Where Wesley's Followers Went Awry
"As good a church, as can be found,
Their doctrine is so pure and sound,
One reason which I give for this,
The Devil hates the Methodist.
If Satan could them all destroy,
The troops of hell would shout for joy;
I'll pray that God would them increase
And fill the world with Methodists."
For much of the 19th century, particularly in the United States, it seemed that the prayer voiced in this early Methodist hymn was well on its way to becoming reality. Numerous, prolific in publishing, and missionary-minded, Methodists may not have controlled the nation's elite discourse but they could be found at the heart of the nation's evangelical popular culture. Yet in their success could be found seeds of their pending destruction.
David Hempton's Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (Yale, 2005) outlines how a countercultural movement became a thoroughly cultural church. A native of Great Britain now teaching at Boston University, Hempton approaches the story of Methodism's 18th-century origin and 19-century dominance in two distinctive ways. He keeps the story of British Methodism in view as he narrates the American story, and he organizes the book not chronologically but topically.
Each chapter focuses on a different set of complementary forces that characterized the Methodist ethos and drove its expansion: competition and symbiosis (or mutual benefit), enlightenment and enthusiasm, opposition and conflict, money and power, medium and message, boundaries and margins, mapping and mission. The result is an energetic and breathless tour through a movement constantly in tension between the "authoritarian ecclesiology" of its top-down government and the "noisy, populist, and eclectic" lived experience of its adherents. Along the way, ...