"Methodism: Empire of the Spirit" by David Hempton

Samuel T. Logan, Jr.
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Jan/Feb 2006

This is a superb book. One of its most outstanding features is its tight and lucid organization. David Hempton tells his reader what he is going to do, he does it (explaining what he is doing every step of the way), and he then summarizes what he has done.

His purpose is clearly stated: "The problem before us, therefore, is the disarmingly simple one of accounting for the rise of Methodism from its unpromising origins among the flotsam and jetsam of religious societies and quirky personalities in England in the 1730s to a major international religious movement some hundred and fifty years later" (2). And Hempton even provides very specific information in support of the phrase "major international":

In England membership in Methodist societies of all stripes expanded from 55,705 in 1790 to 285,530 in 1830. In the same period Irish Methodist membership almost doubled and Scottish Methodist membership trebled. Even more dramatically, Methodist membership in Wales increased by a factor of twenty. But the most dramatic growth of all occurred in America, which had fewer than a thousand members in 1770 and more than 250,000 only fifty years later. By 1850 the Methodist share of the religious market in the United States had increased to 34 percent of the national total. (109)

Shortly after announcing his overall purpose, Hempton describes his method: "What follows therefore is an attempt to write a history of Methodism as an international movement-and empire of the spirit-by concentrating on eight important themes, each one designed to get beneath the hard surface of mere institutional expansion" (6): competition and symbiosis, enlightenment and enthusiasm, the medium and the message, opposition and conflict, money and power, boundaries and margins, mapping and mission, and consolidation and decline.

But beyond its superb organization, this book succeeds because it does, in fact, ask the crucial questions that are necessary for understanding the history and identity of any religious organization. As a former chief executive of and fund-raiser for a religious organization, I found the chapter entitled "Money and Power" hauntingly and uncomfortably accurate. The accomplishment of a religious mission requires resources-no question at all about that. But getting those resources biblically and relating appropriately to those who can give the resources is a very tricky business. And using collected resources in a way that is fully consistent with the organization's mission-that can be hardest of all.

Numerous passages in this chapter made me either smile or weep-and frequently both at the same time: "Where money was concerned, Christian perfection [one of the key beliefs of early Methodism], as the Calvinists had always contended, was easier to talk about than to achieve in practice" (111). In 1816, one Methodist pastor wrote to another, "Was there ever such a begging system in existence before? Almost every other day we have our hands in the pockets of the people" (112). "As with English monarchs in the seventeenth century, Methodist preachers wanted adequate supply, but they did not wish to be placed under the authority of, or to be circumscribed by, the expectations of the suppliers" (116). "In religious organizations money is not simply a necessary and neutral commodity for getting things done; rather, money carries with it a symbolic revelation of the values for which it was collected and appropriated" (130).

All of Hempton's discussions are as incisive as his chapter "Money and Power." But the one that will likely be of greatest interest to the readers of this review is Hempton's examination of "Enlightenment and Enthusiasm" because of the way in which the tension between revelation and reason in Wesley himself works its way into the very structures of Methodism. But this chapter also reveals perhaps the primary weakness of Hempton's book. While discussing in some detail the ways in which Wesley sought to deal with the Scylla and Charybdis of enlightenment and enthusiasm, Hempton does not mention at all the work of Jonathan Edwards, who was wrestling with exactly the same two issues at exactly the same time. Some words of comparison of the different approaches taken by these two theological giants would have been most instructive and would have aided significantly in the accomplishment of Hempton's purpose.

Further, Hempton's nearly complete exclusion of any kind of comparison between developments in Methodism and developments in other religious traditions may actually undermine the credibility of some of his conclusions. In his chapter "Boundaries and Margins," Hempton seeks to analyze why Methodism seemed to appeal so powerfully to "people on the social margins" (131). As one of his case studies in this chapter, Hempton discusses the dramatic growth of Methodism in Korea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (135-137). But by failing to take account of the fact that, during this same time, Presbyterian growth in Korea was just as dramatic as Methodist growth, Hempton leaves his reader wondering if the "distinctive appeal" of Methodism was really all that Hempton claims that it was.

Nevertheless, this is an excellent book. It is, to be sure, a rigorously secular study of a profoundly religious movement (supernatural realities are neither affirmed nor specifically rejected). It is well written, it is clear, and it offers analyses of the broad sweep of the history of Methodism by raising questions that are equally applicable to most religious traditions. The reader of this volume will learn a tremendous amount about Methodism and about ways of dealing with one's own religious heritage.

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church