photo of the Wigger book Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America. By John H. Wigger. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. pp. xi, 269 $55.00) reviewed by Leo Hirrel, DuFour Law Library, The Catholic University of America


     One of the most exciting developments in American religious history with the last decade or so has been the expansion of interest to include religious groups previously neglected. While not diminishing the importance of New England Calvinism to American history, the new trends in religious historiography provide a welcome added perspective on the myriad of denominations that flourished during the early republic. In this important book John H. Wigger, a student of Nathan Hatch, has provided a much needed study of Methodists during the early years of this nation.


"Wigger ably chronicles the story of the rise of Methodism, using a combination of published and unpublished primary source material."

     Between the American Revolution and the death of Francis Asbury in 1816 the Methodists literally exploded from a handful of dissenters within the established Anglican church to over 250,000 members plus even more occasionally worshipers. Indeed it had become one of the largest Protestant denominations within the United States. This remarkable growth was attributable to a number of factors. Methodists deliberately appealed to working classes who may have been overlooked by other religions. They were particularly noted for their willingness to accept African-Americans into their communion. The leaders created a system well adapted to the unsettled conditions with the United States. Using circuit riders, supplemented with organized meetings (called classes) the Methodists reached a remarkably large number of souls. All of these activities filled a void within the American religious. In time, however, its very success transformed the nature of American Methodism, as it developed a closer resemblance to the dominant religions, especially with larger numbers settled ministers and church buildings.

     Wigger ably chronicles the story of the rise of Methodism, using a combination of published and unpublished primary source material. This work places the colorful camp meeting within their proper perspective, and demonstrates how the organizational structure played the critical role in shaping American Methodism. He stresses the dedicated circuit riders and the supporting system of lay members. Class meetings, in which small members of the Methodist community met regularly in the absence of a preacher, provided the necessary stability and continuity for the community.

     Wigger's discussion of African Americans within the early Methodist community is especially welcome. During their early years Methodist leaders welcomed both free Blacks and slaves into their community. Indeed Methodism achieved a reputations as the denomination most critical of slavery. In time, however, the interest in African Americans diminished as the church attained respectability within the South.

     In all writing of religious history, the historian must confront the problem of evaluating his sources. The problem is especially acute when reviewing sources from within the denomination studied. Within the competitive environment of early nineteenth century religion, each denomination tended to boast of its own accomplishments. It is not clear from Wigger's writing that he has been sufficiently skeptical of primary source accounts. He accepts the figures for church membership as given with the justification that class meetings exercised strict oversight of their members behavior. Intuitively one would suspect that some classes (and some circuit riders) exercised stricter standards than others. The book conveys a sense of uniformity throughout the extensive Methodist community. If such is the case Wigger might have explained how he reached this conclusion.

     These reservations notwithstanding, Wigger has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the history of American religion. Let us hope that he will produce another volume to carry the story through the antebellum period.

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