Method in the Madness

Method in the Madness

Richard Lansdown

Methodism gained great popularity in the 18th century, but its followers were thought enthusiastic to the point of insanity, posing a serious threat to the established church.

Writing 20 years after the death of John Wesley, William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, claimed in 1811 that the founder of Methodism had invented ‘a new trade’ – that of ‘turning fools into madmen’.A paper published the previous year listed the causes of insanity of 863 patients at London’s Bethlem Hospital, about one third of those admitted between 1772 and 1787.That religion should be mentioned as a cause of madness among Bedlam inmates is not a particular surprise. There is a well-established link between religious belief and mental illness. It is common, for example, for those diagnosed with schizophrenia to report some kind of religious delusion: they have talked directly to God, they are God, they are possessed by the devil or his demons.But why single out Methodism? The mid-17th century had seen a proliferation of zealous religious sects, yet Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Baptists, although persecuted, seem not to have behaved in a way that brought about charges of insanity. On the other hand, Quakers, so named for their shaking as they heard the spirit speaking to them, or Fifth Monarchists, who saw Christ’s kingdom coming at any moment, and others of similar vein were frequently declared mad. Methodists were the latest in a long line.Methodists were deemed crazy because what they said, what they stood for and what they did were seen as threats. John Wesley himself, with a frequency that makes one think of a self-fulfilling prophecy, told his followers that they were likely to be seen as having taken leave of their senses.‘Methodist’ was a baggy, slippery term in the 17th century. It embraced evangelical groups, some Anglicans and anyone who seemed to take religion seriously. But during the 18th century it had come to describe a group, which became an organisation, which became a denomination, slowly built up by Wesley, his brother Charles, the great hymn-writer, and George Whitefield. Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, became Wesley’s chief patron and supporter. Converted in the 1730s, she was ‘a kind of godmother to many of the Revival leaders’. An evangelical movement within the Anglican Church, Methodism was based firmly on the ‘born-again’ principle that Christ had been sent to save us from sin – not just those we committed, but the ‘original sin’ we were born with. The emphasis was on personal belief: personal responsibility for saving oneself.Wesley, an ordained Anglican, never formally severed his connection with the Church of England. The year before he died, he wrote: ‘I live and die a member of the Church of England … I never had any design of separating from the Church. I have no such design now … I declare, once more, that I live and die a member of the Church of England, and that none who regard my judgment or advice will ever separate from it.’ But by the time of Wesley’s death in 1791, there were 470 Methodist chapels with 300 full-time itinerants and around 2,000 local preachers. In 1795, just four years later, the Methodists split from the established religion and, just like the Baptists, the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians and the Quakers, became a separate, dissenting church.Methodists’ behaviourFrom the outset there had been rumblings that Methodists were mad. While undergraduates, Wesley and his followers attracted ridicule. John declared in 1727 that ‘Leisure and I have now taken leave of one another’, referring to his devotion to a pious and proper way of living. The Wesley brothers were the centre of a small group at Oxford, set up originally by Charles. They lived by strict set rules and apportioned their time carefully to study and religious duties, allowing as little as they could to sleeping and eating. It is hardly surprising that their fellow undergraduates thought them odd; they gave the group’s members a number of names, including the derisory ‘The Holy Club’. They also made up a rhyme:By rule they eat, by rule they drink,By rule do all things but thinkAccuse the priests of loose behaviour,To get more in the layman’s favour.Method alone must guide ’em allWhen themselves Methodists they call.The critics’ conviction that the club members were making excessive demands on each other and were possibly insane was confirmed when one member of the group, William Morgan, went mad and died tragically in 1732. Critics appear to have ignored the fact that members of the ‘Holy Club’ visited lonely people in prison, took food to poor families and taught orphaned children to read.Accusations of madness were also made about the behaviour of Methodism’s early congregations, where there was much shouting and screaming, crying and swooning. They could at various times and in various places convulse. On one occasion a woman ‘cried out aloud as in the agonies of death’, two others ‘were seized with strong pain and roared with disquiet of heart’. Wesley himself reported scenes of the Acts of the Apostles reproduced with demon-possession, visions and healing.The claims and beliefs of some of Wesley’s followers did not help. George Bell, for example, claimed in 1761 that he had been converted following a vision of Christ. He went on to say that he had cured a woman with painful lumps in her breast by prayer, a claim supported by Wesley. Bell and others around him went on to declare that they were exempt from death and that they could give sight to the blind. Bell took things a step too far when he predicted the end of the world on 28 February 1763, for which he was disowned as a Methodist. As Wesley’s biographer H.D. Rack concluded in 1989, the George Bell episode showed how difficult it was in early Methodism to distinguish religious zeal and visionary spiritual gifts from ‘pretending to special revelations’ and insanity.Enthusiasm The educated elite of the 18th century lived in dread of a return to the previous century’s civil war and revolution, in which religious sectarianism played a major role. They disliked, too, what they saw as primitive beliefs in astrology, witchcraft and demons that had been common, turning instead to the cooler, rational thought exemplified by the founding of the Royal Society in 1660. Above all, the Establishment, feeling its way towards Enlightenment, loathed and feared ‘Enthusiasm’.This pejorative term was coined to cover the extreme emotion and zeal, characteristic of many of the 17th- and 18th-century dissenters, which was essential to them as both a confirmation and a demonstration of religious experience. These were people who would interrupt a service to inform the preacher and his congregation of the error of their ways, who would cure illness not with medicine but with prayer. They preached that an omnipotent God had done everything and had left nothing for humanity to do but believe as, without faith, good works were of no avail.It is no accident that Rack’s biography of Wesley is entitled Reasonable Enthusiast. Alexander Knox, who knew Wesley well, said: ‘He would have been an enthusiast if he could.’ As Wesley put it: ‘Whatever is spoken of the religion of the heart, and by the inward change by the Spirit of God, must appear enthusiastic to those who have not felt them.’William Hogarth, in his 1762 satire Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism (originally engraved in 1761, with the title Enthusiasm Delineated), poured scorn on a Methodist preacher (possibly George Whitefield) rousing his congregation to paroxysms of religious fervour. Presiding from a great height, the preacher-performer terrorises his congregation with a pair of puppets representing the devil and a witch. The text beside him reads: ‘I speak as a fool.’Wesley responded to accusations of Enthusiasm by pointing out that he and his followers were simply abiding by scripture. He was scathing about the word itself, arguing in one of his sermons that it was ill defined, little understood and often used in contradictory ways. He preferred ‘fanaticism’. To him, fanaticism was, indeed, a disorder of the mind, a sort of madness, not part of religion: ‘Quite the reverse. Religion is the spirit of a sound mind and so it is the very opposite of madness.’But there was more to Enthusiasm than religious zeal. Enthusiasts were also seen as agents of political and social upheaval, arguing for the need for individuals to change themselves and, by extension, society. Loyalty to the king and support for the status quo could not be guaranteed among those who saw their loyalty to God as paramount.E.P. Thompson, in his classic 1963 study The Making of the English Working Class, sees Methodism as anything but a threat. He writes of a reactionary religious terrorism, suppressing progressive political activity:Nothing was more often remarked by contemporaries of the workaday Methodist character, or of Methodist home-life, than its methodical, disciplined and repressed disposition … Energies and emotions which were dangerous to social order, or which were merely unproductive … were released in the harmless form of sporadic love-feasts, watch-nights, band-meetings or revivalist campaigns. Thompson, however, was describing the Methodism of the late 18th and 19th centuries. The picture from earlier times was different.Jacobite brushAlthough Wesley was at least outwardly loyal to the status quo, Methodism became tarred with the Jacobite brush. The Jacobites, traditionally understood to be those who saw William and Mary as interlopers and wished a Stuart to return to the throne, also included those who believed firmly in the sanctity of hereditary kingship. Many Tories saw themselves as heirs to the Cavaliers and were natural Jacobites (supporters displayed pictures of both Royalist and Jacobite heroes in their homes). Both Wesley’s mother, Susanna, and Charles demonstrated more than a hint of Jacobitism. The latter was at one point taken before the Yorkshire magistrates for praying for ‘the Lord’s absent ones’. John distanced himself from such criticism by proposing a somewhat equivocal oath of allegiance to the king, in which he stated: ‘We are ready to obey your Majesty to the uttermost in all things which we conceive to be agreeable thereto.’In Britain, Methodism flourished selectively in terms of occupation and social status, attracting in particular craftsmen and urban industrial workers. By the 1790s, 62 per cent of male members were artisans. These were people less bound to their employers, pastors and masters than labourers and less likely to be deferential. The desire among Methodists for social change was evident: Wesley and his followers violently opposed slavery and they even had women preachers. Philip Embury, a Methodist preacher who emigrated to America, became notorious there for the strange goings-on in his house: ‘Women often prayed and even stood up and made speeches just like the men.’Conservative members of the Anglican Church found, in some areas, their congregations diminishing, as did the Baptists. One commentator claimed Wesley had made a takeover bid for growing religious groups, satisfying a need for a religion of the heart.The threat of Methodism’s rising popularity led to physical attacks, particularly in the 1740s and 1750s. Sometimes the attackers were no more than a few rowdies breaking up Methodist meetings, frightening women and throwing the preacher into a duck pond. One can imagine that, for the perpetrators, this would have been construed as having a bit of fun. But there were also more organised mobs egged on, sometimes with free ale and money, by the local Anglican clergy and landowners, seemingly designed to deter would-be Methodists from joining the movement.John Trelford gave a graphic account of one of the more aggressive mob assaults:On 25 January 1742 … the rabble made all the noise they could and pushed violently against the hearers [of Wesley]. They struck some of them and broke down part of the house. [They] began to throw large stones, which forced their way through the roof and fell with the tiles among the people. Wesley saw that the people were really in peril of their lives.Wesley offered a simple response to such attacks. In one of his sermons he preached that holiness brings persecution: ‘This is a badge of our discipleship, a seal of our calling … The meek, serious, humble, zealous lovers of God and man are of good report among their brethren; but of evil report with the world, who count and treat them “as the filth and offscouring of all things”.’Religious melancholyReligious mania and melancholia were recognised well before the 18th century. Timothie Bright had written in 1586 of ‘that heavy hande of God upon the afflicted conscience, tormented with remorse of sinne, & feare of his judgement’. Richard Burton, in his 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy, wrote of ‘an anguish of the mind’, in which fear and sorrow were inseparable companions. He coined the phrase ‘religious melancholy’, which he saw as resulting from the Devil working through ‘superstitious Idoloters, Ethnickes, Mahometans, Jewes, Heretickes, Enthusiasts, Divinators, Prophets, Sectaries, and Scismatickes’. He lists ‘too much devotion, blind zeal, fear of eternal punishment, and that last judgement, for a cause of those Enthusiaticks and desperate persons’.The most cursory reading of Wesley’s sermons offers explanations of why those of his followers susceptible to depression or mania could well have been tipped over the edge; why they, too, suffered ‘a holy terror and despair of the promise of salvation’. Justification by faith was the fundamental tenet of Methodism: no matter what good work one has done, if one is not born again in the realisation that Christ died to save one from sin, then one would be taken by the devil and spend eternity in hell. Wesley preached:How can we enjoy life, either here or in the hereafter, while we are afraid of God’s anger towards us? … who can appear before such a judge as God, who is quick to spot the smallest divergence from the fullest obedience to the law? … One single breach of the law destroys our whole claim to life. If we have ever offended in a single point, this righteousness is at an end.Listening to such sermons must have led many to the conviction that they were, indeed, bound for hell. Or, if they had been born again, they rejoiced and wanted to tell everyone they met, in what we would now see as a manic phase. Sarah Jones, an 18th-century American Methodist, summed it up in a letter to a friend, describing her thoughts on a typical day: during an hour of prayer she suffered ‘acute agony’, she ‘plunged into a sea of self abasement and self abhorrence and groan[ed] … for the deepest measure of profound humility’. But later, when recalling that Christ was ‘ointment for every sore’, she became ‘buried in wonder, swallowed up in extatic joy and gladness’.To quote Wesley again: ‘If you aim at the religion of the heart … it will not be long before the sentence is passed, “you are beside yourself”.’ He was right.Richard Lansdown is a retired psychologist.

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