In earlier works David Hempton has discussed Methodism, first as an English movement and later as a British Isles movement. In Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, he explores Methodism’s spectacular expansion across national borders, explaining why the movement flourished when and where it did throughout the world. He examines Methodism’s appeal across national, ethnic, racial, class, social, and gender boundaries and the social, economic, and political factors that fostered its growth, as well as its failure to thrive in unsuitable conditions and its decline when environments changed.
Methodism began after John Wesley, an Anglican clergyman, experienced a spiritual awakening, when his heart was “strangely moved” at an Aldersgate Street society meeting in London in 1738, and he felt the full assurance that his sins were forgiven. Wesley was a member of a religious society at Oxford University that met methodically to study and worship in the 1730’s. With the help of his brother Charles, he and other followers spread the message of Methodism. It became a significant international religious force, a virtual empire of the spirit, and accomplished the most remarkable missionary movement of the 1800’s. By 1909, Methodist worshipers numbered about thirty-five million worldwide and had become the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. American Methodists accounted for more than 75 percent of the total membership, including more African American Methodists than the entire Methodist population in Europe.
Hempton compares the expansion of Methodism to the rise of a political empire. He seeks to penetrate the essence of the movement, using various themes. Competition and symbiosis, a biological metaphor, is one theme used to explain the growth and adaptation of Methodism to certain environments. Competing with other ideologies, Methodism provided something other religions did not provide; it took what it needed from the environment to survive and thrive; and it changed and was changed by its environment. Established religion in preindustrial England, suffering from internal decay and threats posed by the Counter-Reformation, rationalism, and deism, had become out of touch and irrelevant. Methodism was a new religious “species” that won popular appeal through a distinct theologyfree will, grace for all, the assurance of forgiveness of sins, and the possibility of complete sanctification. Wesley’s aim was to reform the Anglican Church and spread the love of God and neighbor. Responding to the needs of the poor, sick, imprisoned, and spiritually hungry, Methodists established schools, orphan houses, clinics, and opportunities for worship. “It was a cultural revolution from below.”
Treated with relative tolerance within the Anglican Church, Methodists took what they needed from the Anglican tradition. Methodism’s success in Ireland was mainly among the English settlers. In the new American frontier, says Hempton, “Methodism offered a more enthusiastic religion for Anglicans in an environment unsuitable to liturgical and moralistic refinement.” In Canada, it received a boost when Loyalists, British immigrants, and disbanded British military settled there in the wake of the American Revolution. Methodism’s global outreach in the nineteenth century benefited from British and American military, commercial, and cultural expansion, adapting to cultural variations in each area. It had little appeal in settled, longstanding Anglican strongholds, but it thrived among mobile populations, soldiers, sailors, immigrants, pioneers, and slaves, expanding with trading routes and migration patterns. “Eighteenth-century Methodism, throughout the English-speaking world, was essentially a sub-species of Anglicanism, but with a greater capacity to adapt to the changing conditions of a new world order.” Democratic revolutions and expanding markets strengthened its appeal. Economic uncertainty and political changemajor environmental changesaccounted for its success as much as its message, enthusiasm, and the mobility of its messengers. Following informal outreach by lay people, missionary societies were officially formed in Britain and America and sent missionaries throughout the world. Through hard work, education, and self-discipline, Methodists, who began as outsiders everywhere, became...
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