“My Chains Fell Off, My Heart Was Free”: The Unsung and Underrated Contribution of Methodism to British Society

Article by Kathryn Robinson. Edited and Researched by Tom Burke.

In religious history, we often focus on Catholicism and Protestantism when, in practice,this actually meant that ‘Protestant’ was synonymous with the Church of England as the Established Church. Therefore, attention is rarely given to other denominations or groups under the Protestant banner.

Methodism is a Protestant denomination of the Church which was founded by John Wesley in the 1730s. The term ‘Methodist’ was originally used as a derogatory nickname for Wesley and the religious group he belonged to at university which stuck. The denomination broke away from the Church of England in the 1780s and 1790s when Methodists were becoming revolutionary in their aim to achieve social justice and reform as part of their faith. I think that Methodism has had a very important impact on British society, both now and in the last three centuries, and therefore deserves recognition.

John Wesley..

In terms of religion and theology, Methodism taught that everyone could be saved if they chose to follow Jesus and that nobody was beyond the reach of the love of God. It taught that salvation could be for everyone, rather than a chosen few people whom God had
already ordained would go to heaven, as some groups at the time such as the Calvinists believed. Everything that the Methodists did reflected this inclusive belief and this was the driving force behind much of the work in society that they did to help and serve people.

There were many campaigns in the 18th and 19th centuries which involved Methodists, both at a national and international level. Wesley and other Methodists, for example, warned of the dangers of alcohol, when alcohol was seen to be the cause of many of society’s ills. Methodists originally were encouraged not to drink and were also part of the growing temperance movement even after Wesley’s death in the 19th century, although now Methodists can make their own decision on the consumption of alcohol. Even now, alcohol is not allowed onto Methodist premises, meaning that Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are often held in Methodist Churches because it is seen to be a safe environment for them. Methodists also founded charities to help those who were in need, such as Action for Children (formerly the National Children’s Home) which was founded by Thomas Bowman Stephenson, a young Methodist minister, in 1869 as a response to the awful conditions faced by London’s homeless children in Victorian Britain. Now it has expanded
as a national charity which helps through community based projects all over the country. On an international level, John Wesley himself was ardently against the slave trade and was one of the voices calling for its abolition. So, it’s clear that the Methodists’ campaigns and the creation of charities alone contributed much to help those in Britain and around the
world.

Methodists also pushed for social reforms wherever they could, again to ensure that they spread the love of God to all that they met. The creation of free dispensaries (or chemist stores) and hospitals by Methodists ensured that the sick, who would not have otherwise been able to afford healthcare, were looked after. John Wesley’s mother Susannah – who had educated John for a good proportion of his formative years – also influenced Wesley and fellow Methodists to create schools, such as The Kingswood School in Bristol, and seek educational reform to make education more accessible. In caring for those in need in an altogether different sense, Methodists also pushed for prison reform which along with being yet another way to express their religious beliefs, was particularly personal for Wesley as his mother had twice been to prison due to financial difficulties. The desire to help the most vulnerable and needy in society – in many forms and ways – is another example of why the Methodist legacy is so important.

Aside from contributing so much in the social sphere, Methodists were also a great influence on politics and political campaigning. In 1834, the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’ were sentenced to seven years’ transportation for swearing an oath to each other as part of their creation of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, when the formation of such unions was restricted. Their leader – George Loveless – was a Methodist preacher who was moved to act in this way to protest against the conditions of fellow agricultural workers. Some Methodists were also involved in the Chartist movement in the 1830s and 1840s which campaigned generally peacefully for six voting reforms to make the voting system in Britain fairer for all. However, arguably their most significant contribution to British political life was that, since many Methodists were also trade union leaders, they were instrumental in the formation of the Labour Party in 1900 which originally championed the ‘ordinary people’ and their needs. These examples show how influential the Methodists were and that they weren’t just seen as ‘do-gooders’: they actually carried some weight in society.

The Wesley Memorial Church, Oxford.


I think that Methodists have been and continue to be a very important group within society and they deserve more credit than they are usually given. Even those who may not recognise or care for the theological significance they had can hardly deny the vast impact they had upon British society. I hope that in centuries to come, we will still remember the importance of Methodism and that history will place the organisation in its rightful place of prominence as a beacon of social justice and inclusive Christianity.

 

Research
John Wesley was the fifteenth son of an Anglican rector. After his time at Oxford, he and his brother Charles travelled to Savannah, Georgia, which was at the time a British colony, to act as its clergy. Here they encountered members of the Moravian Church, a Protestant group which emphasised the pastoral role of the church, something also stated in Methodism. After the brothers’ return to Britain, they began the Methodist movement, which, during his lifetime, functioned within the Anglican Church, albeit somewhat
controversially due to the use of lay preachers and open air sermons.

The modern day Methodist movement in Britain is somewhat divided, but still active in British society, with charity projects aimed particularly at young people. Other charitable organisations, such as the Salvation Army, have Methodist roots and follow broadly
Methodist theology but operate separately from the Methodist Church.

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