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What were the distinctive characteristics of working-class Evangelicalism?


Bebbington has identified[1] biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism as the main characteristics, or 'special marks', of evangelicalism. In this essay I want to assess the accuracy and adequacy of this characterization, in relation to working-class evangelical religion in the early nineteenth century. Although I shall draw evidence from a variety of denominations, I shall (inevitably) concentrate on the Primitive Methodists, 'the one consistently working-class branch of Nonconformity'[2]. It should of course be remembered that Primitive Methodism was a tiny sect, and that most working-class evangelicals attended other churches. Gilbert has shown[3] that the middle-classness of Wesleyan Methodism, for example, has been exaggerated: Wesleyan members were drawn disproportionately from the artisan class. But it is difficult to hear their voices beneath the repressive boomings of the hierarchy; the 'lay despotism' of Primitive Methodism allows us to see an evangelicalism that the working classes made for themselves.


One problem with using biblicism as a defining characteristic of evangelicals is that almost everyone was biblicist in early nineteenth-century England, where few were yet troubled by the findings of geology and German biblical criticism. The bible was of profound cultural importance, not only to evangelicals. A belief that the bible was a uniquely valuable book would form part of the 'diffusive Christianity' that historians have found[4] at the end of the century; and customs that used the bible, for example to determine the name of one's future husband[5], testified to popular veneration for it. If this looks more like superstition than Christianity, it is not so different from Wesley's use of bibliomancy, common also among Primitive Methodists. Evangelical biblicism had strong links with popular culture, and the bible was central to most working-class creeds. The established church insisted that it contained 'all things necessary to salvation'[6], and the availability of English bibles to all had become a symbol of English liberty after the Reformation. In the 17th century, the bible had inspired a generation of working-class radicals. Harrison has suggested that Britain had a 'millenarian culture' from 1780-1860; and the millenarian tradition was 'Protestant and narrowly scriptural' in origin[7]. Joanna Southcott boasted that she read only the bible[8] (though she required her followers to own at least two of her own publications as well).

Biblicism was therefore hardly unique to evangelicalism, and the Primitive Methodists' 'fundamentalist' view of the bible as an infallible guide[9] was the almost universal view in early nineteenth-century England. What distinguished evangelicals was the stress they placed on frequent bible-reading as an ideal. Wesley had called himself a man of one book, and in the 18th and 19th centuries middle-class evangelicals tried to disseminate knowledge of, and devotion to, the bible, through preaching, Sunday schools, bible distribution and cheap religious tracts. Their impact is debatable, but working-class evangelicals certainly revered the bible. Their spiritual experiences and decisions were often prompted by scriptural texts, however obscure: the Cornish Methodist William Carvosso, the Cornish Methodist, was assured that his children would be converted when 'these words were applied with power to my mind: "There shall not a hoof be left behind."[10]

Indeed, biblicism was arguably stronger among the poor than the rich during this period. Thomas Cooper found the Primitive Methodists 'demurred to [his] reading any book but the bible, unless it was a truly religious book'[11]; he found this restrictive, but for others it could be an advantage. For people who had neither time nor money for reading other books, a religion which asserted the supreme importance of just one book was ideal. It could support working-class claims of spiritual equality, even superiority: Bourne ridiculed the authors of commentaries and histories 'all to explain the Bible! So 'they find no end in wand'ring mazes lost." O Lord, direct my soul into the plain Bible ...'[12] And the bible could also provide the basis of working-class political claims: Christian Chartists, many of whom were Primitive Methodists, pointed to the social teachings of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets, with Exodus as a paradigm of liberation and oppression[13].

Although frequent bible-reading was the evangelical ideal, it should not be assumed that all, or even most, poor evangelicals attained it. Many, after all, were illiterate. It is true that biblical language pervades working-class evangelicals' memoirs[14]. So too, however, does evangelical jargon derived from Wesley and the Protestant tradition (Carvosso's memoir in particular can seem on occasion like an attempt to get as many synonyms for conversion on a page as possible[15]), so that it is not clear how much of the biblical language is first-hand. The importance of the Wesleyan tradition is suggested by the fact that, as Church lamented[16], the Primitive Methodists' Conference 'Deed Poll' set the standard of Primitive doctrines, not by scripture, but by Wesley's writings.

Admittedly, few evangelical labourers had copies of Wesley's sermons, but the same cannot be said of Wesleyan hymns. A Lincolnshire clergyman could 'never recollect to have been in a dwelling, however poor, in which one or more copies of Wesley's Hymns were not to be found'[17]. Billy Bray, the Bible Christian, was converted after shutting himself in a room with the bible and Wesley's hymnbook for days, and both he and Carvosso quote hymns far more often than they quote the bible. Hymns were arguably the evangelicals' greatest contribution to nineteenth-century religion, and oral history has shown[18] their enduring importance in popular culture; if we look at the practice, not just the ideals, of working-class evangelicalism, then a love of hymns is as prominent as a love of the bible. They were immensely popular and sung everywhere: Bourne produced a hymn-book (adapted from Dow's) as early as 1809, which contained less staid hymns than the Wesleyan hymnbook, often based on ballads and street songs; the revenues from it were such that a number of provincial printers were tempted to make pirate copies[19]. 'Processioning' with hymns was an important Primitive Methodist technique: George Herod thought that the 'very lively airs' they sang 'produced a very wonderful effect upon multitudes', and enabled Primitive preachers to attract hundreds, perhaps thousands, who would otherwise have paid no attention[20]. It is interesting to compare The Record's reaction in 1860 when Richard Weaver sang a hymn to a merry tune: 'a merry jig revolts good feeling, and is calculated to dispel solemnity, it seems utterly repugnant to the dignity of the everlasting gospel'[21].


Billy Bray once shouted in a prayer-meeting, 'The blood! the blood!! the precious blood!!! the precious, precious blood!!!!'[22] The crucicentrism of the Protestant tradition was strongly endorsed by Wesley and the Anglican Evangelicals, and it would be very surprising if no signs of it could be found among working-class evangelicals. But caution is needed. Crucicentrism can only be a matter of emphasis - the cross is important in all Christian traditions. References to 'the atoning blood' are to be expected in people steeped in the language of Wesley's hymns, but they may not have great theological significance. And working-class evangelicals didn't write theological treatises, or have their sermons published, so our evidence for their religious views is scanty. But there are some reasons for doubting the importance of crucicentrism in working-class evangelicalism.

For a later period, Moore observed that 'the theology of the average Methodist and adherent is intellectually unsophisticated, confused, unclear, and at times totally unformulated', despite a lifetime of exposure to preaching and Sunday School teaching. There was a nostalgic preference for sermons which stuck to biblical exposition, blood and thunder; but little retention of the theological content of sermons. Behaviour, not theology, was what defined religion.[23]

The evidence of earlier periods suggests that such attitudes were far from new. Wesley had lamented that, though he tried to speak as plainly as possible, people who had been his hearers for many years still didn't know 'whether Christ be God or man; or, that infants have any original sin'[24]. In 1817, Carvosso visited a sick woman who had been a Methodist for three years, who, he found, 'knew nothing of salvation by the remission of her sins'[25]. Church was defensive about the Primitive Methodists' doctrinal awareness:

We confess there are some members who cannot understand with critical exactness, in what manner Christ was made a propitiation for sin ... yet we doubt not, that many calumniated Primitive Methodists believe with a saving faith in Jesus, who could not give a satisfactory explanation of the precise mode in which that Mediator's sufferings were made available for their pardon. ... In few words, Primitive Methodists know the truth much better in its operation on the heart, than in its shinings on the understanding.[26]

Methodism had always prided itself on being a 'religion of the heart', rather than of the head. A significant moment leading to Bourne's conversion was reading in Wesley's sermon, 'On the Trinity', that religion was not a matter of assenting to certain truths: 'People may be quite right in their opinions, and yet have no religion at all, and, on the other hand, persons may be truly religious, who hold many wrong opinions.'[27] This insight was important enough to be included in the first Primitive Methodist rules, and it affected Bourne's attitude to other sects. After reading about the Quakers, he wrote: 'Having been delivered from laying stress on opinions, I found that the religion of the heart was alike in all.'[28]

This disregard for doctrine may put a question mark over Bebbington's selection of crucicentrism as a defining characteristic of evangelicalism. Obelkevich has noted the Primitive Methodists' relative neglect of Easter, while 'Good Friday was remembered only because it was so often annexed for Sunday school anniversaries'[29]. Doctrinal indifference may also lie behind the weaker, less exclusive commitment to one church or another found among Lincolnshire labourers than among more prosperous groups, to judge by their children's baptisms, at any rate[30]. Certainly the secessions from Wesleyan Methodism, like the Wesleyans' own secession from the Church of England, were caused by organizational quarrels, rather than doctrinal ones. One vicar told the Bishop of Oxford in 1854 that 'Some Ranters have told me, they would willingly come to Church, if I would allow them to "speak" in the Church'[31]. Obelkevich has argued that 'If there has been a "common religion" in England in the last hundred years, it has been based not on doctrine but on the popular hymns.'[32] This is not to suggest that working-class evangelicals did not believe in the atonement; only that historians who studied only working-class evangelicalism might not have chosen crucicentrism as one of its principal characteristics.

Belief in the afterlife, on the other hand, was pronounced. Shaw suggests, in his study of the Bible Christians, that 'preparation for death was the main preoccupation of those who took their religion seriously; in the 1840 Bible Christian magazine, nine out of ten poems deal with the theme of deathbeds'[33]. Certainly, fear of death and hell seems to have been a prominent motive for conversion. Bourne began converting Elizabeth Warrington by 'observing, that though her illness did not appear to be dangerous, yet she might go off'[34]. Cholera outbreaks and mining disasters were closely linked with revivals[35]. Indeed, Methodism was especially strong among workers in extractive industries such as mining and fishing, where success depended largely on luck and death was never far away. Before conversion, Bray 'used to dread going to sleep for fear of waking up in hell'[36], and Clowes had terrible dreams; he used to long to be a bird or animal, 'or anything else that was not accountable to the tribunal of heaven'[37]. And to some extent, these fears were created by evangelicalism itself. Church described Primitive preachers' technique: 'They unveiled the terrors of a sin-offended Deity, to the view of alarmed crowds, who were made to feel that the wrath of God was hanging over them every moment.'[38] Clowes was an especially terrifying preacher, urging sinners to 'flee immediately from the wrath to come'[39]. This is firmly in the preaching tradition of Wesley, who (according to Gunter) 'clearly and rationally convinced his hearers that they would be eternally damned unless God intervened'[40]. Obituaries in the Primitive Methodist magazine show that fears caused by illness or death were often associated with conversion; but in a number of these cases, the subjects were lapsed Wesleyans[41]. But fear of death was not an evangelical creation, and if evangelicalism exacerbated it, it also provided a way to deal with it, and a hope of heaven. Primitive Methodist hymns promised heavenly crowns, robes, gold, and (especially) food in great abundance[42]. Conventions grew up around deathbed behaviour that allowed the dying to turn their deaths into triumphs, while mourners could comfort themselves remembering their last, confident words[43]. Haslam's gardener, a 'zealous Churchman', was seized with terror when death approached; but when converted to Dissent, he became joyful, and walked round his room praising God[44]. Similarly, the guilt felt by penitents was partly the creation of evangelicalism, but seems also to reflect the burden of self-contempt that labourers carried[45], and from which the evangelical message of spiritual equality freed them.

Supernaturalism was also a prominent feature of working-class evangelicalism. Reading Bray's biography, at any rate, Christ's role as miracle worker and powerful ally against ghosts and mining disasters seems dominant, and demons lurked everywhere. These ideas were similar to traditional folk beliefs in magic and spirits, and Rule, noting the persistence of folk beliefs in Cornish Methodism, has argued that evangelicalism appealed partly because it didn't demand changed beliefs. Primitive Methodists were strongly convinced of the existence of supernatural phenomena, to an extent[46] which others saw as mere superstition. Special providences were seen everywhere; the Primitive Methodist magazine regularly gave accounts of 'Remarkable Interpositions' of Divine Providence. O'Bryan, the Bible Christian, sensed Satan following him 'like a great bear on his hind legs'[47]; Clowes had grappled with the Kidsgrove bogget as a young man, and later he would be troubled by a woman at Ramsor of whom Bourne would write:

I believe she will prove to be a witch. These are the head labourers under Satan, like as the fathers are the head labourers under Jesus Christ. ... For the witches throughout the world all meet and have connection with the power devil ...'[48 ]

The persistence of a belief in witches' sabbats, long after witch trials had ended, is remarkable. Wesley had also believed in witches; but as sophisticated opinion increasingly rejected such 'superstition', the belief that God intervenes in daily life also waned[49]. After mid-century, Providence, the supernatural, and even the afterlife, declined in importance in Primitive Methodism too; the Primitive Methodist magazine's 'Providence' section was stopped in 1862; obituaries became perfunctory, and hymns about hell were gradually dropped[40]. But in the early nineteenth century, working-class evangelicalism seems to have accommodated traditional popular beliefs quite happily; it was popular behaviour it wanted to change.


Evangelical preaching stressed simple alternatives: saved and unsaved, life and death, and the way of salvation through Jesus. The central aim was to convert hearers to a new way of life, or to strengthen the resolve of the already converted not to revert to old habits and old companions - to make them into different sorts of people from the unsaved[51]. This difference should be shown in evangelistic and charitable efforts and public service, but also in personal habits of temperance, thrift, and sabbatarianism.

The adoption of puritanical codes of behaviour was a key distinguishing mark of evangelicals - to such an extent that Catherine Wright could say to her sister: 'Perhaps I ought not to wear a plain bonnet before my soul is set at liberty'[52]. But a morality enforcing plainness of dress and food made comparatively little difference to the poor, who had simple habits of necessity. Evangelical disapproval of popular pastimes and festivals was much more controversial. Rule has described the confrontation of religion and revelry as 'central to the understanding of the social history of religion in industrializing Britain'[53]; the reformation of manners was as important to working-class, as it was to middle-class, evangelicals. Hostility to popular recreations had been prominent in Methodism from the start, as Wesley's journals show, and discipline was strictly enforced against members for such offences as missing services, drinking, attending the theatre, and working on Sundays. The sins that evangelicals rebuked in others and repented of in themselves were overwhelmingly leisure activities - drinking, fighting, smoking, playing undignified games, or breaking the sabbath. William Carvosso wrote of his youth: 'I was borne down by the prevailing sins of the age; such as cock-fighting, wrestling, card-playing, and Sabbath-breaking'[54]. Robert Key thought Shipdhamites outstandingly wicked: he listed drink, swearing, 'open immorality', and Sabbath-breaking as their principal crimes, and his primary missionary tactic was to go to the playing ground on Sunday, sing hymns, and preach[55]. Primitive Methodist campmeetings were from the start organized in direct competition to wakes, feasts, and so on; hymns replaced bawdy folksongs (often using their tunes), and tea meetings replaced beer drinking.

Rejecting popular customs served in part to strengthen community feelings, by emphasizing evangelical distinctness. Women had especial reason to reform working-class leisure: unlike men, they couldn't go to the pub, or enjoy the associated pleasures of drink, gambling and tobacco - but they had a strong interest in persuading their husbands, fathers and sons to renounce these pleasures. But women and evangelicals weren't alone in their attitudes. The radical Francis Place wrote that he never went to pubs: 'I hate taverns and tavern company. I cannot drink, I cannot for any considerable time consent to converse with fools.' Many Chartists supported temperance. Windham lumped Jacobins and Methodists together as enemies of popular amusements who were trying to make the poor serious[56]. The pursuit of moral sobriety stemmed from the Enlightenment hope of progress through the use of reason, and was as central to the radical, rationalist movement as it was to evangelicalism.

In both a new desire for self-respect was prominent. When Primitive Methodists in Lincolnshire tried to persuade villagers to give up sack races, they argued that people should not 'befool' themselves[57]. But there was also the belief, common to working-class evangelicals and radicals alike, that through intellectual and moral development and regeneration, the poor could improve their own lives. The ideal of individual improvement, formed from Enlightenment faith in reason and evangelical moral earnestness, had achieved assured cultural status by the end of the 18th century; in the nineteenth, it was given an egalitarian and collectivist twist by the working class.

A method of improvement much favoured by radicals was education, as the proliferating mutual improvement societies testify. Many prominent Chartist leaders had been active in the agitation around 1830 for an unstamped press, calling for an end to the 'tax on knowledge'[58]. But as education had been a privilege of the well-to-do, the poor had mixed feelings about it. Working-class evangelicals were fond of dismissing middle-class learning as spiritually useless: Bray remarked of one preacher that he was 'a wise man, but a dead man ... he had a great deal of grammar, and but little of Father'[59]. Evangelical activism could emphasize converting souls over all else, including education, and biblicism (as we have seen) could downgrade, even deprecate, the use of all other books. But on the whole, Primitive Methodists favoured education. Bourne wrote: 'I believe the Lord requires it at my hands to learn Greek and Hebrew.'[60] Against Cooper's experience with the Primitive Methodists must be set the importance they attached to Sunday schools, and the breadth of the education children could get in them. One result of conversion might be attendance at an evening school; Church noted that 'Our people very generally improve in useful knowledge of other descriptions, as well as religious'.[61]

Primitive Methodists were among the earliest supporters of total abstinence. Teetotalism did not grow out of evangelicalism, however; some evangelicals even condemned it as an unscriptural attempt to achieve through secular means a moral improvement that only faith and grace could give[62]. Most teetotal lecturers were working men; early teetotalism was essentially a working-class utopian movement, promising prosperity and happiness to working people if they gave up drink. This directly challenged the middle-class evangelical assumption that the social order was as God wished it,therefore unchangeable, and that poverty was 'the natural lot of many in a well-constituted society '[63].

Thus if conversionism is defined, as Bebbington suggests, as 'the belief that lives need to be changed'[64], then all the major working-class movements of the time were conversionist. What distinguished evangelicals from their radical peers was the way such change was brought about.

No belief was more continually stressed in working-class evangelicalism than that of a 'present [i.e. instant] salvation'. Key was even prepared to predict that a woman would be converted within two minutes (she obligingly was)[65]. The Primitive Methodist John Petty noted that 'The origin of our connexion was distinguished by a revival of this doctrine, - a full, free, and present salvation'[66]; Church called it 'THE CHARACTERISTIC of Primitive Methodism'[67]. Clowes thought true religion consisted in 'the soul taking hold of God and realizing a PRESENT SALVATION'[68]. Bourne thought the welfare of the connexion depended on the doctrine: 'When this doctrine was promoted, the work of God rose; but when it was not promoted, the work declined.'[69]

Conversion, known as 'finding liberty' or 'receiving pardon', was thus expected to be instantaneous, and accompanied by physical collapse, shrieks, groans, sensations of burning, or other forms of dissociative behaviour. In Methodism, such experiences were not limited to first-time converts; backsliders might be brought back to the fold by a similar process, and spiritual athletes might attain 'entire sanctification'. There was a constant emotional drama of temptations, struggles, backslidings, confessions and deliverances. The Quakerism that was a strong influence on early Primitive Methodists and Bible Christians also exalted personal experiences, the need to listen to the indwelling spirit. Bourne's conversion, and his arguments in converting Shubotham, concentrated on the need to experience a personal manifestation of Christ[70]. Working-class evangelical accounts abound with intense spiritual experiences: Carvosso was in bed one night when he was 'so overpowered with the glory of God ... I was constrained to shout aloud for joy'[71]. Key wrestled in a ditch for hours with principalities and powers, before a verse from Psalm 121 broke the snare: 'the powers of darkness were scattered, and hell's legions routed; my soul was, in a moment, filled with light and love'[72]. Bourne 'could scarcely believe what the Spirit witnessed' after he had sunk down in a field, feeling that everything he did was contrary to God, but then had felt 'the spirit of burning', and been made 'a habitation of God through the Spirit'[73]. According to one writer, in Cornish Methodism 'conscious spiritual exultation is looked upon as the one manifestation of God's grace', and other aspects of religion sank 'into insignificance before the special favour shown to a person in enabling him to feel saved'[74]. Such feelings could express themselves in exuberant or boisterous behaviour: Bray was given to picking people up and carrying them around, as well as rolling on the floor with joy[75].

The relation of this emotionalism with the egalitarianism and community spirit of evangelical revivalism is suggested by evidence from an American campmeeting, of which the revivalist George Hughes said, 'It was heaven in miniature as nearly as anything we could imagine'; another said, 'We need not go to heaven to find heaven. God will bring it right down here to us and fill the world with it.'[76] Crucial to this attitude was the belief that the abolition of all social and sexual distinctions at campmeetings was a realization of the heavenly order. The psychological release from guilt at conversion was also a release from feelings of inferiority produced by the emerging class system: evangelicalism provided a community of equals, a 'present equality'. Such emotionalism could easily become a form of anticlericalism, a contempt for 'stiff-necked professors, who had the form of religion, but were without the power'[77]. Bourne's reaction to a cathedral service is instructive:

After the service began, it ran through my mind: 'Get thee out of this place, and beware of the woman that has the golden cup in her hand, and those that are with her; their ways are death ...[78]

A reluctance to shout and sing was interpreted as spiritual deadness. When a Wesleyan friend that had disliked the noise and activity of Bible Christian services was persuaded by a dream that he was wrong, Bray remarked: 'So he has done with the doubters, and is got up with the shouters.'[79]

To separate this from conversionism, we might adopt Scotland's suggestion[80] of a fifth evangelical characteristic, pneumaticism. Contemporaries, however, used a different word: enthusiasm.

Enthusiast commonly means a person poisoned with the notion of being divinely inspired, when he is not, and upon that account commits a great number of irregularities in words and actions.
[Thomas Dyche and William Pardon, A New General English Dictionary (1744)][81]

Claims to direct experience of the Spirit had fallen into disfavour after the religious ferment of the Commonwealth period, when their democratic implications had become all too obvious; the consensus had developed that such overt actions of the Spirit had been limited to the early church. Inspired by Wesley's doctrine of Assurance, evangelicals broke with this consensus in their expectation that conversion would often, if not always, be a sudden, conscious experience. This was what distinguished them from their contemporaries, what they constantly stressed in their preaching, what their contemporaries complained about. William Bowman had voiced the general view when he wrote of the Wesleys that 'The first and chief Principle or Credendum which these Gentlemen inculcate amongst their followers is that THEY are divinely and supernaturally inspired by the Holy Ghost, to declare the Will of God to Mankind'[82]. But there was a marked difference between middle-class and working-class reactions to this doctrine. Working-class evangelicals maintained that enthusiastic excitement was the only rational response[83], and that behaviour which was prompted by the Spirit could not be criticized for ignoring human conventions[84]. The tendency to antinomianism was obvious, and middle-class evangelicals were uncomfortable about extravagant behaviour and popular claims to divine inspiration from the start. A typical comment on the Primitive Methodists was that 'Wesley's doctrines of the witness of the spirit, and Christian perfection, are held and applied by these people, in their most unguarded and excessive forms', while at campmeetings 'the people are wrought up to the utmost pitch of enthusiasm'[85]. Similar accusations had been levelled at the Wesleys, despite their attempts at theological refinement: Wesley had tried to distinguish between 'invalid' and reasonable enthusiasm[86], but it seems clear that emotional ecstasies and dissociative behaviour were common among his followers[87], at least in the early days. In later life, however, Wesley came to dislike these phenomena, and after the French Revolution such uninstitutional religious activity 'chilled the marrow of those with a stake in institutional stability'[88]. Revivalist fervour gave way to sedate services, long sermons, and strict control over their content. Bunting abhorred 'the rant & extravagancies of what is called Revivalism'. It threatened middle-class forms of spirituality, as well as their peace. In York in 1816, during a period of revival in northern towns, the Wesleyans gained 400 new members 'of the lowest order'; but no one was renting the pews, because respectable chapel-goers had been driven away to the Independents[89]. John Angell James would approve of the 1858 American revival precisely because there were 'no wild outcries, no physical convulsions, no bodily disorders, no frenzied emotions; all, with few and small exceptions, is deep solemnity'[90].

But deep solemnity was not suited to all tastes. For Elizabeth Shaw of Honley, at any rate, Wesleyan services were 'as dry breasts'[91]. In these circumstances, the shouting, singing and praying of Mow Cop may have come, Ward notes[92], as a great relief. But ironically, as the nineteenth century progressed, Primitive Methodism became more sedate. Clowes, once a great shouter, became 'convinced that religion does not consist in bodily movements, whether shouting, jumping, falling, or standing'[93]. Obelkevich has described the way that 'special services' developed into popular festivals and anniversaries after 1850, as in Wesleyan Methodism, reflecting a broader change of emphasis from spiritual concerns to organizational ones.[94] Denominations which started in reaction against the restraints of decorum soon came to accept them, as the sociological phenomenon of lift worked its magic.


Confusingly enough, Bebbington means by activism what other writers, such as Gilbert, call conversionism - strenuous effort to convert others. Historians agree, however, that such activity was encouraged by the Enlightenment. Political, scientific and industrial revolutions had shown that change was possible; Enlightenment optimism added that change would be for the better, at least if people worked for it. Arminianism was the theological equivalent of this idea; evangelicalism was, as Bebbington notes, 'part and parcel of the rising Enlightenment'[95], and shared in its optimism and crusading zeal. This was an age of activism, of societies and missions: traditional communities were breaking down, and new communities, based on likemindedness, needed to proselytize for supporters. Tholfsen points out that early nineteenth-century radicalism 'embodied a militant activism, derived from Enlightenment liberalism fused with plebeian energy and egalitarianism'[96]. But it was not necessary to have an ideology; choral societies grew rapidly after 1830, especially in Yorkshire and Lancashire, and were by no means just middle-class organizations, thanks to itinerant preachers of the tonic sol-fa method.

Similarly, much of the success of revivalistic evangelicalism can probably be attributed, not to its creed, but to its entertainment value, as is suggested by its pattern of growth. Local societies grew rapidly, then shrank - sometimes disappeared - as converts lost interest and backslid - perhaps until the next campmeeting. Revivals were invariably short-lived, as they were new and interesting only for a time. Werner has even suggested that Methodism appealed to mining communities partly because they were so isolated and devoid of other forms of amusement[97]; and it also appealed to women, who were excluded from pub-based diversions. Everyone could join in revivals; if not actually being converted, they could still sing, shout, pray, dance, jump, move from speaker to speaker, or just chat. There were campmeetings, class-meetings, prayer-meetings, tea-meetings, lovefeasts, preachings, exhortations, processions, hymns, banners, and pious exclamations. Primitive Methodists, Bourne in particular, were aware of the need to keep each item short; timekeepers were appointed at campmeetings, and at the Conference of 1831, it was even agreed that itinerants who preached for too long should have their allowances docked[98]. Female preachers were an exciting novelty. Ranters were also willing to satisfy the popular demand for exorcisms and were sympathetic to visionaries, such as the Magic Methodists of Delamere Forest, and the women who saw the relative heavenly status of Bourne, Dow, and others in visions. Evangelical conversionism rejected the traditional recreations which now attracted middle-class scorn, but evangelical enthusiasm provided exciting alternative entertainments.

But if a creed was not needed, a vision of heaven, either in this world or the next, added immeasurably to crusading fervour. Primitive Methodism started as an aggressively missionary sect, whose preachers went to villages uninvited and preached in the open air, braving ridicule and rough treatment in the urgent quest for souls. As soon as Bourne was converted, he 'ardently desired that all might come to the knowledge of salvation, and taste the happiness that I had experienced, and be everlastingly saved'[99]; he commonly walked forty or fifty miles a day in pursuit of souls. Others followed suit: for example, in three days James Bourne did two days' farm labour, walked eighty miles, preached three times and held other services[l00].

Activism was not limited to the travelling preachers. Lovegrove has shown how the great expansion of itinerancy in the 1790s changed the role of Dissenting ministers, by shifting the emphasis to some extent from pastoral care towards conversion; and at the same time, lay helpers and preachers were also joining in these missionary efforts. So for a brief period, the distinction between ministers and their flocks became much less marked[101]. Lay preaching, prayers, singing, testimony, and exclamations dominated Primitive Methodist worship. Just as important as campmeetings and preaching in the spread of Primitive Methodism was the practice of holding cottage prayer-meetings, led by ordinary members. Indeed, the origins of the Mow Cop campmeeting may be traced to the regular prayer-meetings held by Bourne's first converts in 1801. According to Bourne, these meetings made 'an amazing change: hymns were sung at almost every house, and the country far and wide was surprisingly moralized'; Daniel Shubotham was soon urging that there should be 'a whole day's praying on Mow'[102]. These prayermeetings helped to strengthen the sense of community and social solidarity, as people met and prayed in each other's homes; it also allowed humble people to participate in a relaxed atmosphere. Women in particular benefited from this, as the home was, after all, seen as their place[103]. They gained opportunities for participation and leadership in Primitive Methodism that weren't available in other churches: preaching, and holding office. Women had been allowed to preach in Wesleyan Methodism until Wesley died; but they were prohibited in 1803. Primitive Methodists and Bible Christians, however, welcomed women preachers until later in the century, although they were always a minority, and weren't formally listed on the plans. Women were a fifth of Primitive preachers in 1818, and about half of the Bible Christian itinerants in 1820[104]; there was a clear link between female preaching and successful revivalism, as both Dow and Bourne recognized. Young people too were encouraged to take responsibility, and 'exercise' in public from the start; the frequency of conversion in adolescence and youth suggests that it may have functioned as a passage rite into independent adulthood[105].

Thus the shift in worship from minister to congregation gave opportunities for participation and independence to those who were normally denied it. Ward has suggested that Methodism was often 'an aspect of the rise of the fringes of the parish against the nuclear village, the parish church, and the central apparatus of service and control'[106]. Activism, like emotionalism, led to anticlericalism. As Bishop Warburton had pointed out in 1763:

An enthusiast considers himself an Instrument employed by Providence to attain some great End, for the sake of which he was sent out. This makes him diligent in his work; impatient under any let or distraction; and attentive to every method of removing it.[107]

For ardent evangelists, the greatest obstacle was often the church. Wesley had been accused of anticlericalism, despite all his protestations, because in practice he was willing to break with church order whenever he thought it an obstacle to Methodism; but after his death Wesleyan Methodism became much more concerned to preserve its own order, and frowned on enthusiasm and 'irregularities in words and actions' as strongly as the Church of England had. But groups determined to retain the enthusiastic spirit began to secede from the Old Connexion at the beginning of the 19th century - the Campmeeting Methodists and Clowesites (which combined to form Primitive Methodism), Independent and Quaker Methodists, Magic Methodists and Bible Christians. Led as a rule by small tradesmen with little education, they relied on unpaid or low-paid preachers, and met in cottages and barns, where they developed a vibrant religious counterculture that included campmeetings, prayermeetings, visions, exorcisms, healings and curses. Thompson's stress on Methodism's counter-revolutionary aspects pays too much attention to Bunting, and undervalues the importance of Methodism's organizational challenge to establishment control. Merely asserting the right to one's own opinion was a crucial part of the rejection of deference. Although revival was essentially a rural phenomenon in Britain, it made little headway in the closed parishes of southern England, where villagers were economically dependent on a single, resident squire[108]. Instead it flourished where people with a rural background were given some degree of economic independence - in open parishes, among immigrants in the northern towns, in industrial villages and textile putting-out districts, and, above all, in mining and fishing communities. Revival was thus intimately connected with a spirit of independence and egalitarianism. A friend suggested to Billy Bray, the Bible Christian, when he was on a begging expedition to a gentleman's house, that they should go to the back door; '"No", said Billy, "I am the son of a King, and I shall go frontways."'[109]

Primitive Methodism thus owed its success to the fact that it was more decentralized and democratic than the Old Connexion, and favoured lay involvement. The rules of the young connexion were adopted democratically, with every member being able to contribute[110]. Circuits were strongly autonomous until mid-century, when their independent powers were taken over by the district level; itinerants were socially, educationally, and economically close to the local preachers. Indeed, a New Connexion Methodist observed that 'A spirit of jealousy, with respect to the influence of preachers, pervades the whole [Primitive Methodist] system'[111]. Of the three delegates each district was allowed to send to the Annual Meeting, only one could be a travelling preacher. A high proportion of Primitive Methodists held office: in mid-century, local preachers alone constituted over 8% of the membership[112]. It is hardly surprising that people with such organizational experience should become prominent in unions. In fact, despite Bourne's opposition to 'speeching radicals', Primitive Methodists were active in political movements and trade unions from the start. Working-class evangelicalism was itself a declaration of independence and equality, and can be seen as part of the growing egalitarian movement of the time; Kent has compared Primitive chapels to 'citadels from which attacks were mounted on the social and economic enemy'[113].

Like enthusiasm, however, lay participation and activism would soon decline. In both Wesleyan Methodism and 'New Dissent', the lay role in itinerancy was decreasing by the 1820s, as the social status and academic qualifications of itinerants rose, and they developed a professional identity; instead of lay converts going from village to village, preaching in the fields, itinerancy came to mean respectable clerics travelling sedately from one town chapel to another[114]. Growth rates gradually slowed[115]; membership became increasingly middle-class and 'respectable'; the passion to convert the ungodly gave way to a concern with doctrinal and other tests of orthodoxy, aimed at excluding them. (One of Bunting's most characteristic statements was that 'schism from the body will be a less evil than schism in it'[116] - an attitude which would have momentous consequences for Wesleyan Methodism.) Primitive Methodists and Bible Christians followed the same path to respectability, twenty years later. But lay activism was not just a feature of evangelicalism, it was vital to it. Primitive Methodism had developed in response to the demand for active evangelism through camp meetings; when it was stopped for some years under the Tunstall non-mission law of 1814, the whole movement suffered (except in places where the rule was ignored). Bourne wrote:

It seemed as if the blessing of God was, in some degree, withdrawn from the societies, and there appeared so general a weakening that some thought the Connexion would absolutely break up. The suspension of the missionary labour produced a season of deep anxiety and painful experience.[117]

Similarly, when the Primitive Methodists turned in mid-century from converting outsiders at ecstatic campmeetings towards converting their own children in Sunday School and chapel, the inevitable result was stagnation, followed by decline.


Eighteenth-century anti-Methodist literature focused, with some reason[118], on three characteristics of Wesleyan Methodism: enthusiasm, anticlericalism, and those doctrines which stressed the believer's conscious experience of the Holy Spirit. I hope I have shown that these characteristics were also prominent in working-class evangelicalism in the early nineteenth century. This assessment confirms Kent's view, that Wesley's success lay in persuading people that personal religious experience was possible for all, and that Primitive Methodism represented the last wave of this movement as it extended further into rural areas - but that even there, 'conversion experiences' were losing their hold on popular imagination by the 1830s[119].

During the nineteenth century, evangelicalism changed dramatically, from an Enlightenment movement into what was sometimes an anti-Enlightenment movement; optimism and activism declined, conversionism lost its utopian promise and became a matter of respectability, and enthusiasm was frowned upon. As Peel noted, Methodism gave up its visionary and magical aspects in favour of a 'restrained Biblicalism and a middle class ethic of individual attainment'[120]. Revivals changed from spontaneous eruptions of local fervour into organized rallies attended by the middle classes[121]; the working classes conspicuously failed to respond.

Bebbington argues that it was activism, stemming from Enlightenment optimism and the doctrine of Assurance, which created evangelicalism out of the old Dissenting tradition[122]. One might therefore argue that as activism faded, or became a matter of donating pennies to missionary societies rather than going out into the fields and preaching, evangelicalism ceased to be evangelicalism. Certainly the ordered, dogmatic religion of Bunting and Close seems very different from the enthusiastic, superstitious revivalism of working-class evangelicals. Bebbington's characterization of evangelicalism perhaps fails through trying to cover all these varieties of religion, when it might be better to recognize their differences, perhaps give them different names. Of course biblicism and crucicentrism were present in working-class evangelicalism, as they were in all Protestant denominations; but they were much more important in middle-class evangelicalism, especially later in the century, in reaction to textual, scientific, and moral criticism. Supernaturalism, pneumaticism, and activism, which survived in middle-class evangelicalism only in controlled forms (preferably overseas), were dominant in working-class evangelicalism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The name 'enthusiasm' seems as appropriate as any.

Deborah Pate, 29 March 1995



1 D. W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (Unwin Hyman, London, 1989), p. 3.

2 G. Parsons,'From Dissenters to Free Churchmen: the transitions of Victorian Nonconformity', in G. Parsons & J. Moore (eds.), Religion in Victorian Britain (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1992), vol. 1, p. 95.

3 A. D. Gilbert, Religion and Society in Industrial England (Longman, London, 1976), p. 63.

4 J. Cox, The English Churches in a Secular Society: Lambeth, 1870-1930 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1982), p. 276.

5 J. Obelkevich, Religion and Rural Society (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1976), p. 264.

6 Article VI.

7 C. Garrett, Respectable Folly (The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1975), pp. 152, 13.

8 J. F. C. Harrison, The Second Coming: popular millenarianism, 1780-1850 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1979), p. 117.

9 H. McLeod, Religion and the Working Class in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Macmillan, London, 1984), p. 26.

10 B. Carvosso (ed.), A Memoir of Mr. William Carvosso (Wesleyan Conference Office, London, n. d., but preface to 2nd edn dated November 1835), p. 48.

11 A. Armstrong, The Church of England, the Methodists and Society 1700-1850 (University of London Press, London, 1973), p. 199.

12 H. B. Kendall, The Origin and History of the Primitive Methodist Church (Edwin Dalton, London, n. d.), vol. I, p. 148.

13 E. Yeo,'Christianity in Chartist Struggle 1838-1842', Past & Present, 91, May 1981, passim.

14 See, for example, Bourne's journals (quoted in J. T. Wilkinson, Hugh Bourne 1772-1852 (London,Epworth Press, 1952), passim; e.g. pp. 26, 82, 135) .

15 Carvosso, op. cit., e.g. p. 87.

16 T. Church, Popular Sketches of Primitive Methodism (Thomas Church, London, 1858), p. 53.

17 Obelkevich, op. cit., p. 183.

18 H. McLeod, Religion and Irreligion in Victorian England: How Secular was the Working Class (Headstart History, Banger, 1993), p. 38.

19 Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 195.

20 Kendall, op. cit., p.222.

21 J. Kent, Holding the Fort (Epworth Press, London, 1978), p. 119.

22 F. W. Bourne, The King's Son (Bible Christian Book-room, London, 1906), p. 43.

23 R. Moore, Pit-men, Preachers & Politics (Cambridge University Press, London, 1974), pp. 96, 118-9, 125.

24 Gilbert, op. cit., p. 72.

25 Carvosso, op. cit., p. 81.

26 Church, op. cit., pp. 147-8.

27 Wilkinson, op. cit., pp. 23.

28 ibid., p. 24.

29 Obelkevich, op. cit., p. 230.

30 ibid., p. 241.

31 H. Pelling, Popular Politics and Society in Late Victorian Britain (Macmillan, London, 1968), p. 21.

32 J. Obelkevich,'Music and religion in the nineteenth century', in J. Obelkevich et al. (eds), Disciplines of faith (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London), p. 554.

33 T. Shaw, The Bible Christians 1815-1907 (Epworth Press, London, 1965), pp. 107, 109.

34 Church, op. cit., p. 62.

35 D. Luker,'Revivalism in Theory and Practice: the case of Cornish Methodism', Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 37, no. 4, p. 618.

36 Bourne, op. cit., p. 4.

37 Kendall, op. cit., p. 54.

38 Church, op. cit., p. 46.

39 J. S. Werner, The Primitive Methodist Connexion (The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1984), p. 152.

40 W. S. Gunter, The Limits of 'Love Divine' (Kingswood Books, Nashville, 1989), p. 151.

41 Werner, op. cit., pp. 153, 155.

42 ibid., p. 150.

43 Obelkevich, Religion and Rural Society, pp. 235-7.

44 Bourne, op. cit., pp. 19-21.

45 Obelkevich, Religion and Rural Society, p. 98.

46 J. Rule,'Methodism, popular beliefs and village culture in Cornwall, 1800-50', in R. Storch (ed.), Popular culture and custon, in nineteenth-century England (Croom Helm, London, 1982), p. 61ff.

47 Shaw, op. cit., p. 78.

48 W. R. Ward,'The Religion of the People and the Problem of Control, 1790-1830', in G. J. Cuming and D. Baker (eds), Popular Belief and Practice (Studies in Church History 8, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1972), p. 242.

49 Kent, op. cit., p. 34.

50 Obelkevich, Religion and Rural Society, p. 254.

51 Moore, op. cit., pp. 99, 113.

52 Shaw, op. cit., p. 110.

53 Rule, op. cit., p. 50.

54 Carvosso, op. cit., p. 35.

55 J. Moore (ed.), Religion in Victorian Britain (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1992), vol. 3, p. 251.

56 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin, London, 1991), p. 63.

57 Obelkevich, Religion and Rural Society, p. 247.

58 H. U. Faulkner, Chartism and the Churches (Frank Cass & Co, London, 1970), p. 48.

59 Bourne, op. cit., p. 60.

60 Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 65.

61 T. R. Tholfsen, Working Class Radicalism in Mid-Victorian England (Croom Helm, London, 1976), p. 67.

62 Church, op. cit., p. 308.

63 J. B. Sumner, quoted in R. S. Dell,'Social and economic theories and pastoral concerns of a Victorian Archbishop', Journal of Ecclesiastical History, XVI no. 2, October 1965, p. 202.

64 Bebbington, op. cit., p. 3.

65 Church, op. cit., p. 66.

66 ibid., p. 43.

67 ibid., 61

68 Werner, op. cit., p. 150.

69 Church, op. cit., p. 61.

70 Wilkinson, op. cit., pp. 25, 31

71 Carvosso, op. cit., p. 77.

72 Moore(ed.), op. cit., p. 248.

73 Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 42.

74 Luker, op. cit., p. 609

75 Bourne, op. cit., p. 21

76 S. D. Cooley,'Applying the Vagueness of Language: poetic strategies and campmeeting piety in the mid-nineteenth century', Church History, 63, no. 4, Dec. '94, p. 576.

77 Kendall, op. cit., p. 231-2.

78 Wilkinson, op. cit., pp. 50-1.

79 Bourne, op. cit., p. 30.

80 In a lecture, 17.1.95

81 Gunter, op. cit., p. 119.

82 ibid., p. 13.

83 Church, op. cit., p. 178.

84 Kent, op. cit., p. 50.

85 ibid., pp. 296-7 (quoting Evans's Sketch of all Religions).

86 Gunter, op. cit., p. 134.

87 ibid., pp. 150-1.

88 Ward, op. cit., p. 242.

89 ibid., pp. 243-4.

90 Kent, op. cit., p. 73.

91 Werner, op. cit., p. 146.

92 Ward, op. cit., p. 240.

93 Werner, op. cit., p. 219 n. 38.

94 Obelkevich, Religion and Rural Society, p. 254.

95 Bebbington, op. cit., p. 50.

96 Tholfsen, op. cit., p. 50.

97 Werner, op. cit., p. 180.

98 Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 137.

99 ibid., p. 26.

100 Kendall, op. cit., p.154

101 D. W. Lovegrove, Established Church, Sectarian People (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988), p. 27.

102 Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 33.

103 D. M. Valenze, Prophetic Sons and Daughters (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1985), passim.

104 D. A. Johnson, Women in English Religion 1700-1925 (Studies in English Religion vol. 10, TheEdwin Mellen Press, New York, 1983), p. 90.

105 G. Malmgreen,'Domestic discords: women and the family in East Cheshire Methodism, 1750-1830' in J. Obelkevich at al., Disciplines of Faith: studies in religion, politics and patriarchy (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1987), p. 59.

106 Ward, op. cit., p. 253.

107 Bourne, op. cit., p. 70.

108 Gunter, op. cit., p. 21.

109 J. D. Gay, The Geography of Religion in England (George Duckworth & Co, London, 1971), p. 147.

110 Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 97.

111 Werner, op. cit., p. 136.

112 Obelkevich, Religion and Rural Society, p. 244.

113 Kent, op. cit., p. 40.

114 Lovegrove, op. cit., p. 155.

115 Gilbert, op. cit., pp. 38-9.

116 Kent, op. cit., p. 60.

117 Wilkinson, op. cit., p. 99.

118 Gunter, op. cit., p. 276.

119 Kent, op. cit., p. 11.

120 Quoted in Moore, op. cit., p. 96.

121 Kent, op. cit., passim.

122 Bebbington, op. cit., p. 74.