Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Methodism: Towards ‘respectability’

Between 1800 and 1830 Wesleyan Methodism faced threats from outside and from within as it sought to find ‘respectability’ and acceptance throughout British society.[1] Three problems dominated discussions: first, the problem of Methodist loyalty; secondly, how and where should Methodism grow; and finally, how should Methodism respond to popular radicalism.

The   problem   was that Methodism seemed particularly revolutionary.   Enthusiasm and evangelism tapped strong emotions and were believed to have genuinely dangerous potential. Methodists were therefore suspected of radical tendencies, even when their leaders went to great pains to demonstrate their support for the Tory establishment. Within Methodism the struggle was between conservative and broadly ’liberal’ wings both convinced they were being faithful to Wesley’s principles and intentions.  On his death in 1791 ‘Church Methodism’ was still an option and those who advocated it could use Wesley’s refusal to separate himself from the Church of England as a conclusive argument.  Though theoretically an option it was soon replaced by the determination to build a church more strongly organised than the Church of England.   The Methodist Conference  of  preachers only   was  to  be  the ‘living’ Wesley, entitled to govern autocratically as he had governed but delegating its power to local superintendent  ministers appointed  by  it.   With this hierarchical conception of church government went a ‘no politics’ rule that in practice meant no radical politics.   A  ‘liberal’ wing opposed this conception of government arguing that they were faithful  to  Wesley’s own impatience with rules,  loyal  to  his appeal  to  the  poor over the heads  of the  existing  dominant aristocratic  elite. Ministers were regarded as servants rather than masters and laymen had to be included at every level of government from national to local level. The minister’s function was to evangelise and bring new recruits into the Christian family where all were equal. Implied in this alternative  view  of Methodism  was  a  revolutionary vision of Britain  not,  as  the conservatives maintained,  an acceptance of the existing  social structure.

Between the 1790s and 1820s the aristocracy suffered from a growing paranoia and political radicalism and widespread   economic   distress   caused government to be apprehensive. This was also the period when Methodism, that was about 100,000 strong in 1791, reached its point of organisational take-off. Methodists claimed, though probably with some exaggeration, that there were 200,000 members by 1802, 270,000 by 1806 and 367,000 by 1812.   A more moderate, and more reliable, claim saw 167,000 members in England alone in 1815 with 631 preachers and 1,355 chapels, with over half a million members and hearers combined.   Figures  apart,  there  is evidence  of  the Connexion moving boldly into the more settled towns and villages of  rural  England  and a direct challenge  to  the  Established Church.

For many, Methodism seemed a great threat to stability and Anglican clergy were especially disconcerted by ’levelling principles’.  Popular religious feeling was, to those who governed, synonymous with fanaticism and fanaticism was an enemy to stability.  The response from the Connexion was twofold. First, the Methodists continued, following Wesley, to insist that their religious beliefs made loyalty to the established order as a spiritual imperative. Methodist sermons, conference resolutions and tracts continually emphasised loyalty, for conscience sake, to the government and the Crown.   Secondly, the preachers of the Connexion   proclaimed  that  Methodism  served  to  dampen   the discontent of  the  lower  orders and  that  its  influence  was consciously exerted to bring about ‘peace and good  order’.  By 1830 these arguments that corresponded with Wilberforce’s views as to the practical, political effects of ‘vital Christianity’ were becoming more widely accepted outside Methodism but it was a slow process.

The  second  problem  that Methodists faced  was  how  they could  increase  the number of members and what  direction  that growth  should take.   There was a fine line between acceptable mass evangelism and revivalist excesses that had on occasions worried Wesley and increasingly concerned Wesleyan preachers in the early decades of the nineteenth century.   Though some expressed theological doubts about revivalism, more important was the political pressure from government and the Church of England about growing Methodist extremism. The problem was made worse by two things. First, American Methodism that was trying to introduce frontier-style revivalism into eastern cities was introduced into England by Lorenzo Dow. Secondly, Methodist revivalist offshoots in Britain began to organise themselves into some kind of connectional system. Arriving in England in late 1805 Dow soon made contact with revivalist Methodists in Lancashire, Cheshire and the Potteries. Under his influence Hugh Bourne and William Clowes adapted the ‘camp-meeting’ technique of the American frontier. Camp meetings were condemned by the Methodist Conference and many chapels were closed to Dow and his followers but they won considerable support.   The result, in 1811, was the formation of the Primitive Methodists that seceded from the parent body.  It spread quickly through the Midlands and its membership of 7,842 in 1819 quadrupled to 33,507 by 1824. A roughly similar movement -- the Bible Christians -- flourished in Devon and Cornwall with revival meetings that lasted several days and nights and its application to join the Wesleyan Connexion was refused.

Foremost among those opposed to revivalism was Jabez Bunting.  What Bunting wanted was a marriage between vital religion and educated opinion, because in his view revivalism was not only divisive but also silly and degrading. In  their opposition to revivalism Bunting and others failed to distinguish between  the  temporary outbreaks of zealous revivalism  in  some northern  towns and the massive rural support for the  brand  of Methodism  offered by Bourne and Clowes.   Revivalism was not the monolithic entity that Bunting perceived but was something that had within it degrees of acceptability and unacceptability.  As in 1797 the Wesleyan leadership decided that the best method of control was expulsion. Bunting dominated Wesleyan Methodism until his death in 1858. In 1813, Bunting, then only 34 years old, was stationed at Leeds as a itinerant preacher serving under the superintendency of George Morley; stationed nearby was Richard Watson.   There was no doubting Bunting’s orthodoxy.  But Richard Watson,   born in 1781,   though briefly a Wesleyan itinerant, had joined the New Connexion in 1804.   Watson met Bunting in 1811 when the latter was helping organise opposition to Sidmouth’s bill.   They formed a close friendship and Bunting urged Watson to apply for readmission to the Old Connection that, because of Bunting’s considerable exertions, occurred in 1812. Bunting, Watson and Morley planned the organisation of the Leeds Missionary Society as a model for the Connection.  The usefulness of this initiative in its appeal to the  rank-and-file was recognised at the 1814 Conference and led to the introduction of  a new rule in relation to the Legal Hundred,  the 100  senior ministers  who  could  veto  the  decisions of  the  Conference. Previously  ministers were received into that body by a system of strict  seniority  but  from  1814, though  three  of  out  four vacancies were filled by seniority, the fourth would be a nominee of  all the preachers of the Conference.   Bunting was the  first minister  to  benefit from the new system and the extent  of  his success  may  be seen  in  his  election  as  Secretary of  the Conference as well.

The   final problem that Methodism faced was popular radicalism.   The Conference and the Committee of Privileges were vocal in their support for the existing social order, but the number of circulars they issued testifies to their ineffectiveness among rank-and-file members.   In 1812 preachers, including Bunting fought a hard and potentially dangerous campaign against Luddites, refusing to conduct Luddite funerals and closing chapels to Luddite orators.   The ineffectiveness of institutional solutions came home to Bunting when six Luddites, whose fathers  were Methodists,  were hanged at York  in  1813. Throughout the Midlands and the north Methodism faced competition from, and was influenced by, the new generation of political clubs.   Also in 1812 Wesleyans in the hosiery districts of the East Midlands became involved in the anti-war petitioning of the Friends of Peace.  The changing fortunes of war in late 1812 and 1813 spared the Conference from further embarrassment.

After 1815 Methodism came under attack from two fronts. The radical press claimed it was too reactionary, while the government accused it of harbouring radicals.   Wesleyan leaders transferred responsibilities to local preachers and the result was a squeeze on membership as individuals were expelled for radical actions. Growth in the northern manufacturing districts came to a halt and even went into temporary decline in 1819 and 1820. In Rochdale, for example, there was a 15 per cent decrease in members between 1818 and 1820. Events between 1800 and 1830 had led to a closer definition of Methodism in both a denominational and social   sense. Government pressure, revivalism and radicalism and administrative and financial difficulties led to changes in the structure and organisation of the Methodist movement.  Wesleyan conservatism was now well rooted, at least among those with influence. Methodism was becoming respectable.


[1] Methodism  between  1820 and 1914 can be approached in  the following general works: R.E. Davies, A.S. George and E.G. Rupp (eds.), A  History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, volume  2, Epworth Press, 1978, volume 3, Epworth Press, 1980 and the documentary volume 4, Epworth Press, 1987,  B. Semmel The Methodist Revolution, Heinemann, 1974, the brief study by D. Bebbington Victorian Nonconformity, Bangor, 1992 and D. Hempton  Methodism  and Politics in British Society  1750-1850, Hutchinson,  1984. More specific older studies include M. Edwards After Wesley: a study of the social and political influence of Methodism in the middle period, 1791-1849, 1948, E.R. Taylor Methodism and Politics 1791-1851, CUP, 1935 and R.F. Wearmouth Methodism and the Working Class Movements of England 1800-1850, 1937.  R. Currie Methodism Divided, London, 1968 gives full weight to the secessions.  H.B. Kendall The Origins and History of the Primitive Methodist Church,  2 volumes,  London revised edition,  1919 and J.T. Wilkinson Henry Bourne 1772-1852,  London,  1952 examine  the major secession, T. Shaw The Bible Christians, London, 1975 a less important one. J. Vickers Thomas Coke: An Apostle of Methodism, 1969 is a good biography of a neglected figure.  W.R. Ward has edited The Early Correspondence of Jabez Bunting, London, 1972 and Early Victorian Methodism:  The Correspondence of Jabez Bunting 1830-1858, Oxford, 1976. J.H.S. Kent Jabez Bunting: The Last Wesleyan, London, 1955 and his defence of Bunting in The Age of Disunity, London, 1966 puts one side of this leading figure while R. Currie is more hostile. J.C. Bowmer Pastor and People: A Study of  Church  and  People in  Wesleyan  Methodism,   London,  1975 recognises Bunting’s arrogance but regards him as essentially  a defender  of  ’classical’ Wesleyan church order.

No comments: