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Reviews > Book reviews >

Methodism: Empire of the Spirit

David Hempton
Yale University Press £19.95(0-300-10614-9)
Church Times Bookshop £17.95

When tensions ceased to be creative: Colin Podmore reads an account of the rise and decline of the Methodist Church

METHODISM, David Hempton reminds us, was essentially a sub-species of Anglicanism that had a greater capacity to adapt to changing conditions. It flourished where Anglican churches were struggling, but not in Roman Catholic or Calvinist areas.

It readily expanded westwards with the United States, and was spread by a mobile laity (settlers, traders, soldiers — and Cornish miners) throughout the British colonial and American commercial empires, becoming a parallel empire of the Spirit.

Early missionaries were not pioneers, but served the Churches thus formed. By the 1850s, Methodism was the largest American denomination, accounting for a third of US churches; and by the 1880s there were Methodists in most countries.

British membership peaked at 841,462 in 1930, but fell to 424,5400 in 1990 (and 293,661 in 2004). US membership peaked at 10.6 million in 1970.

Hempton, a leading historian of Methodism, analyses key themes in its "rise and fall"(growth, consolidation, decline). Examining British and American Methodism together reveals both commonalities and illuminating differences. Hempton distils arguments and evidence from the latest scholarship, and presents them lucidly within a coherent framework. Those who already know the story will welcome the thematic approach, and only occasionally is more knowledge of that story assumed than some readers may possess.

Methodism was a movement, propagated from below, of people (predominantly women, but with male leaders) who claimed a particular religious experience and expressed it in song. But enthusiasm was tempered by rigid discipline, while individualism and popular voluntarism struggled with a particularly centralised and authoritarian ecclesiology.

The tensions may initially have been creative, but later they proved problematic. Disputes over governance reflected political and economic conflict in wider society. The resulting mid-19th-century schisms left English Methodism permanently weakened.

The reasons for its rapid growth which Hempton identifies prompt reflection on the causes of decline. A largely celibate itinerant ministry was cheap and flexible; the married ministers who followed were more expensive and less readily deployable.

Methodism was good at establishing new congregations for mobile populations (except, importantly, in mega-cities), but it "is not thriving in older, more stable populations". "For Methodism to thrive it requires energy, change, mobility, and flux," he writes; but it became restricted by "embourgeoisement and institutionalisation".

Symbiosis and assimilation are key themes: "Methodism’s theology shaped and was shaped by its environment," he writes. Methodists began as outsiders, but through work, discipline and education "moved to the cultural center". American Methodism first renounced slavery, then accommodated it. By the 1860s, Methodist and American values had fused; late-19th-century American Methodist missionaries sought to export not just Protestantism, but also "American civilisation", which they believed to enjoy divine sanction.

Methodism’s relationship with its context (the age of enlightenment, voluntary associations, free markets, and democratic forces) prompts Hempton to ask whether it was well adapted to a particular historical moment but "incapable of sustaining momentum when the culture moved on". In its first 150 years, Methodism answered the needs of many; and much would not be the same had Methodism never existed (not least in the southern hemisphere, where Pentecostalism continues Methodism’s energy and mobility).

None the less, the changed context poses for Methodism the question all Churches should ask themselves — if it did not exist, would it now be necessary to invent it? If so, why?

Dr Podmore is the Secretary of the House of Clergy, the Dioceses Commission, and the Liturgical Commission.

To place an order for this book, contact CT Bookshop

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