Evangelical History

  • Methodism: Empire of the Spirit. David Hempton. Yale, 2005.

Methodism: Empire of the Spirit. David Hempton, Yale, 2005

The turn of the millennium may not have brought on the Apocalypse, or a Y2K global computer crash. But the first five years of the 21st century have witnessed what, to many of us, seems equivalent: an apparently sudden preponderance of evangelical Christianity in startling places. Evangelicals are everywhere: on the fifteenth floor of the Empire State Building (as the New Yorker reported just a few weeks ago of the evangelical King’s College); joining forces with the likes of Rabbi Eckstein (according to the New York Times Magazine); trying to run ads for a controversial new Bible translation in venues like Rolling Stone (which refused) and the Onion (which did not); meriting the cover shot and an entire photo essay in a February issue of Time. And so many of them seem to be in influential positions: the Time essay, titled “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America,” features glossy shots of a host of believers whose footsteps echo through the halls of Capitol Hill and the White House: the Grahams, father and son; the LaHayes; Michael Gerson; Rick Warren; Rick Santorum.

Stories of Democrats courting allies like Jim Wallis (founder and editor of the Christian magazine Sojourners) circulated widely in the months leading up to the second inauguration of George W. Bush; the aforementioned Time also ran a picture of Hillary Clinton gazing skyward like a raptured Saint Catherine alongside a story about the Democratic party’s quest for a more soulful identity. Evangelical ideology appears to be making its influence known in areas as diverse as environmental policy (as Bill Moyers wrote in the New York Review of Books recently), American approaches toward combating HIV/AIDS in Africa, the current administration’s self-described “crusade” against Islamic extremists, and, most visibly, in the halls of the White House, where our President is an avowed born-again Methodist, saved from his earlier godless tendencies, who surrounds himself with religious advisors who support his conviction of his own rectitude.

Poor Thomas Jefferson. It hasn’t been the best decade for his spotless liberal sainthood in terms of slavery, or presidential conduct, or behavior toward his political opponents. He was also, or so the recent political climate seems to prove, wrong about Americans and religion. A supporter of Unitarianism as the purest, simplest guarantor of religious freedom and protection against religious partisanship, he wrote in a letter in the 1820s, “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither Kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” As David Hempton’s new book, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, demonstrates, that trust was misplaced even back in 1822, when the fastest-growing religious sects in the young United States were not the reasonable Unitarians so beloved by Jefferson and other members of the new Republic’s intellectual elite, but rather evangelical Methodists and Baptists. According to the 1850 US census, more than three-fifths of the American churchgoing population attended services associated with some form of popular evangelical enthusiasm.

The 18th and early 19th centuries, according to received wisdom and introductory intellectual history courses, were characterized by increasing secularity: oppressive religious superstitions and institutions gave way to scientific understandings of the world; industrialization and empire spread; markets and trade grew. Under this schema, the US Constitution, with its separation of Church and State, stands as a high point in the advance of modern, secular civilization. Yet as Empire of the Spirit repeatedly demonstrates, evangelical Christianity thrived in this so-called secular environment. The unprecedented growth, spread, and consolidation of early Methodism was inextricably linked to the growth of the British Empire and that of the soon-to-be United States. And while Methodism and similar Free Church traditions have witnessed an equally rapid decline among their membership over the past fifty years, their shrinking numbers are by no means indicative of the weakness of evangelical Christianity—today, sects like the Pentecostals are growing as fast as Methodism did during the 1790s and 1810s. Instead, the decline of Methodism may be paradoxical proof of the sheer pervasiveness of its ideology: aspects of Methodism have become so absorbed into our cultural mindset as to have been rendered invisible.


The word “Methodist” was originally a loose, pejorative term for the young John Wesley and a small group of pious students (including his brother Charles) who banded together at Oxford in the late 1720s to render their daily conduct and religious practice more acceptable in the eyes of God. (The group was also known as “The Holy Club,” “The Godly Club,” “Bible Moths,” and “The Sacramentarians.”) “Methodism” derisively referred to their methodical, strict rules for daily living; hourly directives for study, prayer, and fasting so reputedly strict that when one of their number, William Morgan, collapsed from exhaustion in 1732, the Holy Club’s strict regimen was immediately blamed and the group castigated in Fog’s Weekly Journal for its overzealousness. Wesley himself would take this system of practical piety to Georgia in 1735, where he went with Oglethorpe to minister to both the unruly subjects of the growing penal colony and to the local Indian population. Neither group proved amenable to Wesley’s strict approach; three years later, after much scandal and dissatisfaction on both sides, the colony’s Trustees asked him to leave. He returned to London in 1738, was profoundly influenced by its thriving community of Moravian pietists, and after a dramatic conversion experience began to preach the hybrid doctrine of Anglican probity, popular evangelicalism, and Continental mysticism that eventually became Methodism.

Methodism was defined by contradiction from its inception, as Hempton makes clear. Wesley’s controversial ideas about salvation and the attainment of Christian perfection were a slippery combination of Calvinist emphases on faith and an Arminian focus on good works, fueled by the contrary impulses of enlightenment rationalism (Wesley was an avid reader of Locke) and religious enthusiasm. The movement was patristic, with its High Church, Oxford roots—but also populist, with its mass outdoor revival sessions, its insistence on all members’ equality, and its acceptance of preaching and public witness by laymen and women. It valued poverty and itinerancy, yet its members put down deep, communal roots and prospered mightily by following its doctrines of regular living, frugality, and hard work.

Hempton emphasizes Methodism’s inherent dialectics through the structure of the book itself; each chapter takes as its subject one pair of parallel or competing issues whose interaction was crucial in defining the movement: enlightenment and enthusiasm, opposition and conflict, boundaries and margins, mapping and mission, consolidation and decline. Thus depicted, the movement’s capacity to “thrive on the energy unleashed by dialectical friction” was both its greatest strength and, as the book moves to its conclusion, one of the primary causes of its more recent decline, as its members and the mainstream cultures that surrounded them became increasingly similar.

Hempton’s dialectical approach powerfully accounts for the adaptive viability and success of Methodism across a broad geographical and cultural range. It also goes a long way toward correcting the oversimplified versions of Methodism that have dominated most scholarly understandings of its history; as Hempton explains in his introduction, Empire of the Spirit is his third book-length attempt to combat the influential—and often negative—Marxist/Freudian portrayal of Methodism that is the legacy of E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Thompson depicted the Methodist experience as a type of “psychic masturbation” with a strong psychosexual appeal that spread an ideology of work discipline and structured leisure to fit the growing industrial capitalism of the period. In Thompson’s influential formulation, Methodism abetted the transformation of human nature required by the shift from artisanal or agricultural labor to that of the factory. While Hempton applauds Thompson’s attempts to understand the motives and methods of the individuals who converted to Methodism in droves, he calls into question Thompson’s assumptions—shared by the majority of academic, left-leaning social historians—of the irrationality of religious belief and its complicity in social and cultural repression. Methodism and other evangelical movements like it, as Hempton’s dialectical approach convincingly shows, were far more than simple instruments of ideological oppression. Women and African-American slaves, for example—among whom Methodism saw its greatest gains—found validation, expression, and an empowering sense of community within the movement. The case studies in Empire of the Spirit confirm the movement’s complexity with fascinating regional and individual particularity.


Like Hempton’s other books, this one is eminently readable, admirably researched, and willing to examine its author’s own implication within the 20th-century misunderstandings of popular religion that he seeks to correct. Methodism was “a movement of people who claimed a particular kind of religious experience that was difficult for us moderns to understand, but could not be avoided,” Hempton observes in his introduction; later, after a close reading of an itinerant preacher’s report about a fraught prayer meeting in 1830s western Massachusetts, he confesses the modern historian’s inherent difficulty in understanding popular religious experience on its own terms: “Unfortunately, we social historians inhabit the intellectual space of the Enlightenment, which … has condemned as fanciful the very enthusiasm that we are now called upon to interpret.” Yet such a dismissive attitude toward the importance of popular religious enthusiasm and evangelical fervor often results in a dangerous myopia; think of the startled liberal commentary in the wake of the 2004 election. A more nuanced and sympathetic understanding of the evolution of Methodism, Hempton implies, might lead to a similar understanding of the current overwhelming global growth of Pentecostalism, which he identifies as Methodism’s lineal descendent.

Such an understanding might also show how Methodism’s supreme adaptability ensured its rapid decline during the 20th century. While Methodists may have begun within their host communities as radical, threatening outsiders, the movement’s idealization of discipline, hard work, and self-improvement through education usually ensured a quick loss of outsider status and a “drift to somewhere near the self-improving, bourgeois center of Western culture.” The populist, evangelical zeal that drove the expansion of the Methodist empire was stoked by its adherents’ sense of resistance and persecution; once Methodists and their values were absorbed into their surrounding communities, this oppositional identity largely evaporated—or, as it would seem from Hempton’s convincing account, became accepted, respected, and then incorporated into the status quo. “Nineteenth-century Methodists,” he concludes, “dared believe the whole world order could be converted to evangelical Protestantism. What fired their optimism was not only belief in the righteousness of their cause, but also the conviction that they were marching in tandem with the unstoppable progress of a superior Western civilization.” What looks on the surface like decline (the shrinking numbers of Methodist membership growth from the 1930s onwards) might simply be an indication of the movement’s ultimate success.

Empire of the Spirit is an important reminder to liberal thinkers to pause before dismissing the current visibility of popular, evangelical Christianity as merely part of a popular reaction to the Administration’s fear-mongering. If, as Hempton claims, “the history of the early republic—its political divisions, moral crusades, and economic development—is indissolubly linked with the spread of populist forms of evangelical religion,” then perhaps America was Methodized from its very beginnings, and the ideological barriers between “red” and “blue” states have more to do with intellectual prejudice against popular religion than irreconcilable differences. Ferdinand Mount, in a recent review of Empire of the Spirit in the TLS, concludes with the “unsettling” thought that fundamentalist religions “might … be evolving mutations that actually fit the world as it is.” It might be just as unsettling to consider the reverse: the extent to which the ideologies underlying fundamentalism have shaped the world—and all of us—in their own image. If we truly aim to understand our domestic political situation, we may have to begin by acknowledging our own inner evangelicals.

Related Articles

May 15, 2005
November 13, 2009

The son’s hesitation was only too understandable: Nabokov’s last will actually left no room for interpretation.

May 26, 2010

Is it possible to write nonfiction while maintaining an allegiance to art over fact, the Truth over the truth?

Issue 7 Correction

Critiques of the welfare state have held a place of honor in Swedish literary fiction since the 1960s.