The Mirth and Mockery of Methodism
by Terry Lindvall and Greg West
A Madness to their Methodism
Early 20th century Roman Catholic journalist and wit, G. K. Chesterton, once quipped that “it is a test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” Methodism, it seems, fit his category of a good religion, even before some notable present descriptions:
Before Mel Brooks topped of Hedley Lamarr’s classic round up of every vicious criminal and gunslinger in the west in his Blazing Saddles: “I want rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ash-kickers, shiss-kickers, and Methodists.”
Before Will Willimon collected and wrote all those stories finding a comic incongruity between our high calling and our grubby actuality and introducing us to his Dog, the Methodist.
Before Jeff Foxworthy observed that “you might be United Methodist if you raise your hand and promise your pastor that you have read the 17th chapter of Mark as part of the introduction to a sermon on truth telling. (Note: Mark only has 16 chapters. You might be United Methodist if you did not know that)” or if you sit while singing "Stand up, stand up for Jesus," your pastor has a hyphenated last name, or your pastor moves every four or five years and you like it that way.
And way before the great prank of Greg and Susan Jones leaving Duke Divinity School to go to Baylor University, fooling both Methodists and Baptists.
Before movies portrayed the enthusiastic singing and worship of friendly Methodists—in contrast to the quiet Quakers—in William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion (1956) or the throwaway line by Presbyterian minister Norman Maclean in Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It (1992) that “Methodists are Baptists that have learned how to read” (soon to be appended with how Episcopalians are Methodists with Money and Wine).
Before Methodists were teased for their predilection for donuts, for a waning of their old enthusiasm, for overweight sinecure clergy, they were satirized for other unique characteristics.
Father and Sons of Wits
In the 18th century one of the favorite and most frequent targets of satirists were the enthusiastic Methodists, quite unlike the solemn pot-luck Methodists of today (although their love-feasts were most probably precursors to fruity Jello salads). Samuel Wesley, father of the brood of John, Charles, and others, possessed great wit and was ever ready to share a vivacious anecdote. He answered comic and provocative questions such as “Why [does] one hour’s sermon seem longer than two hours’ conversation?” and “how far is it consistent with wisdom to banter?” To the latter, he opined that “it may be necessary, by way of satyr, to shame some persons out of ill actions, when other methods fail; and it has often been found effectual.” Asked whether women have souls, he proposed that for the person who dared ask this question, “we only wish him the veriest virago in Christendom to his yoke-fellow, who would quickly satisfy him whether her sex had souls or no.”
Samuel tried to curry favor with the Queen by dedicated some (bad) satiric verse to her. In his own defense the author appealed to her:
Because when the foul maggot bites
He ne'er can rest in quiet:
Which makes him make so sad a face
He'd beg your worship or your grace
Unsight, unseen, to buy it.
Mirth and Methodism did not always make friendly bedfellows. While receiving much from the Moravians on piety and faith, John Wesley faulted them for a “tendency toward levity.” In 1758 John set about examining preachers at the annual conference and complained that many in the Methodist movement were “still wanting in seriousness!” In fact, he found a particular congregation in Newcastle quite lax in discipline. He intervened to censure 50 people, 17 for their drunkenness, 2 for cursing, 3 for quarrelling, and an astounding number of 29 for “lightness.”
Charles Wesley, on the other hand, showed more wit in handling clerical challenges. When one former tailor had been made into an “ineffective preacher,” Charles promised to make him a tailor again, noting where his gifts for the kingdom lay. Opposing the ordination of John Nelson, he wrote, “Rather than see thee a dissenting minister, I wish to see thee smiling in thy coffin.”
Wit of the Whitefield
The Methodist Form of Discipline had advised its adherents to “be serious, let your motto be, holiness to the Lord; avoid all lightness and foolish talking.” However, even the leaders were not so dour. George Whitefield was described by the secretary of the Georgian colony, Colonel William Stephens, as having an “open and easy deportment.” His Georgia Sermon included humorous perspectives on how God wakes his “prophets and servants of God… out of their drowsy frames.”
Some minor mirth of Methodists may be seen in the great awakening Anglican evangelist, George Whitfield. While not in any sense a comedian, he was a pulpit stage performer, even potentially a rake and rascal according to detractors. Cross-eyed, he was known for his dramatic squint in appealing to potential converts, thus the opprobrium Dr. Squintum. He was, without par, the great “Enthusiastic Rascal” of the awakening, who “frightens the Ignorant out of their Wits, and afterwards, picks their pockets.”
Doctrines such as “justification by faith alone” led some to attribute antinomian morality to these holy elect. In The Methodist, a Comedy (c1761), Mrs. Cole is one such elect who cannot sin, even though she keeps a house of prostitution while holding on to her religious scruples. Asked directly how she can reconcile such opposites, she replies, “Why the Doctor [Squintum] knows that Works are of no Consequence toward a Future State, and that Faith is all.” In 1763, the following engraving captured Whitefield’s infamous celebrity, illustrating him standing above an outdoor crowd, while in his shadows temptations of fame, avarice, and lust proliferated, and succeeded, even as he was filled with the hot air of the demons.
In his persuasive sermon to engage hearers to obey the call of God to act and contribute money in building an orphanage, and not just listen, Whitefield exploited the story of Haggai and the rebuilding of the Temple after the Babylonian captivity. As many had spent more time building up their own ceiled houses rather than constructing a habitation for God, he scolds lukewarm hearers by reminding them that these ancient Hebrews acknowledged the necessary work of building God’s house, but put it off with godly pretense. As Whitefield preached: “The time is not yet come…. ‘The time is not come!’ What, not in eighteen years?!” The most famous auditor to respond to Whitefield’s appeals was Benjamin Franklin, who was “loosed of all his coins,” copper, silver, and then gold, at this same sermon in Philadelphia.
Many 18th century satirists were concerned, however, about expressing a moral judgment against this religious deviation from the Church of England. Methodists were a bit “righteous overmuch” for them, as they were viewed as both bamboozling quacks and Spiritual Quixotes. In fact, Methodist historian Albert Lyles set out five dangers of Methodism that satirists targeted for castigation and/or amusement: first, Methodists presented an easy but false way to salvation; second, they caused dissension and schism in the Anglican Church; third, they were deliberate hypocrites; fourth, they revived religious fanaticism; and fifth, they were closet Papists and Jacobites in disguise.
In 1776, Welsh poet Evan Lloyd penned his own diatribe against the enthusiastic Methodists (for which he was fined and incarcerated for a bit of libel) entitled, quite derivatively, The Methodist. However, some wit popped out as he castigated the tendency of the movement to call ordinary laymen to the ministry.
The Baker, now a Preacher grown,
Finds Men lives not by Bread alone,
And now his Customers he feeds
With Pray’rs, with Sermons, Groans and Creeds.
The doctrine of God’s providence over all of life was also parodied. Whatever might have happened was proclaimed as the “Lord’s doing,” and became a particular target. In 1760, English dramatist Samuel Foote (The Minor, 1760), once called the “English Aristophanes,” wrote of Whitefield “If he is bit by Fleas, he is buffeted by Satan. If he has the good Fortune to catch them, God will subdue his Enemies under his Feet.”
Methodists, especially those of the ilk of Whitefield, earned their notoriety in curious ways, such as attributing great significance to trivial incidents in their lives. As Whitefield’s mother had suffered from colic during her son’s birth, a satirist suggested that the true nature of her disorder was actually Wind, an emblem of her son’s future greatness, as if he were to be another Aeolus, “belching out his divine Vapors to the Multitude, to the great Ease of Himself, and Emolument of his Auditors.” Many had mocked John Wesley’s tendency to open the Bible and randomly plunk out a verse for spiritual direction (as he did in trying to figure out whether to marry Sophia Hopkey in Savannah—he didn’t). In The Spiritual Quixote, a Methodist Geoffrey Wildgoose tries the same method to see if he should steal a horse or not.
The Saints, A Satire attacked the religious Mountebanks who imposed their will on the multitude showing their concern for the next World only to raise their Fortunes in this one. The same Aeolists (so full of hot air) were lay preachers frequently caricatured as cobblers (who tended men’s soles/souls) or tailors (due to dealing with the filthy rags of righteousness).
Not only prominent characters and Wesleyan doctrines elicited mockery, but so did the Methodist styles of preaching (often extemporaneously and appealing to the passions of auditors, as these “strolling Knaves” addressed their “Tears, And duping those, take Asses by the Ears.”) In The Fanatic Saints (1778), the author alleged that they “were taught to snivel, groan, cant, whine, and wheeze,” as well as use “Stage-Tricks,” to “fill the gloomy Soul with Fear, And wring from Guilt, a Shilling, and a Tear.”
The author of The Methodists, an Humorous Burlesque Poem (1739) claimed that the Methodists, needing a group to support them, would first approach women, finding easy success among the more pliable gender.
What Maid wou’d not be holy kist?
Or who her Teacher can resist?
Or when he tells her of her H---n
What Blessings thence to all are giv’n,…
In those soft Moments, (all the Soul unbent)
The Maid on heavenly Joys intent,
Who could withstand the pleasing Proffer,
Or withstand the pious Lecher’s Offer?
Say wou’d she not in her New Birth
Know some part of her Heav’n on Earth?
The amorous tendency of some Methodists was mocked in reference to New Birth, where the aforementioned Mrs. Cole, the procuress of The Minor, attributes it to “Mr. Squintum; who stept in with his saving grace, got me with the new birth, and I became, as you see, regenerate.” Another elderly woman hears a sermon commending the New Birth by an itinerant Methodist preacher and declares, “New Birth! Lord help me; I have been past child-bearing these many years.”
Taking up the tune, The Mock-Preacher (1939) sought to “please the Town” trumpeting the Wesleyan clergy with “severe Satire and Bawdy.” Much of the satire against Methodists aimed at defending the good and the true against what was viewed as “the eccentric, the anti-social, the freethinker, the profligate, and the antinomian” spirit of this breakaway Anglican sect. Attempting to expose the Enthusiasts and Zealots, writers like Richard Graves employed satire in trying to prevent religion “from becoming ridiculous.” In works like his The Spiritual Quixote, satirists attack one overriding theme, the overweening spiritual arrogance of the sanctified Methodist. In contrast to the Ranters, they are viewed as too “overmuch righteous.” Satiric engravers like Thomas Rowlandson countered with images that rebuked the immorality of certain clergy in his portrayal of an Enthusiastic Methodist, entitled “A Man of Feeling” (1771). In the drawing, a cleric friskily feels his female parishioner.
Goldsmith is funnier in She Stoops to Conquer (1773), particularly in the eulogy for the lately departed Squire Lumpkin, who is lauded for his keeping the best horses, dogs and girls in the whole country. The praise is musically set in a song from his Tony, who screeches lyrics about “damning bookish schoolmasters and Methodist preachers.” His schoolmasters are addled with brains as puzzled as a parcel of pigeons. Tony belts out verses of a rousing drinking song. As a delightful drunk and lying lout, he praises liquor with merry abandon and a “Toroddle, toroddle, toroll!”
When Methodist preachers come down,
A preaching that drinking is sinful,
I’ll wager the rascals a crown,
They always preach best with a skinful.
But when you come down with your pence,
For a slice of their scurvy religion,
I’ll leave it to all men of sense,
But you, my good friend, are the pigeon.
Toroddle, toroddle, toroll!
For Goldsmith, the enthusiastic eloquence of Methodist preachers was due in large to the inspiration of liquor.
Even in the American colonies certain actions merited comic responses. When Francis Asbury ordained Thomas Coke, Charles Wesley, who protested against such ecclesiastical actions, quickly penned:
So easily are bishops made, By man’s or woman’s whim?
W[esley] his hands on C[oke] hath laid, But who laid hands on him?
A Roman emperor, it’s said, His favorite horse a consul made;
But Coke brings other things to pass, He makes a bishop of an ass.
Modern Mirth and Mocking
The mocking and mirthful responses to Methodist continue to this day. When Roman Catholic Stephen Colbert held his comedy show, he challenged the Methodists with “What, the Anglican Church wasn’t heretical enough for you?” His former conspirator, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, commented on the interfaith setting for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding and tweaked their bland modern caricature, remarking that “Being a Methodist is easy. It’s like the University of Phoenix of religions; you just send them 50 bucks and click ‘I agree’ and you are saved.” It would sting a church that was more concerned over diet than doctrine.
However, before he retired, Garrison Keillor put it back in perspective: "We make fun of Methodists for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed, and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese. But nobody sings like them....If you were to ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Methodist-less place, to sing along on the chorus of 'Michael row your boat ashore' they would look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this with Methodists, they'd smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road! I do believe this: People, these Methodists, who love to sing in four-part harmony are the sort of people you could call up when you're in deep distress. If you are dying, they will comfort you. If you are lonely, they will talk to you. And if you are hungry, they will give you tuna salad!" [N.B. That's in the north. In the south it’s definitely potato salad].
It is still a good religion, one that welcomes mirth and invites the mocking any people of God so richly deserve. So, that even now, on the animated series, King of the Hill, Arlen’s First Methodist clergy, Reverend Thompson and Reverend Karen Stroup tend the faithful. When asked to define Methodism, Stroup answered, “Oh that’s easy, Methodism is a rejection of Calvinism.”
-Professor Terry Lindvall teaches Religious Studies Department in the areas of faith, film and humor at Virginia Wesleyan College. Greg West is chaplain at the college and co-teaches a course in Methodism and leads tours of the Wesleyan Revival in Great Britain.