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"Methodism, the most astonishing eruption in the eighteenth century history of religion, was an anomaly" (Smyth) Discuss.

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Introduction

Anna Loughran Hertford "Methodism, the most astonishing eruption in the eighteenth century history of religion, was an anomaly." (Smyth) Discuss. The eighteenth century is commonly viewed by historians as a period of decline for the Anglican establishment which suffered increasing losses in its authority over local parishes and failing to respond adequately to the changing society of the early industrial age and challenges over the nature of religion and its role in the lives of individuals. In the 1740s, Samuel Wesley and his sons began to preach outside the confines of the Church, advocating a more voluntary approach to religious devotion and encouraging increased involvement of laymen in the work of the parish. Methodism was effectively born out of societies set up to integrate the church into the community, but in carrying voluntarism to its logical conclusion, argues Gilbert, such a movement would naturally come into conflict with the establishment by offering an alternative to the prescribed methods of religious practise and undermining the ministerial authority and organising machinery of the Church.1 Although the Wesley family were conservative Tories and John Wesley, who was to become the leading Methodist figure, always expressed a keen desire to remain within Anglicanism, he told a inaugural conference in 1744 that Methodism would either leave the whole church or "be thrust out of it" Whether the Methodists were in essence a radical or conservative group was at the time, and remains a much debated topic. ...read more.

Middle

In the 1790s, social tensions were reaching boiling point. Evangelical societies attracted dissenters at all social levels, even at court, where many independent politicians, clergymen and intellectuals deserted George III and headed a campaign as a Unitarian group for reforms to free trade and end slavery, believing in free enquiry and social progress. Among the lower social orders there was a backlash against the increasing number of dissenters and riots broke out, prompted by food shortages but also calling for "Church and King" and were largely unhindered by the clergy and magistrates of the old order. It is important to remember that while the growth of evangelical movements was significant, it still only affected a small proportion of the population, with many remaining ambivalent towards new ideals of piety and man others choosing to remain firmly within the Anglican fold. For some, traditional means of expressing discontent were still favoured. Davidoff sees the Evangelical movement as a largely middle class phenomenon. This was a rapidly expanding social group that needed to form their identity. He argues that a sense of religious belonging was provided by the various evangelical movements became a part of middle class culture and the success of the movement can be credited to its ability to fill this need.4 Traditional church practise did not involve participation from the lay community, and while the middle classes ...read more.

Conclusion

With hindsight, historians like Halevy have argued that there was nothing for the state to fear in the rise of Methodism, but contemporary powers would not have been able to see the larger picture of changing society and the development of a middle-class and so the movement may have been forced into its unobtrusive political stance where perhaps more radical beliefs were deep-seated. Jabez Bunting, a radical Methodist figure after the death of Wesley, saw the movement as wide, but not deep.6 He was relatively apolitical, but was keen to preserve the liberties that Methodism had benefited from in the face of conservative reaction to social tensions and revolution in Europe. But the evangelical revival, viewed with historical hindsight is indeed a political movement, the energies of the chapel communities were a force that resisted to reactionism and later advocated reforms, but after 1850 the dynamism of the movement had dwindled, as the social tensions of the age eased. 1 A. Gilbert - Religion and Society in Industrial England : Church, Chapel and Social Change1740-1914 2 A. Gilbert - Methodism, Dissent and Political Stability in Early Industrial England 1740-1914 Journal of Religious History, 10 1979 3 W.R.Ward - Religion and Society in England 1790 - 1850 4 L.Davidoff and C. Hall - Family Fortunes, Men and Women of the English Middle class 1780-1850 5 Ward - Religion and Society 6 Gilbert - Methodism, Dissent and Political Stability ...read more.

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