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Wesley and the Wesleyans: Religion in Eighteenth-Century Britain
Wesley and the Wesleyans: Religion in Eighteenth-Century Britain
John Kent
Cambridge University Press, 2002
236 pp., 38.99

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David Bebbington

Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley and 300-Revival Reconsidered

In May 1988, while on holiday in Cornwall, I was deeply stirred by hearing a Methodist choir sing the conversion hymn of the Wesleys. The haunting 18th-century tune was one I had never heard before, and the powerful words conveyed a sense of the raw experience of men newly entering on a hitherto unimagined spiritual world. "Where," asks Charles Wesley in the first line, "shall my wondering soul begin?" The freshly composed hymn was probably sung by his brother John on the day of his conversion, May 24, 1738. The choir was marking the 250th anniversary of that event, often taken to be the birth of Methodism. The decisive stage in the Christian pilgrimage of John Wesley was considered well worth celebrating.

Now, 15 years on, there is another reason to commemorate the great evangelist. The current year, 2003, is the tercentenary of Wesley's birth. To mark the occasion, several biographical studies have appeared. None has been able to draw on the final volume of Wesley's journal, issued earlier this year in the authoritative version edited by Reg Ward for The Works of John Wesley. Nor does any of them, including each of the titles reviewed here, supersede Henry Rack's life of Wesley, Reasonable Enthusiast (Epworth Press, 1989), published just after the earlier commemoration. The two books by John Kent and John Munsey Turner considered here are reinterpretations of Wesley rather than detailed accounts of his life. Neither is chronologically arranged; both encompass the rise of Methodism as well as the founder himself. The similarities do not end there, for the authors are both retired English Methodist ministers who were trained as historians at the University of Cambridge.

Yet the perspectives are very different. Whereas Turner adopts a professedly Methodist standpoint, seeing Wesley as the creator of the tradition in which he stands, Kent takes a much more detached view, eyeing the evangelist more as a figure in the history of world religions. Both attack Wesleyan myths. Turner deplores the hagiography that has ignored, for instance, the relief of some of the elderly autocrat's followers at his eventual death. Kent, however, takes the assault on received opinion much further. He denies the existence of a spiritual movement that had Wesley as one of its central figures. There was, he claims, "no large-scale eighteenth-century evangelical revival." Along with much of the other religious baggage surrounding Wesley, in Kent's view, the notion of a revival must be thrown overboard. What, more precisely, do these contrasting interpretations have to offer?

Turner, whose less revolutionary account may be taken first and more briefly, is critical of treatments of early Methodism as a "one person show." He therefore puts Wesley in the context of the whole Evangelical Revival (he entertains no doubts of its existence), stressing the pragmatism that led the evangelist to create a system of itinerancy for spreading the gospel round the British Isles. Wesley was a man of the 18th century, with the foibles of the age, such as aversion to the rebellion of the Americans against George III. Wesley is depicted as a loyal Anglican, a folk theologian (here Turner follows Albert Outler), and the co-author, with his brother, of what the author justly calls "the greatest body of devotional verse in the English language."

Turner is also eager to give an overview of the movement that Wesley founded, and so he discusses the socio-political impact of Methodism over subsequent centuries and the character of Primitive Methodism, a 19th-century breakaway from Wesleyanism. These topics, though of great importance, are perhaps rather too remote from Wesley himself to warrant inclusion in such a volume. There are also points where unexplained allusions—to George Bell (p. 38), to the Irish textile triangle (p. 43), even to Methodist societies (p. 46)—will not convey their meaning to a newcomer to the field. Nevertheless, this volume will achieve the aim of the author, to explain the significance of Wesley in the light of recent scholarship (Turner is notably up-to-date) to Methodists and non-Methodists alike.

Kent's book also has great virtues. Its attitude to Wesley's conversion rings truer than Turner's. For Turner, the episode of 1738 was relatively unimportant, certainly in comparison with the event of 1725 when Wesley first took up the rigorous self-discipline of the High Church party. For Kent, the 1738 conversion was formative of the mature Wesley, for then he turned from his previous reliance on self-discipline to a personal faith that gave him greater resilience. The issue of whether Methodism saved England from revolution, the perennial Halévy thesis, is also treated more satisfactorily by Kent, who points out that the authorities were so firmly in control that there was no question of revolution in England in the first place. Furthermore, Kent's book puts the revival phenomena—though they are not so labeled—of Wesley's day center stage. Visions, dreams and special providences, the stuff of vibrant popular religion, are shown to be crucial to what occurred. There are welcome passages where contemporary documents, sometimes unpublished, are carefully dissected. The annotations of Archbishop Secker on manuscript correspondence written by John Berridge, an evangelical clergyman, are particularly revealing of the cleavage between the theological opinions of the religious authorities and those of contemporary evangelists. The analysis in Kent's book is very broad, encompassing, for instance, the writings of Thomas Hobbes as well as the novelists of Wesley's day. Above all, Wesley and the Wesleyans is fresh and suggestive, because it challenges all existing interpretations of the rise of Methodism.

The conceptualization of John Kent's book is drawn from Religious Studies, the discipline that the author long taught at the University of Bristol. Certain assumptions, sometimes found in that field but rare elsewhere, are made without argument. In particular, the notion of the existence of such a thing as "primary religion" is asserted. It is very like the "primal religion" that commentators have often attributed to traditional African societies. For Kent it is the impulse, natural to humanity, to seek supernatural power to cope with the experiences of everyday life, whether deep-seated anxieties, particular problems or the need for self-approval. It was this force, expressing itself in perceptions of divine intervention, that, according to Kent, Wesley harnessed for his movement. Primary religion, on the author's account, must be distinguished from "secondary religion," the formulation of theologies and the consequent creation of denominations. The plastic energy of primary religion was molded into the substance of Methodism.

Although this framework is boldly outlined in the first chapter of Kent's book, it is not carefully defended from potential critique. Yet it is remarkably open to dissent. The very distinction between primary and secondary religion is doubtful. Can a single impulse of human spirituality permeating the whole of history be isolated? Surely the quest for divine aid takes on many forms depending on local settings and specific faiths. It is doubtful whether religion could ever exist, even conceptually, except in the form of a particular religion. The primary and the secondary, in Kent's terminology, are therefore inextricably mingled together.

This confusion is apparent when Kent comments on the testimonies of Wesleyan women. One of them, Mary Thomas, recalled that Charles Wesley had "asked me if I was justified and I said no. You told me I was in a state of damnation." The concept of justification, according to Kent's twofold classification, belongs, as a theological rationalization, in the category of secondary religion. The idea of damnation, however, falls within the area of primary religion, which Kent says includes the notion of a God "who might reject one altogether and punish indefinitely." Yet on Mary Thomas' lips the two are yoked together as alternative forms of the human condition. Any attempt to disentangle secondary from primary religion is doomed to failure. The fundamental postulate of Kent's analysis is invalid.

Hence the reader needs to venture into the argument of the book with more than a little caution. Kent suggests that the Protestant recovery of which Wesley was a central figure was concerned with the interplay of these two aspects of religiosity. The disappearance since the Reformation from mainstream English Christianity of images of saints and their invocation left a gap in the area of primary religion, a vacuum where people wanted to call on supernatural aid. The official Church of England, preoccupied with providing theological sanctions for the socio-political order, did not cater for the need. Hence there was an opening for a movement offering access to heavenly power. Wesley saw the hole in contemporary religious provision and filled it. In its first phase, roughly from 1740 to 1770, Wesleyanism contained a protean dynamic of spontaneous spirituality, with cries and moans, anguish and despair, release and rejoicing. Only gradually, with the disciplining of Methodism into regular channels, did secondary accretions, theological formulae and denominational structures, take over. By 1800 the process was virtually complete, though traces of primary religious energy could still be found among rural Primitive Methodists as late as the 1880s.

There is much here that carries conviction. There is a great deal of evidence that the Methodist movement did undergo over time a slow stiffening, a sort of corporate routinization of charisma. Nevertheless there seems to have been much more expectation of supernatural intervention in post-Reformation England than this account would allow. Contemporary miracles were denied by official Protestantism, but divine interventions, as the work of Alexandra Walsham has shown in Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), were standardly looked for both in the churches and beyond their bounds. The supernatural in the form of prophecies and prodigies was firmly entrenched in popular culture. So there was a deep seam of intense religiosity for Wesley to mine. Signs and wonders were not a new form of marketing ploy so much as common ground between Methodism and much of its host society.

The analysis of the Wesleyan phenomenon in Kent's book has many other dimensions. The Protestant recovery, on his account, was not only a religious process but also political. Kent points to the resurgence, against the forces of the Counter-Reformation, of Protestant Britain, usually in cooperation with Protestant Prussia. He also devotes whole chapters to the place of women in the movement and the attitude of the Anglican authorities to its development. His argument in these sections is that Wesleyanism became more patriarchal as the 18th century advanced and that the Anglican response to Methodism was fair and adequate. He seizes every opportunity to take issue with other historians, sometimes explicitly (as when he disagrees with Reg Ward's contention that early Methodism was a lay movement), sometimes tacitly (as when he objects to the idea that the Reformation meant a "stripping of the altars," an allusion to the work of Eamon Duffy). The result is a lively polemical work, sometimes demanding to follow but always vibrantly opinionated.

Two subjects may be singled out for special comment, the first being the theme of holiness. Kent gives considerable attention to the topic, for he recognizes that it was Wesley's central preoccupation. Methodism, in Wesley's view, was raised up to spread scriptural holiness across the land. He warmly encouraged his followers to seek the experience that he preferred to call "perfect love," a condition where deliberate sin was known no more. Wesleyan holiness, according to Kent, meant "altered states of consciousness, brief in themselves, and with no lasting effect on the will or the personality"; and he holds that those who claimed the experience "invariably lost it."

Neither evaluation does justice to the available evidence. Many Methodists believed that perfect love, once given, never left them; and many non-Methodists noticed a quality of saintliness about the manner and behavior of some (by no means all) of these exceptional Wesleyans. It is mistaken, furthermore, to suppose, as Kent does, that by the end of the 18th century, Methodism "gave up the attempt to sustain a holiness movement at its heart," leaving the task to American revivalists. There was, on the contrary, a powerful indigenous strain of holiness teaching that put down deep roots in many parts of England, a tradition discussed by Turner. Holiness was an enduring force in 19th-century English Methodism.

The other issue that calls for special comment is the relationship of Wesley to the Enlightenment. Kent is keen to deny that the evangelist was influenced by the age of reason, pointing out his habitual style of argument from authority and his disregard for historical criticism of the Bible. He was "detached from the intellectual preoccupations of his age."

This claim misrepresents its subject. It is true that Wesley did appeal to authorities, ancient as well as modern, for his opinions: so did most philosophes. It is also true that he did not adopt the canons of biblical criticism that were being pioneered by some German contemporaries; but neither, for example, did the Moderate leaders of the Church of Scotland, who were renowned for their alignment with the Enlightenment. In Wesley's early years as a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, his reading was vast, rigorous and often contemporary. He never lost his intellectual curiosity, treating the experience of his converts as an object of investigation. By the standards of his day he was a natural philosopher, a practicing scientist. He disliked metaphysics, he allowed pragmatism to triumph over church order, and he embraced the central progressive values of the age. Above all, Wesley believed in the supremacy of reason. The faith he favored was "a religion founded on reason, and every way agreeable thereto."1 Wesley was a man of the Enlightenment.

The different pictures of John Wesley in these two volumes do not exhaust the possibilities for understanding the man. It may be suggested that it would be closer to reality to see him as a remarkable intellectual, surrendering an exclusive concern with the life of the mind because he was rationally persuaded that there were more urgent responsibilities. He believed from the 1720s that the quest for holiness was the logical path for a sinner who acknowledged his Creator. Holiness, he discovered during the 1730s, was unattainable without conversion to Christ. He therefore embraced the gospel out of conviction in 1738, an event that the Cornish choir did well to celebrate two and a half centuries later. Once that transaction had taken place, the overriding priority was to convey the message of salvation and holiness to the mass of the people. That was how Wesley spent his life, applying his powerful intellect to the theological and practical problems that arose in the spirit of enquiry that he had absorbed from his cultural milieu. He was therefore, as Turner acknowledges, at the heart of the rise of evangelicalism. If the process of Protestant recovery was a not a recrudescence of something that can be called primary religion, it can safely be called a revival. Kent's analysis is unlikely to persuade historians to discard the Evangelical Revival from their accounts of the 18th century.

David Bebbington is Professor of History at the University of Stirling, Scotland. He is spending the fall 2003 semester as Visiting Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University. His Didsbury Lectures were published as Holiness in 19th Century England (Paternoster).

1. G. R. Cragg, ed., Works of John Wesley, Vol. 11 (Oxford Univ. Press, 1975), p. 55.

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