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Oldstone-Moore, Christopher; Hugh Price Hughes: Founder of a New Methodism, Conscience of a New Nonconformity



Oldstone-Moore, Christopher; Hugh Price Hughes: Founder of a New Methodism, Conscience of a New Nonconformity (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999) Pp. x + 393. $82.95 CAN.

ISBN: 0 7083 1468 6


This fine book, published in 1999, appears to have lurked in a Sheol-like underworld for several years, only recently to emerge among the living. It ably acquaints readers with the vision, theology, courage and suffering of a Methodist giant who applied himself relentlessly to the challenges his era brought before him.

The book aims at providing a critical analysis of the ideas and work of Hughes. Herein it sheds light on aspects of British history treated only slightly elsewhere. Along the way it schools readers profoundly in the origins of the ecumenical movement in Britain , Methodism’s contributions to the women’s movement, and the nature of the “Nonconformist Conscience.”

Hughes (1847-1902), the most prominent spokesperson for British Methodism during the latter half of the 19th century, maintained that two matters characterized modernity: the rise of learning among the masses (together with the newly politicized workers’ demand for social democracy), and the concomitant rise of cultured Christians. The latter’s apprehension of and zeal for the Kingdom could guide, support and elevate a movement that would heal class divisions (they were worse in Britain than anywhere on the Continent) and defuse the social evils that frustrated society in its appointment to reflect the glory of God. To his life’s end Hughes tolled the six evils that he had identified as especially iniquitous: slavery, drunkenness, the social evil [sexual impurity with its attendant degradation and disease], ignorance, pauperism and war. Yet in all of this he never proffered panaceas, always insisting that a deepening of the spiritual life in clergy and leaders remained Methodism’s most urgent need.

Knowing the allegiance that the Free Churches enjoyed in Britain , Hughes urged them to shed their inferiority and assert themselves as the vanguard of renewal. His first target was the liquor traffic. Knowing that Hogarth’s painting, ” Gin Lane ,” was no exaggeration, he insisted that liquor-abuse and misery were alike cause and consequence of each other. Both would have to be attacked.

Next he turned to the “Contagious Diseases Act”, meant to limit the spread of venereal disease. In fact it amounted to government sanction of prostitution. It also violated the human rights of women, subjecting them to invasive examinations. Since the Act pertained only to women, it enforced a double standard; since it was applied only to “common” prostitutes, it thickened class distinctions; since its real purpose was to provide VD-free fornication for armed forces personnel, it was reprehensible. Prostitutes, said Hughes, were dealt with “as sewers are treated” by sanitation engineers; they were dehumanized. (Congregationalists and Baptists shrank from his “indecent” public pronouncements.) The Establishment “packed” on him, some of its members glad to avail themselves of sexual opportunities rendered as risk-free as possible. Hughes remained unintimidated. His work here typified his lifelong, “holistic” conviction: the spiritual well-being of the individual, together with a just social life, and all of this supported where possible by parliamentary legislation urged by Christians.

Yet it must never be thought that Hughes was a thinly-disguised leftist who advocated social dismantling. He both supported and profited from the meetings of the Holiness Convention, reconsecrating himself to God in 1875, vowing his “all” to God without qualification or reservation. His rededication here coincided with his recognition that he had expected more from politics than it could deliver: only utmost spiritual renewal could effect national transmutation. Not surprisingly, then, his pastorates in an upscale London suburb and in Oxford found his ministry reverberating with evangelistic urgency. Yet always aware that “heat” and “light” belong together, he gained an advanced degree in philosophy from the University of London , and also introduced 1000-seat lecture halls into new Methodist church buildings, insisting that the farthest-ranging education of the laity was now non-negotiable in the Methodist ethos.

At the same time he knew that evil is most entrenched when most systemic. For this reason he came to embrace “socialism”, yet always a socialism informed by evangelism and, reciprocally, an evangelism infused with socialism. He was the first prominent Wesleyan preacher to declare himself a Christian socialist. “Have your right hand on political economy, your left on works of socialism, and before you the open Bible,” he urged every minister. (His “socialism” meant “social alleviation;” it never approached Marxism, advocating neither social levelling nor a state-planned economy.)

Hughes’ greatest achievement was the Forward Movement. The Methodist church was singularly positioned for this in that it was zealous for evangelism, assumed responsibility for the social well-being of people (Anglican claims to social reconstruction Hughes deemed insufficiently evangelical) and could form a new national consciousness. Convinced that Anglicanism was duplicitous on account of its relationship to the governing classes, Hughes felt that only Methodism could address social horrors in Britain . When it was reported that parents sold 13-year old daughters into prostitution for as little as five pounds, Hughes expostulated, “Can there be found a more shameful abuse of the power of wealth?” A colleague made such a purchase to prove it could be done, and then published an account of it in the Pall Mall Gazette. While some Methodists recoiled from tough confrontation, Hughes was adamant. The challenge he recognized here he deemed to be Methodism’s crossroads: either it demonstrated its capacity for effecting spiritual renewal with consequent social and national renewal (private charity, for instance, could never address systemic poverty) or it faded into the obscurity of a backwater sect.

Crucial to the Movement was the formation of the “Sisters of the People.”   These “Sisters” were more than the centuries-old deaconesses who had customarily administered material relief. Rather they promoted women’s equality, lobbied aggressively for social transmutation and political liberation, and preached at open-air services. Foregoing vows, they lived together and dressed distinctively. They were anything but mere soup-ladlers.

The Movement’s greatest crisis concerned overseas missions. It came to light that Methodist missionaries in India lived far above the people they were sent to serve, were paid far more than Methodist preachers at home, and accommodated their gospel to the Brahmins among whom they glided. (American Methodist missionaries in India , it was noted, were paid far less yet seemed vastly more effective.) The contradiction was resolved, but not before Methodist officialdom, embarrassed and angry, nearly censured Hughes.

The Movement’s greatest notoriety concerned Charles Stewart Parnell and the controversy around Irish Home Rule. Long a supporter of the latter, Hughes was aghast when the Irish continued to support Parnell despite his protracted adultery with Kitty O’Shea, wife to an Irish member of Parliament. “What is morally wrong can never be politically right,” Hughes repeated as often as he reiterated purity to be a political principle. In the wake of the conflagration Nonconformists gathered around him more tightly than ever.

In the second surge of the Movement he gave himself unstintingly to the recovery of the Church’s unity. Attacked by the high-church faction of Anglicanism, he pronounced it a threat to religious freedom, insisting that Free Church Christians were true “Scriptural Catholics.”   His leadership here was recognized in his election as first president of the National Council of Evangelical Free Churches.

Soon elected as well (1898) as president of the Methodist Conference, he reminded everyone that the local congregation remained the heart of the church: “I am very glad you have put a circuit minister in the chair.” From his chair he continued to press for old age pensions, better education for the socially underprivileged, and improved housing for the poor. Yet even more ardently he struggled for Methodism’s emphases: the necessity of conversion and Christian perfection, the latter being self-forgetful love for God and neighbour in self-abandonment to the Kingdom’s future in the world.

Hughes had brought English spiritual life out of 19th century doldrums; he had rendered Nonconformity a political force; he had seen Methodist laity become the people’s leaders through such developments as the Trades Unions. In it all the luminosity of Jesus Christ had remained the “whence” and “whither” of his life and work.

Upon learning of Hughes’ desire to enter the ministry, his father, a physician, had said, “I should rather my son be a Methodist preacher than the Lord Chancellor of England.” Thirteen years after Hughes’ death David Lloyd George, chancellor of the Exchequer and soon to be prime minister of Great Britain, unveiled a portrait of Hughes and told the huge crowd what he had been thinking when he had attended Hughes’ funeral: “There lies silent the greatest spiritual force my generation has produced for a generation.”

[Victor Shepherd: Professor of Historical Theology: Tyndale Seminary, Toronto ]