Journal of Southern Religion

John H. Wigger, Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), ix, 269 pp.

            It is a strange fact that American Methodism, probably the most breathtaking institutional triumph of the Early Republic, has not been well served by

"Wigger's declared aim is to recover and interpret the lives of the early Methodists, and by exploring their influence on the wider culture, and it on them, to understand the dynamics of Methodist growth in the United States in the half century before the 1820s."

historians. After the watershed of the Revolution, Methodists proved superbly adaptive to the new regime in church and state, exploiting the opportunities offered by what was more or less a free market in religion to become the largest denomination in the country by 1830. In its broad features the movement's dramatic rise is, of course, a familiar one, but it is remarkable that so stunningly effective and so popular a force should have prompted so slim a historiography. The works of Donald Mathews, Timothy L. Smith, Nathan O. Hatch and Russell E. Richey draw attention through their intellectual distinction to the rich potential of Methodist history; the paucity of such studies is a commentary on its strange neglect. There are, though, signs of a new dispensation. Recent prize-winning studies by Christine Leigh Heyrman and William R. Sutton, if not exclusively focused on Methodism, draw many of their insights from a profound familiarity with that movement's culture. And in Taking Heaven by Storm, John Wigger has at last provided us with the wide-ranging, contextualized study of expansionary, early Methodism that we have long needed. It is a fine and most welcome addition to Oxford's admirable 'Religion in America' series.

      Wigger's declared aim is to recover and interpret the lives of the early Methodists, and by exploring their influence on the wider culture, and it on them, to understand the dynamics of Methodist growth in the United States in the half century before the 1820s. His chief but not exclusive focus is the preachers, whose journals and other records form the richest part of the archive of a movement whose earliest members generally belonged to social groups that have left a scant literary residue. His broad line of argument, wholly congruent with that of Hatch in The Democratization of American Christianity, is that Methodism developed into a mainstream force and a national phenomenon by managing 'a fundamental reformulation of Christianity in America': namely, making evangelical religion 'more enthusiastic, individualistic, egalitarian, entrepreneurial, and lay oriented' in a milieu itself more democratic, less deferential and less hierarchical than that stranded on the far side of the Revolution (p. 7). Methodists won their converts amongst the lower and middling classes, self-improving people 'on the make'. Their Arminian attack on Calvinist orthodoxy was more than a doctrinal repudiation of limited atonement and election; it represented a democratic, egalitarian assault on the social and clerical elite who sustained those formulations.

      At the heart of Wigger's intelligent analysis are four chapters dealing with the movement's structures and organization, preaching, and forms of worship; he brings considerable freshness and psychological insight to what are relatively familiar themes. Methodist connectionalism, sustained by an itinerating ministry, provided the movement with both a strong, centralized framework and--because those ministers were by definition more absent than not--remarkable scope for local flexibility. The genius of Asbury in particular was to yield enough initiative to indispensable and zealous lay men and women to satisfy most demands for local power, without compromising the essential element of central control that gave the denomination the edge over all religious competitors in a mobile, expanding nation. (The O'Kelly schism was the assertive exception that proved the rule of flexible containment.) Asbury's system commonly ensured that Methodist preaching and sacraments reached the remotest of the nation's small communities before the ministrations of others; Methodism acted to link these into a national religious community. The preachers themselves, drawn from much the same social milieux as their audiences, had mostly experienced a profound conversion in their youth; a sense that theirs was 'the highest calling on earth' gave them the resilience to cope with the disapprobation of their families, the gruelling demands of their work, poor pay, and even physical attack. Extempore, dramatic preaching gave gifted but poorly educated young men of humble origins unique opportunities for public acclaim. It also gave them access to a kind of apprenticeship system of education, yoking younger men to more experienced itinerants. Their bonds of ministerial friendship acted as some compensation for the sacrifice of a conventional home life.

      Much of Methodism's appeal lay in its cultivation of local networks of association. Wigger is especially good in showing how class meetings and quarterly meetings, love feasts and camp meetings, and those who led them, worked to build lively, intimate communities where worship and social activity were fused by spiritual warmth. On the one hand, the agencies of the church provided disciplinary controls attractive to men and women for whom self-discipline was a virtue and a well-ordered community a goal; on the other hand they encouraged a 'boiling hot religion' of the heart, of spirit not law, one which countenanced visions, dreams, supernaturalism and divine healing, and sanctioned a religious enthusiasm that persisted well beyond the first generation of Methodists, into the 1810s and 1820s.

      Two further chapters

"Wigger describes women as the 'backbone' of Methodism, not just because they were in the majority but because of their role as 'the movement's primary community builders' in an age when the lack of churches gave special salience to the home."

consider the role of two powerful constituencies within the larger movement: African Americans and women. Methodism played a formidable role in Christianizing the black population of the United States in the Early Republic. Offering an experience-based religion, an accessible, democratic gospel, and an authentic role for black exhorters and preachers, the movement was so successful amongst slaves and free blacks that African Americans constituted 20% of all Methodists in the quarter century after 1790. The church's protests against slavery in the Revolutionary era naturally did its cause no harm amongst blacks, nor did its role in securing widespread manumissions in the Delmarva Peninsula heartland and elsewhere in the upper South. But Asbury's genuine antislavery convictions could not prevent a retreat from advanced ground in 1808, when restrictions on members' slaveholding were repealed in the face of pressure from the southernmost latitudes of the connection. Even so, black Methodists remained a potent influence on the broader movement, their impact as a sub-group exceeded only by that of women.

      Wigger describes women as the 'backbone' of Methodism, not just because they were in the majority but because of their role as 'the movement's primary community builders' (p. 159) in an age when the lack of churches gave special salience to the home. A few females, breaking with convention, acted as unlicensed exhorters and preachers, but in the main it was as class and prayer leaders, unofficial counsellors to the circuit riders, and guardians of piety that they made their influence tell. Methodism offered them opportunity, spiritual equality, and--in disciplinary cases--parity with men as witnesses and seekers of redress. Wigger questions whether women themselves sought a fundamental rewriting of social and religious roles; by the end of the period, as Methodism became more refined and institutionally church-based, their earlier visibility diminished.

      That momentum towards increasing refinement forms the context for the book's concluding discussion, of the transformation of Methodism in the years after the war of 1812. The steady economic advance of the membership was paralleled by the denomination's own institutional prosperity. The building of more (and more elaborate) churches; the founding of colleges; the expansion of its publishing enterprise: for many these were a measure of the movement's commanding presence, but for some old-timers a further sign of a departure from primitive simplicity, also evident in the decline of the itinerancy and the muting of the doctrine of entire sanctification. Methodism had begun as a counter-cultural movement of outsiders in opposition to 'the world' but, Wigger argues, it was also a religion of the sovereign people, and as they prospered so they transformed the movement from a counterculture to a subculture no longer fundamentally at odds with the larger society.

      This is a lucidly-written work of scrupulous and unostentatious historical scholarship, which compresses much in a small compass. Wigger makes excellent use of quarterly meeting records and the correspondence of early Methodists, notably that of Daniel Hitt and his network. He betrays an understandable admiration, even affection, for many of his subjects, particularly Asbury himself. For purposes of comparison, he makes intelligent use of the historiography of British Methodism. He also provides a useful statistical appendix on early membership, as well as a broad-brush mapping of the movement's early geography, as it moved outwards from its southern heartland.

      Naturally, many questions

"The [Methodist] preachers were no 'backward looking traditionalists' but were at home amongst 'the rising middle classes' of the new capitalist order."

have to remain unexplored, and others, though discussed, remain unresolved. In a book explicitly concerned with the dynamics of Methodist growth there is surprisingly little on the place of revivals in the church's economy: when, and in what circumstances, were they a means of exogenous growth, as opposed to an essentially endogenous exercise, the rekindling of members' former enthusiasm? Again, if early Methodists believed themselves to be living 'in extraordinary times' (p. 156), what does that tell us about their understanding of the unfolding of human history and its likely resolution? A closely related question emanates from Wigger's description of their self-perception as redeemers of 'a degenerate nation' (p. 192): how, and when, did Methodists cease to cling to the notion of an imminent Kingdom, and come to think, more conventionally, in terms of a political, secular nation? And how did Methodists resolve the conflict between their own 'feminine' values and the martial/honor code that permeated the society in which so much of their evangelism was conducted (a question to which Christine Heyrman has recently offered her own imaginative answers)?

      The most intriguing question, though, springs out of Wigger's own explanation of Methodists' success. In essence he regards them as 'modern cast' men and women very much at ease with the entrepreneurial values and profit-mindedness of the emerging national market; they were spiritual and material self-improvers, 'not the defeated and hopeless' (pp.8, 11-12). The preachers were no 'backward looking traditionalists' but were at home amongst 'the rising middle classes' of the new capitalist order (pp.50, 191). Yet he also presents Methodism as a response to bewilderment, uncertainty and social disorientation in an era of huge migration of population, when economic change threatened the world of master craftsmen and apprentices. He cites David Hackett on the attachment of Methodists and mechanics to traditional values, and invokes William Sutton's work to note Methodist artisans' powerful critiques of the new capitalist order (pp.190, 207). He sees enthusiastic and supernatural religion of the kind that Methodists offered as especially appealing in times of 'broad cultural distress’. Uncertain times, apocalyptic visions and militant enthusiasm often go hand in hand' (p.110). There is an apparent contradiction here, perhaps even an invitation to confusion: could Methodists have been both modernizers and traditionalists, both capitalists and critics of the new order, both liberal individualists and protectors of republican mutuality? It would have been good to see Wigger confronting more directly an equivocation which was probably inherent in early Methodism. In the burgeoning and divisive historiography on liberalism, republicanism and capitalism in the Early Republic, the Methodist experience may not in fact fit neatly into any single category currently available.

      John Wigger has set a high standard with this, his first book. His next major project is a study of Francis Asbury, the Organization Man of the early Republic. On the evidence before us, it is in the hands of a fine historian.

Richard J. Carwardine, The University of Sheffield

© 1998 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

contents main page masthead advertisers e-mail