There was, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a state of stable equilibrium which the political advance of the middle classes, the Oxford Movement, and the growth of the Wesleyans destroyed. As it left the hands of its founder [John Wesley], the Wesleyan body was a society, autonomous in government and independent in action, but essentially supplementary to the Established Church. Under his successors, especially Jabez Bunting, it developed into a church itself. Active, zealous, and resourceful, it gave a personality to the somewhat formless individualism of earlier Dissent, and it satisfied, and steadied, thousands of men and women who, but for the Wesleyan church, would, in the breakup of the old society, have drifted without direction or restraint, into vice, or crime, or revolution. By providing a far larger sphere of action for the laity than the Church or the older denominations furnished, it brought romance and ambition into a class which, under the pressure of the new civilization, was losing both purpose and aspiration; and the Wesleyan organization — the class meeting, the circuit, the conference, the Legal Hundred — has powerfully affected the constitution of political parties and Trade Unions. — G.<. Young, Victorian England: Portrait of an Age

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Methodism was a religious movement, led by Charles and John Wesley and by George Whitefield, which originated as a reaction against the apathy and the emphasis on logic and reason that characterized the Anglican Church in the early eighteenth century. The term was originally applied to a religious society which was established at Oxford University in 1729 by Whitefield and the Wesley brothers (nicknamed the "Holy Club," its members were pious young men who, in order to promote piety and morality, observed strict rules of fasting and prayer). Subsequently, it was applied to a variety of evangelical religious groups who took their original inspiration from the movement's founders, whose views on certain subjects were very different. Whitefield, for example, accepted many traditional Calvinistic views, while the Wesleys tended toward Arminianism and rejected, in particular, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, insisting that if a man could acquire through the intercession of the Holy Ghost the conviction that Christ loved him and had sacrificed himself for him, his sins would be forgiven. Conservative members of the Church of England in the mid-eighteenth century found the Methodist emphasis on private revelation and religious enthusiasm repugnant, but that same enthusiasm would become a central aspect of nineteenth-century evangelicalism.

John Wesley by Samuel Manning the Younger. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

John Wesley, the central figure in the Methodist movement, was a man of considerable intellect and enormous energy. During his lifetime he travelled, mostly on horseback, over a quarter of a million miles, and preached over forty thousand sermons, many in the open air, before audiences which were frequently hostile. He built up an enormous following, however, among the laboring poor of the new industrial areas, whom the established Church of England had tended to neglect, and by the late eighteenth century there were hundreds of Methodist chapels, presided over by itinerant lay preachers. Methodism was very much a religion of the poor, and had a great deal to do with a revolution in English religion which was as radical in its effect, in its way, as was the Industrial Revolution itself.

The social and political impact which the movement exerted upon its main constituency was, however, rather ambiguous. Wesley, who advocated a strict, even brutal, approach to raising children, was politically and socially conservative, and many Wesleyan leaders supported child labor and opposed the teaching of writing in Sunday Schools. On the other hand, other Methodists were much more openly democratic and concerned with working-class issues, taking an active role in the development of trade unions and in radical political activities. The movement remained officially within the Church of England, on however precarious a basis, until after John Wesley's death in 1791, after which it splintered into a number of factions of various sizes which were not reintegrated until the united Methodist Church of Great Britain was established in 1932.

Related Material

Suggested readings

Armstrong, Anthony. The Church in England, Methodists and Society, 1700-1850. London: University of London Press, 1973.

A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain. Eds. Rupert Davies and Gordon Rupp. London: Epworth Press, 1965.

Cuningham, Valentine. Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent in the Victorian Novel. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Davie, Donald. A Gathered Church: The Literature of the English Dissenting Interest, 1700 - 1930. New York: Oxford UP, 1978.

Gill, Frederick C. The Romantic Movement and Methodism. London: Epworth Press, 1937.

Shepherd, T. B. Methodism and the Literature of the Eighteenth Century. London: Epworth Press, 1940.

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Content originally created 1988

Epigraph added 14 June 2018