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ART. I.—The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of
Methodism. By Robert Southey, Esq. Second Edition. 2 vols.
8vo. London, 1820. FEW EW more extraordinary persons have appeared in the Christian
Church than Wesley, whether we consider his personal character, or the effects which he has produced amongst us. In a space of time much less than a century, the Methodists have extended their principles and their discipline over a very considerable part of the population of Great Britain, Ireland, and America. In the South Sea islands their missions are advancing with a success scarcely inferior to that of the Jesuits in Paraguay; and they share with the Moravians the merit of having brought among the slaves in our West Indies whatever quantity of religious knowledge their masters will allow them to receive. In all the countries whither they have penetrated, they form, as Mr. Southey observes, a distinct people, an imperium in imperio—who, though (the Wesleyan Methodists at least) avowedly members of the English Episcopal Church, and differing in few particulars from the faith of the majority of their fellow-citizens, have yet their own seminaries, their own hierarchy, their own regulations, their own manners, their own literature,—their own rapidly-increasing population, who regard themselves as the peculiar people of God, and the remainder of their countrymen as, if not altogether worldly and profane, at most only half-believers.
But it is not by the numbers of the professed Methodists alone, that the amount of their influence and the moral effect which they have produced is to be computed. Of their numbers, we confess we are inclined to think more moderately than the greater part of those who deplore or exult in their progress. If we were to admit, without qualification, those estimates of their increase and influence which their advocates, in the wantonness of partial success, and their antagonists in the alarm of watchful jealousy, have sometiales furnished, it would follow that the field of battle was already in their possession, that they were already the greater part of ourselves, and that the boast which Tertullian applied to the Christians under Pagan Rome, was as appropriate, in Protestant England, to the followers of Wesley and Whitefield :-Ob
VOL. XXIV. NO. XLVII.
sessam vociferantur civitatem: in agris, in castellis, in insulis omnem sexum, ætatem, conditionem, et jam dignitatem transgredi ad hoc nomen, merent!'
If such expressions were applicable in their full extent to the present state of religion in our land, we certainly should be among the last to dissemble our opinion that it would be a state of things exceedingly to be lamented. Even if fewer objections were to be found (and the objections in our minds are many and grave,) to the doctrines which the Methodists particularly teach, and the discipline which they impose on their followers, yet is it no trifling evil in itself, (and one which could only be outweighed by an overwhelming necessity of reformation,) to unsettle the minds of men from the religion of their ancestors and of the state, and from those forms of worship which early associations have rendered venerable. Believing, as we do, that the present ecclesiastical establishment is the instrument the best qualified of all others which have been tried, to answer the purposes of religious instruction and public devotion, we have good reason to deprecate its removal or desertion in favour of systems which have as yet by no means stood the test of sufficient experience; nor can we consent that those rulers, whose office and authority we firmly believe to be derived from the Apostles themselves, should be displaced to make way for the successors of Dr. Coke and Mr. Astbury.
There can, however, be no advantage in harassing the minds of men by an exaggerated alarm, or of swelling a danger-in reality sufficiently great to call forth the best energies of the defenders of the temple,—to an amount which, if real, would leave them little else than the choice of submission or of martyrdom. It must be observed, in qualification of such forebodings, that if, by the success of Methodism, the numbers of those who are avowedly separated from the church is increased, a great proportion of their converts were previously, in fact, of no church and no religion ; that no small number have been drawn from sects whose principles were more liostile to the Established Church than those of the Methodists; that in the natural advance of population during the last half century, a certain and progressive increase might have been counted on, even without the aid of converts; that, if the chapels of the Methodists are numerous, they are, on the other hand, mostly small; that, as their principal harvest has been reaped if not from the indolence of the clergy, yet from the insufficient supply of church room, so many of them return to the worship of their forefathers wherever they meet with a free church or a popular pastor ; and that, from the annual reports of the Wesleyans themselves, the number of their members, who constitute more than half the whole body of Methodists, is not, we believe, in all
above two or three hundred thousand; no very appalling amount in a population of sixteen millions.
But it is not, as we have already observed, by the numbers of the professed Methodists alone that we must estimate the moral effect which they have produced, and are producing aniong Christians. The religious ferment first excited by their preaching has extended far beyond the visible bounds of their society. It has stimulated the clergy to greater seriousness and activity in the discharge of their functions; it has set the laity on thinking for themselves; it has, as an incidental consequence of the rivalry of hostile sects, (roused by the new phenomenon to the practice of new means of popularity) forwarded, to a degree never previously contemplated, the education and religious instruction of the lower classes; it has opposed, among those classes, a mighty and countervailing principle to the poisonous flood of modern philosophy. It is obvious, even to a careless observer, that religion is more in the minds and mouths of men than formerly; that a greater curiosity is excited by its discussion. And, amid all the vices which a long war and a luxurious capital, and a renewed intercourse with foreign nations, have produced in the two extremes of society, the majority are, on the whole, less ashamed of, and more attentive to the outward appearances of piety than they seem to have been during the preceding century. Nor can it be doubted, from the crowded state of all our ancient places of Worship, and from the avidity with which every additional opportunity is seized which free churches or evening lectures afford, that the church has gleaned in this spiritual harvest a great, if not a proportionate, addition of intelligent and zealous members; and that, if the appetite for religion, however excited, can be gratified in the national establishments, a great proportion of the world will, in preference, seek their way to Heaven through those paths which their forefathers have trodden.
But if the incidental advantages are thus great to which Methodism has given rise, it is not to be dissembled that its incidental bad consequences have been neither few nor inconsiderable. Those evils are partly such as inseparably attend every great excitation of the public mind, by whatever cause originated, and directed to whatever object; and partly they arise from the peculiar circumstances under which Methodism was introduced, and the nature of some of its doctrines. It is impossible that such discussions should have taken place, in a world constituted like our own, without giving occasion to many breaches of Christian charity, and of national as well as ecclesiastical union. Religion has ceased, in many instances, to be a question between the conscience of men and their Maker; it has become a matter of party; and has been
made the pretence for all the odious passions and mutual aspersions with which every party is inclined to regard or assail its opponents. The dangers of the nation have been regarded, even by good men, with less sympathy than they would otherwise have been, because, in such dangers, they foresaw the downfal of those religious establishments which they had learned to regard as hostile to Christianity; while others have despaired too soon of the national safety, from a belief that the majority of their countrymen were unworthy of the Divine protection. In neighbourhoods and in families dissension has been sown among those who, till then, had followed the same spiritual guides, and walked to the same House of God in company. Parental authority, and the mutual affection of brothers and sisters, have been weakened or destroyed from differences which referred to no essential point of doctrine or practice. Needless scruples and ill-judged austerities of manner and deportment have agitated bosons and darkened countenances which before were guileless, and innocent, and gay as the birds in the thicket; while a fresh argument has been furnished, by such excesses, to the enemies of piety, and a fresh and most injurious watch-word obtained to increase the odium which is too apt to follow any remarkable earnestness or activity in the cause of holiness. And, what is, perhaps, the worst and most pervading evil of all, the degree in which the public mind has been led to religious discussion, and the indiscriminate manner in which that discussion has been mingled with the society, the business, and amusements of the world, has led many to restrict their views of holiness to little more than a kind of godly gossip, and to esteem religion itself as a thing rather to be talked about than to be carried into practice.
Of the extraordinary man, to whose labours so much good and so much evil may be attributed, the history had been, till now, almost unknown in foreign nations, and very imperfectly and partially appreciated by his own countrymen. Few persons, however, had left behind them more abundant materials for their own biography. From the 23d to the 88th year of a most active and restless life, John Wesley had found time to keep a Diary, not only of his actions, but of his thoughts, his studies, his remarks on books, on men, and miscellaneous topics, with a minuteness and vivacity only possible to one who had sufficient vanity to believe all which respected himself worth recording, and sufficient ability to render all which he recorded interesting. In all his printed works, on whatever subject, (and these amount to sixteen volumes,) he has found a necessity or opportunity to speak of himself, his habits of life and modes of thinking; and he lived so much and so long in the sight of men, and there were so many men to whom