Wesley and the Wesleyans: Religion in Eighteenth-Century Britain
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN: 521455324X; 235pp.; Price: £40.00
University of Kent
Date accessed: 30 May, 2023
Professor John Kent brings a distinguished reputation as a historian of religion in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain to the near-impossible task of saying something new about John Wesley. Few lives have been so thoroughly documented as that of the subject of this book and Wesley's ability to project his own version of events to subsequent generations through his published Journals, letters and sermons matched his ability to inspire an audience through field-preaching. However, it is not Professor Kent's purpose to offer a biography of Wesley (though his approach to Wesleyan Methodism is broadly chronological) on the lines of the excellent life published by Henry Rack in 1989.(1) Instead, this is a blast of the iconoclastic trumpet, and the first image which is listed for destruction is no less than that of the 'evangelical revival' itself.
The tone of the book is confident, assertive and provocative; its style is a highly accessible and lively one, and in its relatively inexpensive paperback form it will probably (and deservedly) attract a wide readership. As with many provocative books, Wesley and the Wesleyans will arouse many disagreements. With a work of this kind, however, a reviewer needs to be on guard against the temptation to dismiss the book's central thesis on the one hand, while undermining its claim to novelty by maintaining that sensible historians (often including the reviewer) have been advocating it for years. The snares of that temptation are evident in some reviews of the first edition of Jonathan Clark's English Society 1688-1832 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), a work of which Professor Kent takes due account.
Professor Kent sets himself the task of destroying what he calls 'the myth of the so-called evangelical revival'. This myth, he argues, holds that 'from about 1730 . a dramatic, divinely inspired return to true Christianity balanced the moral budget of the British people . The instruments of this divine intervention were John Wesley and his followers, the Wesleyans or Methodists'.(p. 1) If acceptance of this myth were indeed widespread in academic studies of evangelicalism, this book would be providing an essential service by arranging for its demolition. However, since it would be extremely difficult to find the work of any serious historian of the subject (none is cited) which advances claims of this nature, the reader may be forgiven for a sharp sense of windmill-tilting. Nonetheless, the author proceeds to offer a synoptic and highly critical analysis of the origins and development of the Wesleyan movement, from the 1730s to the beginning of the nineteenth century, which amounts in effect to a debunking exercise. John Wesley himself emerges as a self-confident, indeed authoritarian, leader who 'found in religion a means of imposing his will on some of his contemporaries, though rarely on his social equals'.(p. 189) One of his principal skills lay in his ability to manipulate men and women whose social and educational levels were lower than his own.
Central to the book's argument is the concept of 'primary religion', an expression unfamiliar in use in eighteenth-century England. Its meaning, as understood by Professor Kent, is entirely different from 'primitive religion', in the sense of the 'true' religion practised by the Apostles and their contemporaries. 'Primary religion' is defined as the search for 'some kind of extra-human power, either for personal protection, including the cure of diseases, or for the sake of ecstatic experience, and possibly prophetic guidance'.(pp. 1-2) It is further defined as a belief in the direct, personal intervention of providence in everyday life, 'as distinct from a more general providential protection of the nation, and in visibly interventionist supernatural forces'.(pp. 10, 22) 'Primary' religious impulses, involving hope and prayer for divine succour in the struggle with life's vicissitudes, were always present in early modern (and indeed later) societies and hence, since 'primary religion' had not declined, there was no question of its being 'revived'.
Instead, John Wesley and his colleagues tapped into an existing pool of 'primary religious' aspirations which were unsatisfied by an increasingly moderate and rational Church of England. The Church feared that such aspirations would lead to the sort of religious fanaticism that had disfigured the seventeenth century. Hence Wesleyanism made little headway among the better educated and became trapped among those whose religious behaviour - involving emotionalism, convulsions, claims of 'perfection' and even of healing powers - left its authors exposed to the dreaded charge of 'enthusiasm'. But the Wesleys succeeded in restoring the freedom of 'primary religion' in Britain to express itself in a Protestant context, in the absence of opportunities for the invocation of saints available in Catholic societies. There are some interesting practical examples of 'primary religious' assumptions and conduct, some of them drawn from the journal of John Cennick in 1741.
Chapters 2 and 3 examine early (1740-70) and later (1770-1800) Wesleyanism. Professor Kent outlines the traditional explanations for the success of the Wesleyan movement in the 1740s, one of which is that it amounted to a reaction against the radical types of religious philosophy associated with Deism. He dismisses this explanation, quite reasonably, by pointing out that 'radical' philosophers (John Locke, Samuel Clarke) did not threaten either 'primary religion' or social stability, as distinct from orthodox Christian theology - moreover, they did not 'touch the majority of ordinary people'.(p. 49) Other traditional explanations, however, cannot be completely set aside. The legacy of highly intellectualised preaching bequeathed by Archbishop Tillotson, for instance, surely contributed to the way in which, as Professor Kent observes, Anglican teaching moved away from the immediacy and alleged superstition of 'primary religion', and thus created a void filled by the Wesleys. Similarly, the Wesleyan emphasis upon Trinitarian orthodoxy (skilfully delineated by Henry Rack (2) may be seen as a response to a perceived advance of Arian speculation among the English Presbyterians, as well as among a minority of the Anglican clergy. Moreover, the personal asceticism and self-denial, moral reformation and regular self-examination preached by the Wesleyans owed something to High Church Tory resentment against the materialism of the Robinocracy and Whig domination of the Church. An important theme of these two chapters is the flexibility of the eighteenth-century Church of England; although it could not embrace Wesleyanism, it never formally expelled the Wesleys. Indeed, it was only the persistence of one litigious clergyman that led to the exit from the Church of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion.
Professor Kent discusses the ways in which later (post-1770) Wesleyanism moved away from 'primary religion'. After its initial phase, the societies established by Wesley 'gradually lost their appetite for ecstatic experience, because the members were beginning to feel themselves in control of their social and personal circumstances'.(p. 42) The movement was 'torn between primary religious activities and the pursuit of preferably urban stability in large respectable chapels'. In effect, a new denomination was emerging, with increasingly formal structures, a second generation of leaders and a declining reliance on spontaneity. The process that Professor Kent describes here is a classic example of the transition from 'sect' to 'denomination' delineated by Bryan Wilson's Patterns of Sectarianism (London: Heinemann, 1967) and developed in Volume I of Michael Watts's The Dissenters (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978). This is entirely consistent with Wesley's political conservatism, which Professor Kent is anxious to stress. Chapter 3 concludes with a dismissal of the possibility that Methodism prevented revolution in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century (one wonders which serious historians now maintain that it did). Revolution was never possible because the Hanoverian state was quite prepared to use military force to suppress social disorder.(p. 100) There might, of course, have been other reasons for the avoidance of revolution, including the widespread intellectual and popular support for loyalism, the public reputation of George III as a conscientious paternalist and the relatively effective operation of the Poor Law and private philanthropy in times of the severest dearth. More account could, perhaps, also have been taken of the Methodist contribution to reforming, as distinct from revolutionary, politics.
Chapter 4 takes the form of a discussion of the role of women in the early years of Wesleyanism. That role, argues the author, offers further instances of the operation of 'primary religion' and female autobiographical writings show that many early Methodist women found satisfaction 'in the belief that they had access to supernatural power, which protected them as individuals and excited in them ecstatic experience'. The expectation that such accounts would need to conform to pre-set formulae is something which Professor Kent neatly recognises by commenting that these women usually 'described their experience in language which had already been laid down for them by male authorities' (p. 106). There is an extended treatment of Grace Murray's story, a narrative which is used to illustrate the Wesleys' ability to manipulate and to 'shape the underlying religious anxieties and expectations of those who came to hear them by making use of the secondary theological concepts of justification and sanctification'. Professor Kent clearly demonstrates the tortuous nature of the interplay between what he calls the 'primary' religious unfamiliarity with the 'concept of a God who could be offended and repulsed' (p. 115) and the more disciplined mental approach of the 'official' religion. The most positive feature of Wesley's relations with women presented in this chapter is the way in which he helped his female acolytes to change their perception of themselves, often in a manner which led them to seek a greater measure of control over their own lives. However, Professor Kent insists that Wesley did not intend to bring about such outcomes, and that he was really unaware of them.(p. 138)
Chapter 5, the longest and most substantial section of the book, examines the varied Anglican responses to Wesleyanism. Here the author is at his most convincing. He rightly observes that perceptions of Anglicanism as a social religion, imbued with civic piety and a culture of benevolence, were powerful in the upper reaches of the Church. Anglican resentment at Wesleyan claims to be purging the Church and to save the nation, and at intrusion into the parish system was thus understandable. To those with such a view, Methodism was tolerable only when it brought religion to communities that the Church had failed to reach, not when it intruded into parishes where the Church exercised a firm influence. Many among (and beyond) the elite sought 'a politer, more prosperous, more tolerant and more rationally moral society' (p. 156), rather than anything which seemed redolent of 'enthusiasm' and seventeenth-century fanaticism. Fears of the latter were indeed increased by the publication of Wesley's Journal. Archbishop Secker believed in a reasonable, mixed spirituality, in which faith and works combined. He spoke for many who remained deeply suspicious of those who 'believed that they could bring supernatural power directly into the community, either through the invocation of Mary and the Saints' as with Catholics, or 'through the invocation of the Holy Spirit' (as with Wesleyans). Professor Kent rightly contends that moderate Calvinism won far more support among the Anglican clergy than did Wesley's movement.(p. 145)
A characteristically trenchant conclusion subjects John Wesley's personality to a rigorous analysis that confirms the authoritarian tendencies set out in the earlier chapters. His movement is held to have achieved relatively little by the end of the eighteenth century: its societies 'seem to have lacked intellectual curiosity and aesthetic pleasure' (p. 201), apart from the appreciation of music. Wesleyanism abandoned the attempt to sustain a 'holiness' movement or to 'function as a pietist reforming movement inside the Church of England'.(p. 204) Its political impact was minimal; the real political successes were scored by single-issue campaigning societies, principally those concerned with missionary work and anti-slavery, which were inspired by Evangelicals within the Church of England.
None of this, however, is sufficient to confirm Professor Kent's central claim that there was no evangelical revival. A successful vindication of such a claim would require a consideration of the nature of, and criteria for establishing, the nature of revivalism itself, as undertaken, for instance, in the work of Richard Carwardine. It would also involve an examination of the impact of evangelicalism upon the older Dissenting denominations, notably the Congregationalists; it is a fundamental mistake to conceive of evangelicalism solely in terms of Wesleyanism, or to deny the existence of a revival on the basis of Wesleyan membership statistics. Professor Kent, of course, makes no such mistake, and his brief references to the international successes of Methodism in the nineteenth century (p. 204) indicate that there is much more to evangelicalism than the career and character of John Wesley. Similarly, the concept of a 'confessional state' in eighteenth-century England is brushed aside too lightly, especially as Dissenting grievances under the Hanoverian regime and the fear of the Church hierarchy that Wesley was leading his followers towards Dissent are correctly highlighted. In many closed parishes, dominated by one or two gentry families and a resident clergyman - parishes which Wesleyans often found extremely difficult to penetrate - the 'confessional state' was an everyday reality.
To handle such broad and ambitious themes in six chapters of a relatively short book represents an extremely demanding challenge. Professor Kent raises more questions than he answers and Wesley and the Wesleyans has a certain gadfly quality, with a power to provoke, to invigorate and to force the re-examination of received wisdom on nearly every page. It is highly readable and stimulating throughout. The many disagreements that it will, undoubtedly, invite do not diminish its value. Dr Johnson said of Joseph Priestley that his works 'tended to unsettle every thing, and yet settled nothing'. Professor Kent is no academic 'settler' and for that we should be grateful.
- Henry D. Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast. John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism (London: Epworth Press, 1989).Back to (1)
- Henry D. Rack, 'Early Methodist visions of the Trinity', Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, 46 (1988), 65-9.Back to (2)
In accepting the opportunity to reply to Dr Ditchfield's generous review of my book I shall concentrate on his criticism of my treatment of the concept of the 'Evangelical Revival'. The basic concept of the Evangelical Revival comes from ecclesiastical or church history, and presupposes an orthodox Christian view of history in which the first and last word are with God, and the idea of divine interventions in the course of history cannot be dismissed out of hand. Dr Ditchfield, who has written on the Evangelical Revival himself, defends the Revival against my criticism of it as a myth, according to which (as I put it), 'from about 1730 . a dramatic, divinely inspired return to true Christianity balanced the moral budget of the British people . The instruments of this divine intervention were John Wesley and his followers, the Wesleyans or Methodists'. Dr Ditchfield says that in putting it like this I am tilting at windmills, that serious historians do not advance claims of this nature about Wesleyanism in the eighteenth century. He leaves me uncertain as to what claims about the Revival he would accept himself. I agree that one has to be cautious. I imagine that Dr Ditchfield would agree that much that has been written, even in recent years, on the subject of Christianity in Britain in the eighteenth century, has been written from the 'church-historical' point of view, however nuanced. My own experience of twentieth-century history has not encouraged me to accept the idea of divine intervention in current affairs, and I agree with Dr Ditchfield that historians who are not 'church historians' are unlikely to have such a structure at the back of their minds. They accept the presence of organised Christianity in the eighteenth-century pattern, but they do not use a religious approach to interpret it. Whether this makes them more or less 'serious', I don't know.
The way in which they summarise the occurrence of the Evangelical Revival is sometimes another matter. Wilfred Prest, for example, in Albion Ascendant: English History 1660-1815 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) said that in about 1740 'the emergence of a new breed of evangelical mass missionaries' was 'the visible manifestation of a Protestant religious revival sweeping simultaneously across Britain, Continental Europe and North America', (p. 141). There is a not dissimilar summary in Jeremy Black's Eighteenth-Century Britain 1688-1783 (London: Palgrave, 2001), where he describes Methodism as part of the 'Great Awakening', which he says was a widespread movement of Protestant revival in Europe and North America. Doreen Rosman, in The Evolution of the English Churches 1500-2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), speaks of a spiritual revival, which reinvigorated the existing Churches and changed the whole religious landscape:
the knowledge that similar events were taking place in other lands gave the English revival impetus and reinforced participants' sense that they were sharing in a great outpouring of God's spirit. (p. 151)
And to go back a little in publishing time, W. A. Speck in his book, Stability and Strife: England 1714-1760 (London: Edward Arnold, 1980), summed up what has become a traditional picture of religion in eighteenth-century society in this way:
But religion of any kind probably sat lightly on the labouring poor before Wesley and his itinerant preachers addressed them. Among the masses superstition flourished long after the decline of magic had set in among the educated classes . The only members of the lower classes that the revival failed to touch in any significant way were farm-workers . Where the prevailing religion of the upper classes hardly measured up to Wesley's criteria for nominal religion, being little more than a code of good manners, Methodists were consumed with a burning conviction that man was sinful and that only a new birth in Christ could wash his sins away. (pp.115-117)
There is more than a trace of balancing the moral budget of the British people there. All the passages which I have quoted can be defended, and language of this kind does not, I agree, appeal directly to the church historian's theological understanding of human history. But it does echo the way in which church historians present the period, and one ground, therefore, for calling the story of the Evangelical Revival a myth, is that it has tended to become what everybody says about English religion in the eighteenth century and that this does not encourage a re-examination of the part which religion, Christianity, and the so-called Evangelical Revival in particular, played in England in the eighteenth century.
Part of the problem has been the tendency to conflate 'religion' and 'Christianity', as though the second term exhausted the possibilities of the first. This means that Deism is not thought of as 'religious', and that David Hume's atheism is described in a philosophical rather than a religious context. In this world-view a 'religious' revival would have to be a revival of Christianity. At the same time, as my quotation from W. A. Speck suggests, it has been common to distinguish between religion/Christianity and the 'superstition' of the lower classes, among whom, agricultural workers apart, Wesleyanism was supposed to have flourished. And this is why I think that one needs a closer examination of the idea of 'religion', before one turns to the question of what the constant reference to an 'Evangelical Revival' implies.
It was for this reason that I introduced the concept of 'primary religion'. I wanted to look at the religious behaviour of the poorer part of the population without having to do so through the controlling lens of Christian theology. I wanted to test the assumption that the best explanation of the emergence of early eighteenth-century Wesleyanism was in terms of the response of George Whitefield and the Wesleys to what they believed to be divine inspiration. The idea of 'primary religion' also freed me from the assumption that the prior beliefs of those who came to hear the revivalists preach could be summed up as superstition, folklore, and magic. There has been a tendency to invent a 'folk-religion' as 'a residue of pagan magic and superstition which in some areas exercised a powerful hold over the minds of the common people well into the nineteenth century'.(1) Dr Ditchfield summarises what I say about primary religion but makes no comment, apart from his statement at the end of his review that 'none of this is sufficient to confirm . that there was no evangelical revival'. But I am presupposing that in any century the poor, and in practice not only the poor, are anxious, uncertain about the nature of existence and the chances of the future, and are willing to believe in at least the possible existence of some source of extra-human power which can be invoked in the hope of limiting illness, poverty, insignificance, suffering and fear. We have ample evidence of this kind of behaviour in contemporary Western societies. People accept what I have called secondary theological systems as part of the price that they have to pay for supernatural power.
In such a context one needs to redefine what happened when the Wesleys and Whitefield began their itinerant preaching. Once one perceives that the process was two-way it becomes difficult to talk about 'the Evangelical Revival' as a simple entity, whether one means a Christian religious movement directly inspired by God, or one indirectly inspired by God, which is perhaps the more usual way of describing it nowadays. In the context of a meeting of primary religion and secondary theology, one in which, to my mind, primary religion was initially dominant, one needs a new name for the phenomenon which does justice to both sides. Further to this, however, I notice that when Dr Ditchfield says that my text does not confirm my critical view of the idea of an Evangelical Revival, he does not mention what I say about a more general Protestant recovery, which did take place in the eighteenth century, not only in England but in Europe, and which may be seen as the matrix of Methodism. This recovery was primarily military and political, symbolised in England by the development of the new Hanoverian state from a fortified island to an aggressive power, capable of absorbing the loss of the American Colonies and setting up a new empire in their place. It is important to see the rise of the Wesleyan societies and the expansion of Dissent as part of this process. In the early eighteenth century England was still recovering from the religious conflicts involved in the seventeenth-century Civil War and from the long wars caused by Louis XlV's determination to dominate Europe. Britain, as part of a Protestant axis, had survived the ordeal by battle but was scarred socially and emotionally. As Linda Colley has shown, a fierce British Protestant nationalism, more political than religious, expressed the unity of what was a new state. The energy of the official forms of Protestantism went into the achievement of theological self-confidence and social power. It was not surprising that the energies of primary religion became detached, or that new religious groups sought to respond with what was wanted. We need, it seems to me, less emphasis on the idea, or myth, of an Evangelical Revival, and more analysis of the varieties of religious behaviour to be found in the eighteenth century.
Dr Ditchfield does not take up this point, but instead says that a successful vindication of my position would require 'a consideration of the nature of, and the criteria for establishing, the nature of revivalism itself, as undertaken, for instance, in the work of Richard Carwardine.' I am not clear what Dr Ditchfield means in asking for a discussion of the nature of revivalism. Like Richard Carwardine, I have myself written on that subject at some length: in particular, in my Holding the Fort: Studies in Victorian Revivalism (London: Epworth, 1978). Originally, whether the word was used to describe the internal excitement of a late seventeenth-century New England congregation as it tried to save the souls of its children, or whether it was used to describe the spread of the Wesleyan movement across England throughout the eighteenth century, 'revival' meant an event which was thought of as the direct, and above all, unpredictable work of God. It was an allegedly supernatural phenomenon, which could be prayed for but which could not (it was assumed) be induced by human means, and this basic view is in accord with what I have said above about the nature of the myth of the Evangelical Revival. In practice, between 1660 and 1730 this American kind of small, congregational 'revival', which was designed to extend the life of an existing local gathered church for another generation, hardly occurs in England. The Wesleyan movement of the 1740s had little in common with these 'revivals', so that to speak of a Wesleyan 'revival' is to use the word in a different sense. Local churches were the end-product, not the take-off point, of the Wesleyan movement, and for years Wesley himself was not very enthusiastic about their formation. A new phase of American revivalism started in the 1790s, and by the 1830s professional revivalists were blurring the distinction between revivals as the work of God and revivals as the normal result of using the correct methods - and there is a long, long trail from there to Billy Graham and the Religious Right, one which the main Wesleyan tradition in England was reluctant to follow. I think that serious historians should be cautious about using the phrase 'Evangelical Revival' and look instead at the detail of eighteenth-century religious behaviour as a whole.
This brings me to a final point. Dr Ditchfield comments on my dismissal of the possibility that Methodism prevented revolution in Britain in the early nineteenth century that he wonders which serious historians now maintain that it did. I agree, in the sense that E. P. Thompson's Marxism led him into arguing that an early nineteenth-century working-class revolution ought to have happened, and that therefore one had to explain why it did not take place and that this led him, and others, astray. But 'serious' historians still face the question of the extent of Methodist influence on the new industrial working classes, and their answers still seem to me to take forms similar to Thompson's, though without the Marxism. One can see this in John Rule's Albion's People: English Society 1714-1815 (London: Longman, 1992), for example. Rule emphasised that Methodism inculcated in the working-class the virtues of middle-class Utilitarianism, and that through the process of religious conversion and its reinforcement in the class-meetings these attitudes were deeply instilled. In my summary of the claims made for the Evangelical Revival I suggested that the movement was thought to have balanced the nation's moral budget. This seems to me to be the claim that Rule is making here, in that Wesleyanism transformed the moral behaviour of a section of the population, especially the working classes. Thompson would have said that this process deprived them of much of their capacity to dissent, to resist, and to form or adopt an aggressive political ideology. Either way, the myth of the Evangelical Revival distorts our reading of recent English history.
1. C. Haydon, S. Taylor, and J. Walsh eds, The Church of England 1689-1833: from Toleration to Tractarianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 26.