William Cobbett on Methodism

Shortly after writing the last entry detailing my estrangement from the Evangelical wing, I happened upon the following passage in Cobbett’s “Rural Rides” which seemed very apposite:

“This evening I have been to the Methodist Meeting-house. I was attracted, all but drawn down the street, by the singing. When I came to the place the parson was got into prayer. His hands were clenched together and held up, his face turned up and back so as to be nearly parallel with the ceiling, and he was bawling away, with his “do thou” and “mayest thou”, and “may we”, enough to stun one. Noisy, however. as he was, he was unable to fix the attention of a parcel of girls in the gallery, whose eyes were all over the place, whilst his eyes were so devoutly shut up. After a deal of this rigmarole called prayer, came the “preachy”, as the negroes call it; and a preachy it really was. Such a mixture of whining cant and of foppish affectation I scarcely ever heard in my life. The text was (I speak from memory) one of St. Peter’s (if he have more than one) the 18th chapter and 4th verse. The words were to this amount: that, “as the righteous would be saved with difficulty, what must become of the ungodly and the sinner!” After as neat a dish of nonsense and impertinences as one could wish to have served up came the distinction between the “ungodly” and the “sinner”. The sinner was one who did “moral wrong”; the “ungodly” one who did no moral wrong, but who was not “regenerated”. BOTH, he positively told us, were to be DAMNED. One was just as bad as the other. Moral rectitude was nothing to do in saving the man. he was to be damned unless born again, and how was he to be born again, unless he came to the regeneration shop and gave the fellows money?” (From Rural Rides Penguin Classics edited by Ian Dyck 2001 p 145-146)

Although it should be born in mind that Cobbett had little time for “canting priests” in general (who he, like the protagonist in Masefield’s “Everlasting Glory”, saw as being in league with the powers that be in creating and sustaining pauperism through tithes etc), this passage sums up for me the whole cheat of Evangelicalism. In the gospels Jesus makes clear the only things which seperate sheep from goats in his parable are those treat their neighbours as themselves. He makes clear that bad trees cannot bear good fruit and vice versa and these are the sole basis of any divine threat and these universal values are the important ones whether or not you have subscribed to any religion or none. These are the bases he draws, little to do with the subsequent belonging to a church etc that came later. Indeed he was scornful of the conventionally religious of his time. So, for me, Cobbett hits the nail squarely on the head here.

Earlier on, he lays into Joshua Watson the founder of the SPCK or rather the claims for financial support Watson was garnering from the likes of William Wilberforce and the church hierarchy:

“What! the church and all its clergy put into motion to get money from the people, to send the money, when collected, to one Joshua Watson, a WINE-MERCHANT, or, late, a wine merchant, in Mincing Lane, Fenchurch Street, London, in order that the said wine -merchant may apply the money to the “promotion of the christian knowledge” ! What all the deacons, priests, curates perpetual, vicars, prebends, doctors, deans, archdeacons and fathers in god, right reverend and most reverend; all! yea all, engaged in getting money together to send to a wine-merchant that he may lay it out in the promoting of christian knowledge in THEIR OWN FLOCKS!! Oh, brave wine merchant! What a prince of godliness must this wine merchant be! I say, wine merchant, or late wine merchant of Mincing lane Fenchurch Street, London. And. for God’s sake, some good parson, do send me a copy of the King’s Circular, and also of the bishop’s order to send money to Joshua Watson; for some precious sport shall we have with Joshua and his “Society” before we have done with them.” (ibid pg. 140)

But Cobbett had a serious point in all this:

“What silly, nay base creatures those must be, who really give their money, give their pennies, which ought to buy bread for ther own children; who thus give their money to these lazy and impudent fellows, who call themselves “ministers of god”, who prowl around the country, living easy and jovial lives upon the fruit of the labour of other people. However, it is, in some measure, these people’s fault. If they did not give, the others could not receive. I wish to see every labouring man well fed and clad; but, really, the man who gives any portion of his earnings to these fellows DESERVES TO WANT; he deserves to be pinched with hunger: misery is the just reward of this worst species of prodigality.” (ibid pg 146-147)

Which is both very true and a trifle harsh. After all, if these people gained comfort and hope and some meaning to their lives, though (as the condition of the country implied throughout Cobbett’s book would suggest) vergeing on starvation, then who can blame them? Though it should also be pointed out that Cobbett reports that he saw very few “working people” actually attending church services of whatever type anyway.

Whatever the case, it is always amusing and interesting to hear the outside perspective on these things. Particularly from the year 1822. It kind of suggests that Schopenhauer was right to suggest that history was stasis.


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1 Response to William Cobbett on Methodism

  1. alanspage says:

    A quick post-scriptum to the above. Cobbett was also deeply and vehemently critical of Wilberforce’s anti-slavery campaigns. He argued that it was deeply hypocritical of Wilberforce to pay such attention to the working practices inflicted on negroes in far off lands whilst seeming to turn a blind eye to the exact same abuses being inflicted on the working classes over here.Indeed, given the kind of conditions he describes as being par for the economic course in this country (and also documented by other, later, writers like Dickens and Mayhew),he did have a point there as well.

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