Methodism in the 18th century-an Introduction

Often Religion gets a bad name in history, and rightly so in some cases. Religion has caused wars and the like.  As a Christian, I have heard these arguments time and time again; would it surprise you that I agree with that?  People use it as an excuse to do evil and to rule others.  I think all who know some history have seen that.  However Protestantism can be quite confusing, it is split into many different denominations, which mainly get along pretty well, but have different views on certain aspects, which mean they decided to go to different churches!  However that being said, most Protestants see each other as brothers and sisters, who follow the same faith but in a different way, you hardly ever hear one call themselves religious!  Methodism is one of these denominations, in which broke from the Church of England as it felt it was not doing enough to those in rural areas, far away from a church.  It noticed that the CoE was not moving to the cities and John Wesley decided to act!  With that introduction into explaining what Methodism is, let us begin the journey into 18th century Britain!

Methodism is something that has been criticised by E.P. Thompson as holding the working classes back; that it was a middle class movement that oppressed the working class. It is ironic that E.P. Thompson attacks Methodist Sunday schools, when it was them that allowed him to read a variety of books, even socialist books, and allow him to form the opinion that he held.  However, it has been defended and shown that in fact the efforts of John and Charles Wesley, along with the efforts of George Whitfield had a positive impact upon the people of England.

The Church of England has often been criticised in the 18th century, historians have said it was ineffective, dull and fading away.  This view has changed in recent years.  The Church provided for the poor, the vicar acted as the local vet, it cared for its congregation.  However Methodism offered something more, something different.  People flocked from all over to hear the Wesley’s preach, granted there were a few occasions where their lives were in danger, and somehow survived from being killed by mobs, but in some sermons in the outdoors, around 10,000 people came to hear what he had to say.  This may not seem such a large amount in the present day, but this was in rural areas in 18th century Britain, where populations of villages and towns were small, so 10,000 is a huge figure.  At the speeches, very strange events were noticed, people shook, people screamed, people danced; it scared the upper classes, that these people were showing emotion.  Wesley and other Methodist leaders were seen as revolutionaries, trying to stir up trouble!

Methodism had many positives on English society; firstly, it allowed the challenging of the normal social concepts. It was the Methodists who decided to allow Women to preach to read and to have a higher standing than men in the church.  This was not allowed in the Church of England.  The question must be asked as to whether this help move forward woman’s ideals for equality with men.  This was not only a Methodist viewpoint, in fact, many of the non-conformist doctrine encouraged similar things.  I put forward the idea that non conformist’s movements on the whole were progressive and have been since the 17th century or even the Reformation.

Methodism also gave the poor a chance to be able to read and write, to meet up, to help each other financially. By being able to read and write, it allowed them to access a lot of literature and books, allowing them to become politicised.  The rich could finally connect with the poor and each there away their social standing whilst in a Methodism meeting.  This allowed the classes to mingle to understand each other.  In fact in a meeting, class meant nothing, the poor could preach to the rich and vice versa, it was a place was equality, and this stretched not from single meetings, but to those on the continent and of course America.

From the 18th century to the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution and agricultural revolution emerge, allowing Britain to take the lead as the main manufacturer in the world.  At the time it was seen as a glorious time, the golden age, but that view is now often debated, looking at it from a modern perspective, one gets the sense that it may have been a dark time for the British people.  I mean the poor were exploited; people lived in horrendous conditions whilst the rich and the middle class lived lives of luxury.  The Methodist industrial owners were known generally for being better to their workman, than others in general.  Of course this was not always the case, but it was generally thought that the Methodist middle class was generally better to its workforce.  They provided for them and did encourage them to read.  The Methodist middle class were the main drivers to abolish the slave trade in the British Isles.  They were influential of politics, they were extremely important in these centuries!  Therefore perhaps they were a light in an elite which often are seen as evil capitalists.

The question debating Methodism is huge, and one that I have tackled before, was it a revolutionary movement? I put it to you the reader that perhaps it was an evolutionary movement that brought around change without violence, that it improved people’s lives and ensured that people actually looked out for each other.  Their importance in the 18th century is also huge and can be looked at in a variety of ways.  It challenged ideas, got mingled with the French Revolution and produced some of the greatest speakers in English History.  They were loyal subjects to the crown and without them; many have asked if the Industrial Revolution would have ever had been possible.  This is only a short introduction to the topic; Methodism played a huge roll in many aspects of life in the 18th century, so much so that it would require many, many blog posts to cover it.  I hope this introduction will help and that you can see its positive impact.


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