Volume 8 - Issue 3

Evangelical revival and society: a historiographical review of Methodism and British society c. 1750–1850

By David Hempton

There is no character for whom the worldly (or selfish) man feels so much contemptuous pity as for an enthusiast, until some undeniably great result forces him to confess that enthusiasm is a powerful reality.1

Enthusiasm became such a powerful reality in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century England that the comparative decline of spiritual excitement in the twentieth century (at least in advanced western countries) has forced many theologians into an historical pilgrimage to discover the reasons behind earlier Protestant success. This pilgrimage has often centred on John Wesley whose ‘radical protestantism’ is now seen as an important model for contemporary church renewal movements.2 In fact functional approach to church order, lay participation, the importance of Spirit and Word as against tradition and creeds, and his concern for spiritual discipline have been eagerly seized upon by a new generation of evangelicals disillusioned with the institutional characteristics of western churches. Accepting therefore that the study of church history can have some contemporary value, the purpose of this short bibliographical review is to assess the role of Methodism in English society during the industrial revolution through the eyes of its most useful historians. Three questions in particular need answered: Why did Methodism grow so rapidly after 1790? Why did it decline from about 1840 onwards, and what was its impact on British society? To grapple with these questions, of course, in no way undermines the fundamental point that God is the supreme agent of any spiritual revival.

  1. Why did Methodism grow so rapidly after 1790?

Explanations of Methodist expansion and its unevenness have occasioned much painstaking research and considerable historical ingenuity, but the results are still tantalisingly inconclusive. Professor Hobsbawm made the first modern contribution when he stated that Methodism and political radicalism grew in roughly the same places at approximately the same time for broadly similar reasons.3 One was simply a religious, and the other a political, expression of more profound changes in the structure of English society. Edward Thompson, while not entirely rejecting that view, offered an alternative hypothesis. He suggested that Methodist revivalism took over at the point of temporal and political defeat and was, therefore, ‘a component of the psychic processes of counter revolution’. Thus Methodism is portrayed as ‘the chiliasm of the defeated and the hopeless’.4 This interpretation out-raged Thompson’s conservative and Methodist opponents, but it has been supported by recent regional studies which have given statistical weight to otherwise more general and individualistic impressions.5

An entirely different explanation is offered by Professor Ward in Religion and Society in England 1790–1850.6 In his view the French Revolution was not only crucial for western political establishments but also for religious ones. This was certainly true in England where concepts of church state unity were not only theoretically formulated in Burkean language,7 but given practical and economic expression in English localities where the alliance between gentry and clergy had been cemented in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. English society being what it was, therefore, the crisis of authority occurred in religion as well as in politics. Consequently Ward views Methodism and the nation-wide growth of county associations for promoting itinerant evangelism as major challenges to the paternalistic Anglican establishment. From this perspective popular evangelicalism is seen as a religious expression of radicalism and not an opiate substitute for it. Thus, religious associations eroded the established church not by political means, but through the cottage prayer meetings and itinerant preaching of quiet humble people.

The main reason for the different approaches of Thompson and Ward is, of course, ideological. Whereas Thompson assumes that religion by its very nature is inexorably a conservative force, Ward seeks to invest popular religion with the same kind of divinity and dignity with which Thompson has already invested popular radicalism. It is also a question of perspective. Contemporary radical leaders thought of Methodism as a conservative deflection from temporal objectives whereas Anglican bishops branded it as an English version of French revolutionary excitement.

These debates have been placed on a firmer statistical foundation by the researches of Robert Currie, Alan Gilbert and Lee Horsley.8 In explaining patterns of church growth they make a useful distinction between endogenous and exogenous factors. Under the former they list many Methodist advantages such as Arminian theology, cell structure, lay participation, Sunday schools, emotional fervour, sense of community, and effective discipling. Moreover, the link between connexionalism and itinerancy9 proved to be a particularly successful combination of central control and local initiative. Although all these things played their part in Methodist success, the main argument of the book is that ‘a church’s power to recruit arises from its proximity to, congruity with, and utility for those whom it recruits’. In other words external social factors were also important. For example, the Church of England was weakest in those areas which were industrialising fastest. Thus Methodism, as a new and flexible movement, could adapt more quickly to rapid demographic and social changes than its more cumbersome Anglican competitor. Moreover, Methodism was particularly successful amongst certain kinds of workers. According to Currie et alia

During the first four decades of the nineteenth century, artisans, colliers, and miners were very heavily over-represented, merchants, manufacturers and tradesmen somewhat over-represented, labourers rather (and farmers heavily) under-represented, and the aristocracy virtually unrepresented, in the ranks of Non-conformity.10

Thus Methodism appealed most to those skilled manual workers, including miners, who dominated the first stage of Britain’s industrial revolution, while Nonconformist churches in general were unable to repeat this success with the factory workers of the later Victorian period. Incidentally this explains why the Methodist contribution to trade unionism was strongest in mining and agricultural areas and weakest in areas dominated by factory workers.

Of course all these explanations of Methodist growth are not mutually exclusive, and, taken together, they represent a considerable improvement on the interpretations offered in the older denominational histories. Nevertheless, Professor Ward’s argument is particularly persuasive not only because it is based on the widest range of sources and is therefore the most comprehensive, but because it matches Richard Carwardine’s account of the equally dramatic growth of American Methodism in the same period. Within a generation Methodism became the largest American denomination due to ‘the appeal of an Arminian theology whose individualistic, democratic, and optimistic emphases found a positive response in an expanding society where traditional patterns of authority and deference were succumbing to egalitarian challenge’.11 This expansive optimism is the main reason why Methodism never caved in to the millennial speculations of some Reformed churches, and gives the lie to Thompson’s chiliastic emphasis.

Summary. Methodism grew rapidly in the period 1790–1840 because its theology, organization and missionary orientation struck a chord with new industrial workers who had little time for an Anglican church, which, generally speaking, represented established social and political interests.

  1. Why did Methodism decline?

Even in its heyday Methodism suffered from serious internal conflicts, and, as is frequently the case within religious connexions, the resolution of these difficulties resulted in greater denominational self-consciousness. The rising generation of Methodist preachers after Wesley’s death had to face four main problems:

a. How could they assure the government of Methodist loyalty at a time when Methodist environs were suspected of political disaffection? The government’s ace card was the threat of legislating against itinerant preaching which was the nerve centre of Wesleyan organization. Fear of this possibility coupled with a genuine aversion to popular politics convinced Wesleyan preachers of the need to expel radicals from the connexion. This policy was pressed into action in the period 1815–1820 when the post-war depression and an emerging class consciousness posed serious problems of control for Methodist preachers. In these Peterloo years, Manchester, the world’s first industrial city, was the centre of attention. Wesleyan preachers were well served there by a tough circuit superintendent who expelled four hundred from the membership roll in his first year. His policy was disturbingly simple.

The objects we have kept in view are 1st., to give the sound part of this society a decided ascendancy. 2. So to put down the opposition as to disable them from doing mischief. 3. To cure those of them who are worth saving. 4. To take the rest one by one, and crush them when they notoriously commit themselves. The plan is likely to succeed.… They are growing tired of radicalism, and as that dies religion will revive.12

Everything was done that could be done to save Manchester Methodism from radical infection including the expulsion of Sunday scholars and teachers for wearing radical emblems. The preachers were supported by leading Wesleyan businessmen and the results of this class conflict within Methodism was class separation as the Manchester rich built their splendid chapels in the suburbs while the poor wore their symbolic white hats in the modest Swan Street chapel.

There can be no doubt that the political and social tensions of early nineteenth century Britain put Methodist leaders in a difficult position. They believed that submission to authorities was a Christian duty, regardless of circumstances. Moreover, most of them believed, with some justification, that radical aims and methods—from parliamentary reform to machine-breaking—would not answer their grievances, which were fundamentally social and economic. Choices for Methodists then, as with Latin American Christians now, were not easy; one could simply have wished for more anguish in the making of them.

Whatever the validity of the preachers’ behaviour, the results of it are more straightforward. Telling men on rock-bottom wages that poverty was a Christian blessing was simply encouraging them to separate their economic from their religious life. Those who did not abandon religion altogether were forced either to join a more radical denomination or else squeeze religion into a smaller compartment. The all-embracing holiness crusade of earlier Methodist societies was gone for good. Henceforth religion was to be more of a commodity than a way of life. Western churches have never escaped from this legacy, although thankfully, many now see the problem.

b. What was to be done about Revivalism?13 The fine line dividing acceptable mass evangelism from revivalistic excesses is one that troubled Wesleyan preachers in this period as much as it had, on occassions, troubled Wesley himself. For example, the private accounts of the great Yorkshire revival of the mid-1790s by Joseph Entwistle, whose wisdom and simple devotion were admired by many, convey the tension of a man committed to revival but disturbed by the means.

Our warm friends from Woodhouse were there: they had gone beyond all bounds of decency, such screaming and bawling I never heard. Divided into small companies in different parts of the chapel, some singing, others praying, others praising, clapping of hands, etc., all was confusion and uproar. I was struck with amazement and consternation. What to do I could not tell. However, as there appeared to be no possibility of breaking up the meeting, I quietly withdrew. They continued thus until five o’clock in the morning. What shall I say to these things? I believe God is working very powerfully on the minds of many; but I think Satan, or, at least, the animal nature, has a great hand in all this.14

Such unease as existed, however, was tempered by the impressive figures of Methodist growth and the centrality, amongst Weslyan revivalists at least, of those distinctively Methodist instruments of itinerant preaching and love feasts. It was when revivalist groups posed similar problems within Methodism as Methodism had itself posed for the Church of England (separate chapels, connexional system, and distinctive worship), that many preachers converted unease into outright opposition.

Generally speaking, revivalism flourished either in very cohesive communities or amongst the rural immigrants to the northern industrial towns. Groups were usually led by small tradesmen with only a smattering of secular education but with a spiritually intense knowledge of the Bible. Most of the groups were beyond the control of institutions of any kind and the result was a powerful concoction of social protest laced with supernatural stimulants. This quite humble religious culture threw up a kaleidoscope of spiritual experiences from camp meetings to exorcisms, and from divine interventions to celestial visions. Many young preachers of some theological awareness, foremost among whom was Jabez Bunting, now felt they were in danger of jumping out of the frying-pan of Anglican stiffness into the fire of revivalistic excesses. As with the radicals the Wesleyan leadership decided that the best method of control was expulsion, but it was as much an expulsion of religious styles as it was of people.

In dealing with revivalism, therefore, conservative Methodist preachers tried to squeeze Methodism into a more rationalistic mould. This tactic preserved Wesleyan respectability, but it also reduced the power supply to Wesleyan evangelism.

c. Who should control the Sunday schools and what’ were they to be used for? The growth of Sunday schools from their evangelical origins in English provinces in the 1780s to their Victorian heyday is one of the most important themes not just of English educational history but of working class culture in its widest sense. Because, as Professor Laqueur has demonstrated,15 by 1851 there were over two million Sunday scholars, a figure that represents seventy-five per cent of working class children between the ages of five and fifteen. Thus, in its own way, the recently demolished Stockport Sunday School, a great northern cathedral which accommodated 6,000 people at its peak, is as symbolic of the English industrial revolution as are the Manchester mills or the Crystal Palace exhibiion.

Because they provided tangible benefits of literacy and cheap education, Sunday schools which were originally undenominational, were the only religious institutions that the nineteenth century public in the mass had any intention of using. The problem for the Methodists was that Sunday schools were notoriously ineffective as religious recruiting agencies, because less than four per cent of total Sunday school enrolment would at any one time belong to a church or chapel. In response, Wesleyan leaders had two policies; they wanted to tighten up denominational control, and they refused to teach writing on Sundays. Eventually both policies were successfully implemented, but it was a costly victory. Not only did the conflict reopen old sores within the connexion between preachers and laymen, but it was also well known in English localities that the Wesleyans were against secular instruction on Sundays whereas other groups continued the practice. The obvious inference was drawn by the English working classes.

The struggle for control of the Sunday schools showed that the Wesleyans were unable to remodel undenominational schools in their own image; they could only fracture them and brush some of the pieces into their own connexion. In short, what they got was denominational control at the expense of popular support. Most important of all, it was yet another example of the great divorce between the secular and the sacred, and between religion and popular culture, which has so bedevilled churches in the twentieth century.

d. How should Wesleyan Methodism develop as a denomination in the nineteenth century? To the problems of control posed by Sunday schools, revivalism, government pressure and radicalism were added administrative and financial difficulties. General changes in the structure and organisation of the Methodist community, such as the increases in the number of preachers (particularly married ones), and of ornate but poorly financed chapels, were cruelly exposed by the post-war economic recession. More collections offered no answer to these deep-seated structural problems. The result was the decline of rural itinerancy, the virtual disappearance of the circuit horse, and financial reliance on big urban chapels with their wealthy clientele. Such chapels were competed for by the available preaching talent so that the younger preachers had different yardsticks of success from Wesley’s itinerants. Thus, the growth of big preaching centres equipped with star men, which were so admired by nineteenth-century Nonconformists and are looked back on with such nostalgia by many twentieth-century evangelicals, were not so much symbols of success as testimonies to the death of virginal Methodism. These changes also saw the end of Wesleyan Methodism as a real force in working class culture and politics, though Primitive Methodism was still influential in agricultural and mining districts.16

Summary. The Wesleyan ministerial leadership struggled hard to maintain control of the connexion in the first half of the nineteenth-century and with-stood pressure from laymen, political radicals, revivalists, Sunday school leaders and government ministers. The result of this was the development of Wesleyan Methodism as a secure denomination replete with ministers, buildings and committees, but was also the end of Methodism as a dynamic religious force in English society. In short, early Methodism had mounted a successful challenge to one religious establishment, but through its denominational quest for respectability it was, by 1830, well on its way to creating another.

  1. The impact of Methodism on British society

Halévy’s view that evangelicalism in general and Methodism in particular saved England from violent social and political change has acted as a kind of smoke-screen in Methodist history. Like many chancy historical generalizations based on ideological convictions, the ‘Halévy thesis’ has occasioned a rash of material more distinguished by its quantity than its quality. There is even an article on the historiography of Halévy’s thesis which arrives at the uninspiring, but entirely predictable, conclusion that ‘the thesis has not been conclusively proved, but neither has it been disproved’.17 The difficulty with this kind of material is that there is now a whole generation of students with views on the revolution thesis, who nevertheless know little or nothing about the social and political history of Methodism itself. However, no bibliographical review of Methodism would be complete without some attempt to grapple with the issues raised by Halévy and his supporters.

The most stimulating modern contribution is Bernard Semmel’s book The Methodist Revolution.18 He argues that while Wesley had no affinity with the ideas of the leading philosophers there are nevertheless important links between Wesleyan Arminianism and Enlightenment liberalism. Thus, Wesley is a man of the Enlightenment in his concern for religious toleration, his hatred of persecution and violence, his desire that all men should be saved (not just the Calvinist elect), his strenuous advocacy of slavery abolition, and his doctrines of perfection and assurance which could be seen as the theological equivalents of Enlightenment optimism. Moreover, in rejecting the twin elements of religious and political instability in seventeenth-century England, Calvinistic Antinomianism and Catholic absolutism, Wesley was firmly in the tradition of John Locke, the apostle of English liberalism. Even conversion and an austere life-style can be given an enlightened gloss by using the more liberal concepts of freedom of choice and self-improvement through personal discipline. Thus, Methodism was England’s democratic revolution in the age of democratic revolutions, because it brought to masses of men a new individual liberty to decide their own faith and destiny. Methodists were, therefore, folk who could help themselves, and through their voluntary religious societies they acquired the inner discipline to enjoy their newly-found freedom in what was otherwise a bleak environment. Semmel can, therefore, conclude with Halévy that Methodism was an essential element in England’s transition from a ‘traditional’ society, characterized by collective behaviour under authority, to a ‘modern’ democracy based on individual freedom. The consequences of this were ‘the most characteristic qualities of nineteenth-century England—its relative stability, its ordered freedom, and its sense of world mission’.

Although persuasive on the surface, Semmel’s picture of Methodism as a popular religious vehicle for Enlightenment liberalism is full of problems. His concepts of ‘attitudinal modernization’ on the one hand, and of the difference between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ societies on the other, are largely determined by his own views of American cultural development.

Professor Ward’s recent work on continental Protestantism is more securely earthed.19 He states that the roots of eighteenth-century pan-revivalism (including the Wesleyan revival) can be traced to the displaced and persecuted protestant minorities of Habsburg dominated Central Europe, in Silesia, Moravia and Bohemia. This revival was partly a reaction against the confessional absolutism of much of early eighteenth-century Europe, and also an attempt to express religious interest outside the stranglehold of politically manipulated established churches. The social milieu of these displaced minorities was low and their idea of religion fitted well into the dominant motif of the German Enlightenment, that is religion ‘as the means and way to a better life’. Revivalistic religion and pietism (according to Ward they are substantially the same thing, the former was simply more urgent than the latter) survived on a diet of Bible study, Reformation classics and a cell structure pastored by itinerant ministers. Even camp meetings originated in religious provision for the large Swedish army in Silesia. This continental Protestantism influenced English religious development through its meeting with the Wesley brothers in Georgia. When John Wesley emerged from the religious crisis provoked by his encounter with the Salzburgers and Moravians, he became one of the most electric churchmen in history. Weary of the entrenched theological and ecclesiological divisions of the past, Wesley was distinctive in his theology (evangelical Arminianism), his flexibility (willingness to use laymen), his optimism (a strong belief in the life transforming power of the gospel), his tolerance (men and women of all denominations were accepted for class membership), and his commitment to self-help through discipline and sharing of resources. Moreover, like other European Protestants, he was reacting against the pastoral inefficiency and political chicanery of a mediocre establishment. Professor Ward asserts that most of what Wesley achieved was forfeited by the nineteenth-century Wesleyan leadership, because of its increasing rigidity, sectarianism and ministerial professionalism.

If there is any lesson from the study of European Protestantism in the eighteenth- and nineteenth- centuries for contemporary Third World countries (and I am extremely nervous of such comparisons for the same reason that liberation theologians are nervous of western theology—that is, each historical context is unique),20 it is this. Quite humble people, with the help of biblically based theologians, were able to circumvent establishments in both church and state, and by doing so, created a powerful religious culture which eventually gained political recognition. But, it has to be said that, despite occasional panics, England during the period of the industrial revolution was politically freer than any other country in Europe. As a result, in periods of political excitement, the government threatened a more repressive religious policy, but it was never implemented. It is therefore difficult to extend the example of English Methodism to societies which have little or no political and religious freedom.

In conclusion, what then can be said of the Halévy thesis? Surely the main point is that it is not a testable historical hypothesis. One cannot deal with it by assuming that evangelical religion was simply the last and greatest ingredient in England’s solid social cake. Evangelicalism was undoubtedly an important ingredient, but must be weighed in the scales with other stabilising features such as the overwhelming constitutionality of English popular politics, the insignificant number of genuine revolutionaries, the solidity of the English banking and mercantile system, the fact that the English Parliament, though heavily aristocratic in composition, was influenced by public opinion, the ability of the aristocracy to make timely concessions while retaining control of English society through alternative means (e.g. education, army, civil service, etc.), and the powerful chauvinistic tradition of the free-born Englishman.


Halévy’s thesis, though no doubt of intrinsic interest to those concerned with the relationship between religion and social stability, has obscured other important aspects of Methodist history and its contemporary relevance. For example, how should a religious group relate to the political concerns of its members? How should churches organize themselves so that they utilize the human resources at their disposal? Have western churches evolved with too much emphasis on buildings, structures and ministers? What is the relationship between religion and popular culture on the one hand, and between church and community on the other? These and other questions suggest themselves from the last great evangelical revival in western Europe. What historians and students must not do, however, is to substitute the serious study of Methodism as a religious and social movement, with the ideological preoccupations of the current generation. If they resist this temptation they will discover that a religious movement, when based on genuine biblical principles, can be both popular and socially radical. That is the challenge of Methodism in its pioneer, as opposed to its fossilized, phase.


The best starting-point for students interested in this field is R. E. Davies and E. G. Rupp (eds.), A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, 2 vols. (London, 1965, 1978).

Other books (not cited in these notes) published within the last decade which shed light on Methodist history include:

D. A. Gowland, Methodist Secessions (Manchester, 1979).

A. G. Hayes and D. A. Gowland (eds.), Scottish Methodism in the Early Victorian Period (Edinburgh, 1981).

James Obelkevich, Religion and Rural Society: South Lindsey 1825–1875 (Oxford, 1976).

Hugh McLeod, Religion and the People of Western Europe 1789–1970 (Oxford, 1981).

Space prevents me from citing other important books and articles. Omission, therefore, is not intended to be a comment on their quality.

1 F. W. Newman, The Soul (London, 1849), p. 248.

2 See, e.g., H. A. Snyder, The Radical Wesley and Patterns for Church Renewal (Illinois, 1980), and R. F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: an Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Exeter, 1981).

3 E. J. Hobsbawm, Labouring Men (London, 1964).

4 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963).

5 See e.g. John Baxter, ‘The Great Yorkshire Revival 1792–1796: A Study of Mass Revival among the Methodists’, in Michael Hill (ed.), A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain, 7, (1974), pp. 46–76.

6 W. R. Ward, Religion and Society in England 1790–1850 (London, 1972). For a shorter and clearer summary of his argument see Ward, ‘The Religion of the People and the Problem of Control, 1790–1830’, Studies in Church History, 8 (1972), pp. 237–257.

7 In his Reflections on the Revolution in France Burke writes that ‘instead of quarrelling with establishments as some do, who have made a philosophy and a religion of their hostility to such institutions, we cleave closely to them. We are resolved to keep an established church, an established monarchy, and an established democracy, each in the degree it exists, and in no greater’ (Penguin edition, 1976, p. 188).

8 R. Currie, A. Gilbert and L. Horsley, Churches and Churchgoers: Patterns of Church Growth in the British Isles since 1700 (Oxford, 1977). See also, A. D. Gilbert, Religion and Society in Industrial England (London, 1976).

9 The connexion was the whole organization of Wesleyan Methodism. The term originated in the societieswhich met in connexion with Mr Wesley. The itinerant preacher was a full-time regular preacher assigned to a circuit (group of societies) by Conference. Each circuit also employed laymen as local preachers.

10 Currie et al., op. cit., p. 56.

11 Richard Carwardine, Trans-atlantic Revivalism: Popular Evangelicalism in Britain and America, 1790–1865(Westport, Connecticut, 1978), p. 10.

12 W. R. Ward, The Early Correspondence of Jabez Bunting 1820–1829 (London, 1972), pp. 61–62. See also the second volume of this correspondence, Ward, Early Victorian Methodism (London, 1976). Both volumes contain useful introductions.

13 For recent analysis of this phenomenon in nineteenth-century England see Carwardine, op. cit., and John Kent, Holding the Fort: Studies in Victorian Revivalism (London, 1978).

14 Baxter, op. cit., pp. 53–55.

15 T. W. Laqueur, Religion and Respectability. Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture 1780–1850 (New Haven and London, 1976).

16 See Nigel Scotland, Methodism and the Revolt of the Field (Gloucester, 1981).

17 E. S. Itzkin, ‘The Halévy Thesis—A Working Hypothesis? English Revivalism: Antidote for Revolution and Radicalism 1789–1815’, Church History, 44 (1975), pp. 47–56. Although Ms Itzkin has been unable to reach any solid conclusions, her article is a useful synthesis of material which I have not wished to duplicate.

18 Bernard Semmel, The Methodist Revolution (London, 1974). See also Robert Moore, Pit-Men, Preachers and Politics. The Effects of Methodism in a Durham Mining Community (Cambridge, 1974). Moore’s work is a sociological study of the Deerness valley mining villages in County Durham and his main theme is that ‘the effect of Methodism in a working-class community was to inhibit the development of class consciousness and reduce class conflict’.

19 W. R. Ward, ‘The relations of enlightenment and religious revival in central Europe and in the English-speaking world’, Studies in Church History, Subsidia 2 (1979), pp. 281–305. Also, W. R. Ward, ‘Power and Piety: the origins of religious revival in the early eighteenth-century’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 63 no. 1 (1980), pp. 231–252. See also, Sheridan Gilley, ‘Christianity and Enlightenment: An Historical Survey’, History of European Ideas, 1 no. 2 (1981), pp. 103–121.

20 See, e.g. J. A. Kirk, Liberation Theology (London, 1979).

David Hempton

Queen’s University, Belfast