EP Thompson on Methodist ‘psychic masturbation’

December 27, 2013 at 5:26 pm (Christianity, class, good people, Guardian, history, intellectuals, Jim D, literature, Marxism, religion, workers)

EP Thompson

Above: EP Thompson 

Today’s Graun quite rightly praises EP Thompson’s magisterial The Making of the English Working Class, on what may or may not be the exact fiftieth anniversary of its publication. But whether the book was first published in November or December 1963 is of little importance: as the Graun states, “No historian of British society has since produced a book to match [it]…Through 900-odd pages the book crackles with energy, as it uses scraps of evidence such as popular songs and workshop rituals to paint a picture of workers’ lived ‘experience.'”

It is, however, depressingly significant that the Graun‘s one criticism is of Thompson’s negative and entirely disrespectful attitude towards religion, and Methodism in particular: “[Thompson’s political commitment] led to some poor judgements (Methodism as ‘psychic masturbation’).” Such a robust attitude to religion is, of course, in stark contrast to the grovelling stance adopted by much of today’s liberal-‘left’, typified by the Graun and the New Statesman.

Such pro-religion criticisms were made during Thompson’s lifetime and it’s interesting to note that in the preface to the 1980 edition, he makes a point of stating “I remain unrepentant as to my treatment of Methodism.” For those readers who do not have a copy of the book to hand, here’s a flavour of what Thompson wrote about Methodism. It’s worth noting that he attacks it not just because of its baleful effect on industrial militancy, but also because of its repression of human personality, spirit and sexuality (noting also that the two go very well together):

“Nothing was more often remarked by contemporaries of the workaday Methodist character, or of Methodist home-life, than, than its methodical, disciplined and repressed disposition. It is the paradox of a ‘religion of the heart’ that it should be notorious for the inhibition of all spontaneity. Methodism sanctioned ‘workings of the heart’ only upon the occasions of the Church; Methodists wrote hymns but no secular poetry of note; the idea of a passionate Methodist lover in these years [the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries – JD] is ludicrous. (‘Avoid all manner of passions’, advised Wesley.) The word is unpleasant; but it is difficult not to see in Methodism in these years a ritualised form of psychic masturbation. Energies and emotions which were dangerous to social order, or which were merely unproductive (in Dr Ure’s sense) were released in the harmless in the harmless form of sporadic love-feasts, watch-nights, band-meetings or revivalist campaigns” – excerpted from Chapter 11, ‘The Transforming Power of the Cross.’


  1. Ben said,

    “…Methodism … a ritualised form of psychic masturbation…”

    One could equally well say of the working class that “they are either tugging at their forelocks or tugging at their foreskins”.

    This kind of polemic does not advance understanding of either the material world or the metaphysical one. But it is a fact that enthusiasts of scientific materialism have much more to answer for than the Methodists. The worst the Methodists ever did was to denounce others as “worms”. The communists actually turned tens of millions of innocent souls into food for worms.

  2. Rosie said,

    William Cobbett detested Methodists, who he regarded as freeloaders on the poor and also as killjoys of what pleasures the poor could enjoy.

  3. EP Thompson on Methodist ‘psychic masturbation’ | OzHouse said,

    […] Dec 27 2013 by admin […]

  4. Robin Carmody said,

    I’m in two minds on all this stuff. I strongly suspect my own Methodist background – which was broadly Christian Socialist, in the worst possible place and time for such a thing – has been partially responsible for my own fear of sheer pleasure and sheer enjoyment. And I can certainly see why it could be condemned from any kind of further-Left perspective, where it would be seen as taking the working class and nailing them to an established institution, neutralising their anti-establishment politics, and therefore in some ways more actively worthy of contempt than the C of E (because nearer to political home).

    The book was published at a time – the exact moment, if one can be pinned down – when the Methodist tradition of puritan socialism was being challenged from within the working class in terms of popular culture as never before, something from which the church never fully recovered. In the long term, of course, the association of Methodism with Christian Socialism would be seriously challenged by Margaret Thatcher’s coming from a Methodist background, and much of her persona and worldview did actually betray those origins, just inverted and then turned outwards: she was fanatically ideological in a way Tories had traditionally seen as the territory of the other side, she had a messianic evangelism far removed from the polite, diffident Anglicanism of traditional Toryism, and she hated the C of E establishment just as passionately as any Christian Socialist, she just wanted to put something entirely different in its place.

    • apache2 said,

      Cooks can Govern by C L R James! The planters who owned Slaves couldn’t hold any position within the Methodist church which resaon It became more Popular with Coloreds in amercia! Main focus is the more distant the negro or swf church is form euro Control the more the diva shout in Sundays like the 1st contact from Aries constellatin can use further Research james L age 67 vietnam vet via wan dcsbm

    • dagmar said,

      “I strongly suspect my own Methodist background – which was broadly Christian Socialist, in the worst possible place and time for such a thing – has been partially responsible for my own fear of sheer pleasure and sheer enjoyment. ”

      Didn’t have the same effect on all Methodists (who are allowed to drink alcohol these days!), I seem to remember one Rev. who had no problem with pleasure and enjoyment until recently running (into the abyss) my bank.

  5. Jack S, London said,

    talking of history. I’m trying to get in contact with Jim D to ask him some questions about it, but I can’t find any contact details on the web… you couldn’t drop me an email to saunders.js(at)gmail.com could you? Ta.

  6. Jim Denham said,

    I’ve just received this email from Scott Hamilton:


    Hi Jim,

    was going to post this to your blog but couldn’t get round the password stuff:

    You should come to Tonga, Jim, where I spent the year just passed teaching: the royal family there have their own Wesleyan church, and the main opposition church is also Wesleyan! I gave a seminar trying to relate EPT’s take on Methodism to the Tongan situation: I’m not sure how well it went down. To be fair, there have been some pretty respectable scholars, including Hobsbawm and Raph Samuel, who have argued that Methodism was not necessarily a barrier to involvement by workers in movements like Chartism: in his essay on the subject, which was published in Labouring Men, Hobsbawm differentiates between primitive and other types of Methodism, and cites evidence for the heavy involvement of primitive Methodists in labour unrest in nineteenth century Yorkshire.

    Anyway, great to see the Guardian giving The Making a birthday writeup. Harvard University ran a conference on The Making recently which featured scholars from round the world and was broadcast free on the net. Some of the papers that were delivered are now up in pdf, too.

    My Manchester Uni Press book on EPT is now out in paperback and doing its best to surf on the wave of the anniversary…http://manchester.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.7228/manchester/9780719084355.001.0001/upso-9780719084355

  7. james L davis said,

    “my main purpose in preacing was to save my own soul-John Wesley 2 the Incredible Methodist were strong Abolistionst unlike the Founding dads ! ‘ the merchant hath no country Thomas Jefferson 3 The Dead should not Govern the Living Thomas Paine “If Slavery isn”t wrong Nothing is wrong Honest abe Lincoln 4 Cooks can Govern C L R James :Iknw Professor James as student andHe knew eric Willams (Capitalism and Slavery ) Paul Robeson ,George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah ,Pro James Visted Trotsky in Old Mexico who knew Khrushchev, Lenin who visted Marx Daughters james L via Vietnam 6-67 US Army via jim crow hs South Carolina via washn dc “Wake up Everbody via Curtis Mayfield + the Letter C via Gil Scott Hernon

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