Monday, 14 April 2008

Heaven, Hell and Mr Wesley

Heaven, Hell, and Mr. Wesley

Even today, one cannot travel far here without being made aware of the power of both mill and chapel, in West Yorkshire as in other districts that were power-centres of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Britain. This even though most were demolished or burned down at the time, or soon after, I arrived in 1971. This even though what remain are (with very few exceptions) not used anymore for textile manufacture or for worship. (Two interwoven activities in their heyday!) Even though both, if they survive, are converted to small-business use or into apartments. The grandeur, majesty even, overbears one still. (Is that one reason why many like to live and work in them?)
As I write, the Spring has arrived in full orgasmic heat, the wild flowers, the birds nearly strangling themselves with song -- but that was in the place I have just returned from, the chapel and mill-free South West (also further north in Yorkshire; so nothing to do with altitude etc.) Here it arrives much more slowly. My belief is that it is still held back by the soot fallen upon the land for two centuries. Nature’s recovery during my
almost-forty years here has been spectacular, remarkable … and when it does arrive, it has an exuberance and life force that is lacking in many of the erstwhile rural districts blasted with herbicide and chemical fertiliser. But it is still affected by soot and sulphur: the dead hand of a spent force.
Spiritually and intellectually too, its values vanished overnight, and seem incomprehensible, and to be ridiculed. Was it Harold Wilson, or someone else, who first announced the once much repeated, “The British Labour Movement owes more to Methodism than to Marx”? Where has that particular pride vanished in New Labour Britain? It disappeared with the abolition of heavy industry: Mrs Thatcher’s revolution. On that side, she herself quoted John Wesley to underwrite her values. This follows a multitude of Victorians who claimed that Wesleyanism set them “on the road from rags to riches”. Whatever it was that John Wesley offered spiritually, as a church leader and founder of Methodism, he has had a lasting worldly effect.
For others, the Wesleyan certainties about sin, redemption and every other matter he ever thought of, have been quenched by the great, creative doubts of the 20th Century. After Freud and Jung and many other thinkers we can no longer believe in the concept of a personality that may be described as “good” or “bad”, deserving punishment or reward through eternity. In any case, our century and the past one continue to give us reasons to be sickened by the destructive powers of rhetorical leaders with simplistic convictions. The historical effects of Wesleyanism remain, but the ideas have been largely demolished, along with so many of the chapels.
In English history, which is made up of the deeds of so many masterful, confident men, John Wesley stands out in his own way. He is among the great (if you still admire “greatness”) - not as the conqueror of territory we have now lost, nor as the explorer of lands that are no longer ours, nor as the inventor and maker of machinery that is now obsolete. But in Methodist chapels were evolved the ethics, the attitudes and systems of behaviour that powered the Industrial Age. Thus he entered into the psyche of the English nation.
The common view of the Industrial Revolution is that it came about through mechanical inventions making use of the natural resources of coal, iron, water and steam power. This leaves out the changes that took place in people’s minds. The factory could not have existed before the factory worker was himself invented, and he was created in the chapels, our of Methodist ideology. It was on the moorlands of northern England, site of the massive textile boom at the heart of England’s Industrial Revolution and prosperity, that Wesleyanism, taking root in the mid-18th century and therefore ahead of industry by 25 or more years, gained its greatest hold, and was later encourages by the factory owners as the religion of their workers.
In the Calder Valley, the evidence of Methodism dominates the landscape and also the mind, in so many ways, that even today it cannot be ignored. Yet it would be hard to make such a great show of celebrating Methodism here, because there is hardly any of it left, in a living form. The innumerable chapels at which, almost unbelievably, only a generation ago people queued up to suffer the heady indictments of their preachers and “have a good sing” have gone. The massive pulpit of the last chapel that I saw being disembowelled, about two miles from my home, and which had been erected 150 years ago during the heyday of teetotalism, was exported to form a bar in California. Much of the north of England today is a graveyard of Methodism with its blackened monuments wrecked, or granted a surreal sea-change.
It is said that in the 19th Century there were more mills and also more chapels here than anywhere else in Britain. A typical village of the southern Pennines consists of houses crammed garden-less on a precipitous slope between the mill down below, where all the inhabitants worked, and one or maybe two or more Nonconformist (most typically, Wesleyan) chapels crowning the hilltop. It is striking, and also apt, that both generally exhibit the same architecture. The factory for souls, built as close as possible to Heaven, matches the woollen mill below in being a great stone coffin, with rows of plain windows, a bell, and a little Greek or Egyptian-derived decoration. Mills were given names that ring of chapel society, almost to echo the lines of hymns: “Paradise Mills” and “New Delight”.
It has been claimed that John Wesley saved England from Revolution, deflecting proletarian energies into other channels. In the 18th century, the inhabitants of the north, especially, began to change under the influence of Wesleyanism from being unruly and superstitious (supposedly), into an organised labour force working regularly by the clock. Wesley himself knew what he was tackling when he came here. The challenge presented by its supposed-barbarians delighted him and he claimed that West Yorkshire was his favourite district because, he wrote, “that place suits me best, where so many are groaning for redemption”.
In the name of “Redemption”, they burned their fiddles, were inspired to labour with their own hands to quarry stone and build chapels, and other such events that form the epic of early Methodism. The culture from which people were “saved” is now being revived by folklorists. A culture of improvised, spontaneous balladry and traditional music was transformed into the organised, rehearsed forms of choirs, or into a fine tradition of orchestral music and brass-bands. We are given glimpses of the vitality of earlier storytelling in the almost Joycean relish of the writings of the 18th century East-Lancashire weaver, turned schoolmaster, turned reprobate, John Collier, alias Tim Bobbin. With Methodism, there came the archive-and-information-collecting Institutes, Libraries, Scientific, Philosophical, and Natural History societies that are so striking in the North. There were written the autobiographies and diaries that make northern libraries such a delight. In a word, culture became “methodical”.
We forget how powerful the opposition to Methodism was in its day, and also since its opponents lost the battle, how cogent were its arguments. Enemies of Methodism appear upon the stage in order to throw mud at preachers, to indulge themselves with “lewdness and drunkenness” ; as the practitioners of all kinds of vices, and as part of the barbarian darkness. It is a truism that the 18th century was an age of opposites. When Methodism conquered and aligned itself with Britain’s material success, one of two spirits overcame the other - and the vanquished never appear in history in a good light.
Now that we are counting up the cost of what was achieved by the marriage of Methodism and Industry, and are beginning to panic at the final tally, both environmental and spiritual, we should remember that Methodism had a far-seeing opponent in William Blake. He was probably referring directly to John Wesley in the opening lines of The Everlasting Gospel:

The vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my Vision’s Greatest Enemy:
Thine has a great hook nose like thine,
Mine has a snub nose like to mine:
Thine is a friend of all mankind,
Mine speaks in parables to the blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates,
Thy Heaven doors are my Hell Gates…

Opposites can explain one another through contrasts. Wesley would have seen Blake’s sexual libertarianism as the work of the devil, but Blake was a proto-anarchist in the true sense, believing that people are at their best when they are free to express their inner selves. Also, though he believed that creativity comes from an inner not an outer light, he was deeply sensitive to the natural world.
Attitudes to nature are crucial, considering what we owe to Methodism for a spoiled environment. One who loves nature particularises - in say the manner of John Clare: the dispossessed farm-labourer/poet who was also an opponent of Methodism. Wesley believed himself open to natural beauty; though he was clearly insensitive to it, as evidenced by the platitudes that he invariably used to describe it. He saw nature as a source of illustrative metaphors for sermons. Also, the inner being of a human, what we might call the “psyche”, who illuminated William Blake, terrified Wesley - who believed it should be controlled, lest it reveal the worst in man. It was necessary to “murder the self by inches”, as is brother Charles put it.
In fact, for the Wesleys, an uncontrolled inner man was on a par with undisciplined, unexploited and therefore “useless” nature.
It is by looking at the circumstances of the Wesleys’ childhood that one can see how an ambition to tame both inner and out nature might grow to have the power of religious conviction. John Wesley was born in 1703, the 15th child of the Reverend Samuel Wesley, Rector of Epworth in the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire. Today, Epworth shows itself as a green hill on a plain but in 1703 it was, literally, an island among pools and marshes. It was an especially treacherous natural environment. Surrounding human nature was hostile too. As well as being semi-marooned physically, the family was socially islanded, they being educated, pious gentry, without opportunity to commune with fellow spirits. They were sometimes quite literally besieged by Samuel Wesley’s hostile parishioners.
Their parishioners’ hostility was not so much to the Wesley family personally, as to what they represented. The gentry of the day were busy draining the marshes, “improving” in a way that took no account of the vote-less inhabitants of the fens, who thereby lost their traditional livelihoods of hunting wildfowl and fishing. Also, the Reverend Samuel was unpopular with the better families of the district because he voted Tory. The fen people waged persistent warfare against the Rectory. The Rector’s cattle were stabbed, his flax was burned. On one occasion a “riotous mob” paraded around the house with guns and drums. After more than one attempt, they eventually burned the place to the ground, and in a famous incident, John, aged five, was almost forgotten in the building, being rescued as an afterthought. He described himself forever afterwards, in a resonant metaphor, as “a brand plucked from the burning”.
While Samuel Wesley’s response to this was to hide from family and parishioners alike, (writing ludicrous and ponderous works such as nine thousand lines of a versified Life of Christ, which earned him a place in Pope’s “Temple of Dullness”), it was John’s mother who was practical. Having to cope virtually alone, drove her to an ideal of orderliness which one perceives as an early anticipation of the Methodist notion of orderliness within the dangerously ill-disciplined society of Britain. She inflicted order upon her family with a severity that was exceptional even by 18th century standards, and today seems unbelievably cruel. We know that her son John worshipped her; as a grown man he asked her for details of her child-rearing methods in order to model his own school, Kingswood, upon them. “When turned a year old (and some before) they were taught to fear the rod and cry softly; by which means they escaped abundance of correction they might otherwise have had”, she wrote.
Another anecdote of John Wesley’s childhood seems even more pertinent when one thinks of the Methodist doctrine of the deferment of pleasure for future reward. At seven years of age, when offered a sweet, John answered, “Thank you; I will think of it.” Could anything be less natural for a child? The anecdote is portentous, whether true or not.
It is precisely because these conditions were not unique, though extreme and perhaps more keenly felt than the average, that they became important. Could it be that Wesleyanism was a projection of its founder’s childhood traumas - as well as the technique for resolving them - upon the whole nation; a nation waiting for such a solution, having such fears itself, and which seized upon its timely benefits?
With new means of exploitation of nature available, the Englishman was waiting for someone to underwrite utility as holy, waste as sinful, the damning of the creative inner springs as a fight against Satan, and worldly wealth as a sign of God’s favour.
John Wesley’s greatest single gift was as an organiser. In the present day he might be a director of industry - as in the 18th century he was a manager of souls. Wesleyanism did not merely offer a key to organising labour in its so-called “productive” hours. It assailed the proletarian Englishman’s whole attitude to life, death, work, leisure, family and the proper use of time. The success of Methodism, particularly in the North, was phenomenal. After a period when the churches had grown empty under the sway of lax clergy, thousands flocked to assemblies, often walking 20 miles over moorland, to hear preachers who spoke with simplicity and terrifying conviction. Wesley’s lieutenants had colossal powers over their newly risen flocks. The Reverend William Grimshaw of Haworth, for example, left anecdotes of his scouring the public house with a whip to drive people to church.
The question that arises is, why were people so willing to obey the Methodists?
Religions gain their worldly power by claiming the key to eternity and death. The conditions of human life were precarious and painful before, as well as during, the Industrial Revolution, and one should never be tempted into imagining a pre-industrial “golden age”. Believing in an eternity of Hell or Heaven, it was unbearable to think that after our toil and sickness on earth, we might be deprived of eternal reward, and be meted out eternal punishment instead.
Methodism partly gained its ground by eschewing Calvinistic pre-determination. This held an intrinsic logic, one exploited by the Antinomians who were so heretical in Wesley’s sight: If Heaven or Hell are predestined, we might as well enjoy ourselves, since we cannot affect the outcome. Methodist preachers at the height of their sermons would tell their audience that they might know themselves to be saved, by inner conviction. Understanding what we do today about crowd psychology, we are not surprised at people being “converted” to this certainty.
Then followed the danger of “backsliding”. “What if the Lord snatches you away at some moment when you have sinned and not had time to repent?” Thus the people were conscripted on to a treadmill of Wesleyan values.
Wesleyan salvation involved an emphasis on self-control, an application to tasks in hand, a counting of time, and a continuous reckoning of balance sheets. These were exactly the principles that the early industrialists found necessary to operate a factory. In conditions under which they had to prevent their employees from abandoning work whenever a sunny day came along, ideal for haymaking, it is no wonder that the Lancashire manufacturer, Kay Shuttleworth, is found recommending his fellow industrialists to promote Methodists as foremen.
Wesleyanism appeared easy enough to follow when, at a time that the North was expanding like the Klondike or Silicomne Valley, it could be pointed out that “everywhere, Methodists were seen to be successful”.
The faith also gave rise to democratic education, with literacy and numeracy in the forefront. It inspired an orderliness at the public meetings of workers. The Chartist and veteran of Peterloo, Samuel Bamford, was horrified at the crude bawling of Parliament after his experience of factory-workers’ dignified debates.
But the gains of the Wesleyan era were at the price of what we now call “an environment disaster”. There was a dreadful scouring with furnace, pick and spade, giving a special edge to that metaphor “a brand plucked from the burning”, when one looks over the scorched, derelict industrial landscapes of the North, created in the name of wealth. In May 1988, Mrs. Thatcher quoted John Wesley with approval to the Church of Scotland Assembly. “Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.”
Apart from the implications that consolidating ones gains and savings comes first, and that “giving” is a material commodity, how, I would ask both John Wesley and Mrs. Thatcher, does this square with Christ’s own Sermon On The Mount, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth…”? Without going so far as to interpret The Sermon On The Mount as fashionable Green-ism, it seems a strange development of Christ’s original message to claim worldly success as a sign of God’s Grace.

An early form of this essay was published in The Guardian, 28th February 1991


Adam said...


YOur blog is a fruitful distraction from the necessities of gainful employment - working in front of an effing VDU all day. One has to wonder if Mr W had had his own blog, how much of our precious time might have been spent reading and responding to them, and how indeed, might his contemporary poets hve chosen to subvert his vision with their own riffs amongst the world wide web.

BrianT said...

The tite; 'Millstone Grit', pokes out from the creased spines in Oxfam, catching my eye. I'm a climber. I like to climb rocks for fun, for some sort of communion, I don't know why, but Millstone Grit is the rock of my land, beneath the soil I will be part of soon enough.
I buy the book, and for three years, it sits under its dust, immobile in the queue to be read, behind such supertankers as Wild Swans and Midnight's Children, which bully their way forward.
I love the picture on the cover. I truly love it, and wish I'd moved to live amidst the scarred grassy slopes and grey stones depicted there, instead of the suburban hills and still recurrent scarring of Sheffield. Every time I peer into the picture, I can feel and smell and hear that place. One day, I take the book down, gaze at the picture, opening the book flat, to see the panorama across its covers, then decide to read it. Why not?
The prose speaks to me as intimately as does the cover. I can see Mr Nicholls detritus-loaded old mill, and part of my soul sneaks off to explore amongst the salvage, to wonder at the wear on old stacked boards, and whose feet trod them smooth.
This is me. The picture, the prose, the place, all draw notes from silent strings inside me.
And Mr Hughes (Morning, Mr Hughes!) has a blog! A new way to break up my working day and draw sap along my far-reaching roots, all the way from the moors and the shadows. Another way to sit and dream amongst dereliction.
Leigh Mills, Pudsey. When you visited Leigh Mills, I would have been a boy of perhaps eleven or twelve, in the local school, not four hundred yards from where the caws of the rooks (oh how I remember that rookery in the trees behind the mill-owner's house) struggled to penetrate your still ringing ears. As a amall boy i used to peer through the airbricks in the mill walls and watch the women working amidst the clatter. I have photographs I took some ten years later, of a large part of Leigh Mills burning down. Perhaps I'll blog about it.
Thank you.