Times Literary Supplement, 26.06.2009
In the mid-1760s, an apparently trivial altercation between George Whitefield, who perhaps spoke directly to more people than anyone else in the North Atlantic region in the eighteenth century, and Thomas Seeker (Archbishop of Canterbury, 1758-68) highlighted some of the most important religious issues of the early modern period. The two men, who did not like one another very much, came to verbal blows over Whitefield’s proposal to establish a college for ministers in Bethesda, Georgia. Bethesda began life as an orphanage near Savannah, but it soon became a plantation worked by slaves paid for from the proceeds of Whitefield’s American preaching tours.
Whitefield’s plan, backed mostly by non- Anglican money from the northern colonies, was to educate his orphans as ministers and public servants of the Georgia colony. Whitefield petitioned the Governor and the Privy Council of Georgia for approval and the petition was referred to the Privy Council in London, which then sent it to Seeker. Meanwhile, rumours were circulating among members of the Society for Propagating the Gospel that Whitefield intended to turn the proposed college into a "nursery of Methodism". Secker, who had crossed swords with Whitefield many years before over Whitefield’s unorthodox activities as a Revivalist field preacher, insisted on imposing strict conditions of Anglican oversight for the college. This was consistent with Seeker’s unrelenting determination to extend Anglican influence over the colonies, including a failed attempt to establish an American bishopric.
Secker’s opposition. to Whitefield’s plan was unequivocal. He insisted that the proposed college should have an Anglican head, an Anglican liturgy and no extempore prayers. Clearly neither Methodists nor Dissenters were to be beneficiaries. Moreover, Seeker used his superior connections in the corridors of power to outmanoeuvre Whitefield, who was forced to withdraw his proposal. Whitefield then published the addled correspondence between Secker and himself, which was represented in many of the colonial newspapers as yet another example of the crude exercise of arbitrary English power over the beleaguered colonies. "Coming after the Stamp Act crisis and in the year of the Townshend Acts", writes Robert G. Ingram in Religion, Reform and Modernity in the Eighteenth Century, "the Bethesda controversy played out just as the sinews of empire were beginning to strain and snap under the weight of the problems which attended victory in the Seven Years War."
The Bethesda affair is also covered in Jerome Dean Mahaffey’s Preaching Politics, but its treatment could hardly be more different. Ingram’s sympathies lie with Seeker against the "heated - even shrill and paranoid - criticism of the English church-state by the heterodox on both sides of the Atlantic". Sensing that the Great Awakening boded ill for the future of the Church of England, Seeker determined to yield no ground to enthusiasts. His policy was to promote orthodoxy and to resist the undermining of church discipline by Evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic.
In keeping with his general argument that Whitefield’s sermons supplied the American colonists with "a rhetoric of community", Mahaffey argues that the Bethesda affair helped radicalize the colonies by building a bridge between Calvinist theology and republican ideology. In other words, Bethesda was an almot perfect symbol of the growing conflict between Britain and her American colonies. The novelty of Mahaffey’s approach lies not in his treatment of Whitefield’s life, but in a rigorous analysis of his rhetoric and the many ways in which his sermons contributed to the emergence of a shared American identity.
Although Ingram’s study of Seeker opens and closes with a vigorous, if at times incoherent polemic against the evils of historicized approaches to the eighteenth century by theory-driven historians (especially secularization theorists), the meat of his book is really a well-researched and serious biography of a distinguished Hanoverian churchman who fought tigerishly to preserve the Established Church from its enemies. Ingram’s book is therefore more about Seeker than about either reform or modernity.
Ingram’s main concern is to warn against anachronistic analytical categories and to argue that if the Church of England was in danger in the eighteenth century the threat came not so much from its noisiest opponents, but from the structural consequences of the century’s ubiquitous wars. In a discussion not short of metaphors, Ingram likens the effect of war on state and Church in the eighteenth century to a "gigantic glacier on the move" which left nothing undisturbed in its path. For example, the political realities of the American colonies during and after the Seven Years War made it impossible for the King’s politicians to create an American bishopric or otherwise promote Anglican interests against colonial sensibilities. Thus, the pressures of war and the maintenance of order slowly deconfessionalized English politics. A similar argument could be made for Ireland in the nineteenth century. In that sense, the Anglican Church was first eroded not by its critics in England, but from its colonial peripheries. Seeker was therefore right to be concerned about the state of Anglicanism in North America. A state that would not defend its Church at the outposts of empire might one day choose not to defend it at all.
Ingram’s book, like W. M. Jacob’s The Clerical Profession in the Long Eighteenth Century, 1680-1840, takes its place among a rich recent literature of scholarly defences of Anglicanism. The days when the eighteenth-century Church was berated by Evangelicals, high churchmen and utilitarians for its pastoral mediocrity, Erastian bondage and structural weaknesses seem now like a mirage. Although Jacob’s book claims to challenge the received view of Anglicanism as a mediocre religious establishment, in reality such a view has been in recession for some time. Partly stimulated by Jonathan Clark’s influential onslaught on Marxist and liberal critiques of Anglicanism, and partly as a result of disciplined historical work, parish by parish and diocese by diocese, "the old ship", as Charles Wesley liked to call the Church, now seems to have undergone a major historical refurbishment. Jacob presents the clergy as a well-educated, hardworking, pastorally engaged, communityoriented, serious-minded and respected group, probably superior in most respects to any other eighteenth-century profession. According to Jacob, anticlericalism was muted, tithes were generally paid without conspicuous protest, and the clergy acted as pillars of the community in their service as justices of the peace, dispensers of charity and purveyors of education.
But he does not take seriously enough the consequences for the Church of the sharp rise in clerical wealth at the end of the eighteenth century. In this period, a complex of social tensions caused by population growth, subsistence crises and the commercialization of agriculture, and further exacerbated by prolonged warfare, sharpened class conflict and undermined the old denominational order. The rising social status of the Anglican clergy and their unprecedented representation on magistrates’ benches in the English localities cemented the squire-and-parson alliance at the very time that Establishment ideals in English society were most under attack. In such circumstances the Church of England was in no position to resist a dramatic upsurge in undenominational itinerant preaching and cottage-based religion that even the various Methodist connections struggled hard to keep under control. Jacob’s suggestion is that for the Church the rot did not set in until after 1815, when the economy ceased to be on a war footing and the poor were squeezed hard, but there is compelling evidence, especially from the North of England, that this process started at least as early as the mid-1790s, when it became much more difficult to raise Church-and-King mobs. By keeping the clerical profession at the centie of his attention, Jacob’s impeccably scholarly study manages partly to rehabilitate a much maligned community, but his defence of the Anglican establishment is so complete that it makes it almost impossible to account for the vigorous rise of non-Anglican religious traditions in the era of the French and Industrial Revolutions. Part of his argument is that, notwithstanding the allure of Methodists for historians, they were, at least until the end of the eighteenth century, a small, and to some extent inconsequential, minority.
If Whitefield’s Calvinistic Methodism represents one pole of the rise of Methodism, Charles Wesley’s Arminian version is another. Charles, so often overshadowed by his elder brother John, emerges from Assist Me To Proclaim, John R. Tyson’s study, as the more agreeable of the two. Unlike John, Charles was a loving husband and father, Although he was subject to greater mood swings and could sink into melancholia, he was also less prickly and autocratic. He was more private and less egocentric than his brother, and less hungry for the limelight. Charles also had a superior capacity for friendship, including a tender relationship with George Whitefield, with whom he also disagreed vehemently over the theological issues of predestination and perfection. Above all, he was a great poet, lyricist and hymn writer, who supplied, in Tyson’s words, the "soundtrack" of the Methodist revival, It is estimated that he composed some 9,000 hymns and sacred poems, some of which are classics of devotional literature. One of the more appealing aspects of Tyson’s readable, if insufficiently critical, biography is the attention he gives to the hymns, many of which are reproduced and set in rich and revealing personal contexts.
The tercentenary of Charles Wesley’s birth, which was celebrated in 2007, occasioned a rash of conferences, new publications, and reassessments - and not before time. Tyson’s volume portrays Charles as the co-founder of Methodism, as the first of the brothers to experience an Evangelical conversion, and as a much more significant figure in the formation of the Methodist movement than historians have recognized. Ironically, he was almost as vigorous a defender of Anglican orthodoxy as Thomas Seeker, but John Wesley had other priorities. As a man overshadowed by the force of his brother’s personality, Charles has suffered from the neglect of those seduced by John’s self-propaganda. With new editions of his journals, letters and papers in the pipeline and with more biographies still to come, the next decade will continue to see the deserved rehabilitation of the other Mr Wesley.
To some extent, the conflicts between orthodox churchmen like Seeker, and Revivalists like Whitefield, are played out all over again in the volumes under discussion. Defenders of Anglican orthodoxy are prone to belittle the rebels. Others see in the Great Awakening not only the rise of a new reli- gious tradition - populist Evangelicalism - whose prolific growth has helped shape the modern world, but also the rise of a new nation that is now the most powerful in the world. These are not parish pump issues. Although the significance of the disagreement between Seeker and Whitefield over the fate of an obscure college in a thinly populated colony was appreciated by each opponent at the time, it seems even more important in retrospect. What was at stake was nothing less than a competition over the kind of Anglican religion that was to accompany the rise of Britain’s seaborne empire.