Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Jeremy Gregory


Religion in the Age of Enlightenment, John Wesley, Methodism


Wesley's long life ( 1703-91) spanned almost the whole of the eighteenth century, and any attempt to understand him undoubtedly needs to include some sense of the period in which he lived. There have, of course, been many attempts to evoke Wesley's context, whether broadly defined-as in the thousands of books and scholarly articles that have been written about the era in general, ranging from the economy, politics, and society to cultural, intellectual, and religious matters (and much else besides), or in the various studies that have more directly positioned Wesley, and early Methodism, within his, and its, time. Most obviously these include some of the biographies of Wesley, of which the most impressive and successful to date is Henry Rack's Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism, which made particular efforts to locate Wesley within his age. 1 But what was that age like? In 1938, as part of the celebrations marking the bicentenary of Wesley's conversion, the amateur historian J. H. Whiteley published Wesleys England: A Survey of XVIIIth Century Social and Cultural Conditions, which, drawn from secondary sources and aimed at a Methodist readership, rather unsat - isfactorily attempted a sweeping survey of England during Wesley's lifetime. It covered topics as diverse as population growth, government, law and order, class contact, language, education, and religion (here oddly hardly mentioning Wesley himself), but without really giving the reader a coherent sense of the period. Nevertheless, Whiteley rather astutely recognized that "the difficulties of the project are manifold, for this is a century of England's story whose details are surprisingly contradictory and elusive:"