Friday, 6 February 2009

A way station en route to the birth of Trades Unions

Just over 50 years after the end of the English Commonwealth, and the demise of the Levelers a new movement, towards a more egalitarian society, was spawned with the birth of John Wesley (1703).

I can certainly remember events from 50 years ago, and with the tales of my parents and grandmother I am aware of the events of 100 years ago (for example, my grandmother told me of the time when she, as a school-girl, saw Queen Victoria).

So it is at least possible that John Wesley had heard of the Commonwealth period, and of the Levelers.

Born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, to his parents Susannah and Samuel Wesley; young John (following in his father’s footsteps) was ordained as Priest in the Church of England when he was 24 years old.

He served for a while as a Chaplain in the colony of Georgia, but priggish as he was, he fell afoul of Governor Oglethorpe.

Returning to England he experienced a change from head religion to heart religion, through the influence of Moravian Christians. This took place on May 24th 1738 (when he was 35 years old).

The “conversion” changed John Wesley, and it is possible that it changed English society.

For in 1739 Wesley was persuaded by George Whitfield to preach, not from Church pulpit, but to the masses in the open air.

(I am happy to remind you that this took place in the district of Hanham in Bristol - my home City!)

Wesley message appealed to the poor and downtrodden who had been ignored by the Church of England.

His message was not only about personal salvation. It was also about social improvement and reform.

Wesley was an abolitionist. He advocated prison reform.

So the followers of Wesley, (eventually known as Methodists) became social reformers. From their stock arose an important British political movement, known today as the “Labour Party”.
The history of the Labour Party is a couple of days away. We must address the “Combination Laws” and the “Tolpuddle Martyrs” before we get there.

For now let’s celebrate John Wesley and his influence for and with the poor.

Let’s also remember that Wesley’s programmes were not radical in themselves. Instead they enabled the emergence of a “respectable” working class. That class was the stock from which I emerged.

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