The bias of nature is set the wrong way; education is designed to set it right

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“The bias of nature is set the wrong way; education is designed to set it right”:

Wesleyan Methodism and Education in Britain’s Early Industrial Period

Diane Littlefield Lanham

Maine West High School

Des Plaines, Illinois
“You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it.” So intones Mr. Gradgrind to his students in the opening pages of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (16). Throughout the novel, Dickens uses the school as an example of how not to educate children; Louisa, Thomas and the others develop their minds but not their spirits. Gradgrind’s words, and for that matter, the day school’s approach to education, echo a favorite maxim of John Wesley’s from nearly a century earlier: “He who plays as a child, plays as a man” (Rack 353). Evangelical Sunday schools and day schools, particularly those organized by the Methodist church, had a large impact in the early years of British industrialization; they were often the only educational option for poorer residents of industrial areas. The positive and detrimental effects of these schools have been debated by historians ever since. The orthodoxy views them as “evangelical and bourgeois instruments of social control,” while other scholars see the schools as being run by the working class, for the working class (Hempton 87).

Though this debate may never be entirely resolved, and particular schools served different functions in particular communities, it is nonetheless instructive to examine the ways in which Wesleyan Methodism in particular impacted early industrial education and thus society. How pernicious were John Wesley’s ideas regarding the education and rearing of children, and how prevalent did they become in British industrial society? These questions can be explored by reviewing the impressions of historians contemporary to Wesley’s time, such as Robert Southey in his biography of John Wesley, and modern historians, such as E.P. Thompson in his The Making of the English Working Class. A fuller picture can be drawn by considering the ways schooling and Wesleyan Methodism are depicted in both fiction and nonfiction of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Reviewing the works of Southey and Thompson, as well as various writings of the industrial period, it seems evident that while Sunday and day schools provided an important—often the only—educational opportunity, the lasting effect of these institutions and the Wesleyan philosophy behind them was, politically and culturally, a negative one for British industrial society.

It would be a mistake to consider Methodism as a monolithic entity; there were many sects, from Ranters to Jumpers, Primitive to Magic. As a whole, Methodist membership and activity grew during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries until Methodism was perhaps the most influential of the Evangelical Christian groups. Its greatest gains took place after 1790 in working class industrial areas, specifically mining and manufacturing regions (Thompson 386). By the end of the eighteenth century, it was strongest in the north-east, the north Midlands, the West Riding, the Potteries, and Cornwall. By 1851, membership was greatest in Cornwall, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Durham and Nottinghamshire (Hempton 15). It is not difficult to understand the appeal of Methodism to the working class—its egalitarianism, concept of universal grace for a person of any economic status, and emphasis on simplicity and emotion would have been attractive to any miner or factory hand. But more than that, Thompson argues, Methodist congregations offered the “uprooted and abandoned people of the Industrial Revolution some kind of community to replace the older community patterns which were being displaced” (417).

Within these communities, especially in the northern industrial areas, illiteracy rates by the 1830s were both “socially unacceptable and politically dangerous” (Hempton 158). Sunday schools, and later day schools, were the Methodists’ remedy. Thompson tells of the self-congratulatory committee of a Stockport Sunday school that prided itself upon the decorum preserved in its community during the politically turbulent year of 1832, describing its schools as “’quiet fortresses erected against the encroachments of vice and ignorance’”(397). Evangelical Sunday schools had their provincial origin during the 1780s, and found their heyday in the Victorian period. By 1851, there were over two million Sunday scholars of various denominations—over 75 per cent of working class children between the ages of 5 and 15 (Hempton 86). Sunday schools, then, were a tremendous force in the lives of industrial workers. Such schools were inexpensive to attend, and did not affect children’s earning power since they could still work during the week. The schools contributed to their communities in ways not solely academic; they provided a social outlet and activities such as street parades, tea meetings, sick and benefit societies, clothing clubs and the like (87). Such activities became a permanent part of English society as a result. So influential did the schools become that by 1800, various denominations fought for control of them. By 1851, Methodists accounted for 30 per cent of all Sunday scholars, while Anglicans had 42 percent and all other Nonconformists had 28 per cent (90). David Hempton argues that the recently demolished Stockport Sunday school “is as symbolic of the English Industrial Revolution as are the Manchester mills or the Crystal Palace exhibition” (86-87).

As the founder of Methodism and creator of its earliest schools for children and lay preachers, John Wesley’s beliefs concerning education, child labor, and related issues are of great importance to the study of both Sunday schools and English industrial society in general. The core characteristics of Methodism included moral earnestness, sustained organizational dedication, and personal responsibility (Thompson 433). These qualities are found in Wesley’s attitudes toward children and child-rearing as well, which were shaped by his own upbringing and his own understanding of human nature. Because he perceived human nature to be flawed, Wesley believed a child’s will must be broken before it could be taught the correct path to follow in life, and later take independent action. In his 1783 Thought on the Manner of Educating Children and in his journals, Wesley attacked the Rousseau-like, child-centered approach to education as “the most empty, silly, injudicious thing” and insisted that religion be instilled from the very first. To do otherwise would be to allow the flaws in one’s nature to take root. “’The bias of nature is set the wrong way; education is designed to set it right’” by “’mildness’ where this is possible, but by ‘kind severity’ where it is not” (Rack 353-4). E.P. Thompson bemoans this Wesleyan “conviction as to the aboriginal sinfulness of the child,” citing one of Wesley’s more famous rants:

“Break their wills betimes. Begin this work before they can run alone, before they can speak plain, perhaps before they can speak at all. Whatever pains it costs, break the will if you would not damn the child. Let a child from a year old be taught to fear the rod and to cry softly…Break his will now, and his soul shall live, and he will probably bless you to all eternity” (412).

The Rousseauian concept of romantic original innocence was a far cry from Wesley’s understanding of original sin; it was this perception that seems to have most shaped not only Wesley’s attitudes toward children in general, but his attitudes toward their education and occupation as well.

From his early days studying at Christ Church Oxford, Wesley was interested in educating the poor. He was actively involved in the establishment of Sunday and day schools in London, but most Methodist activities concerning the education of the poor were more grass-roots in nature, originating from within local communities and led by individuals like Hannah Ball and Robert Raikes. Still, Wesley supported their endeavors by writing frequently about them in his Magazine and Journal (Rack 354). He was also vocal in his criticism of existing educational opportunities for the working poor, noting schools’ proximity to tempting and sinful cities, loose admission policies, poorly trained and irreligious schoolmasters, and illogical curricula. Wesley thus “saw himself as an educational as well as religious and moral reformer” (Rack 355).

An important element any curriculum, argued Wesley, was reading to improve oneself. Whether the pupils were children or lay preachers in training, reading was the fundamental and only way to give depth to one’s thought and preaching. “Fix some part of every day for private exercises,” advised Wesley. “You may acquire the taste which you have not: what is tedious at first, will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily” (Southey 358). But, he cautioned, one must not become over-learned, for fear of alienating oneself from the common man when preaching or simply relating God’s word. “Beware you be not swallowed up in books,” warned Wesley. He encouraged his lay preachers to “constantly use the most common, little, easy words (so they are pure and proper) which our language affords…there is a dignity in their simplicity, which is not disagreeable to those of the highest rank” (Southey 1: 359-60). Writing instruction in the Sunday schools was another matter entirely. Later Wesleyans such as Jabez Bunting stressed that writing on the Sabbath was contrary to observing the Lord’s Day. While other Methodist sects continued instruction regardless, by the 1840s most Wesleyan Sunday schools had ceased to teach writing on Sundays, thus leaving the working poor no alternative other than night school if they desired complete literacy (Hempton 91). This can be seen as a prime example of church leadership not taking the struggles of its poorer membership seriously.

Though Wesley was concerned with the Sunday schools, the project dearest to him was his own Kingswood School, established in 1749 and originally planned to be a school for the general Christian public, with an eye to training future ministers (Rack 355). One of its purposes was to provide paternal guidance to the children of itinerant preachers, and only the strictest admissions policies were followed. Notes Southey, “the children of tender parents had no business there,” and students would not be allowed to leave the school at all, unless they were prepared to leave for good (2: 52). The regimen of life at Kingswood must have been grueling even for the most patient and strong students, and was based on the German proverb cited at the opening of this essay: “He that plays when he is a child, will play when he is a man” (Rack 356). Students rose at 4 a.m. and bedded down at 8 p.m. They read, sang, and meditated in the morning before working in the garden or house for a few hours, all before breakfast. “There were no holidays, no play, on any day,” observes Southey (2: 52). The morning hours were spent in school, the afternoon in work, and any breaks were solely for the purpose of prayer. They were never out of sight of a master, and even slept on hard mattresses in quarters with the masters, always with one light burning. Their diet was composed of the most meager portions of bread, cheese, gruel, occasional meat, and only water to drink. Sundays were entirely devoted to prayer and public worship (Southey 2: 52-3).

The curriculum at the school reflected Wesley’s belief in the importance of reading, as well as the German Pietist schools that had so influenced him. Between the ages of six and twelve, classics, languages, and mathematics were stressed, while the natural sciences were understood to be a recreation and were de-emphasized. The most emphasis, of course, was placed on religious instruction and the selection of proper and decent authors for reading (Rack 356-7). Interestingly, the Kingswood School can hardly be termed a success. Southey noted that the harshness of the routine and what he perceived to be an over-emphasis on religion drove the number of students from 28 down to 18 within two years. Due in part to rough or unqualified masters, as well as “wicked” boys, the house “was in a state of complete anarchy” (Southey 2: 55). Yet Wesley refused to give up on the school, continuing to secure funding and stay personally involved with the project. This inflexibility was at once a hallmark of Wesleyan Methodism and one of its most unattractive qualities to its critics.

One of Wesley’s most outspoken critics was his biographer Robert Southey. Southey’s 1820 Life of Wesley and the Rise and Progress of Methodism was written in the midst of intense Methodist growth throughout Britain. One could argue that Southey’s personal politics—he was a staunch conservative Tory who stood by the Church—prohibited him from taking an objective stance towards Wesley’s life and works. But even when taking this into consideration, many of Southey’s concerns about the Wesleyan approach to children and education are echoed by his contemporaries of the early- to mid-nineteenth century, as well as modern historians like Thompson.

The fact that students had to live permanently at Kingswood, never to visit their homes, struck Southey as “unreasonable” and “abominable,” and he remarked that had Wesley been a father himself, he never would have enforced such a rule (2: 52). Being under a master’s watchful eye may eliminate vice and cruelty, but this comes at the “great expense of instinct and enjoyment, and freedom of character” (53). Southey felt that the heavy emphasis on religious instruction would “in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, either disgust [students] with religion, or make them hypocrites” (55). His overall assessment of Kingswood was that its failure was due to its “too rigorous and too monastic” system (294). But Southey did not limit his criticism to Kingswood. He saw Wesley’s influence as far more widespread and destructive, going so far as to declare, “In proportion as Methodism obtained ground among the educated classes, its direct effects were evil” (303). It caused people to be narrow-minded, robbed them of grace and emotion, caused them ill health from lack of recreation, and alienated them from their Church and thus their nation (304). When it came to Wesleyan education, Southey did not mince words. He laments that throughout the world, many “impracticable and injurious systems” have been put into place in the name of education, but that “among bad systems, that of Wesley is one of the very worst” (305). And though Southey’s political stance clearly affected his assessment, his opinion is echoed by others from various camps, both during and after Britain’s early industrial era.

Writing well over a hundred years later, E.P. Thompson is able to provide a somewhat more balanced perspective on Wesley’s impact on education during the industrial era. He allows that Methodism at least “gave to children and adults rudimentary education in its Sunday schools,” but his general conclusions are nearly as damning as Southey’s (389). Like Southey, Thompson condemns the “severely workful” recreation at Kingswood school, as well as the so-called educational materials used in the Sunday schools to impart moral lessons. Thompson asserts that these often lurid moral parables were “psychological atrocities committed upon children” (414). The village dames’ schools at least imparted some sort of practical education, rather than focusing almost solely on the “’moral rescue’ of the children of the poor” as the Sunday schools did. Children most often emerged from Methodist Sunday schools barely able to read and unable to write (due to the Sabbath restrictions), and subjected to “the worst kind of emotional bullying to confess [their] sins and come to a sense of salvation.” Thompson singles out the Wesleyan orthodoxy as being particularly guilty of this when compared to the more “humane” attitude of the Arminian and New Connexion Methodists (415).

Thompson, with the benefit of years, takes his analysis of Methodism’s negative impact further than Southey. “Methodism was a strongly anti-intellectual influence, from which British popular culture has never wholly recovered” (811). Methodists discouraged the study of poetry, philosophy, Biblical criticism, and political theory. So although the pursuit of practical or useful information was acceptable, intellectual enquiry was not. Methodism’s contribution to the “articulate culture” of the working class, summarizes Thompson, was to have “added an earnestness to the pursuit of information” at best (813). At worst, attitudes about children, their education and occupation damaged British culture for decades. Methodism’s emphasis on submission to a higher authority, discipline and order helped to shape a working class tailor-made for toiling in the factories without complaint. Methodists were known to be some of the most efficient factory managers and stalwart workers (390). But Thompson saves his harshest criticism for early Methodists’ attitudes about child labor, accusing Wesley, Bunting and their fellows of giving “a deformity of the sensibility complimentary to the deformities of the factory children whose labour they condoned,” and is shocked that “neither he [Bunting] nor his colleagues appear to have suffered a single qualm as to the consequences of industrialism” (390). Thompson, then, accuses Methodism of creating a class of mindless worker-drones, unable and unwilling to question the more repellent aspects of the factory system, even as they formed the very foundation of that system.

A survey of select writings from the late eighteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century reveals a changing perception in British society of Methodist or Evangelical attitudes toward children, education, and child labor. The prevailing attitude shifts from acceptance to questioning to outright rejection in some cases. Methodist insistence upon frugality, methodical habits, attention to instructions, fulfillment of obligations, and the sinfulness of deceit was, as noted earlier, quite a boon to factory managers and owners of the early industrial period. The Methodist attitude toward work, that it “must be undertaken as a ‘pure act of virtue…inspired by the love of a transcendent Being, operating…on our will and affections’” (Thompson 398) reinforced existing eighteenth century notions about work and idleness. An anonymous writer of 1766 in The Weaver’s Pocket-Book: or Weaving Spiritualized, intones that “Idleness (especially in youth) is the source and foundation of almost all the debauchery that polluteth the world, and all the beggary with which we abound.” One must find a good, spiritually pure trade, like weaving, and one’s conscience will not cause trouble (Ward 1: 61-2). Nearly a century later, Samuel Smiles’ 1859 Self Help reverberates with similar sentiment. “Heaven helps those who help themselves” is a maxim that could have been uttered by John Wesley himself. Like Wesley, Smiles stresses the role of the individual in determining his own fate; “over-guidance and over-government” do not leave a man “free to develop himself.” “There is no power of law that can make the idle man industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober;” notes Smiles, concluding that these qualities can only be acquired “by the exercise of his own free powers of action and self-denial” (Ward 1: 82-3).

As noted earlier, Methodism helped to reinforce and rationalize attitudes toward child labor. This is true even in the pre-industrial period. As J.T. Ward reminds us, child labor was an economic necessity to the domestic system. It was also “widely admired” by John Wesley and others, he notes, for “teaching the virtues of labour and discipline and preventing youthful vice” (Ward 2: 67). But by the middle of the nineteenth century, after Sir Robert Peel’s Committee of 1816 and the Sadler Committee of 1832 revealed atrocious working conditions for factory children, acceptance of the old attitudes began to wane. The workplace was no longer seen as the ideal place for a growing child to learn discipline and virtue. The political actions of Richard Oastler, considered by Ward to be the founder of the Factory Movement, illustrate this shift in perception. Oastler was raised as a Methodist, but his time spent in Yorkshire amongst textile workers convinced him of the need for reform. He became a “Church and King Tory” as well as an outspoken editorial writer for the Leeds Mercury and leader of an influential Tory-Radical alliance pushing for child labor reform (Ward 2: 73). In an 1830 editorial, he describes Yorkshire children working in textile mills as “existing in a state of slavery more horrid than are the victims of that hellish system ‘colonial slavery’ …Poor infants! Ye are indeed sacrificed at the shrine of avarice…” (75). The former Methodist published many such editorials, and went on to fight for the ten-hour workday as well. Thus the reality of life for children of the early industrial period was such that Methodist maxims and rationalizations began to lose their power to convince.

One mid-century critic of particular note was Charles Dickens. In both his personal politics and his fiction, he attacked Methodism and Evangelical approaches to education and philanthropy. He saw these Protestant groups as hypocritical in that they got the general public stirred up about the wretched plight of “coloreds” overseas, yet ignored the plight of workers—particularly children—right before their eyes in England (Semmel 148). Dickens did not see Evangelical religion playing a large role in the daily lives of workers. This attitude comes across subtly in Hard Times, when describing Coketown: “First the perplexing mystery of the place was, Who belonged to the eighteen denominations? Because, whoever did, the labouring people did not. It was very strange to walk through the streets on a Sunday morning and note how few of them the barbarous jangling of bells…called away from their own quarter” (32). Statistics bear this out, at least in the case of communities with Sunday schools. Hempton cites figures indicating that only between 1.5 and 4 per cent of total Sunday school enrollment would at any one time belong to a church or chapel congregation (89).

In Hard Times, Dickens’ voice is harshest when addressing the education of children. Gradgrind and Bounderby come across as caricatures of Wesleyan educational philosophy taken to the extreme. Wesleyan leader Jabez Bunting was described by a friend as having a “’solid, mathematical way of speaking’” wherein “’every word had its proper place, and every sentence might have been digested previously’” (Thompson 389). Gradgrind is clearly from the same mold: “Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations…with a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to” (Dickens 12).

The “plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room” (11), free of distractions, would certainly pass muster at Kingswood. And the words of harsh schoolteacher Mr. Choakumchild eerily echo Wesley’s exhortations to break the spirits of children early on: ‘Bring to me, says Choakumchild, yonder baby just able to walk, and I will engage that it shall never wonder” (Dickens 56). Gradgrind obsesses, much as Wesley might have, over which books the people chose to read in the local Coketown library. Rather than absorbing useful concrete facts from Euclid, workers “sometimes, after fifteen hours’ work, sat down to read mere fables about men and women, more or less like themselves, and about children, more or less like their own.” Gradgrind, like Wesley, attempts to squash people’s natural inclination to wonder, “about human nature, human passions, human hopes and fears, the struggles, triumphs and defeats, the cares and joys and sorrows, the lives and deaths, of common men and women” (57). Wesley may have been a slave to religion and Gradgrind to fact, but Dickens’ voice throughout the novel makes his contempt for both clear. And in the end, only imaginative and emotive Sissy Jupe, who bucked the damaging system all along, receives any measure of happiness or fulfillment in her life.

While Methodist ideas regarding children and education—Wesleyan in particular—found great acceptance in the earliest years of British industrialization, by the mid-nineteenth century attitudes had shifted. The horrid illiteracy rates and the squalid working conditions, especially for children, represented the failure of existing education systems and policies regarding child labor. Evangelical Sunday schools, Wesleyan and otherwise, had not had the positive impact their founders would have hoped for; Southey, Thompson and others have argued that quite the opposite took place. But is it fair to label the Sunday school system, and the Wesleyan philosophy behind many of the schools, a form of “religious terrorism,” as Thompson does (415)? After all, thousands of factory children who otherwise would have had no education whatsoever achieved at least some measure of literacy even as they worked during the week. Southey, Thompson, and many, if not most, observers of the mid-nineteenth century come to the conclusion that any progress came at too high a cost. As Whig leader T.B. Macaulay observed by 1854, “Rely on it that intense labor, beginning too early in life, continued too long every day, stunting the growth of the body, stunting the growth of the mind, leaving no time for intellectual culture, must impair all those high qualities which have made our country great” (Ward 2: 178). The inherent virtue of labor, even for children, and the slavish devotion to discipline and order at the expense of all else were ideas whose time had expired by the 1850s, though not before the damage to British industrial society had been done.
Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. New York: Signet Classic, 1997.

Hempton, David. Methodism and Politics in British Society 1750-1850. Stanford: Stanford UP,


Rack, Henry D. Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism. London:

Epworth Press, 2002.

Semmel, Bernard. The Methodist Revolution. Basic Books, 1973.

Southey, Robert. Life of Wesley and the Rise and Progress of Methodism. 2 vols. London:

Oxford UP, 1925.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. Great Britain: Penguin, 1963.

Ward, J.T. The Factory System. 2 vols. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970.

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