Methodism: Empire of the Spirit

Methodism: Empire of the Spirit

by David Hempton

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"Brilliantly provocative. . . . [A] masterful account."—Grant Wacker, Christian Century

The emergence of Methodism was arguably the most significant transformation of Protestant Christianity since the Reformation. This book explores the rise of Methodism from its unpromising origins as a religious society within the Church of England in the 1730s to a major international religious movement by the 1880s. During that period Methodism refashioned the old denominational order in the British Isles, became the largest religious denomination in the United States, and gave rise to the most dynamic world missionary movement of the nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, Methodism had circled the globe and was poised to become one of the fastest-growing religious traditions in the modern world.

David Hempton, a preeminent authority on the history of Methodism, digs beneath the hard surface of institutional expansion to get to the heart of the movement as a dynamic and living faith tradition. Methodism was a movement of discipline and sobriety, but also of ecstasy and enthusiasm. A noisy, restless, and emotional tradition, Methodism fundamentally reshaped British and American culture in the age of industrialization, democratization, and the rise of empire.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300129854
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 09/01/2006
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

David Hempton is University Professor at Boston University, where he directs the university’s program in the History of Christianity. His previous books include Methodism and Politics in British Society, 1750–1850, which won the Whitfield Prize of the Royal Historical Society; Religion and Political Culture in Britain and Ireland; and The Religion of the People: Methodism and Popular Religion, c.1750–1900.

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By David Hempton

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11976-3

Chapter One

Competition and Symbiosis

In research the horizon recedes as we advance ... and research is always incomplete. -Mark Pattison, Essays and Reviews (1861)

How is the rise of a great religious movement to be explained? As the title suggests, my approach will be to use two concepts from the field of evolutionary biology, competition and symbiosis, to explain how the Methodist species survived, adapted, and expanded. As biologists learn more about the mechanisms of natural selection and genetic mutation, they have come to place more emphasis, not on the relatively well known concept of the survival of the fittest, but on the idea that species survive in a complex symbiotic relationship with one another. Similarly, systems biologists now see the need not only to understand primitive cellular tissue but also to appreciate bigger pictures of organisms and their environments. So it is with Methodism. Much has been written about the movement from an internalist point of view, stressing quite properly the infrastructure of a religious movement built for growth, but Methodist growth did not take place in isolation from other important trends in the new worldorder of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. How were they linked? How did the symbiosis work in practice, not just in theory?

I set out on this discussion with not a little trepidation, because previous attempts have not worn very well. Forty years ago it was fashionable to regard Methodism as expressly a counter-enlightenment and counter-revolutionary movement that helped enslave its members to a new economic order based on factory production and raw capitalism. Much of this interpretation has withered with the Marxist and Weberian ideology that sustained it, but there are still books coming off the presses arguing that Methodism's primary appeal was to a predominantly superstitious popular culture that had been abandoned by more cultivated and rational religious institutions. The implication of all this is that Methodism was essentially a socially regressive movement, either at odds with good modernizing forces or an agent of bad modernizing forces. Those who resisted that interpretation, out of good intentions, often replaced it with an unconvincingly urbane kind of Methodism shorn of its raw populism and contributing to a new world order based on liberalism, ecumenism, and freedom of choice. Thus, neither critics nor defenders seemed able to capture the essence of a religious movement with the capacity to grow with explosive energy from very unpromising origins.

Unpromising may be an understatement. Protestant churches, suffering from external threat and internal decay, were at a low ebb in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Europe. Under pressure from the cumulative weight of the Counter-Reformation and from vigorous policies of confessional assimilation, Protestant morale was sagging. In the England of Wesley's early manhood there were litanies of woe about the general wickedness of the age, the progress of rationalism and deism, the decline of Church courts, the existence of new proto-industrial populations wild and free from religion, the political corruption of Robert Walpole's brand of whiggery, and, whether imagined or real, the general malaise of the Church of England. European Protestantism seemed to be entering a religious ice age in which old species were more likely to disappear than new ones arise. Yet beneath the surface, vigorous new forms of life were already taking shape. Just at the point when old religious establishments began to creak, new forms of Protestant Christianity, according to W. R. Ward, "exhibited astonishing new vigour by going over wholesale to unconfessional, international, societary means of action, in which the laity paid for and often ran great machines which had no place in the traditional church orders."

One of Protestantism's great post-Reformation deficiencies, therefore, its lack of religious orders, was partly redeemed by the international mobility of pious Protestants from central Europe. The catalysts were the Moravians. An unlikely combination of Moravian and Anglican enthusiasm for mission on the frontier of Britain's new American empire soon opened up a more benign religious version of the infamous triangular trade of slavery and cotton that fueled the economics of empire. This particular religious triangle was between continental Europe, especially Halle and Hernnhut, Britain, especially London and Oxford, and Georgia, especially Savannah. Some of this was facilitated by the existence of the Hanoverian court in London, some of it was generated by the activities of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, but most of it was sustained by the remarkable speed and volume of religious communications (both of literature and personnel) in the early eighteenth century. As the expansion of Europe into the New World gathered pace in the eighteenth century, the spoils would go to those who were prepared to be mobile, and who had a powerful religious message to trade.

The message was refined in the Fetter Lane Society in London, a religious pollen factory that performed the same role for Methodism as Azusa Street did later for Pentecostalism. Fetter Lane, strategically situated in the capital city of trade and empire, was a meeting point for German visitors to London, Calvinist evangelicals, Welsh revivalists, French Prophets, London's artisan pietists, and English High Church-men like the Wesleys. Not all was sweetness and light, however. The Fetter Lane Society was repeatedly rocked by doctrinal, ecclesiological, and semi-political disagreements. Wesley was particularly concerned with potentially dangerous quietist, mystical, and radical opinions such as the obliteration of distinctions between clergy and laity. Those with long memories of the social mayhem attributed to the radical sectaries of the seventeenth century knew well that popular religious enthusiasm, especially when yoked to social or political egalitarianism, was an unstable compound. Of particular importance was the conflict between Wesley and the Moravians. The Moravians brought Wesley's hard-schooled, High Church piety face to face with a heart-warming variety of European pietism with roots deep in classical Lutheranism and Reformation spirituality. But there was a parting of the ways in 1740 over "stillness," which Wesley repudiated as antinomianism, and Christian perfectionism, which Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf and the Moravians (and most everyone else) regarded as delusional. The dispute, which crystallized over different approaches to the sacrament (Moravians urged avoidance by those without faith, whereas Wesley saw it as a means of grace for all), was no mere theological tiff; at stake, to continue the biological metaphor, was the genetic structure of a new kind of religious species. The particular theological components of this new species, its evangelical Arminianism, its doctrine of assurance, and its quest for entire sanctification, are all well known, but what is not sufficiently appreciated is how these components, working together, created the kind of energetic activism for which Methodism became notorious. Spreading scriptural holiness through-out the land, and indeed the world, was the task; outdoor and itinerant preaching, societary association, and connectionalism were the means; individual assurance, communal discipline and national regeneration were the ends.

All this seems neat and tidy; it was anything but. Unsurprisingly, given his political and religious heritage, Wesley oscillated between seeking to reform the national religious establishment from above and trying to forge new structures from below. This tension between authoritarianism and religious conservatism on the one hand, and something approaching egalitarianism and religious radicalism on the other was evident wherever Methodism took root. The resulting conflicts were played out as ferociously within the Methodist tradition as they were between the tradition and its surrounding culture. The outcome was nevertheless vital, for what the tables of Methodist growth rates throughout the world clearly reveal is that Methodism did not prosper for very long when yoked to religious establishments with little popular appeal. New species gain nothing by clinging tenaciously to old and declining habitats; but not much of this was clear in England in the 1740s. Early Methodist expansion was spotty, eclectic, and messy. Wesley's much vaunted genius for organization turns out upon closer inspection to have been a ragbag of pragmatic innovations borrowed from Moravians and Quakers, or suggested to him by other free-market itinerant evangelists, most of whom he later fought with. As research moves forward on Wesley's early contemporaries such as John Bennet, Benjamin Ingham, and David Taylor, it becomes clearer that Wesley was not the lonesome genius of Methodist legend. He often reaped where others had sown, and borrowed ideas others had generated. What gave him his preponderance were energy, mobility, perseverance, and sheer force of will. What gave Methodism its preponderance over other early evangelistic associations was its ability to bestow an element of coherence and order on the disparate and often bizarre religiosity it encountered. The surviving diaries of Methodist leaders in the 1740s reveal passionate attempts to impose a degree of religious discipline amid the psychological disturbance, sexual repression, and immediate providentialism that wafted around early Methodist spirituality. Both men and women felt anxiety, shed tears, prayed fervently, saw visions, encountered scoffers, and slowly bowed the knee to Wesley's iron will and charismatic leadership. Bands and classes, hymns and love feasts, and rules and discipline supplied the requisite structures and rituals for reconstituted lives. In short, Methodism evolved with a theology and a structure that enabled it to meet the essential demands of individual assurance and communal discipline in a world order on the brink of very substantial changes. Methodism survived as the fittest of the various brands of evangelical piety in the first half of the eighteenth century, but its future growth depended largely on how well it would adapt to dramatic environmental changes.

The changes from which Methodism stood to gain, or lose, show up in the standard histories of the later eighteenth century: rapid demographic expansion; population mobility, whether compulsory or voluntary, especially to the New World; the development of proto-industrialization, industrialization, and social class; the rise of domestic and international markets; the growth of consumerism; the spread of the British Empire and therefore of Anglicanism; the beginnings of revolutionary political movements; and the transplanting of old European religious conflicts into new soil in different parts of the world. These relatively concrete changes, which can be counted and reproduced in maps and graphs, were accompanied by less utilitarian but equally important changes in thought and culture involving the spread of enlightenment and religious toleration, changes in gender relations and family structure, and subtle shifts in the construction of individual and group identities.

The precise relationship of Methodist expansion to these changes is infinitely complex, as complex as the relationships between species and their environments. Faced with such complexity there are a number of misleading ways to think about the problem of religious growth. The first is to assume a kind of uniformity of conceptualization that chains Methodist growth to only one or two of these processes. For example, parallels are frequently drawn between Methodist Arminianism (a free-choice salvation open to all) and the spread of markets and consumerism. Such explanations, because of their conceptual clarity, are often disproportionately influential. They also have the advantage of plugging into established discourses in national historiographical traditions. The explanatory power of drawing attention to these symbiotic relationships between Methodism and its surrounding culture is considerable, but never absolute, because it limits the possibility of other symbioses working just as influentially, either in the same location or in other places at other times. Faced with these difficulties it is tempting to shift the focus from the demand side of the equation to the supply side by attributing Methodist growth solely to its own theological, organizational, and human resources. Such explanations are particularly attractive to those writing from within religious traditions who assume that species always change environments, never the reverse. This error is more damaging to the process of historical explanation than the first, because it generally ignores context, and decontextualized history turns easily into hagiography or institutional reconstruction. The price for such an approach is often paid by religious traditions when attempting to explain their decline. Having never properly grasped the forces producing their own growth (the same could be said of some secularization theorists), explanations of decline are similarly naive and attenuated. The one advantage of this tradition of interpretation, however, is that it usually pays more attention to religious motivation and human agency than accounts based on structural or metaphorical symbioses alone.

One solution to the problems posed above is to multiply highly detailed local studies, many of which now exist, but the result can be the same as a heavy-handed pointillist painting that draws the eye more to the spots than the painting. Georges Seurat's conviction that painting in dots would produce a brighter color than painting in strokes is true of some brilliant local studies of Methodism, but an attempt also has to be made to shape the dots into a recognizable canvas. The approach I want to experiment with here is to outline briefly some of the most important symbiotic processes in Methodist expansion and then select four suggestive case studies, two from each side of the Atlantic, to show how symbiosis worked itself out in particular environments.

The obvious place to start, but ironically the most neglected, is to look at Methodism's relationship to the religious tradition out of which it emerged, Anglicanism. Good books exist on John Wesley's relationship with the Church of England or on the place of Methodism within the broad Anglican tradition, but the way in which Methodism as a growing movement nurtured itself, sometimes parasitically, on its parent is scarcely ever analyzed despite the fact that any number of local studies raise the issue. For example, Methodism gained its toehold in America among high concentrations of settlers of English ancestry in the Delmarva Peninsula in the 1770s. Methodism offered a more enthusiastic religion for Anglicans in an environment unsuitable to liturgical and moralistic refinement. In a tough new cultural frontier Methodism "substituted seriousness for frivolity, cooperation for competition, compassion for brutality and egalitarianism for deference." Similarly, Methodism's early success in Ireland, notwithstanding its exaggerated claims of converting Catholics, came among the predominantly English settlers in Armagh and Fermanagh who needed something more vibrant than traditional Anglicanism to equip them for the increased economic and religious competition of the border counties of southern Ulster at the end of the eighteenth century. The Methodist cause in Canada, after unpropitious starts in Lower Canada (present-day Quebec) and the Maritimes, was given a dramatic boost in Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) in the wake of the American Revolution with the settling of some seventy-five hundred United Empire Loyalists, disbanded British troops, and British immigrants. When the British government tried to recognize this new reality in 1791 by endowing the Church of England, the Methodists offered a powerful religious alternative. As is the way with Methodist cultures, once established, the preponderance of Ontario within Canadian Methodism lasted for a very long time.


Excerpted from Methodism by David Hempton Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION: Methods and Methodism....................1
ONE. Competition and Symbiosis....................11
TWO. Enlightenment and Enthusiasm....................32
THREE. The Medium and the Message....................55
FOUR. Opposition and Conflict....................86
FIVE. Money and Power....................109
SIX. Boundaries and Margins....................131
SEVEN. Mapping and Mission....................151
EIGHT. Consolidation and Decline....................178
NINE. Methodism's Rise and Fall....................202
APPENDIX: Methodist Membership and Rates of Change, United States and United Kingdom....................211
Suggestions for Further Reading....................259

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