The Impact of Methodism on the
Industrial Revolution in England
Bill Polson Union
Intermediate High School
Broken Arrow, OK
NEH Seminar 2006
Although most historians would agree that the rise of Methodism in the late 18th century had a significant impact on the Industrial Revolution and the social changes it produced in England, these were unintended outcomes. The exact times of the Industrial Revolution (or even if it is properly called a revolution at all) is subject to debate. For purposes of this paper, the period discussed will be 1730 to 1850. This period was one of major political, economic, and social change in Britain.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution goods for local use were produced by skilled craftsmen in their homes and the workshops that were located in their homes. Once Parliament made changes in land ownership and land use that allowed for a gathering of capital, it allowed those with capital to invest in new methods of production. Initially, these investors were the landed and the prosperous merchants. These changes, implemented by the Enclosure Acts, in effect moved the working class off public land and put them at the mercy of those that benefited from enclosure – the aristocracy.
Over time, the aristocracy invested their capital in machines, new methods of production, and new ways of organizing work. This led to a gradual change in how goods were manufactured – first in Britain and eventually worldwide. This change or “revolution” is often referred to as the Industrial Revolution and it began just before the Methodist movement started in Britain. The Industrial Revolution was the impetus of what would bring about great change. However, it was only in combination with the Methodist movement that great social change developed.
Without the influence of the Methodist movement, the Industrial Revolution would not have caused the social change we see in Britain today. There are those that would say that without the church, and in this case largely the Methodist Church, Britain might have suffered a similar fate as France did during this period. An uprising of the working class in Britain, similar to the one in France, certainly would have changed history in ways that are difficult to contemplate.
But the Methodist movement was connected in time to the Industrial Revolution and, as a result, two leaders of the movement would leave their mark on history – John Wesley and George Whitefield. Wesley and Whitefield saw the Anglican Church as being unresponsive to the needs of the working class and as having lost its spiritual zeal for the conversion of the lost. They believed that the church was too caught up in ritual rather than focusing on the spiritual growth of its members. Wesley and Whitefield wanted to revitalize the Anglican Church by reintroducing scripture and spirituality to the church. Interestingly enough, they would be partially successful in their goals for the Anglican Church. While Wesley never broke with the Anglican Church, during the later years of his ministry he was not allowed to preach or teach in their churches. Later the Anglican Church would see the success of the Methodist movement and would attempt to copy their evangelical success.
Viewing the economic impact of the land laws, the accumulation of capital led to investment in new technology, new production methods, and new ways of organizing work. Economists have argued as to the economic and social impact of this investment, which led to the great expansion of wealth and further growth of capital in Britain. Traditional economists generally try to explain these changes as having had a positive impact that effected Britain and the world. The result was that Britain became a world leader, an economic power that was concerned about holding these advances in technology as valuable secrets to benefit Britain alone.
An interesting economic view that was in contrast to the orthodox economists was the view of Karl Marx. Marx characterized the changes in society that resulted from the Industrial Revolution as one of the greatest thefts of the time. He described the loss of the control the working classes had over the value of their labor and the impact that this loss had on creating unrest in the working class. He pointed to the fact that the industrialist class, or merchant class, that had capital to invest took advantage of their ownership of the new processes to oppress the working class and to limit the wage level to a bare subsistence level. Further, the capitalist continued to invest any excess profits to his own personal benefit without passing on any of the value added by the workers, thus the theft.
Marx was advocating that the working class, under normal circumstances, would rise up and take back control of their labor and its value. However during this period in England’s history, Marx saw a lack of violence and political unrest in Britain. He believed that the conditions in Britain should have created unrest in the oppressed working class. He would explain this lack of unrest as a result of religion and specifically the Methodist movement, “Religions distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.” 1
From a logical point of view, it is easy to understand how Marx could arrive at this conclusion. Marx was saying that in order to achieve true happiness, the worker must free himself from religion and seek control of his destiny and understand the value of his work. He indicated that religion had distracted the worker from this by appealing to other values that are only illusions of happiness.
After studying the economic oppression and the rise of political unrest in England in the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, Marx attempted to explain why there was no political revolution in England similar to the revolution in France during that time. Marx’s explanation was that religion had dulled the senses of the oppressed class, keeping at bay their desire to reach equality with the capitalist class of the period. This “dulling” resulted from the religious-instilled concept of loyalty to King and Country as taught by Christ in his message of “rendering unto Caesar” and emphasized by the Methodist doctrine.
This concept of loyalty to King and Country promoted by the Methodist movement makes the first case for unintended outcomes. The Methodist lesson adopted by the working class was intended to instill loyalty to the Church and to King and Country and to enrich the spiritual lives of their congregations. It was not focused on benefiting any particular group. Thus, the economist indicates that the followers of Methodism acted in a way that was counter to their own economic gain and that was not intended to make any grand social change. Rather their focus was to receive salvation.
Considering the revolution in France, the political stability of the times was a considerable worry to those in power. Halevy in his, The Birth of Methodism in England, points to the rise of Methodism during this politically uncertain time. He indicates that Wesley and Whitefield “encountered favorable conditions”.2 He makes no mention that there was necessarily any cause and effect of these two events but that the fact that their occurrence took place during the same period allowed each to greatly impact the other. Bernard Semmel would echo this lack of causation in his, The Methodist Revolution.
Semmel states, “They discouraged political activity, enjoined with Biblical commands of obedience to the King as to God…”3 just as Christ would have taught. He further indicates that the Methodist Revival may have been the English version of the “Democratic Revolution”4, implying that the Methodist movement may have helped block a violent English version as a counterpoint to the French Revolution.
This seems to be in line with the argument Marx referred to in the previous paragraph of this work. Marx argued that the Methodist movement blunted worker discontent in England that he thought should have created a working class revolt. Again, this was not what the Methodist intended but rather was the teaching to the current day workers of England of the discipline that was taught by Christ to his followers. In fact, some of the industrialists sought the influence of the church to impose discipline over the workers and to teach them to be submissive to their employers. However, the Methodist’s taught this as an overall part of their doctrine not at the bidding of the industrialists. As there was no economic motive of the Methodists, there also was no political agenda in their doctrinal teachings.
The largest impact of the Methodist movement was the social changes that it enabled, although again an unintended consequence. The introduction of J. L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond’s book titled, The Town Labourer, also mentioned specifically the influence of the Methodists on society during this same period. The introduction says, “Respectability, hard work, thrift, sobriety, and obedience were the qualities that employers emphasized, and they supported churches, chapels, and Sunday schools as agencies that would promote them”5 (employer).
While the capitalist owners saw the benefits of a disciplined, obedient working class and encouraged this being taught and practiced in the churches, they also realized that the workers were not a part of the official church. The Anglican Church was the church of the rich. The Hammonds state that the “Mayor of Liverpool wrote to the Home Office, urging the Government to build churches in the numerous villages that had sprung up with the great growth of manufactures, giving as his reason, not the advantage of spiritual exercises, but the danger of leaving these places to the Methodists”6. The Hammonds further state that upon this population of workers “descended a religion that provided them all that they wanted”,7 making reference to the Methodist Chapels that were springing up in the working class villages in the industrial areas of England.
While Marx had indicated that it blunted the revolt of the workers, the Mayor appears concerned with the influence that the Methodists would have on the thinking of the people. This idea, of a fear of an educated working class, has been mentioned throughout the seminar. As visitations took place, references were made regarding keeping the workers trained in a minimal way in order to discourage them from becoming trouble for the owners. This was true in the mining areas as well as the textile producing areas.
In a visit to Wesley’s Chapel in London, the guide referenced in particular the work of Wesley with the miners. Several of the sources have mentioned that Wesley was particularly active in those areas where there was labor unrest. The Ashton book, The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830, indicates that Wesley was not interested in aiding or in improving the working conditions for the workers but in rather in saving their souls8. Wesley and Whitefield worked together to bring the working class into salvation, not for the sake of social change, but for the salvation of their congregations. They hoped that this evangelical attempt would revitalize the Anglican Church. Halevy, in History of the English People in 1815, states that, “For sixty years before our date (1815) Methodism had been the one really civilizing influence of work among the miners in Durham or in Cornwell”9. This indicates that they did begin to accomplish their own goals but with unintended political outcomes.
These ideas of economic and social change brought about for non-personal gain, and unintentional from the view of the Methodist movement, are not complete without considering the political impact of the movement. The political impact of the Methodist movement had the greatest effect on society in Britain during the Industrial Revolution. The seminar readings included several that demonstrated that the changes in production methods led to a rise in discontent among the working class. Many cases of violence – ranging from resistance to the enclosure laws that stripped the use of land away from the working class, the “Luddite” resistance to improved technology used in production, and the corn riots by women protesting the rise in the cost of food – were mentioned in the readings. Ultimately, this resistance led to efforts to combine their forces in order to bring strength to their views and influence over their employers.
Employers used their political influence in Parliament to make these combinations illegal. Although laws were written to put restrictions on both the worker and the owners, the laws were implemented by local magistrates who often were partial to the owners’ position. In fact, the owner often was the one serving as the magistrate who made the decisions regarding punishment of those workers accused of violating the combination laws and typically choosing to ignore violations that he was guilty of committing.
The question of how Methodism impacted the political field does not directly follow from the previous argument. However, one of the basic tenets of Methodism is suggested by their name. The Methodist earned their name based on their very methodical study and integration of scripture in their lives. They were very disciplined and, in fact, Wesley was referred to in Halevy’s A History of the English People in 1815 as an organizer “founded on his despotic rule, a skillfully organized ‘society’”10 This is referring to Wesley’s demand for seeking perfection and for attempting to bring others into this perfect relationship with Christ.
A part of this organization and methodical study would bring exposure by the working class to instruction in the Sunday Schools where the workers and their children were educated. Here they learned to read the Bible. Even more importantly, as mentioned in the Hammond book, “For the Methodist movement carried the self-governing tradition of the old Nonconformist Chapel, which had shared in some degree the cold and calm philosophy of the Church, into a wider world and touched that world with a living passion.”11
The Methodists were considered a part of the nonconformist chapel, which included the Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Unitarians and other smaller groups. But it was the Methodist movement that brought together these people – ones that were concerned with making political change but that had not been successful with the combination efforts of the past – with the idea of democracy.
Along with education, another of the gifts of the Methodist movement was making the working class responsible for the governing of the chapel. This governing would include making decisions regarding leadership and direction of the local congregation. It gave the working class an understanding of how democracy works on a basic level that eventually brought political success to the working class.
The reform laws passed in 1834 brought the promise of social change, even if not successfully at first, this reform would come. This reform not only impacted government but also the church from which Methodism sprang. The Anglican Church itself would begin to imitate the Methodist evangelistic movement because of the success the Methodist Chapel experienced.
In a visit to a worship service, at Wesley’s Chapel in London, on a Sunday morning, it was noted that the congregation was made up largely of immigrants to England, mostly of African and Indian decent. In a conversation with an Anglo-Saxon member of the congregation, it was determined that this chapel had been in decline in the 1970s. As a result, the closing of this historic location was considered by the Methodist Church at large. It was only through the growth that would begin in the 1980s, sustained through current time by the influx of this new working class immigrant, that the chapel has survived financially. Wesley’s movement still seems to be meeting the needs of the working class even today. Just as Wesley’s ideas did not appeal to the aristocrat of his day but spoke to the working class, it appears that it also would be true today.
This indicates that the original premises of this essay – that while Methodism impacted society, this change in society was an unintended outcome from their efforts to evangelize the working class and to revitalize the Anglican Church. This evangelical effort, tied to its educational efforts and the class struggles, has led to change beyond the vision of the visionaries of the time. One can only hope that the Methodist movement and the social change it has wrought will continue for an additional 250 years and be as dramatic and beneficial as the first 250 years.
To argue against the thesis, a believer might point to the Biblical quotation from Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those that love God, all things work together for good for those that are called according to His purpose”. By using this quote, the believer would say that in spite of the misery of the times and the economic, social, and political changes that took place, there was One that intended that good come from the perceived evils of the time.
Those sources below not specifically referenced in the work above were consulted as a sources and in an attempt to give credit to all sources used in the preparation of this essay are here cited as general references.
T. S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830
J. L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond, The Town Labourer
E. J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire
Elie Halevy, A History of the English People
Elie Halevy, The Birth of Methodism in England
E. P. Thompson, The Making of The English Working Class
Bernard Semmel, The Methodist Revolution
Bloy, Marjie, A Web of English History, http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/religion/method.htm
University of Phoenix, http://atheism.about.com/od/weeklyquotes/a/marxol.htm,