The bridge connecting the First and Second Great Awakenings is Methodism and the Wesleys. I will be dealing with Methodism again and in more detail when I get to the 18th century in my series on the history of the Church of England, but I will sketch it out in this posting so that we can see how it affects American Protestantism—and by extension, American Catholicism.
Methodism began in the Church of England as part of the First Great Awakening. Eighteenth century Anglicanism had devolved into a pretty tepid shadow of its once great self. It lacked the intellectualism of an Anselm, the courage of a Becket, the industry of a Cranmer, the piety of a Laud, or the pastoral care of a Tillotson. Indeed it was upper-crust, entitled, lazy, and blind to the social realities of the day. One wag called the Church of England “The Tory Party at Prayer.”
At Christ Church College in Oxford in 1729 two brothers, John and Charles Wesley, the sons of a Church of England priest, the Reverend Samuel Wesley and his deeply pious wife, Susannah, gathered a group of like-minded students and formed “The Holy Club”—a society in which the members studied together the scriptures, the classics of Christian literature (including the Fathers), and engaged in devotional practices such as fasting and frequent communion, as well as giving time for the service of the poor and the education of poor children. Their zeal and devotion won them only the scorn of the more secular university members, faculty and students alike. A number of members of the Holy Club went on to be ordained in the Church of England and several of them: the Wesleys, George Whitefield, and Benjamin Ingham became famous evangelists. The Wesleys had brief ministries in the American Colonies, but Whitefield made over seven preaching tours of the Colonies and was probably the single most influential preacher of the First Great Awakening, at least in the Americas.
The pious practices of the Holy Club formed the backbone for a renewal in the Church of England, at least in parts of the Church of England, led by the Wesleys. John was an outstanding preacher and Charles Wesely had an extraordinary gift for composing hymn lyrics that were both theologically sound and deeply moving. Methodism, with its emphasis on personal piety, frequent communion, and spiritual discipline proved attractive to many who had grown weary to the spiritual tedium of mainline Anglicanism.
John Wesley, on his journey to America, had an experience that would not only change his life, but which would fashion American religion from his day to ours. On the ship from England to Georgia, Wesley encountered a group of German pietists known as the Moravian Brethren. The Moravian Brethren, known officially as the Unitas Fratrum (The Unity of the Brothers) are a Protestant denomination that traces their origins back to the preaching of Jan Hus in 15th century Bohemia and Moravia (today’s Czech Republic). During a frightful storm in which the boat was being tossed about by high waves, while the English were terrified, the Moravian Brethren very calmly prayed and sang hymns. Wesley wanted for himself the deep religious sentiment that shaped the piety of these devout men and women.
Even by the Wesleys’ time, there was still enough Calvinist residue in the Church of England to trouble those few pious souls who remained among the Tories at prayer and make them anxious for some assurance that they were among the elect. John Wesley was desperate for the sort of religious experience that would assure him of his salvation. Wesley describes what happened when he attended a Moravian prayer gathering on May 24, 1738.
"In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."
This was the pivotal experience for the remainder of Wesley’s ministry and as Methodism was rooted profoundly in Wesely’s own piety, the desire for that “warm feeling” of God’s love and election became an irreducible part of the Methodist Gospel. Now for Wesley and his immediate disciples—all university trained preachers—this subjectivism was balanced by a keen appreciation for both sound Scripture and the Tradition of the Church Fathers. The problem would be when Methodism crossed to the Americas and, due to an insufficiency of theologically trained preachers, fell into the hands of lay preachers with stronger hearts than brains. We will talk about that in the next posing on the Second Great Awakening, but suffice it say it has given an emphasis for Americans that religion is primarily about feelings and emotions.
Wesley remained an Anglican for the rest of his life and the movement long remained within the Church of England. Wesley also encouraged his English followers to remain in the Church of England and to receive the sacraments in the Established Church. However when the American Church needed ministers at the time of our Revolution and the Anglican Bishops would not ordain clergy for the rebellious colonies, Wesley ordained Thomas Coke as “superintendent” of the American Methodists and also ordained two ministers to work with him in the American missions. Wesley’s brother Charles was appalled at John’s ordaining on his own authority and saw the threat it would eventually pose to the Methodists remaining in the Church of England.
Eventually after John Wesley’s death the Methodists separated out of the Church of England and joined the various dissenter Churches such as the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians. In America the break was almost immediate with Coke and his ministers working solely with Methodists and without reference to the Anglican/Episcopal structures in the colonies. Methodism quickly grew into the second largest American denomination, second only to the Baptists. In the Second Great Awakening, the emotionalism that characterized Methodism was spread throughout American Protestantism and has eventually come to color American Catholicism as well.