If my conjecture about the impact of Wesley's evangelical revival on the nineteenth century working classes is correct I will need more evidence to back it up than I am capable of producing. Nonetheless, I think there is a certain amount of circumstantial evidence around and yesterday I suggested some evidence from Wesley's teaching. At the very least this evidence might encourage further exploration.
Today I want to explore circumstantial evidence from those movements themselves. My first point is that there is plenty of evidence that many of the familiar institutions in modern society originated from the organised working classes rather than from the initiatives of the wealthy. Of course money was needed to, for example build churches, but social institutions were quite another matter.
The retail co-operative movement is particularly interesting as it was founded to provide high quality food to the poor at an affordable price. The customers were the owners and received a share of the profit as a dividend. The growth of this movement is often under-appreciated and as well as hundreds of retail societies, the co-op developed the first wholesale societies and the networks of transport to deliver supplies to the retail societies. Even department stores were an invention of the co-operative movement. The earliest societies also had reading rooms and aimed to educate their customers as well as feed them. This spirit of co-operation spread into libraries, banks, building societies, insurance companies as well as many small mutual aid societies where members paid into a common pool to support those members or their families who fell on hard times. Note I'm not arguing these grew out of formal Methodism but that the ways in which Methodism was organised encouraged similar developments in other fields.
Co-operation or mutuality is another element of these institutions. Mutuality is an approach about which I will have a lot to say in future posts. It is understood by the poor, as they commit to support one another in their poverty. By organising, mutuality could be made more effective. It is not generally understood to be summarised in Jesus' second commandment to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Preachers often say this means we have to love ourselves after our neighbours but this is not the plain meaning of the words. This is not pure altruism, it is care for all as if we are a part of each other. Why? Because we are all loved by God and so the second commandment means everyone including me.
Finally, we should note that Methodism and these movements were democratic. There are many forms of democracy, the two main types being representative democracy (where we elect others to represent us) and the type where we are heard directly. Representative democracy is a convenience, the direct type requires our commitment. It requires our participation in the process even where the final decision may be made by a few elected or agreed leaders.
Wesley was never elected and his societies were run by trusted selected leaders. However, it is interesting to read how he viewed 'conferencing'. Runyon writes:
... Wesley's understanding of "conference" as a means of grace. Whilst it is true that "conference" later became the term for the one hundred preachers Wesley assembled annually to advise him and to conduct the business of Methodism, from the beginning "conferring together" or "conferencing", was the means of opening up new insights and possibilities that could not be arrived at singly. The effect was democratising, ... whether Wesley intended it or not. Its rapid growth from small beginnings resulted in members of the movement having 'a direct say in many decisions ... All this was democracy in action, and ran counter to the authoritarian and hierarchical structure inherited by the Church of England from the Middle Ages.' (Page 126, Runyon's emphasis)
So, what has all this to do with ecumenism? After two months of posts I think I am now in a position to summarise my understanding of what ecumenism is.