That’s why, when I started my project of reading novels of the long 19th century, I was both amused and surprised to learn that Methodist preachers were portrayed as grifters who took advantage of the credulity of the poor and ignorant.
In the cartoon at right, the minister starts swearing when his wig falls off, probably because he was leaning out and gesticulating wildly: "Verily I say unto Ye. Ye will be all of Lucifer's Gang, unless - Hollo! my Wig's off - G[o]d[am]n You catch it, You Son of a Bitch, or it will be burnt to a Cinder". His language shocks the old woman who vows never to return, and a knowing young lady turns around and suggests that the minister will collect "half a guinea for a new one."
There’s a passing reference to grifting preachers in the comic play The Votary of Wealth (1799), in which Leonard Visorly, a roguish character, is accosted by name by a preacher.
“Who is this?” Visorly responds, surprised. “With what hedge divine have I the honour of an acquaintance?” (The term “hedge divine” is a reference to the fact that these ministers, working outside of the established church, often preached in the open fields.)
It turns out the fanatical preacher is none other than Visorly's fellow swindler and former partner in crime, Jeremy Sharpset. He tells Visorly that since the two of them parted ways, he has been doing “all sorts of things I ought not to do.” He tried speculating in trade, operating a menagerie, joined a troupe of travelling actors, and finally turned preacher:
Oh, then I got a call [as in “a calling”], and mounted the habiliments in which you see me; this was lucrative; but my conscience would not suffer me any longer to drain from the pockets of the poor the earnings of their industry; nay, what is worse, embitter their innocent minds with groundless terrors, and inspire them with prejudice against their fellow-creatures… Upon my soul, I am tired of being a rogue.
Mr. Enfield “had been formerly of the laborious profession of a blacksmith; but had, of late, by means of some abilities, more cunning, and a most extraordinary stock of impudence, raised himself to no small degree of eminence and popularity; and had thus found the means of maintaining himself with much more glory, and much less labour, than by his original calling. To the grimace of methodism, he added a certain easy flow of whining elocution, abundantly seasoned with Scripture texts.”
A man could become a Methodist preacher, I gather, without having attended Oxford or Cambridge or any college whatsoever. One could operate outside of the established church and survive on whatever your congregants chose to give you. One can see how this would be a fertile ground for eloquent con men.
We are told that Enfield does not resemble that austere-looking “celebrated divine” the “famous Westley [sic].” Enfield is plump, moon-faced, and enjoys the good things in life. He is fond of a hearty meal and a constant supply of rum and water.
Having failed with her own children, Mrs. Benson attempts to convert her reluctant niece Caroline (the heroine). In one passage, Enfield scolds Caroline for believing the that “good works” have anything to do with salvation. This is a doctrinal dispute familiar to historians of the church—do we obtain salvation through good works, or through faith alone?
The author then goes on to describe a Methodist service held at Mrs. Bensons’ house: ”[A] noisy tempest of words” from Enfield met with “sighs, sobs, groans, and tears… [and] the most frantic ravings and violent gesticulations, sometimes performed standing, sometimes on the knee, and sometimes, if possible, on the floor. In the meantime Enfield continued his threats, exhortations, invocations, and anathemas… till, at length, the loudly roared hymn brought them once more to order, and finished the confusion of this modern Babel.”
Unusually—you might even think unbelievably—my (white) father was ordained to the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church and that’s the church I grew up in. This is because he and my mother had volunteered to go to Korea as teaching missionaries, and it was deemed that a stint in a black congregation would give my father (in his early twenties at the time) a foretaste of working in a culture that was foreign to him.
Sleath’s description of a Methodist congregation bears no resemblance to the AME congregations of my childhood, nor were they ever as lively as the portrayals of black congregations that you see in the movies with dancing in the aisles and a screaming preacher.
At any rate, Mr. Enfield’s sermon in The Bristol Heiress is followed by a dinner provided by Mrs. Benson, at which all the congregants gorge themselves and then carry away any leftovers they can shove in their pockets “without concealment or reserve.” The heroine is dismayed and disheartened at witnessing “one of the most extraordinary scenes which can possibly be exhibited in a Christian country.”
Well, in the AME church we didn’t have a potluck every Sunday, but when we did—wow, what a feast. But it was a potluck; every family contributed, and I imagine that the ladies piqued themselves on bringing their very best. But, to pull myself away from the ambrosia salad and devilled eggs of church basement memory and back to the long 18th century….
Caroline goes on to live with another family and has more hardships and misadventures and the Bensons largely drop out of the story. At the conclusion of the novel, we’re told Mrs. Benson’s adult children successfully contested their mother’s will—made under Enfield’s influence--and he does not succeed in obtaining her fortune upon her death.
Last post: Austen Memoirs and Meditations
If you'd like to learn more about religion in the time of Jane Austen and how it informs her novels,
I highly recommend Brenda S. Cox's new book Fashionable Goodness.
When I created a romantic foil for Fanny Price in my Mansfield Trilogy, I devised the character of a radical young poet and abolitionist, William Gibson. I named him after William Gibson the science-fiction writer, whom I had briefly known in Vancouver before he became famous. At any rate, my William Gibson strode onto the pages of my first novel and announced that, although he'd been destined for the church, he was a free thinker and an atheist. I, too, have become an apostate and am at best a luke-warm Deist. However, I still contend that a knowledge of the literature of the bible and church history is important for understanding Western literature and I wouldn't trade my memories of Sundays in the AME church for anything.