Why they threw rocks at the preacher

The RMN blog posts today an interpretation of John Wesley’s ministry that offers the following explanation why he the movement was opposed, sometimes violently:

Why would the leaders of the church attack him and his followers? There may be many answers, but a clear reason is that he sought to include people who weren’t accepted in the churches. They were the coarse workers from factory and field. They were not the respectable folks of the parish. The respectable folks didn’t want to sit next to the unwashed, illiterate rabble that Wesley was sending to church.

See, he took them the word of God’s redemptive love, but he sent them to the churches for communion and baptism. John Wesley was an Anglican until he died. He didn’t set out to found a new denomination; he set out to reform Anglicanism. He sought to expand the church to include all of God’s children – not just the “respectable” ones. Perhaps had he not sent the less respectable folks to church, had he performed baptisms and communion outside of the church, he might not have stirred up such a storm of opposition.

In all my reading of John Wesley’s works, I’ve never found anything that would support the conclusion that he faced rock-throwing gangs because he sent poor people to the local church to take communion. Maybe it is in the histories that I have not yet read.

His own account of the troubles faced by Methodists, written in 1745, goes like this:

1. About seven years since, we began preaching inward, present salvation, as attainable by faith alone.

2. For preaching this doctrine, we were forbidden to preach in the churches.

3. We then preached in private houses, as occasion offered: And when the houses could not contain the people, in the open air.

4. For this, many of the Clergy preached or printed against us, as both heretics and schismatics.

5. Persons who were convinced of sin, begged us to advise them more particularly how to flee from the wrath to come. We replied, if they would all come at one time (for they were numerous) we would endeavour it.

6. For this, we were represented, both from the pulpit and the press, (we have heard it with our ears, and seen it with our eyes) as introducing Popery, raising sedition, practicing both against Church and State; and all manner of evil was publicly said both of us, and those who were accustomed to meet with us.

7. Finding some truth herein, viz., that some of those who so met together walked disorderly, we immediately desired them not to come to us any more.

8. And the more steady were desired to overlook the rest, that we might know if they walked according to the Gospel.

9. But now several of the Bishops began to speak against us, either in conversation or in public.

10. On this encouragement, several of the Clergy stirred up the people to treat us as outlaws or mad dogs.

11. The people did so, both in Staffordshire, Cornwall, and many other places.

12. And they do so still, wherever they are not restrained by their fear of the Magistrate.

In neither this letter nor any any of the other of Wesley’s works that I have read — journals, letters, sermons, pamphlets — do I recall the issue being about who was sitting next to whom in church.

The matter at hand was doctrine. Wesley preached a strict holiness and a justification by faith in Jesus Christ that saves from the guilt and power of sin. Wesley preached this gospel to all would hear, but his journals are replete with cases of him ejecting from the Methodist society those who were “disorderly walkers.” This was not movement of blind inclusivism. It was a movement of egalitarian spiritual renewal. All need to be saved from sin.

Wesley did preach to the poor, the in prison, the illiterate, and the unloved people of the British Isles. He did care for their spirits, their minds, and their bodies. He did encourage them to partake of constant communion, but I can find no evidence at all that it was the unwashed showing up for communion that got him in trouble with the establishment.

It was doctrine that started all the trouble. It was preaching moral and spiritual holiness that enraged the well-heeled and the powerful. It was calling on sinners to “flee from the wrath to come,” to repent of their sins, and to work out their salvation with fear and trembling that upset the comfortable church people.

If you know of evidence that contradicts my reading, I’d love to have it pointed out to me. Until then, I’ll close with another quote from John Wesley’s journal about the redemptive love of Christ he preached in the fields and public squares:

I had a great desire to visit a little village called Placey, about ten measured miles north of Newcastle. It is inhabited by colliers only, and such as had been always in the first rank for savage ignorance and wickedness of every kind. Their grand assembly used to be on the Lord’s day; on which men, women, and children met together, to dance, fight, curse and swear, and play at chuck, ball, and span-farthing, or whatever came next to hand. I felt great compassion for these poor creatures, from the time I heard of them first; and the more, because all men seemed to despair of them. Between seven and eight I set out with John Heally, my guide. The north wind being unusually high, drove the sleet in our face, which froze as it fell, and cased us over presently. When we came to Placey, we could very hardly stand. As soon as we were a little recovered, I went into the Square, and declared Him who “was wounded for our transgressions,” and “bruised for our iniquities.” The poor sinners were quickly gathered together, and gave earnest heed to the things which were spoken. And they did in the afternoon again, in spite of the wind and snow, when I besought them to receive Him for their King; to “repent and believe the Gospel.”


14 thoughts on “Why they threw rocks at the preacher

  1. I don’t think any evidence contradicting your reading of Wesleyan history will be forthcoming. The RMN post, IMO, is a wonderful portrait of revisionist history.

  2. I’m not sure RMN is going to sweat history blocking their narrative.

    On the other hand, I’ve heard this same assertion from other quarters, not just RMN. It appeals to that Grange Hall/Leveller/Populist instinct in some American heads. It’s amazing how eager we are to just repeat any old canard we hear.

  3. Here’s a link to an essay about the anti-Methodist Wednesbury riots, http://archives.gcah.org/xmlui/handle/10516/6109. It’s an interesting read so rather than try to summarize the whole I’ll simply note that neither a Methodist commitment to inclusion nor purity of doctrine was the sigular cause of the violence. It turns out some of the early Methodist preachers were real jerks.
    If I’m recalling Heitzenrater’s Wesley and the People Called Methodist correctly, I think Wesley’s time in Oxford gives an example of Wesley and crew being ridiculed, but not physically threatened, for their ministry among the poor and social outcast. I believe that when the group previously dedicated to prayer and study started to include the poor in their weekly routine they first earned the derisive name “Methodist” from their opponents.

    1. Thanks for the article. I’ll have to give it a look! I did not mean to imply there was a singular cause of the riots in Wednesbury, Cork, or all the other places where stone-throwing, mud-slinging mobs attacked the Methodists. But I have never seen any specific evidence that tied the violence to dirty peasants showing up at communion, as the blog to which I was responding asserted.

      I’ll go back and look at Heitzenrater again, but I don’t recall him being able to nail down the first use of the name with that much specificity. That is an interesting question, though.

      What I have seen is complaints that lower class Methodists “looked down” on their social superiors because the Methodists thought themselves to be exhibiting real Christianity rather than mere formal religion of the upper classes. There was this charge that Methodists were not socially disruptive by not giving their superiors proper respect. In the class-based world of England, that was a big deal, I gather.

    2. Just skimmed the article. Thank you, again.

      The conclusion that the Methodists disrupted the settled social arrangements does ring true. I was just working on a post about Wesley’s correspondence with the bishop of London, and the crux of the complaints by the bishop appear to match up with the conclusions of the article.

      It appears that part of the aim of the article is to absolve the particular vicar of blame and say that part of what was happening is more about social and historical forces. I did find it interesting that the author found the Wesleys’ references to charismatic healings and other interventions somehow a provocation.

      1. I thought that part of the essay was a bit underdeveloped. Did you take it to mean that talk of miracles allowed Methodists to be caricatured as superstitious, and therefore, probably Catholic?

        1. I was not sure what the point was, but I did read it rather quickly.

          I wondered if it was a historians skepticism about supernaturalism.

    3. Hi John, just wanted to offer this correction to what I wrote yesterday. According to Heitzenrater, when Wesley and his Oxford friends went public, so to speak, by going to the poor, prisoners, and children they earned their first derisive nicknames; Holy Club, Bible Moths, etc. (pp 40-41). The term Methodist came two years later. So, as in his class on Methodist history, when recalling Heitzenrater’s book, I’ll have to settle for partial credit.

  4. Of course Wesley himself would describe the issue in terms of doctrine in a document written for an Anglican audience. If you wanted to get a balanced view, it would be worthwhile to look at those who were critiquing him. This account here slides too neatly into the smarmy culture war persecution complex (“They hate us because we’re passionate about loving God!”), kind of analogous to Metaxas’ appropriation of Bonhoeffer. None of the other Anglican priests were preaching in the fields to the common people. Wesley got onto other peoples’ turf; he was probably more than a little self-important in how he came across to other clergy. Plus it’s understandable that the Anglican church would have a century of latitudinarianism and a suspicion towards religious zeal after Cromwell’s Calvinists almost destroyed England with their psycho-Puritanism that created a bloodbath (no one ever talks about that side of things).

    1. I’m sure he was no less imperfect than the saints you were commending to our attention not long ago.

      I’m not sure if that has anything to do with the claim on the post I linked to that the reason people did not like him was because he was getting too many coal miners to show up at communion.

      1. It looks like the letter exchange between Wesley and the bishop in your next post corroborates some of the original post that you were critiquing. My point is simply that just because Wesley wanted to narrate it as being all about doctrine, it wasn’t then and it isn’t now. There’s a way of reading the Bible that works very well today for middle-class suburbanites and we call that “conservative.” There’s another set of middle-class suburbanites who define themselves socially by rebelling against the values naturally endemic to middle class life; they read the Bible differently and we call that “liberal.” Methodism in the US is mostly middle-class suburban though of course that’s an oversimplification. It’s true that the “liberal” side overplays its hand in reading their values back into Wesley who was thoroughly immersed in the same 18th century understanding of human psychology, etc, that is the foundation of the Protestant work ethic and today’s middle-class “conservative” values. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing to promote a Methodism that values both personal holiness and social justice as two things that ought to feed off of each other rather than justify the neglect of one for the sake of the other. It’s fair for you to critique people if they’ve overreached in their appropriation of Wesley, but I still maintain that it’s an oversimplification to say it’s all about doctrine just because that’s how matters are described in what were essentially Wesley’s personal press releases and official church correspondence.

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