the centrality of village communities to spread their message of voluntary piety, based around the family and spiritual equality, whereby all could receive salvation through faith and good works.

Methodism can perhaps be characterised by its system of connexion networks that linked dissenting groups across the country. Wesley had hoped to unite his movement through the Anglican ministers and in 1764 had sent fifty letters appealing for a unity of purpose, but receiving only three replies, realised he would have to unite and organise his followers outside the clergy. The strength of the movement however, was not in a system of alliances, but its dynamism.

Methodism was a movement that spread rapidly through expansionist missionary societies, and Wesley’s followers breached the movement further away from the church by demanding that its preachers should be able to give communion. A 1793 conference voted that members of a society who were unanimous in their desire to receive the sacrament from their preacher might do so. Ward questions whether this was a case of the preachers following the flock, or the scheming of radical ministers to use the Methodist congregations to spread their radical political ideas.

Samuel Bradburn was one such minister who introduced ideas of unbounded liberty and the Rights of Man into his sermons, but he shunned Kilham, an even more defiant political Methodist, casting doubt on any suggestion of a central political aim.

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In the 1790s, social tensions were reaching boiling point. Evangelical societies attracted dissenters at all social levels, even at court, where many independent politicians, clergymen and intellectuals deserted George III and headed a campaign as a Unitarian group for reforms to free trade and end slavery, believing in free enquiry and social progress.

Among the lower social orders there was a backlash against the increasing number of dissenters and riots broke out, prompted by food shortages but also calling for “Church and King” and were largely unhindered by the clergy and magistrates of the old order. It is important to remember that while the growth of evangelical movements was significant, it still only affected a small proportion of the population, with many remaining ambivalent towards new ideals of piety and man others choosing to remain firmly within the Anglican fold.

For some, traditional means of expressing discontent were still favoured. Davidoff sees the Evangelical movement as a largely middle class phenomenon. This was a rapidly expanding social group that needed to form their identity. He argues that a sense of religious belonging was provided by the various evangelical movements became a part of middle class culture and the success of the movement can be credited to its ability to fill this need. Traditional church practise did not involve participation from the lay community, and while the middle classes were a group with little political power, there role was gradually becoming more like that of the traditional gentry, as Lords devolved their duties in a practise of stewardship. Dissenting evangelical groups formed a basis of a middle class community as well as a middle class culture. The religious focus is undeniably meritocratic in tone; that salvation was open to all through their own piety.

Davidoff also believes that there was a notion that this piety could give individuals strength to bare hostility from others, as the new middle classes may well have faced in the years of hardship and social tension at the end of the eighteenth century. The central importance of the family crossed denominations, another middle class value. The ideal was of the home as a moral haven from the amoral world of the business market. This haven was created by women, who were viewed as naturally more pious than men.

The concepts of masculine and feminine were being transposed into more distinct social roles, each with their own responsibilities. Men were the material providers of the family and women’s role was to create a moral home for her husband and children, domestic seclusion was a moral ideal and some serious evangelicals even shunned the pleasures of sport and the theatre in favour of this domesticity. Women did have increased prominence in church life, in some denominations they could even be ministers, but overall, the new movements were still male dominated.

In some areas women may even have lost influence, where before they could have performed duties of clerks where necessary, roles were now more often formalised into those that were acceptable for women and those that were not. The evangelical community gave the middle class a forum to profess their beliefs and help to form their own culture and community. Dissenting groups were most prominent in new manufacturing towns and much of their establishment can be seen as benefiting the middle classes.

They set up church schools and welfare societies, seeing their community almost s an extension of their family that need to be provided for. Schools were central to the evangelical movement, supporting the middle class love of reading and reflection as alternative entertainments. Indeed it was often the case that the school came before the chapel, as was the case in Bollington, a manufacturing town in the Northwest. Although initially non-denominational, the school soon became dominated by the Methodists.

But importantly, the erection of such public buildings was not decided on by the preachers, but went before an appeal to the town, in tune with democratic principals. The practise of the Sunday school was an important means of gaining support among the locals, as many sent their children to work in factories at an early age and this would still give them a chance to learn to read. The work of evangelicals within their communities through charity and education may have stunted working class resentment, but Davidoff asserts that they still tended to stay away from Church.

Gilberts sees the evangelicals as targeting the lower echelons of society, corroding the image of the lower orders as simple minded and maybe thus giving cause for concern to the ruling classes, but it is probable that these are two differing views of what was essentially the same social group, seen as the lower orders by contemporaries, but viewed by some historians, in the pattern of social evolution, as the emerging middle classes. The end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries saw a demographic boom, centred around new manufacturing towns.

It was the early years of the industrial age and the changing structure of society had new needs that the state and church could not provide for. Looking abroad for a point of comparison, French society, with its firmly established monarchy and church was thrust into a violent revolution that was to remove both. In England, the less powerful position occupied by the monarchy and church could be seen as perhaps what saved them from a similar fate. Dissenting movements had been allowed to develop that were then to serve as a moderating force.

There was much confusion in the late eighteenth century as to Methodists and their significance. The movement grew further and faster than other evangelical societies, and what Smyth called “Christian godliness without Christian organisation” in 1795 was attacked by others as having too much organisation and followers were subject to too much pastoral oversight, threatening the formation of a radical political force. 5 Indeed, Sidney Pollard and Robert Southerly were of the view that revolution was imminent.

With hindsight, historians like Halevy have argued that there was nothing for the state to fear in the rise of Methodism, but contemporary powers would not have been able to see the larger picture of changing society and the development of a middle-class and so the movement may have been forced into its unobtrusive political stance where perhaps more radical beliefs were deep-seated. Jabez Bunting, a radical Methodist figure after the death of Wesley, saw the movement as wide, but not deep. He was relatively apolitical, but was keen to preserve the liberties that Methodism had benefited from in the face of conservative reaction to social tensions and revolution in Europe. But the evangelical revival, viewed with historical hindsight is indeed a political movement, the energies of the chapel communities were a force that resisted to reactionism and later advocated reforms, but after 1850 the dynamism of the movement had dwindled, as the social tensions of the age eased.

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