[Part Three of "Religious Revival and the Transformation of English Sensibilities in the Early Ninteeenth Century" © Herbert Schlossberg]

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Most of the discussion about the influence of Methodism has been over Wesley's avowed mission field — the poor people of England. Controversy abound over the movement's influence with the masses, which is natural when the main question dealt with is the presence or absence of revolution — in other words the Halévy thesis and its critics. [For such political issues the number of adherents to a movement is very important, but we do not have reliable numbers for many religious organizations before the census of 1851. Rupp, Religion in England, 449, puts the number of Methodists at 54,000 at the time of Wesley's death in 1791; an older view by Allen, Methodism and Modern World Problems, 1, put the number at just over 71,000; Norman Gash, Aristocracy and People, 64, believes that by 1820 there were nearly 200,000 enrolled Methodists with other adherents bringing the total under direct Methodist influence not far below one million.] But the cultural influence of the Methodist movement may have been far more significant than its ability to enhance or to neutralize the revolutionary fervor of the populace. By the first third of the nineteenth century more than 63 percent of Methodists were classified as artisans, a group which encompasses many well-paid people. About thirteen percent were composed of people in middle class occupations — merchants and manufacturers and the like--and a significant number of them were quite well off. [Christie, Stress and Stability , 205f.] To some degree, then, these are people who are actors in the shaping of English culture, and not just passive reflectors of it.

Wesley's intentions from the start went beyond the evangelization and discipleship efforts with which his name is chiefly associated. His and Whitefield's early sermons show they regarded the moral reformation of the country as a high priority. The Wesley program, as one of the brothers put it, was to effect "reformation not of opinions...but of men's tempers and lives; of vice in every kind." John Wesley told the assembled Oxford dons in 1738 that only the doctrine of salvation by faith could "give a check to that immorality which hath overspread the land as a flood." [Quoted in John Walsh, "'Methodism' and the Origins of English -- Speaking Evangelicalism," Evangelicalism, 26.]

We are more concerned for the present purposes with the Wesley who had theological reasons for being troubled about the public order than we are with the evangelist to the poor masses. The founder of the movement, despite his sense of call to minister to the poor and unlettered, was himself an Oxford graduate and a teaching fellow, and he did not lose his academic interests when he began preaching in the countryside. Recent scholarship on Wesley's ideas and their influence provide important new knowledge of the later significance of the Methodist movement. Richard Brantley has studied Wesley's ideas in relationship to the philosophy of Locke, and concluded that the Lockean emphasis on experience as the source of knowledge is a major component of Wesley's theology and subsequently of the romantic revolution in sensibility. Locke's theory of knowledge formed the intellectual grounding of the Wesleyan movement, lending to it the conviction that true knowledge came from sense perception along with reason. Thus the senses and the intellectual components of the process together make real knowledge possible. "Locke's rational empiricism (i.e., his epistemology of sense perception attended by induction and deduction) directly informs the religious 'epistemology' whereby Wesley claimed the saving faith he felt was his." Brantley believes that because of their prejudices over the last two centuries students of the Enlightenment have ignored Wesley entirely, regarding him as a kind of obscurantist anachronism, and this accounts for the fact that his role in the more intellectual history of the times is so little appreciated. [Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, 1, 13.] In another work Brantley elaborates on why Locke was so important for understanding Wesley:

Although empiricism is "natural" and evangelicalism is "spiritual," the great principle of empiricism, that one must see for oneself and be in the presence of the thing one knows, applies as well to evangelical faith. Each of these two methodologies operates along a continuum that joins emotion to intellect; each joins externality to words through "ideas/ideals of sensation," that is, through perception or grace-in-perception or both. While empiricism refers to immediate contact with and direct impact from objects and subjects in time and place, evangelicalism entertains the notions that religious truth is concerned with experiential presuppositions and that experience need not be nonreligious. [Coordinates of Anglo-American Romanticism, 1f.]

Moreover Brantley shows how the natural experiential emphasis of Locke combines with the spiritual experiential emphasis of Wesley to provide the "central dialectic" of the romantic poets. "Not only does the almost religious quality of their emotion relate to Wesley's emotional faith, but a Wesleyan blend of 'spiritual sense' and a posteriori reason forms part of what they all retained from the century and the place in which all of them were born." [Locke, Wesley and the Method of English Romanticism, 25.]

Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats -- apart from their consciously-held theological convictions or lack thereof -- formed a continuation of the Lockean-Wesleyan fusion of experience and ideas, and this explains the improbable Romantic juxtaposition of the mundane and the other-worldly. "Romantic tension in England at least is both partially reconcilable and fully understandable along clear lines of Wesley's philosophical theology." [Ibid., 129. "Wesley's thought and expression, in other words, together form not only a heuristic way in, but also a close analogue, to the works of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. Coleridge stands closest to this quintessentially native context: in his method are especially explicit signs of the Wesleyan method 'in the air' that all these poets breathed. In addition to Zeitgeist, then, and in addition to heuristic/analogistic criticism is the question of influence. This question is answered affirmatively thus: Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats owe something of their theory, and much of their practice, to the relation between John Wesley and John Locke. This mix, then, is English Romantic method" ( 201).]

If Brantley is right, any examination of the Wesleyan influence on English culture must consider both the romantic writers that followed him and those on whom they exerted influence. A study of the present scope can pay only the most cursory attention to that program, but I hope to offer enough to suggest the full potency of the influence.

The case presented herein does not depend on the nature of the personal faith of the romantic poets, since influences can be absorbed and passed on selectively. But there have been serious arguments to the effect that some of the romantic poets in the first generation did not merely unconsciously transmit the theological convictions of their predecessors but fully participated in them; some would say that the poets were orthodox Christians. One study of romanticism finds that Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge were all deeply Christian, notwithstanding occasional indications that might suggest otherwise; they were not pantheists as were others who adopted the romantic idiom. These writers are full of material on original sin, of redemption, of the community of humanity, and full of such sources as the Bible and Paradise Lost. Even Byron, though not a believer in that sense, displays some of those characteristics. [Clubbe and Lovell. English Romanticism, 1983).] Another study details Coleridge's transition from unitarianism to trinitarianism, a change the poet found to be the only way to escape pantheism. [Barth, Coleridge and Christian Doctrine, 10ff.] He opposed strongly the common theological bifurcation of deity into the God of reason and the God of revelation, the first thought to reveal himself in nature and the second in Scripture. Coleridge stressed the continuity between reason and faith and thus departed from the heterodox view of Enlightenment thinkers [85]. I will here report further scholarly judgments of the Christian nature of Coleridge's thinking: The redemption of the Ancient Mariner was a particularly vivid version of the theological theme of rebirth [Bate, Coleridge, 62]. Coleridge detested the subjectivism that became so much a feature of romanticism [165] Coleridge's theology resurrected human personality from the morass of rationalist dehumanization. [Pym, The Religious Thought of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 16.] It was largely due to Coleridge's influence that later English theologians rejected the common continental theodicy and retained sin in their theology [54]. Coleridge interpreted history as theodicy, incorporating human experience into the biblical framework [De Paolo, Coleridge, ch. 5]. When he read in his brother-in-law Robert Southey's Life of Wesley the Methodist founder's belief that the internal evidence in the individual's soul convinces the person of the presence of new spiritual life, Coleridge added this marginal note, dating it 1 May 1820: "I venture to avow it as my conviction, that either Christian faith is what Wesley here describes, or there is no proper meaning in the word" [Quoted in Prickett, Coleridge and Wordsworth, 105].


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