Methodism and the Redefinition of Religious Intolerance in England, 1688-1791

This paper was presented at the 2012 American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies Conference in San Antonio, TX – March 24, 2012.

John Wesley at Wednesbury

On October 20, 1743 John Wesley rode into the town of Wednesbury in the West Midlands.  As was his custom, he proceeded to the middle of the town and began to preach in the open air.  On this particular occasion his text was Hebrews 13:8 (Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever) and he remarks in his journal that there was a “far larger crowd than expected.”  After preaching, Wesley retired to a local Methodist’s house.  There he was engaging in his endless correspondence when a mob beset the house and forced Wesley to come with them to the local magistrate.  This is how Wesley describes the scene in his Journal:

To attempt speaking was vain; for the noise on every side was like the roaring of the sea. so they dragged me along till we came to the town; where seeing the door of a large house open, I attempted to go in; but a man, catching me by the hair, pulled me back into the middle of the mob. They made no more stop till they had carried me through the main street, from one end of the town to the other. I continued speaking all the time to those within hearing, feeling no pain or weariness. at the west end of the town, seeing a door half open, I made toward it and would have gone in; but a gentleman in the shop would not suffer me, saying they would pull the house down to the ground. However, I stood at the door, and asked, “Are you willing to hear me speak?” Many cried out, “No, no! knock his brains out; down with him; kill him at once.”Others said, “Nay, but we will hear him first.” I began asking, “What evil have I done? Which of you all have I wronged in word or deed?” And continued speaking for above a quarter of an hour, till my voice suddenly failed: then the floods began to lift up their voice again; many crying out, “Bring him away! bring him away!” (5:418).

What is remarkable about this story is that 1. Wesley was an ordained Anglican priest who always preached (even in the open air) in his cassock and bands, 2. The text and message he presents are completely orthodox – in complete agreement with the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles, and 3. the vehemence of the mobs reaction and their willingness to use physical violence against the famous John Wesley.

Such incidents were by no means isolated in the early years of Methodism.  Methodists, though legally still part of the established Church, were routinely harassed by fellow citizens who looked upon them with suspicion and contempt. Riots regularly broke out at Methodist meetings, chapels were vandalized and destroyed, preachers were attacked and/or pressed into the army and navy and Charles Wesley was brought before the magistrates on charges of Jacobitism.  Clearly toleration had its bounds even within the establishment.

What these brief examples clearly illustrate is that “toleration” and indeed intolerance took on a very different cast in Britain during the years following the Toleration Act of 1689.  Though the state officially tolerated religious difference – opening the way for a more individual system of religious belief; nevertheless local circumstances continued to dictate how toleration was applied. As in the example of John Wesley at Wednesbury illustrates, though Methodists were ostensibly a part of the establishment yet they faced localized persecution in some cases far more severe than that suffered by Dissenters. Thus, what I want to argue is that tolerance in England during the eighteenth century was about far more than religious doctrine or right belief.  Instead, intolerance persisted precisely because official toleration gave the public license to overlook belief.  As the example of the Wednesbury mob illustrates the attacks against Methodists, up to and including John Wesley himself, had little to do with doctrine and everything to do with how Methodists used the discourse structures of orality and print to reach a wider audience.  It was the unboundedness of the revival – the circulation of people and print, along with the willingness to ignore local customs and boundaries – that was really at issue.

Bearing this in mind, I want to do two things.  First, I will lay out some basic background on the controversy over Methodism.  Specifically, I will use the complex interplay between orality and print that characterized early Methodism to illustrate how the movement disrupted public space and created what became a developed evangelical public sphere by century’s end.  Secondly, I will turn to the question of Methodism and gender as a lens through which to interpret the intolerance that Methodists faced – by examining this potent socio-cultural issue I will thus be able to illustrate that the objections to Methodism by the general public had little to do with doctrine and everything to do with the evolving definition of the religious self.

It has long been assumed that the evangelical religion that arose and spread during the Evangelical Revivals in England and America was diametrically opposed to Enlightenment.  However as Michael Warner has recently pointed out, “Far from being simply a reaction against an already congealed ‘Enlightenment,’ eighteenth-century evangelical practices came into being through many of the same media and norms of discourse” (Preacher’s Footing  368).  Thus evangelicalism in fact participated in the same norms of discourse that created what Warner has termed an “evangelical public sphere” during the eighteenth century.  This evangelical public sphere operated alongside the secular in ways that “required the space of controversy afforded by competing printers, the compressed and progressive temporality of news, awareness of translocal fields of circulation, and a semiotic ideology of uptake” (Freethought and Evangelicalism 11:00). Thus the Evangelical Revival was in large part made possible by the expanding technologies of print and the increased venues for circulation that the developing capital economy produced.  It is to these technologies and products of mediation that we must attend if we are truly to understand the discourse of popular evangelicalism and how this discourse interacted with society at large.

In the case of the discourse culture of Methodism that was fostered by John Wesley there was an inherent relationship between circulating orality, manuscript culture, and print that came to define the Methodist media environment. As Warner puts it, “In a movement context that mixes printed and preached sermons with pamphlets and newspapers, performance and print were densely laminated together” (Printing and Preaching 42:00).  In his published Journal, for example, John Wesley not only records his extensive travels, but also details the sermons he preached – many in the open air to thousands of listeners.  However, in contrast to his printed sermons which are composed and arranged specifically for publication, in the Journal Wesley usually only recounts the Scripture passage he preached on and the number of people he preached to.  These mostly ex tempore public sermons were shaped by his context and his public audience, and the account of them in the printed journal thus highlights the unbounded nature of his audience and his text and the close relationship between orality and print that defined early Methodism.

However it was this unbounded nature of open air Methodist itinerant preaching that was perceived as the greatest threat to the established social norms.  Anglican parish preaching was directed in mostly set language (The Book of Common Prayer and the Homilies) to a very specific and set group of people within a sanctioned public space by an ordained priest – itinerant Methodist preachers, on the other hand, openly operated outside of this established structure.  Mostly un-ordained and uneducated, and thus outside of the established structure, they circulated from town to town preaching ex tempore in the open air or unsanctioned chapels.  Many of their sermons were never printed, nevertheless the storm of controversy they stirred up (both for and against) clearly made its way into print and informed the national conversation on the Revival.  Thus it was this “unauthorized” entrance into the public space of preaching – the claim to be able to address an unbounded audience – that caused much of the animosity towards Methodism.  In other words it was the discourse not the doctrine of the revival that was at issue.

An example of this can be found in the Account of the Experience of Hester Ann Rogers.  Towards the beginning of her narrative Rogers relates her reaction to the new Methodist preacher in Macclesfield, Mr. Simpson:

I heard various accounts of a clergyman whom my uncle Roe had recommended to be curate at Macclesfield, and who was said to be a Methodist. This conveyed to my mind as unpleasing an idea of him, as if he had been called a Romish priest; being fully persuaded that to be a Methodist was to be all that is vile, under a mask of piety…. I believed their teachers were the false prophets spoken of in the Scripture: that they deceived the illiterate, and were little better than common pickpockets; that they filled some of their hearers with presumption, and drove others to despair (15-16).

Thus Rogers’ objection to the Methodist Mr. Simpson has very little to do with anything he actually believes or preaches (she has never even heard him) and very much to do with the way in which he disturbs the order of society.  As she writes later, “When I came back to Macclesfield, the whole town was in alarm. My uncle Roe, and my cousins, seemed very fond of Mr. Simpson, and told me he was a most excellent man; but that all the rest of my relations were exasperated against him (16-18).  Simply by participating in the discourse of Methodism, then, Mr. Simpson calls up the specter of unbounded enthusiasm and disruption of the social order.

More than that, though, Rogers’ account illustrates how closely intertwined orality and print were in early Methodism.  Sprinkled throughout her published Account are references to sermons by Mr. Simpson, John Wesley and others.  Ostensibly instances of the localized orality of popular religion, evidence of these sermons nevertheless make it into print accounts – the most famous and published of which was Rogers’.  Likewise the women who wrote in to John Wesley’s Arminian Magazine participated in this conversation between orality and print – often giving accounts of revivals and sermons for the larger Methodist public.  Thus early evangelical media culture worked to form a type of feedback loop within which the genres of public oral sermon and printed discourse were constantly in conversation.  And it was this feedback loop of orality and print that threatened to break down the established public boundaries between private spirituality and public life.

To better illustrate how this evangelical public sphere operated and was contested I want to turn to some specific and local examples of the types of intolerance early Methodist converts faced. For, though the generally unbounded (in every sense of the word) nature of the Methodist movement and spirituality was crucial in forming attitudes towards Methodism, these attitudes were shaped and enacted according to local circumstances, customs, and mores. This is especially apparent in the case of Methodist women. Not only do these evangelical women writers illustrate how print could be used to blur gendered distinctions between public and private, they were also the locus for much of the anti-Methodist criticism and satire.  In fact the role of gender within evangelical religion and the appeal of evangelicalism to women was one of the roots of the controversy the Revival engendered. Thus the reaction to Methodism was in reality an expression of deeper seeded concerns over the role of marginalized members of society – women, the poor – in organized religion.  This anxiety is apparent in Leigh Hunt’s Attempt to Shew the Folly and Danger of Methodism in which he states, “We may see directly what influence the body has upon this kind of devotion [Methodism], if we examine the temperament of its professors.  The female sex, for instance, are acknowledged to possess the greater bodily sensibility, and it is the women who chiefly indulge in these love-sick visions of heaven” (55).  Thus what is really at stake in the print wars over Methodism is not so much the doctrine of justification by faith but the eroding of social boundaries via spiritual experience.

Hester Ann Rogers, for example, faced intense persecution from her mother and family upon her conversion to Methodism. Swayed by rumors about Methodism and Methodist teaching her mother “threatened, if ever she knew me to hear them… [to] disown me. Every friend and relation I had in the world, I had reason to believe, would do the same” (22). Rogers continues to attend Methodist meetings, however and “when my mother heard of it, a floodgate of persecution opened upon me!” (22). Her mother responds by confining her to the house for eight weeks, bringing in her godmother and the local clergyman to council her, and taking her away from Macclesfield, but to no avail. Upon returning home Rogers told her mother “in humility, and yet plainness,” that she “must seek salvation to my soul, whatever is the consequence” (23). She then says that she will leave and become a servant rather than renounce Methodism and goes on to offer her mother a deal:

Yet if you will consent to it, I should greatly prefer continuing in your house, though it should be as your servant: and I am willing to undertake all the work of the house, if you will only suffer me to attend preaching. She listened to my proposals; and after consulting with her friends, consented to comply on this last condition (23).

Rogers then proceeds to work for her mother as a servant for over a year before finally convincing her of the authenticity of Methodist experience. What was at stake here clearly had nothing to do with the actual content of Methodist belief – Hester goes to great lengths to articulate its orthodoxy to both her mother and godmother – but the erosion of family and community bonds and loyalties through spiritual experience.

Likewise the intense persecution that Mrs. A.B. experienced following her decision to become a Methodist illustrates the localized nature of Methodist experience and the ways in which persecution was very much tied to the disruption of social and culture norms. Mrs. A.B. was born to a Catholic family on an island of Lough Key in Ireland. Through the influence of an old Protestant woman who boarded with the family during Mrs. A.B.’s childhood, she was convinced of the error of the Catholic Church and the necessity of salvation by faith.  When she was fifteen, Mrs. A.B. was sent to the local priest for religious instruction – she refused to take part in Catholic rituals and openly defied both the priest and the Bishop, to whom she was sent to cast the “witchcraft” out of her. When she was twenty-one she came in contact with the Methodists and was sensibly converted.  She then publically recanted the Catholic Church, causing the parish priest to say he “would make hawk’s meat” of her.  After this she applied to the Rector of the Church of England parish for admittance and protection, but was rejected due to her belief in the ability to sensibly know her sins were forgiven. She then applied to another clergyman, who agreed to receive her into the Church. After this her friends and family attempted to marry her to a Catholic by force – rather than comply she fled, covering over seventeen miles by foot in a single day and contracting a life threatening fever.  Eventually she was taken into the house of a local Methodist and eventually married a Methodist man. What is crucial to recognize here is that Mrs. A.B. was an obscure, young woman who dared subvert local cultural norms because of her evangelical conversion.  She was willing to stand up to religious authorities up to and including a Bishop and flee her family and friends rather than marry someone against her will.

In becoming Methodists these women were in essence declaring their allegiance to a new spiritual family that was set in direct opposition to mainstream British culture.  Henceforth their primary allegiance was to God and the Methodist community and, as Hester Ann Rogers’ and Mrs. A.B.’s testimonies illustrate, they were willing to give up everything to do so. This disruption of social and cultural norms was then reflected in the concern on the part of fathers, mothers, husbands, and communities.  By developing a grassroots system of classes, bands, and select bands in order to foster a unique Methodist social community, Wesley created and organization that operated with what Gail Malmgreen describes as a “centrifugal force” which brought individuals together across wide distances and “broke down the narrowness of provincial life” (62).  For this very reason, though, these bands were seen as profoundly threatening to existing social and religious structures; thus it should come as no surprise that the early years of Methodism were accompanied by intense persecution in the form of riots, press gangs, and family pressure to renounce Methodism.

What these concerns indicate is that controversy over religious doctrine in eighteenth century England was rooted in the discourses of religion, gender, and publicity.  The average layperson may not have understood why Wesley’s doctrine of justification by faith and insistence on immediate sensible conversion caused such uproar within the Church establishment, but he or she surely understood that such doctrines threatened social order in radical ways.  Implicit in Wesley’s assertion that God’s grace was a free gift and salvation was available to all was an understanding of doctrine that exploded static categories of rich/poor, male/female, public/private.  Furthermore, by emphasizing that the experience of salvation could be sensibly experienced outside of Church walls, Methodism offered a fundamental redefinition of self based on personal experience with God and interaction with a new community of faith. Thus, under the guise of toleration religious belief became individualized, localized, and incorporated into a developing consumerist media culture. Individuals were now free to choose belief from a variety of options, but it was precisely in this move towards general toleration that localized intolerance became tolerable.

Works Cited

The Experience of Mrs. A.B.” Arminian Magazine XII (1789): 414-417, 463-466.

Malmgreen, Gail. “Domestic Discords: Women and the Family in East Cheshire Methodism, 1750-1830.” Disciplines of Faith: Studies in Religion, Politics and Patriarchy. Ed. Jim Obelkevich, et al. London: Routledge, 1987. 55-70.

Rogers, Hester Ann. An Account of the Experience of Hester Ann Rogers. New York: Carlton & Porter, 1857.

Warner, Michael. “The Evangelical Public Sphere: Between Freethought and Evangelicalism: Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin.” A.S.W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography. University of Pennsylvania. 25 March 2009.

—. “The Evangelical Public Sphere: Printing and Preaching: What is a Sermon?.” A.S.W. Rosenbach Lectures in Bibliography. University of Pennsylvania. 25 March 2009.

—. “The Preacher’s Footing.” This is Enlightenment. Ed. Clifford Siskin, and William Warner. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010. 368-382.

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