- Women and the Shaping of British Methodism: Persistent Preachers, 1807-1907
The narrative energy of Jennifer Lloyd's Women and the Shaping of British Methodism is generated by a contradiction between the egalitarian enthusiasms of the evangelical project and the repressive discipline of the institutional church. She neatly—and convincingly—reveals this contradiction by dividing her impressive collection of characters into a drama of two acts. Beginning with John Wesley's grudging acceptance that some women did indeed possess the exceptional gifts required to preach God's word, the drama reaches its climax with the heyday of female itinerancy in the years just prior [End Page 723] to the 1832 Reform Act. In the second and more somber act, an increasingly professionalized Methodist ministry forces women out from behind the pulpit and almost, but not entirely, off the public stage.
The momentum of Methodism as a social and cultural force was not so much slowed by its founder's death in 1791 as it was split into a variety of trajectories. So long as Wesley was alive his charismatic leadership eased the tensions between the crowds that flocked to hear outdoor preachers, the lay leaders who held the chapel leases, and an itinerant ministry seeking to discipline the congregations. When he died, things fell apart. In her introductory chapters, Lloyd guides us through the hectic first half of the nineteenth century, which saw Wesleyanism fractured by dispute, dissent, and outright secession. The period between the Kilhamite New Connexion of the 1790s and the Methodist Union of 1907 saw a startling proliferation of sects: the Leeds Protestant Methodists; the Warrenites; the Wesleyan Methodist Association; the United Methodist Free Churches; the Arminian Methodists; the Tent Methodists; the Magical Methodists; and the two groups who provide Lloyd with her greatest numbers of preaching women, the Bible Christians and the Primitive Methodists.
During this period of institutional fragmentation, Methodist women had the greatest success in establishing themselves as prophetic voices in their own right. Lloyd is at great pains to remind us that these women were not interested in supplanting the administrative monopoly of men but simply in praying, exhorting, and preaching. If they were practicing a nascent feminism it was at best a rather opportunistic sort, and the arguments justifying their practices tended to follow action rather than precede it. The continuing expansion of Methodism, particularly in isolated or industrializing regions, nonetheless meant that the demand for devotional leadership could not be met solely by the official representatives of the various conferences. It was in these already marginalized communities that female evangelicals thrived.
Yet women never held anything like bureaucratic power. So long as Methodism was wracked by schism and institutional infighting it was possible for women to establish some degree of influence over religion in the chapel and cottage. That influence declined rapidly, however, as increasing organization brought stability to Methodism. This once rough and populist movement became professionalized, and the conferences began to negotiate reunions; evangelical women were often the first to be thrown under the bus of ecumenical cooperation. One of Lloyd's most important observations on this point, however, is that Methodist women did not vanish altogether from public life. They became increasingly active as philanthropists, fundraisers, missionaries, and even, for a brief period in the 1860s, nondenominational revivalists.
Historians of Methodism have recently tried—rather bravely—to construct a post-Thompsonian frame in which to hang their subject. The incandescence of E. P. Thompson's polemic has illuminated a great deal about the role of evangelical religion in Britain, but it has, perhaps, obscured almost as much. Lloyd's book represents an attempt to write critically and thoughtfully about Methodists while avoiding the polarizing malice that resulted from finely calibrated phrases such as "the chiliasm of despair" and "sanctified emotional onanism" (Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class [Victor Gollancz 1963], 391, 40). Thompson receives barely a nod from Lloyd before she gets down to her work. She does not even condescend...