JOHN KENT. Wesley and the Wesleyans. Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univesity Press, 2002. Pp. vi + 229, select bibliography, index. $50.00.
PAUL WESLEY CHILCOTE, ED. Her Own Story: Autobiographical Portraits of Early Methodist Women. Nashville, Tennessee: Kingswood Books, 2001. Pp. 301, introduction, select bibliography, index. $25.00 (paper).
Readers of John Kent's Wesley and the Wesleyans will be disappointed if they expect the book to furnish a survey of the two topics mentioned in its title. Instead, Kent, an emeritus professor of theology at the University of Bristol, has written five linked essays on miscellaneous aspects of Methodism and religion in the eighteenth century. These essays are, to say the least, idiosyncratic. Readers will get a good preview of the book's tone in its first sentence: "One of the persistent myths of modern British history is the myth of the so-called evangelical revival." There cannot have been a revival, Kent believes, because the "primary religious impulse" that leads "people to seek some kind of extra-human power" is constant throughout history (1). Kent's basic argument can easily be refuted. Most "constants" of human existence (say, the need for food or companionship) can vary in degree from person to person at a single point in time and can also vary in the same person over time. Thus, these "constants" are in fact changeable, and this paradox certainly applies to the primary religious impulse. Kent himself discusses the myth of the evangelical revival in his first chapter entitled "The Protestant Recovery." When informed that there could not have been a religious revival, but that there was a religious "recovery," many readers will correctly conclude that they have entered a world of semantic legerdemain.
The three central chapters deal with Wesleyanism in the mid and late eighteenth century (1740-70 and 1770-1800 respectively) and with early Methodist women. Kent is wise to distinguish between the earliest Methodists and their successors in the much larger, and much more bureaucratized, connection of the century's last decades. Yet his miscellaneous observations are sprinkled with obiter dicta, many of them debatable or dubious, that are offered with little evidence or explanation. "There was no question of Methodism preventing revolution," he asserts in one place (100), and in another he claims that there "was no apparent 'feminisation' of religion in late eighteenth-century Wesleyanism" (139), a claim not supported by Clive Field's careful statistical studies of the gender of early Methodist members. Other statements are simply hostile to the early Methodists and their role in the religious "recovery." A "group of aggressive men" led the Wesleyans (119), for example, and these men "controlled the words which limited the women's behaviour [and] were sometimes aiming at the virtual destruction of human personality" (106).
In chapter 5, "Anglican Responses," and in the conclusion, Kent reveals his true colors by presenting Anglicans and Wesleyans as virtual opposites. "Wesley was not stupid, but he was steeped in an inadequate tradition..." (142, emphasis added), and he was consequently able to create only a "secondary theology" (182). This is not surprising for a man who had dropped out of the mainstream of British society (190-91) and was at once authoritarian and frequently uncertain about his own religious faith. Here and elsewhere, Kent supports these extreme views in part by reference to anti-Methodist works, perhaps not the most satisfactory type of evidence on these matters. Anglicans, by contrast, benefited from a "primary" theology, "valued tolerance more highly than 'revival'" (154), and were fifty years ahead of Wesleyans in providing day schools for children (178). This latter, of course, ignores the Wesleyan concentration on Sunday school education, the means by which Methodists may have educated more children than the Church of England in the half century after 1780. …