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Politics

It was never John Wesley's intention for his followers to become a political people, but it proved impossible to draw a clear line between religion and politics in the prevailing conditions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. Wesley himself flirted with High Tory causes in the 1730s and 40s, spoke out against political corruption, castigated the revolutionary actions of the American colonists, disavowed slavery and railed against riches and conspicuous consumption. He bequeathed to his followers a strong ethos of loyalty to the established order, an enthusiasm for civil and religious liberty, a deep suspicion of Roman Catholicism and an ecclesiastical system that mobilized and trained thelaity. It proved an unstable legacy for his followers who had to cope with spectacular Methodist growth in a period of rapid social, economic and political change. In the early nineteenth-century Methodists were relatively united in their determination to resist state interference in the form of the Sidmouth Bill against itinerant preaching and in their resistance to the political demands of Irish Roman Catholics; but they found it more difficult to absorb the class tensions of early industrial England. Some Methodists flirted with radical causes; others rose to leadership in mining and agricultural trade unions; still others signed their names to antislavery petitions. But most were relatively uninvolved in politics and simply obeyed the injunctions of their leaders not to meddle with those given to change.

But Methodism could not avoid the political context of its own growth. Class tensions mingled with ecclesiastical conflicts and produced manifold secessions from WM. Most new Methodist denominations, such as the PMs, were on the whole less deferential to Anglican and Tory causes than the original Connexion. As the nineteenth century unfolded Methodists, in common with the rest of Nonconformity, found it easier to unite on religious and moral crusades such as temperance and sabbatarianism than on such great political issues of the day as Home Rule for Ireland and the running of the Empire. Over the past two centuries Methodist engagement with the world of politics has been engagingly eclectic. Kilhamite radicals, trade unionists and early socialists are as much a part of the Methodist canon as Buntingite tories and Welsh liberals. In fact, MPs from Methodist backgrounds have shown up in all the major political parties and in recent times have supplied three successive Speakers of the House of Commons. As John Wesley himself understood, religion and politics are hard to separate and even harder to unite.

Sources

  • E.R. Taylor, Methodism and Politics 1791-1851 (1935)
  • W.R. Ward, Religion and Society in England 1790-1850 (1972)
  • D. Hempton, Methodism and politics in British Society 1750-1850 (1984)
  • Michael Watts, The Dissenters, vol. 2 (Oxford, 1995)
  • D. Hempton, The Religion of the People: Methodism and popular religion c.1750-1900 (1996)
  • David W. Bebbington, 'The Free Church MPs of the 1906 Parliament', in Parliamentary History, 24:1 (2005) pp.136-50
  • Timothy Larsen, 'A Nonconformist Conscience? Free Churchmen in Parliament in nineteenth-century England', in Parliamentary History, 24:1 (2005) pp.107-19

Entry written by: DNH
Category: Subject

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