This blog explores social attitudes in Jane Austen's time, discusses her novels, reviews forgotten 18th century novels, and throws some occasional shade at the modern academy. The introductory post is here. My "six simple questions for academics" post is here.
In Secrets Made Public (1808), “a poor shoemaker, of weak intellects, but inoffensive manners” is “seduced to methodism by the eloquence of an itinerant orator.” At the end of the day, by the light of a dim rushlight, the shoemaker pores over William Huntington's books about predestination and "antinomianism." [Let's not bother with explaining what all that means, but if you want to know... I don't think Huntington was literally a Methodist but, like many other nonconformist ministers, he had no formal education. He became a popular fire-and-brimstone preacher].
At any rate, some young men, members of the idle rich, decide to play a prank on the cobbler. They dress up as “demons and… various poetical monsters” and one springs into his house one night as the cobbler sits reading his religious tracts. "“He entered the apartment of the cobbling enthusiast, who was devoutly lifting up his eyes and hands, and exclaiming with fervour, ‘We are all d[amne]d!” when the horrible spectre encountered his vision." The cobbler is terrified out of his wits. "With a last exertion of strength, he fell on his knees and ejaculated, or attempted to ejaculate, ‘Lord have mercy on us!’ " (cont'd after break)
In the print below, the Methodist preacher is shown wearing the costume of a Harlequin, suggesting that the preacher is just masquerading and is not sincere. The crowd is gathered in front of Bedlam, suggesting insanity. Notice that the people listening to the sermon are mostly poor people in humble garb, while the rich toffs on the right are recoiling in distaste and amusement.
I haven't read this novel but it is reportedly a bizarre and bitter tract which combines doctrinal arguments with a personal account of a man who was jilted by a girl who converted to Methodism. Scholar Allene Gregory says: “The novel itself deals with a young woman who behaves very treacherously to all her friends, and then becomes a Methodist and assumes airs of great sanctity. There are numerous passages directed against all forms of belief in which faith and an emotional experience (ie, being “saved”) are considered as an equivalent for [doing good] works.”
In Nobility Run Mad! (1802) a young man mocks an older couple of the merchant class in Bristol for their fruitless quest for religious tranquility: “They used to be running about first after one preacher, then another, one Sunday at Wesley’s room, the next at Tabernacle, then at the Ebenezer chapel, and sometimes at the Anabaptist Meeting, then again at the Moravians: I used to think they were troubled in mind, and folks used to say they would either run mad, or hang or drown themselves in a fit of despair, as many a one has done before them.”
In G.; Or the Child of Sin (1820), the author shows how Methodism was viewed as a threat to the established church, and the competition posed by Methodist sermons, songs, and modes of worship was an ever-present irritant to a clergyman in the management of his parish. In a passage describing the travails of a country clergyman, we are told: “the poor and the simple were often as hard to be pleased… they were very susceptible of affront, nor spared their threatenings.—“I’ll turn Methodist,” (this was the anti-church note through the parish.) “I’ll turn Methodist,” was no uncommon threat, not only when their sittings were monopolized by the great farmers, but if the singers did not wish the discordant note of some tuneless ear—if the [bell] ringers objected to some awkward handy-man—if the arrangement of a christening or a burial did not agree with individual requirement, still the cry was—“I’ll turn Methodist.”
Novelists sometimes paired their criticism of the perils of Methodism with critiques of the Anglican church–-if the established church would only reform itself, then Methodism could not get a foothold amongst the people. For example, in Coraly (1819), after the heroine’s clergyman father dies, his parish at Ashbury is given to a dissolute younger son of a nobleman who has no vocation for the ministry. The new minister appoints a curate to carry out his religious duties, just as Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park assumes that Edmund Bertram will do the same when he takes the living at Thornton Lacey. (I'm not suggesting Austen took this idea from Coraly, rather, that this was a common critique of the absentee clergy.)
Later, our heroine Coraly comes across one of her old parishioners who has fallen on hard times and he explains the disastrous consequences of such corruption and neglect: “So, miss, soon after our present curate came to reside, the church got deserted; we went, indeed, but we did not return as we used to do, better and happier than we went: and so a fine preacher came every Sunday and preached in our great barn, which is facing the blacksmith’s shop, and here, by degrees, we all went. God forgive us forsaking our right church… but indeed, it was sad, dull, work, to go and only hear a very short sermon all about what we could not understand; while the man at the barn, bless you, anybody could understand him…"
This poor cottager is swindled by the “fine preacher” who borrows sixty pounds from him, “but miss, would you believe me, in three weeks he never came again, and from that day to this I have never heard of my money. I thought my poor wife would have gone mad—and everything went wrong with us. It was a judgement in leaving my own church…”
Elsewhere in the novel, Coraly’s paternal aunt accuses her late brother of having methodistical tendencies. Coraly angrily refutes the charge. “Oh niece,” said Mrs. Mandeville, “you must acknowledge my poor brother was himself very far gone in that way.”
“No, madam," our heroine replies, “in a voice of reproach.” “I never will acknowledge what I know to be otherwise! My dear father was free from every taint of methodism!”
The knock against dad was probably that he was sincerely pious and devoted. The charge of “methodism” or “fanaticism” was an easy way for the cynical to dismiss anyone who upbraided you on religious grounds.
In Mansfield Park, after Edmund Bertram tells Mary Crawford he's shocked and disgusted at her blasé attitude toward Maria's adultery with her brother, Mary is nettled and responds with scorn. ‘A pretty good lecture, upon my word. Was it part of your last sermon? At this rate you will soon reform everybody at Mansfield and Thornton Lacey; and when I hear of you next, it may be as a celebrated preacher in some great society of Methodists, or as a missionary into foreign parts.’
Mary looked at Maria and Henry's adultery as "folly," as a social problem to be finessed. Edmund saw it as a sin, a betrayal of family ties, and a breaking of sacred vows. Today, many readers think Mary is in the right here. They argue that she's pragmatic, as well as compassionate, but that's another conversation. This post is about the portrayals of Methodists in novels of the long 18th century. The point is that Mary is scornful of Edmund's severe views about adultery.
The Mary vs Edmund confrontation was adapted for modern audiences in the 1999 movie to add the shock of Mary's calm statement that it would be better if Edmund's older brother died, so Edmund could inherit.
“A Methodist, your honour! What is that?” protests the servant.
“One who talks about what he does not understand, as thou dost.”
“Then please your honour, I am no Methodist, I am only a man.”
Clearly, our sympathies are to rest with the beggar girl and the servant, not Sir Solomon.
This Methodist minister is preaching in the great outdoors. Some sailors heckle him when he threatens them with hellfire. The preacher exclaims, "Only consider, if you go on in this way--when the day of judgement arrives--even I your pastor--your shepherd, your guide must bear witness against you--." The sailor cheekily answers, "Now that's just the way it goes at the Old Bailey--the greatest rogues always turn King's Evidence!"
We are told Margery “had been bred up piously, but was as superstitious as pious.” One stormy night, they hear a horseman ride up to, then retreat from, their isolated cottage in the woods. Madge is afraid to go downstairs. The more level-headed John insists that they investigate, and they discover a foundling baby girl in a basket on their doorstep.
“Madge had been at a Sunday school, and could have deciphered a letter, had there been one in the basket,” but this particular foundling has been left with a supply of money but no note.
"Sunday school" refers to free schools set up not only by Methodists but charitable members of the upper classes to educate poor working-class children and adults. Sunday afternoon was of course the only time they had some daylight hours to spare out of their week to learn to read some Bible verses.
The foundling, by the way, is the legitimate infant daughter of Emily and Henry Beaumont, who married privately and secretly to avoid the wrath of his father, Lord Harbingdon. I'm sure everything will work out in the end.
Methodism was still evidently stigmatized even in the late Victorian age. In Anthony Trollope's The way We Live Now (1874), Lord Longestaffe's daughter Georgiana, on the far side of thirty desperate to make a match, accepts a proposal of marriage from a widowed Jewish banker. Her family is outraged and the match falls apart when Georgiana discovers her fiancé can't provide her with the house in town he had promised her. "It was so dreadful," said [her mother, still shuddering at the idea] —"so very dreadful. I never heard of anything so bad. When young what's-his-name married the tallow-chandler's daughter I thought it would have killed me if it had been [her own son]; but this [marrying a Jew] was worse than that. Her father was a methodist."
Brenda S. Cox's book, Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen's England, has a lot more about the Methodists and evangelicals who challenged the established church, and Jane Austen's reaction to the religious debates of her day.
Note: A 1737 dictionary lists the different meanings of the word "ejaculate."
I checked a few editions of Dr. Johnson's dictionary and he omits the definition relating particularly to male emissions. Some academics like to suggest that any use of certain words must imply an allusion to sex--words such as "come," and "tumble," and "chimney-sweep," but I think, at bottom, they are reading an unintended double-entendre into the text.
Gregory, Allene. The French Revolution and the English Novel. United Kingdom, G. P. Putnam's sons, 1915.