Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Primitive Church, Methodists, evolutionary psychology


In The Evangelist of Desire: John Wesley and the Methodists, Henry Abelove reminds his readers that Methodism was part of a larger evangelical movement that began in the 1730s but, while it grew, other sects barely sustained their numbers or disappeared entirely. Citing Frank Baker, Abelove notes that when Wesley died in 1791, Methodists owned 558 preaching houses in the British Isles, and membership totaled 72,476.1 Abelove then chronicles Wesley's ability to lead the Methodist movement, crediting much of its success to the force of Wesley's personality. Yet not all of Wesley's contemporaries found him so charming, as the anti-Methodist literature shows. A number of scholars have detailed the angry response to Methodism and offered insightful arguments about the causes. Historians and literary critics such as David Hempton, Henry Rack, Brett Mclnelly, Isabel Rivers, and Albert Lyles, among others, have placed Methodism within the larger debate about reason and enthusiasm, the aesthetic and philosophical movements of sensibility and Romanticism, changing economic and social structure, and struggles over Latitudinarianism and Deism.2 All of the above are invaluable contributions to our understanding of Methodism, religion, and the broader society of the eighteenth century. However, questions regarding Methodism's success and the extremely vitriolic reaction to it remain. An unexplored answer rests in Methodism's professed connection to the primitive church and its appeal to the primitive mind as explained by the theory of evolutionary psychology.