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John Wesley was the driving force behind Methodism. He was born in 1703; his grandparents had been dissenters but his father became an Anglican vicar. Wesley's father was a High Churchman who had a personal and individual faith and an intense belief in Christ as saviour and believed that all except the wilfully impenitent would be saved.
Wesley was educated at Charterhouse and Oxford, and was ordained as an Anglican clergyman. At Oxford his brother Charles had founded a society called the Sacramentarians, which was dedicated to the moral and spiritual improvement of its members. Wesley immediately became its leader and developed the systematic and methodical rules of behaviour - hence Methodists. The members were also known derisively as the 'Holy Club'. They were not only concentrating on saving their own souls: they were also reaching out to others in need, visiting prisons, giving practical help to the poor, filling in the lack of schooling. They also favoured the methodical following of the University statutes. They did good works, but they were also young prigs.
Wesley then came into contact with a group of Moravians which led him and his brother Charles to go to America to preach the gospel in Georgia. Wesley went for all the wrong reasons - he thought it would be easier to save his own soul in Georgia than in Oxford. However, in America he first showed his genius for organisation and laid the foundations of Methodist policy through lay assistants, prayer meetings, meeting-houses and the 'class' and 'circuit' system.
Wesley declared "The world is my parish". In the 50 years of his ministry he travelled 225,000 miles, wrote thousands of letters and preached more than 40,000 sermons, sometimes to very large congregations (in London, estimated at 20,000 people). His preaching was mainly to poor folk, though he inclined to be scornful of the dullness of agricultural labourers. He had little time for the rich - he found them idle, trivial, extravagant and lacking in social responsibility. His great influence was among the emergent manufacturing and industrial workers. These people faced the frustrations of the new world without the settled structure of the old which still held the farm-worker. Towards the end of his life the middle class in the industrial areas began to come into Methodism and to dominate the meeting. Pew-rents were charged, and Methodism became respectable.
Wesley's decision to become an itinerant preacher rather than to accept the responsibilities of a parochial living was of the first importance. With a living, he could not possibly have performed the extraordinary labours and travels which he continued almost until he died in 1791. Unremitting attention to detail and an indefatigable capacity for hard work were crucial to the prosperity of the Wesleyan connection. Wesley was an energetic and skilful organizer, administrator and law-giver, succeeding in combining in exactly the right proportions democracy and discipline, doctrine and emotionalism.His achievement lay in the organization of self-sustaining Methodist societies in trading and market centres, and in mining, weaving and labouring communities, the democratic participation of whose members in the life of the Church was both enlisted and strictly superintended and disciplined. Entry to these societies was helped by sweeping away all barriers of sectarian doctrines. In order to gain admission, Methodists
did not impose ... any opinions whatsoever. Let them hold particular or general redemption, absolute or conditional decrees; let them be Churchmen or Dissenters, Presbyterians or Independents, it is no obstacle... One condition, and one only, is required, - a real desire to save their souls.
Wesley's judgement of the men who served him and his vivid recollection of congregations and individuals sustained a national organisation which remained until the 1780s, the creation of one man. Behind this astonishingly effective dictatorship there were skills especially suited to the age, not least of which was his manipulation of the media. Wesley was not only a powerful preacher but was also a fluent writer with a shrewd appreciation of the techniques of mass communication. Wesley's most complete triumph was as a hack author. His plagiarism was notorious and in most cases unconcealed. The object was joy above all earthly riches, so the infringement of copyright was not something Wesley felt embarrassed about - arguments which tended to the defeat of Satan were worth using wherever they came from.
From the beginning, Methodism was identified with the religious life of the lower and middle classes. Its ministers made no apology for concentrating their energies on the poor. Methodism made rapid headway in areas with a long Dissenting tradition - Bristol, the West Riding, Newcastle, Manchester. Wesley's talent for organizing as well as inspiring the poor makes him a figure of great interest, but his record in this respect needs treating with some caution. If mere poverty had been sufficient to guarantee success, Wesleyanism would have become what it never was - a genuinely national force, uniting town and country, industry and agriculture, north and south. In many areas the Methodists were prevented from spreading their message by the squirearchy and clergy, not least when united in the figure of the 'squarson'. When the Methodists did make headway in such areas, it was in upland or woodland areas where the forces of genteel property were represented badly or not at all, and where a genuine tradition of independence existed. Methodism found its most promising environment in semi-industrial communities which had outstripped the capacity of paternalistic landowners and parish clergy to cater for them. In large northern parishes or in places of rapid urban development, opportunity offered and need dictated the spread of Methodism.
Wesley wanted to conquer sin, not social deprivation. The poor were suitable cases for treatment because they lacked the diversity of opportunity for sin which was available to the rich. They were not spiritually healthier than the rich, but the chances of cure were greater when so many sources of sin were cut off from them. Wesley was not very good at preaching to the rich, although it was possible to preach revival and renewal to wealthy congregations: Lady Huntingdon's preachers proved this. Wesley's appeal to the poor disturbed many contemporaries. Methodism taught denial of the riches of the world, and the pooling of money by communally-minded Methodists aroused suspicions of a contempt for the values of commercial society.
In a broader sense, Wesley's conception of the devout life could be seen as a revolt against the world of property in which most of his educated contemporaries lived. His societies fitted none of the approved models of ordinary association: they did not
Wesley was an avowed High Churchman. He had the highest regard for the Church as an apostolic institution and did not question its civil rights. His politics were thoroughly conservative, even reactionary, although Methodists did not always follow where he led. Wesley regarded politics as a matter of relative insignificance, but few of the enemies of Methodism believed that they were only interested in souls. Wesley's few active interventions into politics included pamphleteering against Dr. Price and the American colonists and opposing slavery. He rarely let pass any opportunity to impress upon his followers the doctrines of submission. His successors continued the tradition of their founder (who died in 1791) reaffirming their unfeigned loyalty to the King and sincere attachment to the Constitution. The Statutes drawn up in 1792 were explicit: None of us shall either in writing or in conversation speak lightly or irreverently of the government. At this level, Methodism appears as a politically regressive, or stabilizing influence, supporting Halévy's thesis that Methodism prevented revolution in England in the 1790s. At another level, there is an argument that Methodism was indirectly responsible for a growth in the self-confidence and capacity for organization of working people.
In 1820, Southey wrote:
Perhaps the manner in which Methodism has familiarized the lower classes to the work of combining in associations, making rules for their own governance, raising funds, and communicating from one part of the kingdom to another, may be reckoned among the incidental evils which have resulted from it ...
It is difficult to escape the consequences of Wesley's spiritual egalitarianism. If Christ's poor came to believe that their souls were as good as aristocratic or middle-class souls then it might lead them on to the arguments of Rights of Man. The Duchess of Buckingham was quick to spot this, and said to the Methodist Countess of Huntingdon
I thank your ladyship for the information concerning the Methodist preachers; their doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetually endeavouring to level all ranks and to do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told you have a heart and sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth
Wesley wished Methodists to become a 'peculiar people'; to abstain from marriage outside the societies; to be distinguished by their dress and by the gravity of their speech and manners; to avoid the company even of relatives who were still in "Satan's Kingdom". Members were expelled for levity, for profanity and swearing or for lax attendance at class meetings. The societies, with their confessional band-meetings, classes, watch-nights and visiting, made up a lay order within which there was a spiritual police constantly alert for any sign of relapse. The 'grass roots' democracy, by which the societies were officered by tradesmen and working people, did not extend to matters of doctrine or Church government. However, many of the skills learned by Methodists were eminently transferable into working class activity such as trade unionism and Chartism. Wesley broke sharply with the traditions of Dissent in his opposition to local autonomy and in the authoritarian rule of himself and his nominated ministers.
Methodist organization had two effects:
This helped the Industrial Revolution and helped to create a factory labour force which was amenable to instructions. The factory system demanded a transformation of human nature; Methodism provided the impetus for that change, although it was not intended to do so. Methodist theology was better suited than any other to serve as the religion of the working classes, whose members had no reason, in social experience, to consider themselves to be 'elected'. Wesley abandoned the Presbyterian idea of 'election' and substituted the universality of sin. Any man who came to a conviction of sin might be visited by grace and be ransomed in Christ's blood. As a religion of the heart, Methodism could appeal to the simplest and least educated, so opening its doors to become the religion of the poor.
Gradually the doctrine of justification by faith hardened: forgiveness of sin lasted only so long as the penitent went and sinned no more. The 'saved' were in a state of conditional, provisory election because it was always possible to backslide - and was more than likely. Grace could not be kept through good works, either (although good works might be a sign of grace). Grace could be maintained through
Break their will betimes. Begin this work before they can run alone, before they can speak plain, perhaps before they can speak at all. Whatever pains it costs, break the will if you would not damn the child. Let a child from a year old be taught to fear the rod and to cry softly; from that age make him do as he is bid, if you whip him ten times running to effect it... Break his will now, and his soul shall live, and he will probably bless you to all eternity. (Southey, Life of Wesley)
Methodist organization, hymn singing and sense of community was important throughout radical political movements in the Nineteenth century, including Chartism. The Plug Plotters marched into Halifax singing the Old Hundredth; Chartist chapels were modeled on Methodist chapels; the Methodists brought moral fervour to the movement in many districts, and some element of physical force at times - Methodists served the God of Battles!
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