The training of Methodist preachers

If Godwin’s Dissenting education influenced the classical education of thousands of early 19th-century children, the rhetorical training of large numbers of Methodists was based on classical oratory. Until the death in 1791 ofjohn Wesley, the founder of Methodism, the movement often operated within the Church of England, even though it always reached out to the poorest communities of workers and prisoners who were otherwise neglected by the establishment.89 But after his death, between 1797 and 1849, a series of splits led by such groups as the Methodist New Connexion, the Primitive Methodists and the Bible Christians decisively took Methodism out of the Church of England to become the largest Nonconformist Christian denomination in the country.

At Oxford, John Wesley, who himself read the classical languages fluently, had studied Ciceronian oratory and its presentation in neoclassical handbooks.90

But he was convinced that his non-ordained male and female preachers, many of whom had hardly any previous education, would benefit from hands-on training, often in the open air, in the principles of classical rhetoric. He enthusiastically supervised them himself. He instructed them to read for between six and eight hours a day,91 and recommended they study not only scripture, but Greek, Hebrew, early Church fathers, secular history, science, logic, metaphysics, natural philosophy and mathematics.92 He also insisted that the preachers learn, from the Dutch scholar and theologian Gerard Vossius’ introduction to Aristotelian rhetoric, the fundamental classical oratorical precepts of deportment, appropriateness, sublimity, force, relevance, simplicity and brevity.93 Wesley’s ‘extracurricular system of reading, writing, and speaking rules’ constituted an ‘empowerment of the populace’ and offers ‘a rich site for examining historical connections between literacy, rhetoric, and class equality’.94 The curriculum of the miners’ and preachers’ children educated at Kingswood, the school he founded near Bristol, also included ancient Greek and, in their case, Latin.95 He modelled their education after his own, claiming ‘Whoever carefully goes through this course will be a better scholar than nine in ten of the graduates of Oxford or Cambridge’.96

Even the roughest preachers, uneducated as children, developed honed techniques in public speaking, through oral, practical training, but applied them in the simple language of working-class people. This fusion of classical method and contemporary verbal medium goes a long way towards explaining the staggering success of the first Methodist preachers, who were an important impetus behind the rise of Trade Union oratory later. The Duchess of Buckingham (1680-1743) was appalled, writing to the Methodist Countess of Huntingdon in 1742 to complain about these politically ‘levelling’ preachers,

Their doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their Superiors, in perpetually endeavouring to level all ranks and do away with all distinction. It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth.97

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