The Last Methodist:
Chapel and Change in Postindustrial Northern England



Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins

University of Melbourne
goodwin@unimelb.edu.au

In August 2012, in a Methodist chapel in the small West Yorkshire district of Lyng Valley, the anthropologist preached to the converted. I had been embedded amongst the congregation at Snay Top Chapel for the past year. Asked to preach, I knew my audience well. I knew their worries and their faithful comforts.
From the pulpit, the congregation of eight looked so sparse in their disparate pews. I recalled the advice of one member: “You’ll have to speak up. You know what they’re like with their hearing.”
Afterwards there were hugs and handshakes, a declaration that I was at least better than the minister, an admission that one woman had not turned her hearing aids on.
A year later the chapel was closed, the congregation disbanded, the pews awaiting sale.

Snay Top Chapel had once claimed a thriving congregation and a popular Sunday School. The annual Anniversary celebration’s abundant tea and cakes were an anticipated treat for the faithful throughout Lyng Valley. By my fieldwork, the congregation was tiny, all over seventy and most over eighty, the Sunday School was empty, the gas bill an envelope of fear. There was no longer a full-time minister and even the incumbent did not visit for the 149th Anniversary. In 2011, the congregation spoke in hushed tones of if the chapel closed; in 2012 they began to speak of when.

I have been exploring the closure in my wider ethnographic project on post-industry in Lyng Valley. I shall focus in this paper on the relationship between Methodism and industry and the results post-industry.

‘Methodist’ was first a slur directed at the circle around brothers John (1703-1791) and Charles (1707-1788) Wesley for their methodical religious devotions at Oxford University in the 1720s-30s. In 1738 John Wesley became leader of the evangelising Methodist Society. This was a movement within the Church of England - Wesley was an Anglican priest. Rupture with the Church occurred in 1795, after Wesley’s death. Into the nineteenth century, Methodism expanded almost phenomenally (Wearmouth, 1972 [1937]): congregations multiplied and adherent numbers ballooned (Currie, Gilbert and Horsley, 1977). Why? Industry.

Methodism was, theologically, Arminian. Whereas Calvinism preached salvation for a predestined elect, Arminianism promised salvation for all (Trustees, 2012). This salvation was the reward for the faithful, dutiful and moral. To be saved, a Methodist had to profess faith, live morally, surrender to God and accept earthly hardship. Egalitarian opportunity was both theological and organisational. Methodism emphasised lay preaching and small group fellowship; there were no bishops, little hierarchy and lay people took decision-making roles. A mobilised laity helped spread the faith all the further.

These were the conditions for Methodism’s boom as a characteristically working class faith. It barely registered amongst the upper classes (Wearmouth, 1972 [1937]) but thrived in areas dominated by mining, fishing and industry (Hempton, 1996). Growth areas were typified by a weak Church of England presence (Hempton, 1996); tardy in response to change, the Church was unprepared for the population surges accompanying industrialism, particularly in the North of England, whilst Methodism was structured around evangelism. At its peak, Methodism claimed one in six of Yorkshire’s population (Wearmouth, 1972 [1937]).

Perhaps the most significant (Hempton, 1996) account of industrial-era Methodism is that of EP Thompson (1968) in The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson wrote while living in West Yorkshire, in fact not very far from Lyng Valley. Himself from a Methodist family, he understood the faith as at once genuinely compassionate and almost brutally obsessed with sin. Arminian belief in free will (Trustees, 2012) rendered responsibility for avoiding sin individual and imperative (Thompson, 1968; Wearmouth, 1972 [1937]). Methodists could be expelled for offences including levity, profanity, swearing and poor chapel attendance (Thompson, 1968); temperance from alcohol was underlined. Though one may have been saved by faith, relapse constantly lurked. For Thompson (1968:50), “Methodism condemned working people to a kind of moral civil war - between the chapel and the pub, the wicked and the redeemed, the lost and the saved.”

Morality, fear and salvational promise inculcated stoic endurance, self-discipline and a dutiful work ethic. In this, Thompson (1968) argues, Methodism was undeniably implicated in industrial exploitation. If Methodism was industrial faith, so too was it industrial subjectivity.

Lyng Valley was a classic locale for the development of an entrenched Methodist tradition. The district lacked a resident landowning elite, the Church had minor presence and lax influence. The textile industry arrived early and rapidly dominated the district; both Methodist and Baptist chapels proliferated alongside and by the late nineteenth century there was at least one chapel in every village and hamlet.

Lyng Valley (as I demonstrate in my wider research) was socially characterised by a specifically textile individualism (in contrast to coal mining communalism, e.g. Dennis, Henriques and Slaughter, 1956; Metcalfe, 1990; Dawson, 2002a, 2002b, 2010). In textile labour with piece rate wages, an individual’s capacity to deftly work a machine determined earnings and collaboration meant wage loss. Individualism radiated further: demonstrating capacity, autonomy, self-care and resilience became requirements for social acceptance. Methodism articulated textile individualism almost completely.

Lyng Valley’s chapels tended to textile toilers. Preachers acknowledged the hardships of labouring lives and promoted gritty endurance as a precursor to heavenly recompense. To set oneself as stolidly as Yorkshire stone, to meet the work bell’s ring, spurn the pub and settle attentively in the Sunday morning pew, was to be moral. It was a redemptive cosmology for the earthly realities of humming looms and hurrying needles.

It’s not difficult to consider the entwinement of this with the perpetuation of industrial inequalities. Many Lyng Valley chapels, including Snay Top, were, indeed, sponsored by industrialists. Though textile entrepreneurs often came from lower social ranks with Methodist connections (Thompson, 1968) and likely saw themselves as genuinely proselytising, Methodist values were nevertheless convenient. Father Alban, Lyng Valley’s incumbent Catholic priest, rather cynically told me:

there were the workers with these ideas of sobriety and the work ethic and so forth, and heaven help you if you got drunk on Saturday night and didn’t turn up to [chapel] on Sunday. And you could be saved and go to heaven, but you had to work hard in the mills to get there. So the mill owner built the chapels and the mill owner sent them to the factories and the mill owner became God.

So far, so Thompson. But Thompson’s tale stops at Methodism’s height. His is a story of industrial making. Even as he wrote in the 1960s, Methodist adherence was declining (Currie, Gilbert and Horsley, 1977). From 1970 to 2006, adherence halved (Brierley, n.d.). This is a story of postindustrial un-making. By the time of my fieldwork, Lyng Valley’s textile industry was forty years dead; industrial faith was slowly shuffling after it. Father Alban reflected that if the mill owners had been God, then the end of the textile industry meant metaphysical absence. One lay preacher told me, “Methodism is dying out … I don’t know how much longer it will be around.” 

Snay Top Chapel’s closure probably became inevitable thirty years ago with the demise of its Sunday School. Inculcating new generations of faithful, Sunday Schools were integral to Methodism’s reproduction (Hempton, 1996; Thompson, 1968). In Lyng Valley, this resulted in what some informants dubbed “born and bred Methodism” (see also Barker, 2012). But, from the 1970s, few Sunday Scholars matured into devout Methodists; enrolments dwindled and teachers felt that they had become (in the words of one), “a glorified babysitting service in the end.” Yet the chapels were unsuccessful at recruiting new members by other means. At Snay Top, Sunday School closure truncated the congregation, condemning them to dwindle through age, infirmity and death.
This, then, is the postindustrial end of industrial faith.

A small, weathered sign beside a rotting side door advised that the Sunday Service is at 10.30am. The congregation began to arrive at 10am. Punctuality was essential: the doors were locked before the service began and no latecomers were admitted. They gathered, first, in the Sunday School hall, downstairs in the two storey chapel building. It was cavernous and decaying. Bare stone walls showed patches of damp; stone windowsills were stained green with mould, the glass above milky and warped. The varnish had long worn from dull, buckled floorboards. Beige stockings stuffed with newspapers filled gaps between floor and walls. The room was furnished with Victorian-era school benches, facing a curtained stage. A few benches had their seats covered with garish old carpet and here the congregation would sit, wrapped in their coats and scarves against the cold that suffused the room whatever the season.

After a time they would rouse themselves and shuffle towards the stage, passing through a mildewed curtain that had been drawn back at its wing. Amongst a collection of stacked chairs and folded trestles, a narrow staircase stretched up. Murmurs of chatter and the occasional wheeze marked the congregation’s heavy steps. The stairs twisted once, twice, and then the space changed.

The chapel proper was carpeted, with plastered walls in warm red and yellow hues. There were three columns of pews in numbered stalls. Heading the left column, a square area was furnished with tiny children’s chairs and a basket of books and toys. Shelves of worn hymn books waited at the opposite side. The pews faced a narrow raised dais, where a small table covered with a white linen cloth bore fresh flowers in a pretty glass vase. Behind, higher, was a small pulpit and behind again tiered choir stalls. On the wall above a large, plain wooden cross rested upon rough-hewn Yorkshire stone. From another wall hung a large picture of Jesus, long-haired and looking over his shoulder with a somewhat startled expression. On a shelf underneath sat a coin box with ‘every little helps’ handwritten on a card. Next to this was a framed ‘Cradle Roll of Our Church’; there had been no baptismal entries for five years.
At the preacher’s entry, the organ yawned and the congregation stood after the first bar. One of their favourite hymns ran:

Not a burden we bear,
Not a sorrow we share,
But our toil He doth richly repay;
Not a grief or a loss,
Not a frown or a cross,
But is blest if we trust and obey.

Chorus:
Trust and obey,
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
But to trust and obey.

For Alastair, Lyng Valley’s Superintendent Minister, Snay Top Chapel was “a horrible building, ugly … such a drain on resources to keep it together.” For the administrating Muchbrough Methodist Circuit, funds were tight and weekly collections paltry. Further, the Circuit bore an awkward monumental legacy. Nick, a lay official, told me: “These big old chapels everywhere … that was the mill owners. They all built them to show they had money and power and so forth. Even at the time they were never full.” Oversized Victorian buildings were costly to heat and maintain and difficult to upgrade. Nick described the industrial chapels as “a drain on resources … a noose around our necks.” Snay Top Chapel was seen as a blighted, crumbling sink for funds. Within financial strictures and administrative accountability, Circuit retrenchment was necessary.

            Alastair reasoned that ailing chapels, like Snay Top, should be closed and their congregations amalgamated. He maintained faith in Methodism’s future, however, telling me: “If you look at the figures, Methodism should have petered away into nothing. Could the last Methodist out the door please switch off the lights? But we’re still here. God still has work for us to do.” Yet as he interpreted it, the work of God in Lyng Valley was quite plain: “God is closing chapels.”

            If God was closing chapels, the Circuit was hardly sentimental. Alastair, though, was sympathetic. Describing ministry to declining congregations as “hospice care,” he explained to me that his philosophy towards Snay Top was “to give them my best,” preaching to their concerns and offering an enjoyable performance.

            As I stood at the pulpit that August day, I knew that the congregation wanted to hear the comforting precepts of industrial faith. I knew too that, just as socio-economic forces had produced Methodism’s extraordinary rise, so too were contemporary socio-economic changes pushing its decline. In a postindustrial present, the chapel could not weather change.


References


Barker, P. (2012). Hebden Bridge: A Sense of Belonging. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd.

Currie, R., Gilbert, A., & Horsley, L. (1977). Churches and Churchgoers: Patterns of Church Growth in the British Isles Since 1700. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hempton, D. (1996). The Religion of the People: Methodism and Popular Religion c.1750-1900. London: Routledge.

Thompson, E. P. (1968). The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes. (2012). Who We Are. Retrieved June 25, 2013, from http://www.methodist.org.uk/who-we-are/

Wearmouth, R. F. (1972 [1937]). Methodism and the Working Class Movements of England 1800-1848. Clifton: Augustus M. Kelley.