Chapter 17: Men of Faith (Part 1: The Great Awakening)

After the suppression of the Puritans, religiosity died down in Great Britain and British America. Then, in the mid-18th Century, a revival of nonconformist churches swept over the English world. And it had a profound impact on the coming Industrial Revolution.

In this week’s episode, we’ll talk about the two main Protestant forces behind this first Great Awakening – the Baptists and the Methodists – and how they shaped the new, industrial working class.

Sources for the episode include:

Allitt, Patrick N. “The Industrial Revolution.” The Great Courses. 2014.

The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley. Edited by Randy L. Maddox and Jason E. Vickers. Cambridge University Press. 2009.

Griffin, Emma. Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution. Yale University Press. 2013.

Humphreys, Fisher. “Baptists and Their Theologies.” Southern Baptist Historical Society. 2000. Accessed via http://www.baptisthistory.org/baptistorigins/baptiststheology.html

McBeth, Leon. Baptist Beginnings. Baptist History and Heritage Society. 1979. Accessed via http://www.baptisthistory.org/baptistorigins/baptistbeginnings.html

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. Vintage. 1966.

Wesley, John. The Journal of John Wesley. Accessed via http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/travellers/J_Wesley

Full Transcript

Okay: A quick recap of the English religious history in Chapter 4…

Henry the Eighth wanted an annulment, the Pope wouldn’t give him one, so he broke off from the Roman Catholic Church, effectively establishing the Church of England. But unlike on the Continent, where Martin Luther and John Calvin had gone full-on reform, Henry kept a lot of Catholic principles in place.

Later on, those who wanted to take the Reformation further became known as Puritans.

Okay, now we’re all caught up.

It would be safe to say the Puritan movement peaked during the English Civil War. For about a hundred years leading up to it, they had struggled to get the Church of England to adopt the more reformed, Calvinist principles of Protestantism from the Continent.

But then, one of their own took the reins of power. Charles the First was overthrown and, filling the vacuum, was the new Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan. Many of the Puritan ministers in the Church of England – who had been waiting for this moment for decades – were ready to throw out the old Anglican norms. They were ready to drop the Book of Common Prayer, drop the sacraments, drop the episcopal structure of the national Church. They finally had an opportunity to remake the Church in their own vision.

But as it turned out, the Puritans didn’t really share a common vision. The cracks began to show. Some wanted a Presbyterian system, others (including Cromwell) wanted an independent, Congregationalist system. Questions about precise theology tested their ability to cooperate. New sects – like the Ranters and Quakers – sprang onto the scene, further confusing things.

And then Cromwell died. The monarchy was restored. And before any religious reforms could take root, the Puritans were suppressed. In 1662, The Act of Uniformity passed, restoring the Anglican norms of the church. Puritan ministers were removed in a process known as the Great Ejection. In 1664, the Act of Conventicles banned participation in churches that didn’t conform to Anglicanism. But even before that act, nonconformists were often imprisoned.

One such nonconformist was John Bunyan, a craftsman and a veteran of Cromwell’s New Model Army. Arrested in 1660, he would spend the next 12 years in prison. During that time, he drafted a huge novel: The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come – a 108,000-word allegory about the quest for heavenly salvation.

After his release, Bunyan began preaching and published The Pilgrim’s Progress, as well as other writings. The book wasn’t only successful, it had a profound influence on British religious thought for decades to come. But if Bunyan believed he was rekindling the Puritan movement, he was sorely mistaken. His zealous, nonconformist brand of English, Protestant Christianity would only continue to decline. It would lay dormant for the next 60 years.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, there was daylight. The Protestant World suddenly experienced a Great Awakening. And it would have enormous implications for the next hundred years, as the old social orders of the world started to break down.


This is the Industrial Revolutions

Chapter 17: Men of Faith (Part 1: The Great Awakening)


So, originally, I thought “Men of Faith” was going to be one episode that would cover all the topics related to religion in the first Industrial Revolution. But that would be way too long of an episode. So instead, I am breaking it into two pieces. Today I’m going to tell you about the Great Awakening, and next week I’m going to tell you some specific stories from the late 18th Century.

To begin, let’s talk about some of the developments following the English Civil War.

With the divisions between them that started to appear, and then the suppressions following the restoration of the monarchy, the Puritans were effectively no more. Those who had been called Puritan would now be categorized under a number of underground movements who were – as an amalgamation – called “dissenters” or “nonconformists.”

The Presbyterians and Congregationalists split into distinct sects. The Quakers spread their unique brand of Christianity, picking up leftover nonconformists. So too did a new sect called the Baptists, although they were a much smaller sect than the others.

But largely, these groups had been decimated by the Acts of Uniformity and Conventicles. That being said, after the Glorious Revolution, Parliament passed the Act of Toleration of 1689, which restored the freedom of worship for non-Anglican Protestants in England. And then a slew of new religious movements – including the Moravians, the Familists, and the Socinians – came over from the Continent. In many cases, they were refugees who fled Europe’s traditionally Protestant lands because of the Thirty Years War – and they added to the ranks of the nonconformists.

But even then, the nonconformists struggled to stand out. According to the memoirs of one Reverend John Taylor, not only were there few dissenters during his childhood in the 1740s, but there was also “little knowledge of and denominations of dissenters.” Relatively few English men and women even knew of a place of worship other than their local Church of England parish. A nonconformist church gathering, meanwhile, often times took on the character of a public meeting rather than a worship service.

But by the mid-1700s, Britain was changing. The agricultural changes underway led to growth in the economy, but even more growth in the population. Poverty was on the rise. So too was the prevalence of distilled spirits and, with them, extreme alcoholism. Meanwhile, a brutal system of slavery was becoming systemic in the colonies, forcing the devout to undertake some soul-searching. And scientists like Newton and Hooke seemed to be answering the great questions of the universe without any religious underpinning.

All this time, a greater emphasis on evangelism was gaining a foothold on the Continent, where the Lutherans – in particular – had experienced a century-long pietism movement.

And all of these trends culminated to create the perfect conditions for a Great Awakening.

Now, I should take a time-out to explain this phrase, the “Great Awakening”. I’m actually only going to tell you about the first Great Awakening today. It happened, roughly, between the 1730s and 1750s – though, in reality, the effects of it became clear only after the 1750s, just as the first Industrial Revolution was getting off the ground.

Among those to benefit from the Great Awakening were the Baptists.

Now, the early history of the Baptists is a bit murky. According to some sources I’ve seen, the first Baptist church was started by the Puritan John Smyth in Amsterdam in 1609, after fleeing his own country for the sake of religious freedom (i.e. freedom from the Church of England). Some of his flock later returned to England, where they adopted Baptist ideas in their small churches.

Others took the Baptist principles with them to the New World. Among those in Puritan Massachusetts was Roger Williams, a minister who followed the Pilgrims over when they offered him a job in 1631. Williams really, really hated the Church of England and got into a lot of – let’s just call them “unnecessary” – disputes with the political/religious leaders of the colony. As a result, he was kicked out of Massachusetts in 1636 and he relocated a short distance to the south, setting up the new Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

In Rhode Island, Williams established First Baptist Church of Providence – the first Baptist congregation in the modern United States – which still stands today.

Now, the ritual of baptism has been around for as long as Christianity has. And baptizing newborn babies was commonplace in the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. But the Baptists believed that the ritual could only be performed for someone who first gave a confession of faith. And that excluded newborn babies. Generally speaking though, these early Baptists were pretty typical Calvinist Puritans – although they may have also been influenced by Dutch anabaptists, like the Mennonites. Again, the history is murky.

But one thing they definitely stood for was separation from the Church of England. And among those who believed in “religious freedom” and a “separation of church and state” – none were so vehemently in favor of these principles as the Baptists. After all, adoption of those principles would be to their benefit.

Following the restoration of the monarchy, the Baptists had to be careful about their activities. As a result, they remained a small band. But they were out there. John Bunyan became a Baptist preacher. Thomas Newcomen was a Baptist. And when the Great Awakening began, the Baptist movement blew up – on both sides of the Atlantic.

Beginning in the 1760s, the Reverend Dan Taylor set up new Baptist churches across England and a connection between them – effectively making it an established denomination. William Carey and Andrew Fuller of the new Particular Baptists movement began the new Baptist Missionary Society, which spread the movement across British colonies.

But nowhere did the movement spread faster than in the new United States. In 1700, there were fewer than a thousand Baptists in the British American colonies, attending just 24 independent churches. By 1800, it was the single largest denomination in the U.S., with an estimated 1,152 churches. Much of that growth came from southern states, where Anglicans had been abandoned by their church in the aftermath of the American Revolution.

But where the Baptists were fiercely independent from the Church of England, another evangelical movement was leading the charge of this Great Awakening. And it would be led by a Church of England minister.


In October 1735, a ship departed Gravesend, England – just down-river from London – for the City of Savannah in the new British American colony of Georgia.

Aboard the ship were several missionaries, charged with spreading Christianity to the Native Americans and establishing a Church of England parish in Savannah. Also on board was a group of German immigrants who had escaped the Continent for England, and were now trying to establish themselves as an independent Moravian community in the New World.

The journey took nearly five months and it was a harrowing experience. The winter storms on the Atlantic terrified the English passengers. But the Moravians appeared calm as they prayed and sung hymns. An English missionary asked one of them, “Were you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” “But were not your women and children afraid?” the missionary followed-up. To which the Moravian mildly replied, “No; our women and children are not afraid to die.”

The missionary was at a loss. Just two days earlier, the storms had led him to write about his own fear of death in his diary, “How is it that thou hast no faith?” His depression deepened during his mission in Georgia, where he fell in love, was rejected, denied the woman communion for it, and was taken to court because of that. He returned to England in 1738, not fully convinced he was a Christian.

His name was John Wesley.

Born in 1703, Wesley grew up Lincolnshire where his father was the rector of their local parish church. His mother had followed his father into the Church of England around the time they married. But her own father had been a Presbyterian minister during the reign of Cromwell and was among the thousands of Puritan ministers ejected from the Church of England in 1662.

As the son of an Oxford-educated rector, Wesley had an intensive educational and religious upbringing. He followed in his father’s footsteps, attending Oxford in the early 1720s and later teaching there as a fellow of Lincoln College. Intending on a career in the Church, he began a process of unusually deep and honest spiritual introspection, and he and his brother founded a controversial student organization around this process called The Holy Club.

Following the debacle that was his mission to Georgia, Wesley struggled to understand his faith. It was when a Moravian friend in London invited him to one of their meetings that he had his own, personal, Great Awakening. There he heard a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to the Book of Romans. Moved by Luther’s words on faith, redemption, salvation, and the good works that follow, Wesley found himself recommitted to a life of ministry. Except, it would be a life of ministry that was extremely unconventional for the Church of England.

Constantly travelling the country to deliver sermons, Wesley established local Methodist societies, which were not necessarily a part of, but not necessarily separated from the Church of England.

He wasn’t alone. The same year he left for Georgia, a Welshman by the name of Howell Harris began holding meetings at his house to preach along the lines of the “methods” developed by the Holy Club – despite the fact that he was not ordained. And other leaders of the Holy Club – including John’s brother Charles and a minister named of George Whitfield – were preaching along similar lines as Wesley: Method-ism.

What set John Wesley apart was his skill as an organizer – establishing local societies, recruiting preachers, raising money, and constantly communicating with others in his orbit. He soon became the de facto leader of the Methodist movement.

What was important about the movement was not especially theological. In fact, the early Methodists had some pretty big differences of opinion, including on the big question of predestination. Like most nonconformists, most of the early Methodists sided with John Calvin on the topic – that is, to say, the agreed with predestination theology. Wesley, meanwhile, was inspired by the old Dutch theologian Jakob Hermanszoon, a Calvinism revisionist opposed to predestination theology.

What the Methodists had in common, though, was a unique zeal for evangelism, especially among those who felt isolated from the Church of England – namely, the poor. The established church was incredibly elitist, and the Methodists sought to remove elitism from their religion. To these ends, they held big gatherings with really impassioned sermons – the model for modern evangelical and tent-revivalist preachings. As one of the Wesleys put it, at least according to legend, “Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn.”

In these efforts, Wesley flouted Church norms and even official Church policies. He set up societies and preached across traditional parish boundaries, he recruited non-ordained believers to preach – including a few women – and took political stances that were tough for the Church to swallow – including stances in favor of the abolition of slavery and for normalized relations with the United States following independence.

Okay, I probably need to insert some full disclosure: I, myself, am a practicing Methodist. And there’s a lot I like about Wesleyan theology. But would I have followed Wesley if I was in Britain in the 1700s? That’s tough to say.

Wesley was… intense – to say the least. He’d kick people out of the Methodist societies for sins as innocuous as levity, drinking spirits, and using foul language. Wesley was serious and never-tiring. As he put it to his lay preachers, “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore, spend and be spent in this work.”

By the time Wesley died in 1791, there were over 50,000 Methodists in Great Britain – a figure that continued to grow exponentially – and there was an entire Methodist denomination in the United States. It was becoming quite clear that Methodism was going to have its own church, independent from the Church of England. By the end of the first Industrial Revolution, there were several Methodist denominations, with over half a million British members.

When it finally came around, the Baptists and the Methodists had a profound impact on the first Industrial Revolution. How? Why? Well, let me tell you… After this break.


Any in-depth discussion of the first Industrial Revolution will inevitably include the rise of Methodism. That’s largely because of the 20th Century British historian E.P. Thompson, and to a lesser extent, his friend, the historian Eric Hobsbawm.

In his 1963 book, The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson sets out to find how the working-class identity developed during the Industrial Revolution. “In the years between 1780 and 1832, most English working people came to feel an identity of interests as between themselves, and as against their rulers and employers.” But, rather than go all revolutionary, many instead turned to Methodism.

Thompson’s particular interest in the subject was likely a result of this upbringing. His father had been a committed Methodist missionary. But if you think that would make him biased in favor of Methodism, you would be wrong sir. A one-time member of the English Communist Party, Thompson believed religion was the opiate of the masses. And he and Hobsbawm – a fellow Marxist – pointed specifically to Methodism to explain why a revolution like those in France and elsewhere was never attempted in industrial Great Britain. Because Methodism made the workers docile.

Strongest in the mining villages of South Wales and in the growing textile mill towns of Lancashire, Methodism was the religious movement for the working-class, by the working-class. The official Church of England, meanwhile, represented the old order of the state and the aristocracy – the landholders.

Among the Primitive Methodist preachers was Joseph Arch, who organized and served as the first President of the National Agricultural Laborers Union. He was later elected as a Liberal Member of Parliament. In his autobiography, Arch remembered the local, Anglican parish church from his childhood as being the setting for his first lesson about social injustice.

There were a few pews reserved for the local poor agricultural workers, but they were treated like an inferior species. The poor women were expected to walk up the church to curtsey the parson’s wife before taking their seats. Curtains were put up to keep them out of the view of the dignified congregants. Communion was distributed by class priority – first the scholars, then the landowners, then the craftspeople, and at the very end, the landless field workers.

And it was just as well that the poor rarely showed up to the local parish church, because they hardly would have been able to understand the sermons. The vicars used eloquent language to demonstrate their own education, but it was incomprehensible to the uneducated laborers.

Meanwhile, the nonconformist denominations – especially the Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Unitarians (who we’ll talk about next week) – tended to be the denominations of the new, capitalist bourgeoises. For generations, they had been excluded from rising in the social hierarchy, so instead they built up their wealth, grew their businesses into giant, industrial enterprises, and now they were the employers – the masters – of the new, industrial working-class.

The Baptists and the Methodists provided an alternative to the Anglican-Nonconformist dichotomy. They met in open-air services with traveling preachers. During the winter months they’d move the services indoors, into settings as humble as barns. The preachers – many of them uneducated themselves – delivered their sermons with language the audience could understand.

One Mary Saxby had tried attending her local Anglican parish, but complained she “could not well understand the minister; his language being too much polished for my weak comprehension.” But then the Methodists came through town. She attended the meeting and was delighted to find herself “hearing discourses… leveled to my capacity.”

Thompson accused Wesley of being a Tory apologist for the forces that employed child labor and oppressed workers. But, as he admits, the leaders Wesley recruited “were the poor… many of their local preachers were humble men who found their figures of speech (as one said) ‘behind my spinning-jenny.’”

In other passages, Thompson seems to admire Wesley for his dedication and foresight – how Wesley foresaw and deplored the gains that capitalism would produce in riches, but how those riches would increase pride, anger, and worldliness – and he seems dismayed by Wesley’s followers, including Jabez Bunting, a preacher from humble origins who called for Methodism to expel any proto-socialists.

I think it seemed to Thompson that Methodism was what the workers wanted, but entirely the opposite of what they needed. How can we analyze this duality, and how can we do it without letting Thompson’s Marxism and daddy issues get in the way?

First of all, Methodism promoted certain virtues that we might think of as admirable, but are definitely difficult to maintain in the modern, industrialized world – such as decency, restraint, temperance, moderation, and respectability. Not only do we struggle to fit these in with our 21st Century consumer culture, but poor, oppressed workers would have also been tested in their effort maintain all of these dignities – during the late 18th Century – as they suffered very undignified conditions.

These virtues may have also had a role in tempering the tactics and objectives of labor unions in the United Kingdom and United States later on, which focused on maintaining a respectable public image, while the labor movement in France and elsewhere on the Continent went all over the place with communist and anarchist pursuits.

Second, the Baptists and Methodists promoted activities that empowered working people – in many cases, for the first times in their lives.

They practiced Bible study, in which participants were asked to express their own opinions. Not only did that not used to happen in regard to the Holy freakin’ Bible, it never happened to them, period. Nobody had ever cared before what their opinions were on any topic. One Adam Rushton remembered how caught-off-guard he was by this in the third-ever prayer meeting he attended, when the leader asked him, “What is the state of your mind?” As Rushton recalled, “[the] question found me entirely dumb. I could not possibly give an intelligent reply, and so I spoke no word.”

Not only did the Baptists’ and Methodists’ activities help make these working-class Christians better at reading and analyzing the written word, they also prepared them to take the reins of leadership. They were asked to write their own sermons, preach them – which would have been their first acts of public speaking – and subsequently to lead prayer and Bible discussions. These would have been among the subtle, first steps of working-class empowerment.

The local Baptist church or Methodist society also would have been one of the few means the new Proletariat had to socialize with each other outside the mine or factory and outside the tavern. Memoirs of these believers often reflected on the joys they had hanging out with each other on Sunday evenings.

By the 1840s, the religious landscape in Great Britain and America looked entirely different from 100 years earlier. Not only would there be more than one church in the neighborhood, but there would be several churches of any variety of denominations. And you were free to choose the denomination you agreed with most. And so long as that denomination wasn’t Catholic – in the case of Great Britain – there would be no repercussions for your decision. And even Catholic emancipation was on the way. The phenomenon of church-shopping had begun.

One Samuel Catton decided to begin a spiritual journey and became a Baptist, then decided he didn’t agree with predestination theology, so he joined the Quakers. Then there was Benjamin North, who started as a Quaker, but then joined Wesleyan Methodism instead. Admitting these denominations were at two very different ends of the worshiping spectrum – and that some might accuse him of swinging from the extreme of “quiet Quaker” to the extreme of “noisy Methodist” – he said, “I had a right to think and act for myself.”

Imagine that. Religious freedom – legitimate religious freedom – for the first time in history. And in time it would extend not only to Catholics, but to non-Christians and even non-believers.

But with that freedom would come some difficult choices and some very violent controversies. Next week, on the Industrial Revolutions.


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Dave Broker