Robbie Bruens Anixter/Age of Revolutions?

Methodism and the Industrial Age
In E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, religion figures most prominently as a handmaiden for the new work habits necessary for the industrial system. For Thompson, Methodism served as a disciplinary cudgel wielded by a nonconformist clergy who still believed deeply in obedience to authority, to be deployed against a largely working class laity. Thus, religion could serve to transform communities into ideal raw material for the imperatives of industrial revolutionary capitalism. Through the inculcating efforts of Methodist schooling institutions, a theology that emphasized obedience and punished those who would step out of line, and the ability of the church to reinscribe its own indoctrinated repression into paroxysmal religious experience, Methodism had significant impacts on the developing social world of the Industrial Revolution. Thompson describes Methodist Sunday schools of the early nineteenth century as seemingly designed to mold children into docile members of the industrial proletariat. He focuses on Jabez Bunting, the prominent Methodist minister who campaigned against “children in Sunday school being taught to write.”1 Bunting had theological for reasons for this: he believed that teaching of the scriptures directly was a spiritual good but education in any secular art “was ‘an awful abuse of the Sabbath.’”2 However, such policies had a detrimental effect on the youngest members of the new working class who often “left the

1 2

E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class. pg. 354. Ibid.


schools unable to read”3 as Methodist schools turned out to be a “dreadful exchange even for village dame’s schools.”4 By stifling the education of children, Methodist leaders like Bunting hoped to prevent Sunday schools from dispensing any “temporal advantage.”5 But Methodist schooling techniques did not simply prevent children from any chance of improving their lot in life, they also actively attempted to grind boys and girls into docile submission with “psychological atrocities” among other efforts.6 Methodists justified this theologically by claiming they were only attempting “moral rescue” of the children of the poor.7 However, it becomes clear how well Methodist schooling prepared children for a life of regimented industrial work when considering that Sunday schools allowed “only severely workful recreations” such as “chopping wood” or “digging.”8 Thus, Thompson argues that Methodist schooling laid the groundwork for a workforce that needed to be able adopt the new industrial rhythms of life. Of course, Thompson argues that the shaping influence of Methodism on the working class continued long past childhood and that in fact it provided a system of morality perfect for workers in a modernizing capitalist system. Methodism adopted the idea of the elect – those predestined for salvation – from other Protestant traditions but modified it in such a way that Methodists were constantly in a state of a “state of conditional, provisory election.”9 Thus, in order to maintain grace, members of the church had to have “methodical discipline in every aspect of life,”10 to be obedient, to abide by

Thompson, pg. 377. Ibid. 5 Thompson, pg. 354. 6 Thompson, pg. 377. 7 Ibid. 8 Thompson, pg. 375. 9 Thompson, pg. 364. 10 Thompson, pg. 365.
3 4


their leaders “zeal in combating the enemies of the established order.”11 Furthermore, Methodism taught that “in labor itself…there is an evident sign of grace”12 and so the religion “provide[d] an inner compulsion”13 towards productivity to match the outer compulsions of wages and poor laws. But a working class member of the church had more to fear than just “an eternity of lurid punishment” in the afterlife if he was disobedient, lazy or sinful.14 Transgressions from the Methodist path towards grace “might mean expulsion from the only community-group which they knew in the industrial wilderness.”15 Thompson marshals this body of evidence to argue that “Methodism was the desolate inner landscape” that helped facilitate “an era of transition to the work-discipline of industrial capitalism.”16 In this way, Thompson shows that Methodism pushed working people to accept a new set of work habits that departed from the traditions of the peasantry. Thompson acknowledges that Methodism did more than dispense repression, explaining that the church attempted to provide an outlet for restless emotional energy that might otherwise lead to condemnable actions. Although Methodism professed discipline, obedience and hard work as the highest values, churchgoers’ “energies were not so much inhibited as displaced from expression in personal and in social life, and confiscated for the service of the Church.”17 By channeling these intense feelings, the church provided “constant emotional drama” for the laity.18 Thompson describes how this had implications for industrialism by arguing that workers’ natural energies “which were dangerous to the social order, or which were merely unproductive” were transformed and
Thompson, pg. 350. Thompson, pg. 365. 13 Thompson, pg 358. 14 Thompson, pg. 364. 15 Ibid. 16 Thompson, pg. 365. 17 Thompson, pg. 368. 18 Ibid.
11 12


redirected by Methodism “in the harmless form of sporadic love-feasts, watch-nights, bandmeetings or revivalist campaigns.”19 Methodism had a key role to play in the Industrial Revolution because it provided “Sabbath orgasms of feeling” which allowed for “the singleminded weekday direction of these energies to the consummation of productive labor.”20 Thompson makes the case that Methodism put its proletarian adherents through a “psychic ordeal in which the character-structure of the rebellious pre-industrial labourer” was carefully reordered and “violently recast into that of the submissive industrial worker.”21 For Thompson, religion could act as an adjustment sedative that would allow industrialists access a more useful workforce than the one they had inherited from the agrarian lords of previous years. According to E.P. Thompson, the Methodist religion functioned as a moral system intent on reproducing obedience to the established order of society and directing its working class members to serve their new industrial masters as ideally as possible. In practice, this meant a subjugation of the less structured traditions of the peasantry from which the working class had descended. One can see this instantiated in Methodist schools, in Methodist tactics of repression, and in Methodist use of theatrical rituals of collective emotionality.

Ibid. Thompson, pg. 369. 21 Thompson, pg. 367-368.
19 20


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful

Master Your Semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master Your Semester with a Special Offer from Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.