The Financing of John Wesley's Methodism c. 1740-1800

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Clive Murray Norris
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     2017.
     304 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198796411.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The continued liturgical prominence given to the taking of the collection in contemporary Methodism reflects the importance attached to members’ financial contributions to the work of the denomination since its earliest years. Even in an age of direct debits, standing orders, and mobile payment apps, at least in British Methodism, the tangibility of the collection plate or basket, and the symbolic and prayerful placing of it upon the communion table, suggests a shared understanding that participating in the work of the kingdom includes financial commitment. Clive Murray Norris’s exploration of the financial management and organization of 18th-century Methodism not only sheds new light on the complexities of the denomination’s origins and early growth, but addresses themes that resonate with more recent Methodist history and current practice. Based on the author’s PhD thesis, The Financing of John Wesley’s Methodism c. 1740-1800 is a richly detailed study of a wide range of primary sources set in the broader contexts of Methodist history and British economic history. The three principal points of focus, preaching, property, and publishing, underscore that consideration of Methodism’s finances is far from peripheral, as they were shaped by, and affected by, its worship and evangelism, its physical presence across the British Isles, and its efforts to guide and influence the lives of its members and associates.

Norris’s central argument is that the financial implications of Methodism’s rapid, uneven, and sometimes unpredictable growth were a key factor in the development of its formal connectional structure and mode of governance. What began as a series of societies largely administered at local level, but bound loosely under John Wesley’s oversight, morphed into a multifaceted organization in which authority was increasingly centralized. While Wesley remained the dominant figure throughout his lifetime, it proved necessary to have several other individuals, with distinct connectional roles, to administer important business, such as financial support for superannuated preachers and their families, and the Book Room, Methodism’s publishing arm. Norris traces the numerical growth of itinerant preachers, noting that there was also a significant increase in the number of married preachers. As the decades passed, many of the earliest generation of preachers were no longer able to sustain their active work and relied on the connection for financial support. The “Preachers’ Fund,” set up for this purpose, had a rather checkered history, and serves as a prime example of the need for stricter control and reporting that was recognized by the end of the century. 

On the matter of the growth of Methodism’s estate, Norris cautiously suggests several contributing factors concerning membership growth, population change, connectional strategy, and broader economic considerations. Each was undoubtedly significant, though some firmer evaluation of their relative influence would have been useful. In the chapters concerning this physical growth, the tension between the evangelistic impulses of local societies and the financial commitments required to fund permanent chapels is clearly set out. The appetite for debt financing, and its effects on chapel life, such as through pew rents, is particularly revealing; there is scope for further research here in relation to Methodism and social class. John Wesley’s influence is most clearly seen in the financial management of the Book Room; Norris demonstrates how Wesley regarded its profits as his own discretionary fund, and how, after his death, the more formalized flow of Book Room receipts into connectional funds had a significant impact on central finances.

Given the book’s subject matter, there is inevitably a considerable amount of technical terminology related to economic history, some of which is likely to be unfamiliar to many historians of Methodism; the inclusion of a glossary is therefore most welcome. Financial records and practices may not be the most colorful aspect of early Methodist history, but this authoritative book makes their importance clear. The vitality of early Methodist preaching, the movement’s bold evangelistic ventures, and the Wesley brothers’ commitment to providing their followers with devotional and educational literature to broaden their minds and deepen their commitment may not be at the forefront of this account, but all brought with them financial opportunities, challenges, and obligations, which Norris articulates with clarity and precision. This book therefore makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the day-to-day functioning of early Methodism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Martin V. Clarke is Lecturer in Music at The Open University.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Clive Norris is an Independent Scholar.

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