Eating bread with widows and orphans

by Jennifer Woodruff Tait

Wesleyans in Britain and America helped both the bodies and souls of those the Industrial Revolution left behind

JOHN WILSON (1837–1915) was nothing but a coal miner in Durham, England, with a hangover—until the day the Primitive Methodists came to his home. Two elderly fellow miners from this conservative branch of Methodism knocked on his door as they went to work. Years later, historian Stephen Hatcher wrote of that fateful day, “They did not reproach him for his hangover, but saw the potential within him, and engaged him in work at the chapel. From that day on he was a changed man.”
Following his conversion, Wilson began to teach Sunday school and became a local Methodist preacher. He also rose steadily in local politics. In 1885 he became one of the first leaders of the Durham coal miners to become a member of Parliament, where he worked steadily on behalf of those he had left in the coalfields.

Wilson’s story was only one among thousands as Methodism and its Holiness offshoots blazed their way through the nineteenth century, bringing many evangelical believers in their wake and seeking to respond to industrialization, drunkenness, displacement, and poverty.

Wesleyans to the Rescue

This all began with John Wesley (1703–1791) himself. While Wesley claimed that Christians ought to preach repentance often and politics rarely, except when necessary to defend the king, he was actually not shy about expressing his political and economic opinions. Those opinions were typical of an upper-middle-class, Oxford-educated clergyman, but that did not mean he was not concerned about the problems of English society.

One of his responses was to issue scathing indictments of those who profited off of others. His tract “Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisions,” for instance, claimed that the poor were hungry because of the influence of “distilling, taxes, and luxury.”

He also tried to help. His book Primitive Physic (1746) was an inexpensive compilation of home remedies for those too poor to pay doctor’s bills. Wesley recorded whether or not he had attempted the remedies himself. (“A cancer in the breast. A Poultice of wild Parsnips or scraped Carrots, Flowers, Leaves and Stalks, changing it Morning and evening. . . . To cure the Tooth-Ache. Be electrified through the teeth. Tried.”)

Wesley’s system of organizing his followers into classes and bands within the Methodist “societies” not only discipled them in spiritual growth but distributed relief funds collected from society members. He established a medical clinic and maintained the dispensary himself, although it eventually had to close for lack of funds. He founded tuition-free schools for poor children, one in his own home. Under his direction the Foundry Chapel in London administered a revolving loan fund that served over 200 people a year. And he also founded a house for widows and orphans and regularly ate his meals with them: “For I myself, as well as the other preachers who are in town, diet with the poor on the same food and at the same table. And we rejoice herein as a comfortable earnest of our eating bread together in our Father’s Kingdom.”

Simplicity of the Gospel

When Methodism spread to America, it brought with it both a strict code of personal morality and a concern for those on the fringes of industrial society. Early American Methodists fought against slavery and witnessed to the simplicity of Gospel life in the face of extravagance—drinking, elegant balls, and fancy dress clothing. Extravagant dress impeded spiritual growth and used money better spent on aiding those in need. So did excessive drinking. Temperance soon became a signature Methodist cause.

But many Old and New World Methodists in the generations after Wesley’s death became more respectably middle class in their orientation, at least in the “mainline”—the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Britain and the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. Almost immediately, groups began to depart from them, complaining that the fire of devotion and the fire of social action had gone out.

In Britain the influence of eccentric American evangelist ”Mad Lorenzo” Dow led working-class Wesleyan Methodists Hugh Bourne (1772–1852) and William Clowes (1780–1851) to hold the first English camp meeting at Mow Cop in 1807. Out of this meeting came Primitive Methodism.

Primitives, as they were commonly called, were committed to American-style noisy personal devotion. Contemporaries claimed they “bawled” hymns at their chapels, and even Bourne said when listening to a group all praying simultaneously and extemporaneously (a common Primitive practice): “Anyone who could make out his own voice in that lot must have had a pretty good ear.” But they were committed equally to outreach to the working poor: miners, fishermen, laborers in factories and on farms. Bourne himself was a millwright and joiner.

Primitive Methodists preached temperance as a road to both personal and social holiness at a time when the Wesleyan Methodists, though disapproving of drunkenness, would not allow teetotalers to speak at their chapels. Bourne once commented when asked if he had joined a total abstinence society, “No, they have joined me.” In fact, some political advocates of teetotalism modeled their efforts on Primitive revivals.

The Primitive system of home-based prayer meetings also readily welcomed those who had been victimized by the new practice of “enclosure.” In enclosure, landlords turned small tenant farms over to the large-scale raising of livestock to meet new industrial needs and evicted the tenants.

Primitives also reached out to people whose small-scale, home-based jobs had been taken away by large factories, or whose families had left them for factory work. They taught reading, writing, and arithmetic in Sunday school to the children of the poor. They also campaigned for Sunday as a day of rest for the working poor and preached against buying and selling on that day, as well as the opening of pubs.

Finally, Primitives supported—and in some cases became—radical politicians in the trade union movement and the Labour Party. When they were arrested for sympathizing with strikers, they kept preaching right through the prison bars to anyone who cared to listen.

Rebels with a Conscience

But the radicals did not corner all the action. The mainline branch of Methodists in Britian, the Wesleyan Methodist Church, remained concerned about social issues. Prominent Wesleyan Methodist Hugh Price Hughes was one of the best-known spokesmen for what was called the “Nonconformist Conscience.”

(Nonconformists did not belong to the Church of England, but participated instead in Dissenting denominations—Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Quakers.) A twentieth-century historian later defined the “conscience” as “a conviction that there is no strict boundary between religion and politics; an insistence that politicians should be men of the highest character; and a belief that the state should promote the moral welfare of its citizens.”

Hughes thought Christians needed to work against the “great evils” of slavery, drunkenness, ignorance, poverty, war, and the “social evils” (prositution and venereal disease). He later added gambling and greed to the list for good measure. In England, the “Nonconformist Conscience,” with Wesleyan Methodists in the lead, became part of campaigns for disestablishment, sexual purity, alcohol prohibition, and Irish Home Rule—and part of protests against gambling, imperialism, and the favored position of the Church of England in public education.

Holiness of Heart and Life

In America, too, mainline and Holiness Methodists worked, in different ways, to combat social disruption. In many ways Holiness groups took the lead and felt their mainline compatriots were neither preaching holiness nor living it out in a commitment to the “least of these.” Acceptance of slavery bothered many Holiness groups, but so did extravagant dress, as well as preaching and worship that catered to the upwardly mobile.

For example, the “Free” in the Free Methodist denomination’s name protested the mainline Methodist practice of pew rentals, which left the poor nowhere to sit. In an editorial on “Free Churches,” denomination founder B. T. Roberts wrote: “The ills of life fall with crushing weight on the poor. Extortion wrings from them their scanty pittance. The law may endeavor to protect them, but they have no means to go to court. If famine visits, it comes to their table by surprise and may stay until they die. We must have free churches to reach the masses. . . . the greatest trophies of grace will center in the poverty-stricken.”

“Do Everything”

Mainline Methodists were working in their own way for social and economic causes. Temperance was in the lead—not just for Methodists but for many nineteenth-century evangelicals—and closely connected to women’s right to vote. With women in the voting booth, many reasoned, alcoholic prohibition would soon follow, as women would surely vote to close saloons to protect themselves and their families from drunken husbands.

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in 1874 and open to all denominations, but in practice the Methodists ran it. Frances Willard (1839–1898), its most famous president, was an active Methodist Episcopal Church laywoman—she also campaigned within the denomination for women to serve as lay delegates to the ruling General Conference. Her “Do Everything” policy encouraged her followers to work for suffrage, labor rights, and better health care, and against prostitution, venereal disease, and alcohol.

When women had the vote, she argued, “The nation shall no longer miss as now the influence of half its wisdom, more than half its purity, and nearly all its gentleness, in courts of justice and halls of legislation. Then shall one code of morals—and that the highest—govern both men and women; then shall the Sabbath be respected, the rights of the poor be recognized, the liquor traffic banished, and the home protected from all its foes.”

Methodist women also took up work in the inner cities through the growing deaconess movement. Lucy Rider Meyer (1849–1922) founded a training school for women in Chicago in 1885 to prepare them for ministry as missionaries on home and foreign fields. She soon encouraged her trainees to visit the homes of Chicago’s immigrant poor with physical and spiritual solace. The movement quickly spread to other cities as women graduated from Meyer’s Chicago Training School.

Nurse deaconesses received nursing training, and missionary deaconesses focused on evangelism. They wore uniforms, lived together in deaconess homes, and did not take salaries. The call of both, as described by the Methodist Episcopal Church when it officially sanctioned the work, was “to minister to the poor, visit the sick, pray with the dying, care for the orphan, seek the wandering, comfort the sorrowing, save the sinning, and relinquishing all other pursuits, devote themselves in a general way to such forms of Christian labor as may be suited to their abilities.”

Road to the Red Kettles

Perhaps the most famous instance of Wesleyan involvement with industrialization’s victims, in the Old World or the New, is familiar to anyone who has ever dropped money in a red kettle while shopping at Christmastime. In the 1860s, former Methodists William and Catherine Booth (see CH 26, William and Catherine Booth) moved to the East End of London and began something called simply “The Christian Mission.” Both Booths preached salvation and sanctification and administered a program of poor relief.

Booth urged that the group should meet in rented halls. Owning a building meant fund-raising activities and “a heap of other worldliness and foolery,” making congregations “deader than ever, besides having a debt to grapple with.” Salvationist worship services involved hearty singing and revival preaching; in a lecture on “Good Singing,” Booth said that any tune would do, even if it had been sung in a bar or brothel: “I rather enjoy robbing the devil of tunes.”

In 1878 the Christian Mission renamed itself the Salvation Army. Salvationist historian Edward McKinley later wrote, “Within a year, the now-familiar accoutrements of the ‘Great Salvation War’ began to be added piecemeal: church halls became corps, [and] flags, ceremonials, military badges, ranks, brass bands, and the rudiments of uniform were added with wildly encouraging results.” McKinley added, “Everybody loves a parade, especially if he’s in it. . . . To take up the poor and forgotten, dress them in handsome blue uniforms—often the first suit of clothes they had ever owned that gave them pride—promote them to a colorful variety of different kinds of sergeant, in a crusade in which victory is divinely assured, is not only compassionate: it reveals a remarkable knowledge of human nature.”

But the poor were not only provided uniforms. They were also given food and opportunities to work; “slum sisters” visited them in their homes; and “fallen women” were provided space in rescue missions.

In 1890 Booth, with assistance from Salvationist officer Frank Smith, published In Darkest England and the Way Out, which laid out a comprehensive, three-part social program: (1) city colonies where those in society’s “submerged tenth” (the poorest 10 percent of the population) could find shelter and work; (2) farm colonies to train people in agriculture; and (3) overseas colonies, large self-sufficient farms on other continents.

While the latter two parts never really got off the ground, the city work led to the opening of “Cheap Food and Shelter Depots”—providing food and beds at low prices, and work for those who had none—as well as “Salvage Brigades,” the ancestor of today’s Salvation Army stores. In December of 1893, Captain Joseph McFee of San Francisco borrowed a crab pot, set it up outside his Food and Shelter Depot for donations, and put up a sign saying “Keep the Pot Boiling!”—precursor to the familiar Salvation Army kettle.

The Army had come to the United States in 1879 when British immigrants Amos and Annie Shirley and their daughter Eliza began to evangelize downtown Philadelphia. The first meeting’s poster advertised that “Two Hallelujah Females . . . would speak and sing in behalf of God and Precious Souls. . . . Rich and Poor, Come in Crowds.” A year later, the Booths officially sent over George Railton (1849–1913) to take charge of the American work.

And the United States was not the Army’s only area of expansion. By 1890 it had “invaded” thirty-four countries and five continents. Famed Salvationist Samuel Logan Brengle (1860–1936) urged his compatriots, “The soul-winner, then, must once and for all, abandon himself to the Lord and to the Lord’s work, and, having put his hand to the plow, must not look back, if he would succeed in this mighty business . . . for there is no discharge in this war.” Today, Wesleyan and Holiness churches all over the world are still waging that war against industrializations dark side, displacement, poverty, and sin. CH

Jennifer Woodruff Tait is managing editor of Christian History Magazine. Portions of this article are adapted from “The Methodist Conscience: Slavery, Temperance, and Pacifism” from the forthcoming Ashgate Research Companion to World Methodism.

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