The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 12. The Methodist Movement: Whitefield
The methodist movement was a reaction against the calmness with which English theologians had accepted, and suppressed, many of the vital elements of the Christian creed. Divinity is the most progressive of the sciences, and no literature becomes so rapidly out of date as theology—all but the highest. Admirably straightforward though much of the writing of English divines in the early eighteenth century was, it had fewer of the elements of permanence than any of the systems that had preceded it; to appropriate words of Johnson, it had not sufficient vitality to preserve it from putrefaction. A new theology, or, at least, a revival of the old, was needed, which should base its appeal on the verities of the Christian life. The young Oxford students who founded methodism were, above all things, anxious to rule their daily doings by the standard, ascetic and devotional, of the English church. It has been, in recent years, generally believed that the tendency of the movement was from the first towards separation. This is hardly true. In practice, no doubt, much that Wesley did tended to separatism; but, in theory, never. The movement which now bears his name was at first, distinctly, a church movement, owing its impetus to long neglected doctrines of the church; and Wesley’s own first direction of life came from Jeremy Taylor. The story of the movement, during the period now under survey, may be briefly told. John Wesley, son of the rector of Epworth, went to Charterhouse in 1713 and to Christ Church in 1720, and became a fellow of Lincoln college in 1726. The society founded, very soon after, by his brother Charles, a student of Christ Church, was composed of a few pious young men who desired to live by the church’s rules of fasting, almsgiving and prayer, and received the holy communion weekly. Southey, writing nearly a century later, thought that “such conduct would at any time have attracted observation in an English university.” Unpopular, these beginnings certainly were, but it was not long before they passed beyond the petty criticisms of Oxford. John Wesley joined this “Holy Club” on his return to college in 1729, and he remained at Oxford for some years, actively engaged in works of piety.
Among the earlier members of the society were two destined for great public fame. The first was George Whitefield, perhaps the greatest popular orator of the eighteenth century. He had traced in himself, he tells, from cradle to manhood, nothing but “a fitness to be damned”; but the fiery enthusiasm of his nature seems always to have been turned toward the light, and, from his entrance into the methodist company, he became a devoted worker and preacher. John Wesley went to America in 1735, Charles in 1736, Whitefield in 1738. The freedom of missionary work rendered each of them disposed to new religious influences, and John Wesley and George Whitefield gradually drifted apart from each other and from the accepted theology of the English church. Wesley was greatly influenced by the Moravians and especially by their very attractive apostle count Zinzendorf, Whitefield by the Calvinism which seemed to be dying a natural death in the church of England till his influence revived it. Wesley dated his conversion from 24 May, 1738; and, soon afterwards, he began his wonderful journeys, which lasted almost to his death. During the half-century, he preached forty thousand sermons, and travelled (it is said) a quarter of a million of miles. His brother Charles equalled him in devotion, if not in tireless health, and Whitefield in enthusiasm. In 1740, Wesley severed his connection with the Moravians, and, in 1743, the followers of Whitefield became distinguished as Calvinistic methodists. In 1764, the separation between the two methodist bodies became permanent, and, from that time, perhaps, it may be correct to date the creation, from the original movement, of a newly organised dissent. Though Wesley himself passionately desired, to the end, to belong to the church of his baptism and ordination and vigorously denounced all who separated from it, in 1784 (when his brother Charles, who deeply regretted the act, thought him to be in his dotage) he ordained ministers, and, from that moment, the separation was complete. Whitefield, who was the founder of the Calvinistic methodists, Lady Huntingdon’s connection, died in 1770. At that date, it may be well to conclude our brief survey. The prominent names which belong especially to this earlier period, when what came to be called evangelicalism was hardly distinguishable from methodism, are those of the two Wesleys, Whitefield, Hervey, Toplady and Fletcher of Madeley. The influence of Newton, Venn, Romaine and others, more definitely evangelical than methodist, belongs chiefly to a later period.
Whitefield was not a man of letters, but an orator. His literary work is negligible, though not uninteresting; but it marks more decisively than that of any of his contemporaries the earliest reaction against the common-sense religious writing of the age. Whitefield wrote plain English, the vernacular of his day, with a touch of the university added, just as Latimer did two hundred years before. But he was not nearly so great a writer as was the reformer, probably because of his being a far greater preacher. To quote from his sermons or his controversial writings would be useless: he began a venture rather than led a school. And not all his friends followed his style.