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THE METHODIST VIEW OF EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
SECTION I. METHODIST DISSATISFACTION WITH THE CUSTOMS
AND RELIGION OF THE TIMES
JOHN WESLEY, in a survey of the life round about him, asks: "What is the present characteristic of the English nation?" He answers his own question: “It is ungodliness. This is at present the characteristic of the English nation. Ungodliness is our universal, our constant, our peculiar characteristic.” Indeed, the deist of the time was quite a respectable character in Wesley's estimation when compared with the ungodly man of the day. Wesley was very clear in his conviction that no nation had fallen from the first principles of religion quite as low as England. England was contemptuous of all truth, she had an utter disregard for even "Heathen morality,” all that should be dear and honorable to rational creatures she neglected.?
Wesley did not speak of this lack of piety in general terms. He was specific in his charges. He “once believed the body of English merchants to be men of strictest honesty and honor”; but reluctantly declared he had "lately had more experience."3 The peasant too was quite ignorant of faith, repentance, holiness; and of religion he could say nothing intelligently. Every class in England-lawyers, gentry, and nobility—came in each for its share of his scathing remarks. He admitted that honest lawyers were to be had; then sarcastically objected : “But are they not thinly spread?”5 He granted that religion was to be found among the gentry and the nobility, but added: "If you think they are all men of religion, you think very differently
* An Estimate of the Manners of the Present Times. Works, vol. vi, p. 349.
Works, vol. v, p. 142.
from your Master, who made no exception of time or nation when he uttered that weighty sentence, 'How difficultly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of heaven.'"6 And very bluntly, in a sermon before the University of Oxford preached at Saint Mary's in the year 1742, he denounced the educated classes in these words: “Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for you is, that ye may be saved from this overflowing ungodliness, and that here its proud waves may be stayed! ... Ye have not kept yourselves pure. Corrupt are we and also abominable.''7 Thus the learned gownsmen of Oxford were included in this unhappy picture of the times.
The life of the Methodists was a constant protest against that of the age. They disapproved of the gaudy dress then in vogue, and so they adopted drab and somber colors. They advocated self-denial even to the extent of giving up the popular but then expensive luxury of drinking tea.' They looked askance at many of the publications of the day, and would have nothing to do with them, as frivolous or obscene.10 Whether the Methodists were entirely correct in their estimate of the customs and habits of their time we cannot at this point determine. Here we wish simply to show that they were dissatisfied with its moral condition. Like all severe moralists they thought their country was on the downward grade.
METHODIST VIEW OF THE CHURCH AND THE
The Methodists spared neither Church nor clergy. Wesley himself was always sparing in his criticism, but other Methodists were not so guarded. 11 Seward, for example, said that the "scarlet whore of Babylon” was not more corrupt in practice or principle than the Church of England.12 Not that some mem
6 Works, vol. v, p. 517.
bers of the church were not apprehensive as to its condition.13 Others drew attention to the severe judgment of popular opinion regarding the Church.14 Bishop Burnet in 1713 spoke out boldly and said, “I see imminent ruin hanging over the Church, and by consequence, over the whole Reformation. The outward state of things is black enough, God knows; but that which heightens my fears rises chiefly from the inward state into which we are unhappily fallen.” The bishop further accused the clergy of being unacquainted with the Bible and maintained that their political interests were a danger to the Church.15
The Dissenters were at one as regards the general state of religion. Dr. John Guyse sarcastically remarked that the preachers and the people were content to lay Christ aside. They were in such a state that they needed a mediator no longer.16 Abraham Taylor, an independent minister at Little Moorfields, London, stated that the people had no idea of what the Holy Spirit was. All who professed to rely upon the aid of the Spirit were ridiculed. 17 Isaac Watts claimed that the decline of vital religion within the hearts of men was a matter for mournful observation among all that laid the cause of God to heart.18 His advice for a remedy of conditions was to urge ministers to make it their business to insist upon those subjects which were inward and spiritual, and which went by the name of ( “experimental religion.' Churchmen, Dissenters, and Meth
odists thus united together in their criticism of the Church, as representing the religion of the majority of the nation.
Wesley and others felt that the weakness of the Church lay in the moral and intellectual weakness of the clergy, whom he describes as “dull, heavy, blockish ministers; men of no life, no spirit, no readiness of thought; who are consequently the jest of every pert fool, every lively, airy coxcomb they meet.'
18 Serious Address to the Members of the Church of England, passim.
Ibid., p. 23.
Ibid., p. 55.
Bishop Gibson replied to Whitefield's strictures in his Pastoral letter.21 They had little grip on their people. Their parishioners were held as by a “rope of sand.”22 Taylor in his Defence of Methodism asserted that the clergy, as a rule, were worldly and ignorant political organizers rather than pastors. He maintained that the Church had been oppressive ever since the days
of Elizabeth. To prove this he inserted a list of good men [ sacrificed to its system.23 But the greatest scandal in the eyes
of the Methodists was the drunkenness prevalent in the clerical profession. Thus at Newtownbarry, in Ireland, the members
of the Methodist Society would not go to the parish Church on | account of the drinking habits of the clergyman.24 At Yar
mouth Wesley describes the people as "being full of prejudice against the clergy for this reason."25 - Joseph Crownley, , a layman, dared not hear a drunkard preach or read prayers.26 He and others appealed to the Wesleys as leaders of their cause, asking whether they were obliged to submit themselves to the ministrations of an intemperate clergyman. At Wednesbury, a gentleman rode up to a group to which John Wesley was speaking, and after insulting him sought to trample upon the people with his horse. Wesley found that he was a drunken clergyman.27
Nor was intemperance the only fault. Charles Wesley was shocked at their behavior during divine service at Christ Church.28 John Wesley spoke of some clergy as being “in the high road to hell.” Many, in his estimation, were wolves in sheep's clothing. They were characterized as: common swearers, open drunkards, notorious Sabbath breakers—and such are many parochial ministers of this day.” Wesley could not and would not urge his followers to worship under such men as these. Every man must judge for himself.29 So in answer
21 Gibson: Pastoral Letter, p. 24.
to the questions of his followers as to whether they should sit under the ministrations of a drunken or immoral clergyman, Wesley replied, “it is the duty of every private Christian to obey his spiritual pastor, by either doing or leaving undone anything of an indifferent nature; anything that is in no way determined in the word of God."30 This was an indirect way of saying, that in the important things, it was not necessary for a Methodist to obey a bad clergyman.
Wesley was always ready to acknowledge the merits of worthy clergymen. As, for instance, when Mr. Vowler at Saint Agnes preached "two such thundering sermons” as he had scarce heard in twenty years. Wesley's comment is that God was very good to the sinners of Saint Agnes.31 Indeed, whenever he was accused of being abusive he took pains to emphatically deny the charge. 32
Such was the general opinion of the clergy. If it was true, it was only true in part. For example, in Methodism Displayed, Bate says that the statements adverse to the character of churchmen were not worth noticing, because they were such good people.33 Again, Bishop Porteus in his Life of Archbishop Secker says: “The dignity of his form inspired at all times respect and awe, but peculiarly when he engaged in any of the more solemn functions of religion; into which he entered with such earnestness and warmth, with so just a consciousness of the place he was in, and the business he was about as seemed to raise him above himself, and added new life and spirit to the natural gracefulness of his appearance."34 Then as always there were good and bad clergy; the question was which element preponderated?
The Methodists, perhaps not unnaturally, took a decidedly gloomy view of the ordinary life of their age and especially of the condition of the Church. Rightly or wrongly the verse they placed upon the tombstone of J. W. Fletcher, of Madeley, repre
30 Works, vol. ii, p. 327.