rewriting religious history: the case of methodism

Dang, these things take longer to write than you’d think they would!


Here’s the original call for papers of this particular panel at ASECS 2005:
Between Anachronism and Antiquarianism: Eighteenth-Century Experiences and Twenty-First-Century Interpretations
History is always poised precariously between uninformed, anachronistic readings of past events, and antiquarian obsessions with minute details at the expense of bigger questions. The eighteenth century, often seen as both the founding era of modernity and the most refined moment of a lost aristocratic sensibility, is especially susceptible to these interpretive missteps. The convener seeks papers that identify and address problems faced today by those who wish to avoid anachronism and antiquarianism in the interpretation of Eighteenth-century people, ideas, cultural products, and events. All disciplinary approaches welcome.
And here is the abstract that I submitted, just to give you an idea of what kind of scholarly work I’m engaged in:
Rewriting Religious History: the Case of Methodism
This paper will argue that anachronism and antiquarianism have left us with a partial and inaccurate history of one of the most important movements of the eighteenth century: Methodism. The most recent bibliography of anti-Methodist literature from the eighteenth century lists 598 unique titles published between 1738 and 1800, 934 including reprints and new editions. There were only 70,000 Methodists in Britain by the end of the eighteenth-century, but the negative attention they garnered demonstrates that they occupied a place in the cultural imagination much larger than their numbers would seem to justify. Given how much of an impact the Methodist movement had upon British culture during this period, it is imperative that we develop a more complete understanding of its origins, development, schisms, and reception.
In the twentieth century, influential studies of Methodist history were largely characterized by two approaches, both of which are problematic. On the one hand, arguments that Methodism acted as an oppressive and revolution-dampening force were initiated at the beginning of the century by Elie Halevy and continued two generations later by E. P. Thompson. Unwittingly, perhaps, mimicking early anti-Methodist sentiment, Thompson added the assertion that early Methodistsí enthusiastic expressions of religious fervor were simply outbursts of repressed sexual desire. On the other hand, more sympathetic work published by such scholars as Frank Baker, Richard Heitzenrater, and Albert Outler has emphasized the contributions of well-known Methodist leaders such as John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and Francis Asbury at the expense of more obscure Methodist lay people who enacted (and in many cases altered) the directions handed down by the leadership. Additionally, this sympathetic thread of scholarship has not accounted fully for the schisms and disagreements that led many individuals and more than a few groups to split from the Wesleyan strain of Methodism, leaving us with the incorrect impression that the history of early Methodism and the life of John Wesley are more or less the same thing.
The first thread is classically anachronistic, revealing more about the concerns of twentieth-century scholars than it does about those of eighteenth-century Methodists, many of whom were quite socially progressive and active in such movements as abolitionism and many of whom were given or took the reins of Methodist polity through the annual meeting of the Methodist Conference. The second thread, much of it based largely upon or influenced heavily by nineteenth-century histories of eighteenth-century Methodism, is arguably antiquarian in that it carefully tends the Methodist legend of John Wesleyís genius and the inevitability of his success while ignoring the tangled evidence (much of it available only in manuscript form at the Methodist Archives in Manchester, England) to the contrary that might provide answers to some of the bigger, compelling questions: what role did lay preachers play in disseminating or altering the Methodist message? how important were women to the early years of the movement and why was their role obscured in the generations following Wesleyís death? why did so many groups split off from the Wesleyan branch to form movements of their own (e.g. the Huntingdonian branch, the Kilhamite branch) if Wesley was as great an organizer as his reputation indicates? to what extent did the audience for Methodismís message resist the discourse with which they were presented?
If we focus only on the received narrative of Methodist history first developed in the early nineteenth century, we will maintain a fundamentally flawed understanding. If, however, we carefully comb through the diaries, letters, account books, and marginalia of the Methodist people, a much more sophisticated picture begins to emerge. In this paper, I will use the results of two summer research trips to the Methodist Archives to argue that only by returning to the primary manuscript sources available in the archives can the scholarship of the twenty-first century avoid anachronism and antiquarianism in the interpretation of eighteenth-century Methodism, and I will provide an overview of how attending to the communications circuit, to use Robert Darnton’s formulation, results in a much different history than the one we currently have.

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6 thoughts on “rewriting religious history: the case of methodism

  1. Hey, that sounds pretty darned cool. (I, unusually enough, know more about 18th-century Methodism in Wales – which isn’t that much – than in England (we’re talking undergrad level here really). Some very good work on local societies notwithstanding (not least by a colleague of mine, Eryn White), I can’t help thinking the Welsh historiography has had very similar flaws (except that for Wesley et al, read Howell Harris et al…) – and that it too was stuck in the 19th century for far too long.
    One difference, perhaps; the story of Methodism (and Welsh nonconformism) seems to me have been very closely tied up with the story of emerging Welsh national identity in a way that doesn’t have an English parallel…

  2. I am, at least on paper, a Methodist (not practicing), but all I remember from years of church is “This is a picture of John Wesley! He started Methodism! And now the church today.”
    I wish the church itself offered more insight into its own history, however biased the effort may be.

  3. George, I hope the paper gets accepted and that some funding agency gives you a pile of money to prepare and publish the results of your archival work. I’m intrigued by the way your abstract closes on the promise of a much different history that can emerge from attention to the circuits of communication. Tantalizing way to end the abstract … cool

  4. Sharon, I think that what happens in Wales with Methodism is probably very important to the bigger picture, and in addition to considering the importance of Howell Harris, one should look at Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. There are a couple of good, recent books on her, including Spiritual Pilgrim: a Reassessment of the Life of the Countess of Huntingdon by Edwin Welch (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1995). I’d be thankful for any references you might have to other work that’s been published on Welsh Methodism.
    Cassie, then, as now, John Wesley was figured as an important center around which mainline Methodism could organize itself. He gives coherence to what I would argue was a very diverse phenomenon. One of the advantages of my project (in terms of connecting my academic research to a non-academic audience) is that people who are or were Methodists are always interested in hearing about what I’m working on.
    Francois, the paper’s been accepted (that was fast!), and as for grants: well, from your lips to God’s ears, as they say. I have about four grants in my sights to apply for. Three are relatively small and would pay for several weeks in England next summer, but one would potentially buy me out of two semesters of teaching to concentrate on research and writing (in other words, finishing the book).

  5. As I say, it’s not my area (and much of it is in Welsh…), but a few references spring to mind:
    Eryn M White, ‘ “The world, the flesh and the devil” and the early Methodist societies of south-west Wales’, _Transactions of the Historical Society of Cymmrodorion_ (1996); and ‘ “Little female lambs”: women in the Methodist societies of Carmarthenshire, 1737-1750’, _Carmarthenshire Antiquary_, 27 (1991).
    Derec Llwyd Morgan, _The Great Awakening in Wales_ (London?, 1988)
    This book is due out (in the UK anyway) in the next couple of months (it’s based on a 2001 Aberystwyth PhD thesis):
    David Ceri Jones, _A Glorious Work in the World: Welsh Methodism and the International Evangelical Revival, 1735-1750_ (Cardiff, University of Wales Press).
    On Welsh dissent before the ‘Great Awakening’, Geraint H Jenkins, _Literature, religion and society in Wales 1660-1730_ (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978) is a must-read.

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