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David Hempton


Methodism's Missing Chapter

Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in Americaby John H. Wigger, Oxford Univ. Press; 269 pp., $55

The rise of Methodism to become the largest religious denomination in America on the eve of the Civil War was truly remarkable. Its relative neglect by historians is equally remarkable. While Methodist historians of Methodism have done valuable work in preserving archives, writing the internal history of the movement, and interpreting it for outsiders, the secular academy has been on the whole uninterested in the subject. Historians of the stature of E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, who did so much to breathe fresh life into Methodist studies in Britain, have no very obvious American counterparts.

This apparent lack of interest in the history of Methodism was described as "a puzzle" by Nathan Hatch in 1994, even though his own book on The Democratization of American Christianity and subsequent books by Richard Carwardine, Charles Sellers, Russell Richey, and others have helped considerably to reduce the number of missing pieces. John Wigger's excellent book, based on his doctoral dissertation at Notre Dame, is another important attempt to explain not only why Methodism grew so fast in post-Revolutionary America but also, by implication at least, why its early history has been so lamentably neglected.

The conceptual framework of Wigger's well-researched book will not be altogether unfamiliar to those who have read Hatch's work. Methodism is portrayed as the beneficiary of a religious free market and as a movement able to exploit the rise of new geographical and cultural peripheries as America expanded both its settled territory and its internal markets. It appealed largely to the middling sort (a contention now disputed in recent studies of British Methodism) whose social aspirations were nurtured by methodistical disciplines, but it also attracted large numbers of African Americans and women.

Early Methodist growth was largely a southern ...

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