Jabez Bunting was undoubtedly sincere in his own support for the Methodist mission at home and abroad, but he was also convinced that he was indispensable to that mission’s success. Though the formal basis of his power was not large, the control that he exerted over the direction that Methodism took after 1820 was both absolute and clerical. He was often called the ‘Pope of Methodism’. He was secretary of the Methodist Conference after 1814 and of the missionary society that emerged on a nationwide scale. He was president of the Conference for the first time in 1820 and again in 1828, 1836 and 1844. He was a member of every important committee, weighty speaker at every Conference, edited the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine, and had a decisive influence on the ‘stationing’ of ministers. He managed Conference because the majority supported his policies, because he mastered every subject, because he was more moderate in proposals than in manner and because he was a realist. He persuaded the Wesleyans to open a ‘theological institution’ with himself as active president in 1834. Bunting established both a spiritual ideal and a disciplinary system, ruthlessly punishing any who dared to criticise him.
Bunting redefined the government of the Connexion. The Conference, which consisted of the Legal Hundred and other preachers, had to some extent been reformed in 1814. But government remained under Bunting government by senior churchmen and Conference aimed at strong government as the only way of directing Methodist expansion. The burden and responsibility over the local Methodist societies and chapels was carried by local laymen though Conference chose district committees to act during the year. To overrule a decision by determined local officers who controlled the money invited collision between Conference and its congregations, between central and local government, between high clerics and low laymen. Bunting’s control over the Stationing committee enabled him to press the authority of itinerant ministers and diminish that of congregations. In 1818 preachers were authorised to entitle themselves ’the Reverend’. In 1836 Conference approved the laying on of hands in all ordinations of ministers. High Methodists preferred clerical costume but opposition from anti-ritualists in the northern congregations resulted in the 1842 Conference banning them.
As Conference met for only a few days a year and most of the preachers who attended lacked experience of business, real power lay with a permanent executive dominated by Bunting. When Bunting was absent from sessions of the Conference it was found that it could not conduct sensible business. The problem with this control was that it allowed little room for opposition or independence. Conference tended to agree with what the executive proposed. The consequence of this was a growing conflict between central government and local initiative. In any local dispute Bunting upheld the right of ministers to instruct and to discipline their members. In 1827, for example, he insisted that the Brunswick Chapel in Leeds should have an organ, though most of the Methodists there considered it a symbol of clericalism, if not Popery, and in protest formed their own denomination, the Protestant Methodists. In 1835 one of his opponents, Samuel Warren of Manchester, was expelled by the Conference and the Lord Chancellor upheld that decision. Warren and his supporters wanted local societies to be given more independence, Methodist money to be controlled by laymen, no legislation without the consent of a majority of the local societies and the theological institution to be abandoned. These two groups joined and the Wesley Methodist Association was the consequence. For those who did not wish to be expelled from Methodism it seemed safer to let Bunting dominate and define Wesleyanism. Teetotalism posed a further threat to the unity of the Connexion in the late 1830s and early 1840s. In England it was usually led by Methodists and old dissenters and in Cornwall it resulted in members deserting ministers who would not sign the pledge and give the sacraments with unfermented wine. Conference in 1841 prohibited unfermented wine but a prudent Cornish superintendent prevented worse schism by turning a blind eye to some usage of the banned wine. In 1842, however, a group of about 600 separated from Conference and organised as the Teetotal Wesleyan Methodists.
Ways of worship within Methodism were as diverse as those in the Established Church by the 1840s. At one extreme some chapels were solemn and liturgical and used the Book of Common Prayer. At the other end the worship was revivalist. Irrespective, women did not become eminent as local preachers in Wesleyan, though they did in Primitive Methodism. Bunting, though he stood for order, recognised the rightfulness of revivals. It was the extent of revivalism that, by the 1840s, he questioned. He disapproved of ranting and sought to repress it and was careful to disassociate himself from the emotionalism of Primitive Methodists. The most serious opposition to Bunting and the most serious secession came in the 1840s. Both the Wesleyan Times and anonymous pamphlets or Fly Sheets attacked Bunting’s personality and policies furiously. Though he never acknowledged authorship, James Everett, a disgruntled preacher and satirist, was accused and in 1849 was expelled along with two contributors to the Wesleyan Times. The venom of the dispute between Conference and Everett was intense and was a reflection of discontent with Bunting’s regime. The result was the formation of the Wesleyan Reformers and led to up to a third of Wesleyan Methodists leaving the Conference. Some seceders formed the Wesleyan Congregationalist churches, other gravitated towards the Primitive Methodists and in 1857 Everett succeeded in joining with those who had walked out with Warren in forming the United Methodist Free Church, Liberal in politics and lay in emphasis. Everett became the first president of almost 40,000 members.
The Wesleyan splits left the seceders more radical and those who remained more conservative. But they also aroused many feelings of bitterness and disillusionment. Wearmouth called it a ‘spiritual earthquake that shook the very foundations’. They may also have diverted Methodism from evangelism among the working population, though even at the nadir of the reaction against Bunting in 1855 there were still some 260,000 adult Wesleyans who accepted his control of their national life and the local rule of ministers acceptable to him. Bunting’s policies of establishing Wesleyan Methodism as a religious grouping between dissent and the Established Church had been bought at the cost of theological repression and expulsion but in the Methodism he had refashioned many people found an acceptable spiritual home.
Methodism accounted for nearly a quarter of the total attendance in the 1851 Religious Census. It was most dominant in the belt of open arable country stretching from the south Midlands into Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, and in Cornwall and the Isle of Wight. Its influence was least felt in three regions: everywhere south-east of a line from Bournemouth to Great Yarmouth; in the three northern counties of Northumberland, Westmoreland and Cumberland; and, in the counties bordering the Bristol Channel (Devon, Somerset and Gloucestershire) and extending north across the Welsh Marches. The south-eastern counties of Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and large parts of Wiltshire and Berkshire were devoid of Wesleyan Methodism in 1851 and no sustained effort was made to introduce it till 1865. Why was this area a ‘Methodist Desert’? In part this was a result of Wesley’s policy of concentrating on urban areas where the Church of England was failing in its functions and in areas that would readily accept his message. The south-east was unresponsive since the Anglican parochial system had not broken down as it had in the north. By contrast, Methodism was highly successful in the Isle of Wight after 1800 when it stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the Church of England. A similar situation existed in Cornwall that Methodism capitalised on. By 1851 Methodist influence was at its height and all the various branches of the original Connexion were represented. Wesley also paid frequent visits to Devon but it was not until after 1850 that Methodism took off but never to the same extent as Cornwall. The strong position of Dissent in Devon before 1740 helps to explain this compared to the existence of fewer Dissenting chapels in Cornwall.
Methodism was not a monolithic denomination and the period between 1790 and 1850 saw it split internally in ways that mirrored divisions in society. During Wesley’s lifetime the only division within Methodism was between those who subscribed to a Calvinist theology led by Whitefield and the Arminian Wesleyans. The nineteenth century saw its progressive decline as individual churches either rejoined mainstream Methodism or became Congregational churches. In England there was one concentration of Calvinistic Methodists in a belt from Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, south through London into Kent. The Methodist New Connexion, formed into a separate denomination in 1797, was virtually identical to the parent body, except for the power it gave to the laity. It drew its membership almost exclusively from north of the Severn-Wash line and in 1851 there were only nine churches south of that line: five in London, three in Cornwall and one in Norfolk. The New Connexion was essentially a phenomenon of the Midlands and the north and its greatest strength lay in the complex of counties formed by Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Cheshire, Nottinghamshire, and the West Riding and into the north-east.
Primitive Methodism arose as a result of attempts to stifle enthusiasm that were taking place in the main body of Methodism. Originating in Staffordshire, it spread quickly between 1810 and 1850. From its original home it expanded along the line of the River Trent, encountering considerable success in the East Riding, and then it spread northwards into Durham and south through Lincolnshire into Norfolk. On reaching the Bible Christian strongholds in south-east and south-west England Primitive Methodism lost its impetus. By 1851 it was firmly established as a denomination accounting for over 20 per cent of all Methodists, and the second largest Methodist group. Primitive Methodism was largely rural in character and, with the exception of Durham and the Potteries; its main strength was in the predominantly agricultural counties of England. It was not until after 1850 that its appeal to the urban worker became obvious. Primitive Methodism was used, to a certain extent, by nineteenth century agricultural labourers as a means through that they could fight for social and economic recognition and the Primitive Methodist chapels provided the rural worker with a symbol of independence and defiance of the established social order.
The Bible Christians were a product of the West Country and, unlike the other branches of Methodism they were not a breakaway body. Though they adopted features similar to Methodism when they applied for membership of the Wesleyan Connexion this was rejected because of the independent character of its charismatic leader William O’Bryan. The Bible Christians opened their first chapel at Shebbear in north Devon in 1815 and four years later held their first Conference. In the early 1820s the leaders of the movement sent a mission to Kent and London and also accepted an invitation to take their cause to Somerset. By 1851 there were small groups of Bible Christians all along the south coast from Cornwall to Kent. However, over large parts of England there was little success. The appeal of Bible Christianity, like Primitive Methodism, was in rural society and provided a religious position from which to attack the economic system symbolised by the Church of England and Anglican landowners. It is no surprise that the Bible Christians found industrial towns difficult to evangelise. Both Primitive Methodism and Bible Christianity arose in response to the need to fill the religious vacuum left by the Church of England among rural workers. The south and westward spread of the Primitive Methodists was halted when they reached the Bible Christian strongholds and the converse was true. The similarities between them made it unlikely that both groups could flourish in the same locality. Only in Hampshire and Cornwall did this occur.
The Protestant Methodists, formed in 1827, united with the followers of Samuel Warren to make the Wesley Methodist Association in the 1830s. It was, with the exception of Cornwall, weak everywhere south of the Severn-Wash line. The main concentrations were in the north-western counties of Cheshire, Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmoreland, with eastern extensions into Durham and Yorkshire and then south in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. It made little headway in the strongly revivalist counties of the east: Norfolk, Lincolnshire, the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire. The Wesleyan Methodist Reformers, formed when James Everett was expelled in 1849, was barely organised by 1851. To a large extent the Reformers complemented the Association in geographical distribution and in 1857 they joined with the Association to form the United Free Methodist Church with an initial membership of around 40,000.
The 1851 Religious Census appeared to show a resurgent Nonconformity and a defensive Anglicanism. Most contemporaries accepted this but it is deceptively simple. By the 1840s Nonconformity was beginning to enter a phase of decelerating growth that eventually led to decline. The economic, demographic and cultural conditions of the previous one hundred years had been highly receptive to Nonconformist recruitment. But three separate circumstances began to alter this situation. First, effective Anglican competition emerged with the resurgence of the Church of England after 1832. Secondly, society was changing in ways unfavourable to Nonconformity. The decline of traditional supporters like the urban artisan and the tenant farmers and agricultural labourers meant that Victorian Nonconformity depended heavily for support on those social groups, like the middle-classes, least insulated from the influence of the religious Establishment. Finally, Nonconformist religious culture was evolving institutional and denominational priorities that slowed down the rate of growth. By 1851 Nonconformity was just passed the zenith of its power.