Preaching eternal judgement (1)
‘Ranters’ was the name given to Primitive Methodist preachers, partly because they preached divine judgement and eternal punishment. But their beliefs were derived from the parent Wesleyan body.
The same truths are to be heard today in any pulpit of any church or denomination loyal to the evangelical faith. In Primitive Methodism, this teaching was set out in its 1836 and 1849 Minutes of Conference.
Such beliefs have been variously portrayed in fictional and non-fictional writing as outmoded, untenable, obsessive and offensive. This article looks at how Methodist beliefs have been caricatured.
The early Methodists belonged doctrinally to mainstream Protestantism, although what was different from the start was their fervour and innovative methods. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, their beliefs were being styled as a throwback to an earlier age.
What did they believe about hell and judgement? This is well illustrated by a section from John Wesley’s sermon ‘The Great Assize’, preached at the assizes held before the Hon. Sir Edward Clive on 10 March 1758:
‘We may, in the third place, consider a few of the circumstances which will follow the general judgment. And the first is the execution of the sentence pronounced on the evil and on the good: “These shall go away into eternal punishment, and the righteous into life eternal”. It should be observed, it is the very same word [“eternal”] which is used, both in the former and in the latter clause.
‘It follows, that either the punishment lasts for ever, or the reward too will come to an end — no, never, unless God could come to an end, or his mercy and truth could fail…
‘The wicked, meantime, shall be turned into hell, even all the people that forget God. They will be “punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power”.
‘They will be “cast into the lake of fire burning with brimstone”, originally “prepared for the devil and his angels”; where they will gnaw their tongues for anguish and pain; they will curse God and look upwards … For “their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched”.’
This was the appeal and warning that Methodists everywhere preached, and which men tried to silence by ridicule or persecution. John Wesley’s Journal entry for Monday 16 May 1774 says: ‘In the afternoon, as also at seven in the morning, I preached in the kirk at Port Glasgow. My subjects were death and judgment, and I spoke as home as I possibly could’.
The same message was doubtless uppermost in the minds of the Primitive Methodists who erected the chapel at Swampton, Hampshire. This has over its entrance the text, ‘Prepare to meet thy God’. It still appeals silently to villagers walking past the closed-down chapel.
But many writers have sought to undermine the doctrine. Here are some examples, beginning with R. F. Delderfield’s novel Long summer day (Hodder & Stoughton, 1966).
In this, Methodist local preacher Edwin Willoughby is portrayed as lovable and quaintly old-fashioned, but still holding to ideas which the rest of us know to be obsolete:
‘He had grown to look rather like a saint, with his long silky hair, white as hoar frost, high, pale forehead, and mild, deep-set eyes that burned with love for all mankind …
‘His sermons, although spiced with the traditional touch of brimstone, expressed his deep belief in an era when lions would lie down with lambs, and reformed Potters would hoe harmoniously alongside Derwents’. Note how the writer spices it all up with ‘the traditional touch of brimstone’!
Looking earlier than Methodism, we turn to Katherine Mary Briggs (1898-1980). This folklorist, who crafted the 4-volume Dictionary of British folk-tales, wrote a charming story entitled Hobberdy Dick.
This is set in Oxfordshire in the period following the English Civil War. It was published by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1955 and marketed by Puffin Books from 1972 as a children’s book (I have read it with delight three times during adulthood).
Here is a child’s comment within the story: ‘Old and young’ll be rolling their eggs on Easter Sunday; but don’t let the ministers know, nor yet the godly, for they do cut up terrible rough about Easter and all the Saints’ days. My daddy he be one of the godly, and we have a power of them down to our house, and they do talk like a book about hell-fire and all’ (p.114, Puffin).
The ‘godly’ here refers, of course, to puritans, dissenters, early Methodists or today’s evangelicals!
Other novelists portray these ‘outmoded’ ideas in a far less kindly way. Listen to Arnold Bennett sneering at God and hell in his Old wives tale (1908):
‘In the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on Duck Bank there was a full and influential congregation. For in those days influential people … were content also to believe what their fathers had believed about the beginning and the end of all.
‘There was no such thing as the unknowable in those days. The eternal mysteries were as simple as an addition sum; a child could tell you with absolute certainty where you would be and what you would be doing a million years hence, and exactly what God thought of you…
‘And there floated before them, in the intense and prolonged silence, the clear vision of Jehovah on a throne, a God of sixty or so with a moustache and a beard, and a non-committal expression which declined to say whether or not he would require more bloodshed; and this God, destitute of pinions, was surrounded by white-winged creatures that wafted themselves to and fro while chanting;
‘And afar off was an obscene monstrosity, with cloven hoofs and a tail very dangerous and rude and interfering, who could exist comfortably in the middle of a coal-fire, and who took a malignant and exhaustless pleasure in coaxing you by false pretences into the same fire; but of course you had too much sense to swallow his wicked absurdities’ (chapter V; part II).
In non-fictional writing we find plenty of authors treating these tenets of Methodism as manifestly outmoded and unbalanced. E. J. Hobsbawm and G. Rudé wrote about the hell- and eternity-obsessed village ranters of the 1830s in Captain Swing (Lawrence and Wishart, 1969).
Eric Hobsbawm, who died in autumn 2012, was ‘one of the leading historians of the 20th century … whose work influenced generations of historians and politicians’ (Guardian, 1 October 2012).
Valentine Cunningham in Everywhere spoken against: dissent in the Victorian novel (Clarendon Press, 1975) draws attention to Charles Kingsley’s novel Two years ago (1857), in which he has a character, Tom, say these words: ‘“I do not know what sort of God yours is, Miss Harvey. I believe in some One who made all that!”
‘And he pointed round him to the glorious woods and glorious sky: “I should have fancied from your speech to that poor girl, that you believed in him also. You may, however, only believe in the same being in whom the Methodist parson believes, one who intends to hurl into endless agony every human being who has not had a chance of hearing the said preacher’s nostrum for delivering men out of the hands of him who made them!”’
It is notable that an artificial and unjust conflict is introduced into the reader’s mind between a God who created the glorious woods and glorious sky, and a God who intends to hurl into endless agony every human being who has not had a chance of hearing the said preacher’s ‘nostrum’ [quack remedy].
But Methodist preaching centred, not on a God who delighted in hell, but on One, who indeed created the woods and sky, yet also came in the person of the Son of God to rescue people from that very danger, because he ‘so loved the world’.
This is why the Methodists could sing:
‘O unexampled love!
O all-redeeming grace!
How swiftly didst thou move
To save a fallen race!
What shall I do to make it known
What thou for all mankind hast done?’
These are not the words of people inspired by a god whose only interest is hurling into endless agony every human being who has not had a chance of hearing. Such a caricature is a blatant misrepresentation, strongly refuted by both the Bible and the devotion of the men and women of early Methodism.
To be concluded