- Methodism: Empire of the Spirit
David Hempton's Methodism: Empire of the Spirit is a virtuoso performance. Judicious and engaging, clear and forceful, it positions itself as the most persuasive account yet of the rise of Methodism as a "transnational movement of ordinary people" (10). Methodism is Hempton's third book on the subject, and it reflects his growing realization that "any account of Methodism that fail[s] to take into account its international dimensions [is] by definition incomplete" (4). The product of decades of international archival research, immersion in the secondary literature, and protracted conversations with his scholarly peers, Methodism is a densely layered, vigorous, and concise interpretation of "Methodism's rise and fall" (204).
Hempton sets before himself the "disarmingly simple" task of accounting for Methodism's explosive growth from its "unpromising origins" in the 1730s to "a major international religious movement" by the end of the nineteenth century (2). The vigor of Hempton's narrative emerges chiefly out of his decision to focus the book around eight themes, each treated in its own chapter, which help explain the peculiar trajectory of Methodist growth, consolidation, and decline. His choice of themes—"competition and symbiosis," "enlightenment and enthusiasm," the medium and the message," "opposition and conflict," "money and power," "boundaries and margins," "mapping and mission," and "consolidation and decline"—reflects an awareness that Methodism's profound successes and failures had much to do with dialectical tensions inherent in the movement's origins and development.
The subtitle of the work reflects one of Hempton's central claims that "Methodism's rise to globalism in the nineteenth century [occurred] on the back of two expanding civilizations, British and American. Ironically a populist religious movement was the beneficiary of the trappings of power and empire, including military conquest, commercial exploitation, and cultural imperialism" (9). In a rapidly growing, English-speaking world of mobile populations and expanding global markets, a mobile and zealous Methodist laity—prior to the arrival of missionaries and the formation of missionary societies—launched "a cultural revolution from below" (30), spreading a message of heartfelt religious experience and communal discipline to the edges of the empire. Hempton uses case studies of New England, African-American, Cornish, and Irish Methodist traditions to demonstrate that the dynamics of Methodist expansion followed these identifiable patterns, even if the subsequent trajectories of growth and decline varied from one national context to another.
Because of its populism, enthusiasm, and supernaturalism, many have characterized Methodism as an anti-Enlightenment movement, and treating early Methodist expansion as a "revolution from below" might not suggest otherwise. Yet Hempton points out that Methodism thrived in an atmosphere of disestablishment and an emerging "ecclesiastical free market" that Enlightenment luminaries like Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson had hailed as a boon for both [End Page 549] church and state. Further, he draws on recent historiography to assert that Methodism evinced significant debts to Enlightenment thought. Following the lead of Frederick Dreyer, Hempton points out that Wesley embraced a Lockean theory of knowledge that prized experience over speculation. Further, Wesley espoused a "principle of association" based on "the free consent of equals to form a voluntary association" (50–51). "Methodism," Hempton concludes, "was a religious association coming to fruition in the age of associations" (52).
Methodist associations grew so rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because of both favorable conditions and the distinctive appeal of the Methodist message. A distinctive religious message, conveyed most effectively through hymns and sermons, and adaptable to various social contexts, contributed directly to Methodist growth. More than learned theological discourses, Methodist hymns and sermons "were the currency of Methodist transmission" (77). More specifically, hymns "defined for Methodism a religious content and style of a more vibrant and populist kind than was available through confessions of faith or chanted liturgies; in short, they supplied a poetic music of the heart for a religion of the heart" (73). Sermons were similarly powerful tools of transmission. Hempton searched beyond "the printed sermons of the learned" to survey "the spidery sermon outlines of the itinerant foot soldiers," and...