Methodism and the Threat of Revolution in Britain
Historians have held that religious Revivalism in the late eighteenth century distracted the minds of the English from thoughts of Revolution. Eric Hobsbawm expresses a completely different view.
Did Methodism prevent revolution, or the development of a revolutionary movement, in Britain ? The question has long interested historians. The period 1789-1848 is full of revolutions in all parts of Western Europe, but not in Britain, and it also happens to be the period when Methodism grew most rapidly in this country. That Methodism kept Britain immune from revolution is, indeed, widely believed. The late Elie Halevy's History of the English People supports this view very strongly. It may therefore be useful to elucidate the relations between Methodism and the threat of revolution in this period.
We know, of course, that John Wesley and the early leaders of his Connexion, as well as those of Whitefield's Calvinistic Methodists, disapproved violently of revolution. They were extreme conservatives in politics, opposed not merely to social revolution but also to the liberal and radical reform which later became so closely identified with nineteenth-century British nonconformity, to trade- unionism and to other manifestations of labour activity. Hence it is a mistake to argue that the modern labour and trade union movement derives its inspiration from Wesley. He would have been shocked by it. Cornish Wesleyans were proud that their members did not take part in strikes and agitations. Calvinistic Methodists excommunicated supporters of Roman Catholic emancipation and members of trade unions. Wesleyans in Radical Leicester were Conservative. Government agents were quick to observe that Wesleyans were pillars of the status quo. Indeed, the Connexion even fought shy of the militant temperance movement which radical nonconformity held so dear. Neither Wesley nor the early Wesleyans can even be described as democratic in their ideas of church organisation and propaganda, and between 1797 and 1849 a number of secessions from the main body occurred, mainly for this reason. After 1850 Wesleyanism was liberalized, and politically speaking it became rather more like the rest of nonconformity. In its youth and "middle period" (1790 to 1849), however, it was quite certainly not so, and this is the period with which we are mainly concerned.
Though there was no revolution in Britain in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, there was, nevertheless, a good deal of revolutionary feeling in large parts of the country, particularly during the bleak half-century from the middle 1790s to the late 1840s. If the actual outbursts of violence were few, limited and rather small, it was not because at certain times - for instance, during the appalling depression of 1841-2 - great masses of British citizens were not angry, desperate, and ready for almost any political action. The strength of Chartism, for instance, cannot be measured by the feebleness of the actual attempts to translate it into revolt.
As Lenin argued - a specialist on the subject - a deterioration of the conditions of life for the masses, and an increase in their political activity, is not enough to bring about a revolution. There must also be a crisis in the affairs of the ruling order, and a body of revolutionaries capable of directing and leading the movement. Both these were absent. With the possible exception of the years immediately preceding the Reform Act of 1832, the British ruling class never lost control of the political situation. It is conceivable that something like a "revolutionary situation" might have developed had the Unreformed Parliament not been wise enough to yield peacefully to the pressure of the middle class reformers (or to be exact, to the pressure of the masses under the leadership of the middle class reformers). But the House of Lords was wise enough to yield, and the reforming party quick to make a compromise which gave them perhaps less than their most vocal spokesmen - for instance, Jeremy Bentham's followers - had demanded, but avoided the unpredictable consequences of further mass agitation. As for the revolutionaries, they were throughout the entire period inexperienced, unclear in their minds, badly organized, and divided.
There was thus no revolution, and Wesleyan Methodism was hostile to one; but it does not follow that the second fact was the cause of the first. Methodism was not responsible for the moderation and flexibility of the Parliamentary politicians or the Utilitarian radicals. Nor can it be held responsible for the weaknesses of the revolutionary movement among the working classes. In order to demonstrate this, it is necessary discover - in so far as this is possible - what effect it had on the politics of the British working classes in our period, and especially during the two major periods of unrest within it, the years from the Luddites to Peterloo (1811-1819), and the years from 1829 to 1849 which covered the Reform agitation, the great trade union, factory reform and anti-poor law movements, Chartism, and the major agricultural unrest. This implies an answer to the more general question: what hold had organized religion, and in particular the various nonconformist sects, upon the working classes in the period of early industrialism ?
The first question we must ask is whether the Wesleyans were numerically strong enough to make a decisive difference anyway. For it is quite clear that the other nonconformist sects did not share their political conservatism (with the exception of the Calvinistic Methodists, who were localized in North and Central Wales, which was not a major centre of industry). The "old dissenters" - Independents (Congregationalists), Baptists of various sorts, Presbyterian-Unitarians (who should not be confused with the Church of Scotland, which had some strength among immigrants on Tyneside) - were totally uncommitted to the support of the government, and had no respect whatever for constituted authority as such, which still officially discriminated against them in various ways. The first three groups had indeed long moved towards the "left", and most active supporters of the French Revolution had come from among them. Unquestionably they became more respectable after the 1790s as they became more numerous. Whether the influence of Methodism, which helped to revivify them, is responsible for this, and if so, to what extent, may be debated. The question cannot be answered conclusively. All one can say is, that there are many other possible reasons why they should have become less Jacobin, chiefly the fact that most Englishmen between 1793 and 1815 had, for obvious reasons, little sympathy for Jacobinism. Hence that typical seventeenth-century Puritan, Zachariah Coleman, in Mark Rutherford's Revolution in Tanner's Lane complained bitterly about "A sad falling off from the days, even in my time, when the Dissenters were the insurrectionary class.'' Nevertheless, their sympathies remained throughout with the cause of Radicalism and Reform, and they actively supported both.
The various seceding Methodist groups did not sympathize politically with the Wesleyans. The Kilhamites or "New Connexion" (who left in 1797) proudly claimed in 1848 that they had long anticipated the liberalism which was then all the rage. One of their preachers in Northampton had even been jailed in 1816 for radical propaganda. The Bible Christians (1815) went their own quiet way in Devon and other parts of the Southwest, and eventually colonized parts of Kent. Theirs, however, was the fierce old testamentary way of the elect walking safe from the flames of perdition; and such views do not necessarily make for social passivity. They were to be active in farm labourers' unions. The same is true, to an even greater extent, of the most serious of the seceders, the Primitive Methodists (I8II). These, the most purely "proletarian" of the major sects, broke away because the Wesleyans were insufficiently democratic in the matter of preaching by laymen and women, and opposed to the mass propagandist campaigns of the great revivalist "camp meeting " which American evangelists had introduced. Their strongholds were to be among the northern mines, the farm labourers, the Staffordshire operatives. Here Primitive Methodism was so closely identified with trade unions as to become practically a labour religion. When Lord Londonderry evicted strikers after the 1844 coal strike, two-thirds of the Durham Primitive Methodist circuit became homeless. (This was at a.time when Wesleyans were congratulating themselves because their members did not take part in strikes except under duress.) Whoever was for turning the other cheek, it was not the Primitives. Moreover, though preachers were debarred from politics, several "probably interpreted this to mean that they were only prohibited from making speeches in the Tory interest."
Even among the Wesleyans the rank and file were less conservative than their leaders; certainly in Leicester. At least one Yorkshire minister was only just in time to stop the Luddites burying one of their casualties in the Wesleyan cemetery, amid political speeches; from which we may conclude that Methodists were not above machine-breaking. In remote areas, where no more congenial sect penetrated - as in Dorset - Wesleyans might even become trade union leaders, as did the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Before the 1850s, however, this was very much the exception.
How strong, then, were the Wesleyans relatively to the other denominations, and to the total population (which included a very large number of the apathetic and a small minority of the secularist)?
The only adequate information we have about these matters is that of the Religious Census of 1851, and it is as well to summarize this, therefore, before groping back into less well-documented periods. Broadly speaking, this gives us the following picture of the industrial areas of England and Wales. The large cities and some, but by no means all, of the backward mining and iron areas were relatively unreligious. (That is to say, less than 25 per cent of the total population attended divine service on the census Sunday.) Bristol, Leicester, Nottingham, Leeds and Liverpool, however - the latter on account of its many Roman Catholics - showed rather high attendance figures. Of the industrial area Lancashire, the most important, was also the least religiously minded. The North-East came next in the scale of apathy. Staffordshire was divided in the matter. At the other end of the scale there was South Wales, where religious attendances amounting to 40 per cent of the total population were not uncommon - e.g., in Pontypool, Merthyr, Bridgend - the West Riding, and certain parts of Derby, Leicester and Nottinghamshire. Rural areas were, of course, on average much more church-going than urban ones.
Again with the exception of Lancashire, the cities and industrial areas were nonconformist rather than Anglican. The Church of England was not merely a minority group . in 'most of them, but was often completely outclassed. For instance, in eight poor law unions of the West Riding and in part of the Potteries the main nonconformist bodies (Independents, Baptists, Wesleyans) were more than twice as numerous as the Church. In Wales, of course, the Church was a negligible force, for national reasons. Among the nonconformists, however, the Methodist. as a whole were not equally strong everywhere.
Speaking broadly, they were not a serious force south of a line drawn from the Wash to Dudley in the Black Country and thence west to the Welsh coast; except for certain parts of Norfolk. They were also extremely strong in Cornwall. South of this line the nonconformity that counted was that of the "old dissenters" - the Independents and Baptists. In South Wales the Methodists were even weaker. Even the Calvinistic Methodists, with their appeal to Welshness, were invariably outnumbered by either Independents or Baptists. The old dissenters also held pockets of Methodist territory, notably in the East Midlands. In fact, within , the North and Midland industrial area's Methodism was really strong in only three parts: a region centering on the Southern Pennines - that is, the industrial parts of the West Riding, Derbyshire and parts of Lancashire contiguous to Yorkshire - Durham, and parts of Staffordshire. Of these only the textile districts of the West Riding, and, of course, Cornwall and Lincolnshire, can be regarded as the unchallenged fief of the Wesleyans. In Durham they were run close, and often outnumbered, by the Primitive Methodists. (In Norfolk, the major centre of farm labourers' trade unionism later on, they were consistently outnumbered by them.) In Staffordshire they had to contend -sometimes unsuccessfully - with both Primitives and other dissidents. In Derbyshire they were generally outnumbered.
Methodism as a whole, therefore, could be expected to have a major political influence on popular agitations only in the North, Midlands, East Anglia, and the extreme Southwest; Wesleyanism as such only in the West Riding. The point is worth making, because a great deal of the radical and revolutionary unrest of the period took place in areas in which both were weak: in London, Bristol and Birmingham, in South Wales, in the East Midlands. Much of it, of course, took place in areas in which organized religion as such was weak - for instance, in Lancashire and the cities.
What was the position in earlier times ? Since the days of the Luddites the Methodists had advanced much faster than population as a whole, or even than urban population. Taking all their sects together, they were almost four times as large in 1851 as in I810; taking only the Wesleyans, rather over two and a-half times as large. Though we know practically nothing about the other dissenters, it is likely that, in England as distinct from Wales, the Methodists probably grew faster than they until 1850, with some local exceptions. Hence in I811-19 or in 1830 they had obviously been relatively and absolutely far weaker than in 1851, when they embraced perhaps half a million members (300,000 Wesleyan) out of a total population of 18 millions. The main pattern of geographical distribution was already - speaking very roughly - established by 1810; the main strongholds of Methodism in Yorkshire and elsewhere had already come into existence. Even within these strongholds they were in general weaker, and their membership more fluctuating. It does not seem likely that a body of, say, 150,000 out of 10 million English and Welsh in 1811 could have exercised decisive importance.
Can we, nevertheless, detect any major moderating influence of the Wesleyans in any of their strongholds during the first half of the nineteenth century ? In Yorkshire there is no real sign of it. Huddersfield, Leeds, Birstall, Wakefield were (after Nottingham) the main centres of Luddism; they were the centres of some of the strongest Methodist circuits in the West Riding. (Dissident Methodism was as yet negligible.) The West Riding, again headed by Leeds - which, we recall, had an abnormally high church-attendance for an industrial city - demonstrated and rioted as enthusiastically for the Reform Bill as any other place, French rosettes, cockades and tricolours abounding. During the Thirties and Forties it was perhaps the firmest stronghold of violent Radicalism and Chartism in the North. Huddersfield had the second-strongest Wesleyan congregation in the West Riding in 1851; and certainly the one which had grown most rapidly throughout the whole period since 1814. Yet Huddersfield was the centre of an almost insurrectionary resistance to the New Poor Law, and its Chartists held out for the revolutionary general strike for the Charter in 1839. It had also been a noted centre of Owenism. Bradford had the strongest Wesleyan congregation in the Riding in 1851, and had been a stronghold of the sect for forty years. But Bradford was a centre of Chartism. When Feargus O'Connor planned to tour the North after his release from jail, meetings were arranged for him in seventeen towns in which, presumably, he expected the greatest support - ten of them in the West Riding. In 1851 the Methodists in these towns formed anything from 5 (Sheffield) to 12 and 15 pet cent of the total population (Todmorden, Dewsbury, Keighley). Ironically enough, it was in the least Methodist of these towns -Sheffield - that Chartism was, throughout this period, least inclined to extremism.
The truth is that Methodism developed in this area and so did Radicalism. There were perfectly convincing reasons why the woollen and worsted weavers of the West Riding should be desperate and riotous. Worsted weavers' weekly earnings fell from 34/6 in 1814 to 21 shillings in 1821; from 20 shillings in 1829 to 12/6 in 1838. While this was so, Methodism had no more chance of preventing large numbers of them from being rebellious than had the Archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, many Wesleyan operatives must have taken part in the great agitations.
In Cornwall, on the other hand, political Radicalism and Chartism were weak among the miners, who were the main supporters of the Wesleyans. We should not hastily conclude that this was due to the moderating influence of the Wesleyans. Cornish industrial and social structure was in many respects archaic. Skilled miners, for instance, could continue to regard themselves not as wage-labourers but as subcontractors or partners under the so-called " tribute " agreements. Hence the feeling that workers as a class opposed employers as a class developed slow and late. The first "labour dispute" occurred in 1831, the first actual strike in 1857. The characteristic form of Cornish social agitation - and the miners were a proverbially riotous group - was the riot against high food prices in times of shortage. As in eighteenth-century France, labour regarded not the employer but the profiteering middleman as the real enemy. But, Methodism or no, Methodism, miners and other workers in Cornwall still marched into the towns to seize food forcibly to prevent the export of corn, or , to force the sale of food at fair prices, in the classical manner of eighteenth-century rioters; for instance, in the hard year 1846-7.
Moreover, miners - whether of coal or metal - were an isolated body of men, often geographically separated from the rest of the working people and concerned less with politics than with their specialized economic struggles. Hence in most parts of the country they took surprisingly little part in the radical and Chartist agitations. In Yorkshire, Lancashire and above all Staffordshire, they struck in the desperate year 1842, together with the rest of the operatives among whom they-lived; and as this vast strike movement merged with Chartism they may be regarded as having been in the thick of it. (Hardly any of the leading Chartists, however, appear to have been colliers.) In the main coalfields of the Northeast and in South Wales, they did not strike, though they were in the middle of forming a national union which reached the point of explosion a year or so later. Very probably the coalfields which came out in '42 would have waited till then also, had they not been drawn in by the factory workers who surrounded them. In South Wales the Methodists were negligible. In the Northeast, the Primitive Methodists, with their championship of unions predominated. The Wesleyans cannot be held responsible for the passivity of these mining communities in 1842. Hence it is probably wisest to put the lack of interest in feebleness of Cornish Chartism down to factors unconnected with the religion of the Cornish.
Another claim to have prevented revolution has been put forward on behalf of the Primitive Methodists by their official historian H.B. Kendall, writing in 1906. It rests mainly. on the fact that the first great advances of this sect occurred in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire in 1817-19; that is to say, in two of the chief strongholds of Luddism and Radicalism. Examples of Villages abandoning "levelling" doctrines are quoted. This claim cannot be taken very seriously either. In the first place, the twenty-odd villages in Nottinghamshire in which the Primitives established themselves in 1817-8 were overwhelmingly in the least industrialized part of the country; they contained only something like 7 per cent of the county's knitting-frames. (In Leicestershire, however, they were probably more successful among the hosiery workers.) In the second place, the Methodist advances in this area were temporary, and much of the ground was lost again in the 1820s and not regained till much later. In the third place, the East Midlands did not become noticeably less radical after 1818. In fact, Leicestershire is,one of the- places where more active Methodists than usual appear to. have been enthusiastic Chartists. It would have been surprising if the handloom weavers and stockingers, whose weekly income had - according to the Methodist Chartist Thomas Cooper of Leicester - fallen to 4/6 a week by 1841, had not been radical when they starved.
We can therefore Sum up the -relations between Methodism and the threat of revolution somewhat as follows. The official leadership of the Connexion wished to keep it entirely outside any radical, let alone revolutionary agitations. Even had it succeeded in doing so, however, the strength of Wesleyanism was probably not great enough, and not well enough distributed, to affect the political situation decisively. But in fact the members did not keep outside radical agitations. It is likely that Wesleyanism lost ground to political radical sects such as the Primitive Methodists, and there was certainly increasing rank-and-file opposition to the conservatism of the leaders, notably in the 1830s and 1840s; sometimes on political grounds (as in Leicester), more generally on ostensibly moral grounds, such as temperance (as in Cornwall and elsewhere). Many Wesleyans must have taken part in the radical and revolutionary agitations, from Luddism to Chartism, with their non-Wesleyan fellows. The effectiveness of official Wesleyan conservatism has often been exaggerated.
This may be due to a fundamental misconception of the reasons that turned workers in early Britain toward various sects. It is too easily assumed that the did so as an alternative to revolutionary or radical politics. To some extent they did. In the early stages of the capitalist transformation of town and countryside we do indeed often meet sects - mystical, apocalyptic, quietist - which preach resignation and complete non-involvement in the affairs of an evil world. Gerhart Hauptmann's magnificent drama The Weavers, which is based on a documentary account of the Silesian weavers' revolt of 1844, contains a wonderful portrait of an old sectarian of this sort. Similar mystical cults of the Virgin spread in the Belgian industrial areas about the same time, while a body called the Nazarenes made headway among the landless Hungarian farm-labourers later in the century. But there is another kind of religion which might seize the miserable mass of the people at such times. Preachers, prophets and sectarians might issue what the labourers would regard as calls to action rather;r than to resignation. Such sects are equally well documented. In the North Rhodesian copper belt, for instance, the Jehovah's Witnesses in our generation for a time played a similar part to that of the Primitive Methodists in the Durham pits.
We know too little about the life of the common people in Britain during the Industrial Revolution to say with any confidence how they regarded their nonconformity. All we know is, that Methodism advanced when Radicalism advanced and not when it grew weaker, and also that the great "religious revivals" normally did not occur when economic conditions were coming to their worst, for instance, at the bottom of trade depressions. The periods when Wesleyanism recruited most rapidly - at an annual average of 9-14,000 members- were also, with- the one exception of the boom-years 1820-24, periods of mounting popular agitation: 1793-4 (the time. of Jacobin agitation), 1813-16 (as unrest increased in the last years of the Napoleonic Wars), 1831-34 (during the great Reform and Owenite agitations when the most rapid rate of increase was achieved), 1837-41 (Chartism) and 1848-50 (the last wave of Chartism). Conversely, as Chartism declined, so did the sects. The first half of the 1850s saw most nonconformist bodies, Methodist or otherwise, losing members steadily in what was, in effect, the only major recession in their nineteenth-century history. 1850 marks the end of a phase in the development of nonconformism, as in that of the labour movement. When both revived, it was under very different conditions. This peculiar parallelism may be explained either by saying that radical agitations drove other workers into Methodism as a reaction against them, or that they became Methodists and Radicals for the same reasons. Both are probably true. On the whole, the second interpretation is perhaps more likely, since, as we have seen, dissatisfaction among rank-and-file Wesleyans against the anti-radicalism of their leaders grew markedly during the 1830s and 1840s.
The truth is, that the times were working against Wesley the politician though they favoured Wesley the evangelist, and this inevitably weakened the political effectiveness of his strongly organized and authoritarian connexion. But even if it had been fully effective, it is unlikely that Wesleyanism could have prevented a revolution had other conditions favoured one in the first half of the nineteenth century. The world of the 20th century is full of revolutions made by masses of deeply pious men and women, adhering to religious bodies - whether Hindu, Christian or Buddhist - whose leaders did not favour resistance to constituted authority; and of revolutionary movements composed of such men and- women. There is no reason to believe that the conditions of the early nineteenth century made religion as such a stronger safeguard against revolution in Europe than it is in Asia today.
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