Gertrude Himmelfarb
Victorian Minds

There was nothing remote or impersonal about the moral reformation of England. It happened, however, to be John Wesley, rather than Queen Victoria, who was largely responsible for that reformation, and the eighteenth century, rather than the nineteenth, that inaugurated it. 'Victorianism before Victoria,' one historian has described the phenomenon.

It was Elie Halevy, in his England in 1815 who focused attention upon the decisive role of Wesley and Wesleyanism in the history of modern England. Wesleyanism—or 'Methodism,' to use the term first derisively applied to it by its opponents and then adopted by its adherents-started in the eighteenth century as an evangelical reform movement within the established church. Although Wesley never dissociated himself from the Church of England, many of his followers did, feeding the ranks of the dissenting sects or establishing independent bodies of their own. Thus the movement left its stamp upon the whole spectrum of English religious institutions. It had no firm theological doctrine: Wesley tried to hold to the idea of justification by faith while rejecting the complementary idea of predestination, and his followers played upon all the possible variations on these themes. Indeed, in its inception it was antidoctrinal in spirit, being an attempt to revive personal religion and scriptural faith. The doctrinal, even intellectual, weakness of Wesleyanism was precisely its strength, for it was this that permitted it to transcend religious and institutional barriers. Unlike most new sects, it was not divisive but rather unifying, mediating, and accommodating.

Although Wesleyanism had no binding doctrine, it did have firm religious and moral intentions. In one sense it was an attempt to internalize religion and spiritualize life, to recapture the vitality of primitive Christianity. The emphasis on personal salvation and the rejection of the concept of an elect meant that all men, whatever their present state, had the duty and potentiality for reform. At the same time, the doctrine of justification by faith was interpreted in such a way as to approximate a doctrine of good works in the form of self-help and mutual help. The internalization of religion was thus accompanied by its externalization, the spiritualization of religion by its moralization and socialization. Wesley himself sometimes insisted upon the external even at the expense of the internal. 'Christianity is essentially a social religion,' he declared. 'To turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.' And he acted upon this principle when he established, among other things, a poorhouse, a soup kitchen, a dispensary for the poor, and a 'contingent fund'—the latter made up of contributions by the employed for the relief of the unemployed. Before his death he had occasion to observe that some of his followers, perhaps as a result of his teachings, had accumulated what for them was considerable wealth, and he reminded them of their obligation to share their good fortune with the poor.

As the evangelical spirit infiltrated both the dissenting and the established churches, so it also infiltrated the several layers of society. Starting in the lower middle class, it soon spread to the upper. The Clapham Sect, the most influential Evangelical circle, included prominent members of parliament, bankers, lawyers, editors, writers, and philanthropists. It was no longer true, as had earlier been charged, that only the lower orders were concerned with the care of their souls. When the high and the mighty discovered that they too had souls to tend, it was the discovery of a common humanity.

The democratizing effect of evangelicalism is all the more remarkable for its having been so unintentional. Neither self-help nor mutual help was meant to imply self-government. In an age of revolution, most of Wesley's disciples were firmly committed to the established order. When a small group of Nonconformists expressed revolutionary sympathies, the Wesleyans issued a public declaration repudiating the Enlightenment as subversive of both society and faith and reaffirming their loyalty to king, country, and creed: 'We are to observe that the oracles of God command us to be subject to the higher powers; and that honor to the King is there connected with the fear of God.' One Methodist put the matter boldly: 'Wesleyanism is as much opposed to Democracy as it is to Sin.' At first, Wesleyanism had been opposed to democracy not because democracy was itself sinful but rather because to be concerned with democracy, in the sense of political reform, was to be distracted from the proper concern of man: his spiritual and moral salvation. Later, however, with the outbreak of the French Revolution, it appeared that salvation depended upon a strengthening of the existing political order, particularly when the threatening example of the French Revolution was accompanied by the still more threatening advance of the Revolutionary armies. Thomas Bowdler was one of many to call for a national moral regeneration: 'The only reform which can save us, if adopted in time, is a thorough reform of principles and practices.' Bowdler's contribution to this cause was the purgation of Shakespeare and Gibbon. But bowdlerization was not an invention of Bowdler; Wesley himself, as part of his campaign to promote literacy and encourage the dissemination of culture, had issued a series of abridged editions of famous works, in the course of which offensive passages had naturally been eliminated. Nor was bowdlerization the only or even the chief device of moral reform. The evangelicals were ]ust as enthusiastic in the causes of temperance, charity, Sunday and day schools, the abolition of the slave trade, Sabbatarianism, and the prohibition of such unedifying pasttimes as fortunetelling, cock fighting, bear-baiting, and dueling.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Through Eden took their solitary way.