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Installation of Robert Neville as dean of Marsh Chapel and University chaplain, Sunday, September 14, 4 p.m., Marsh Chapel

Week of 12 September 2003· Vol. VII, No. 3

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A Wesley man
Hempton receives 2004 University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award

David Hempton, 2004 University Scholar/Teacher of the Year. Photo by Fred Sway


David Hempton, 2004 University Scholar/Teacher of the Year. Photo by Fred Sway


By Brian Fitzgerald

Can David Hempton ever get enough information about the history of Methodism? That depends on the definition of “enough.”

“ My interest in the Methodist movement goes back over a quarter century and really ought to have been satisfied by now,” he writes in his forthcoming book, An Empire of the Spirit: The Rise of Methodism in a New World Order c. 1730-1880.

But Hempton, an STH professor of church history and a fellow of The University Professors program at BU, isn’t quite content yet. He is well-known for his research, scholarship, and teaching, but above all, he points out, he is still a learner. And there is still a lot to discover about his favorite subject, the rise of Methodism in the 18th and 19th centuries. The story of the expansion of this denomination of Protestantism is a fascinating account of a movement that grew, he says, with “blistering speed.”

“ From a single cell at Oxford University in the 1730s, Methodism grew quickly in England and spread through the British Isles to the United States and Canada,” he says. “Through the two largest missionary societies in the world in the 19th century — British and American, both of them Methodist — it expanded to all six continents by 1880 with 30 to 40 million adherents. At the end of the Civil War, it was the largest Protestant religious denomination in the United States.”

In fact, although BU is nonsectarian, it traces its origins to the Newbury Biblical Institute, the first Methodist seminary in the United States, which was founded in Newbury, Vt., in 1839. The seminary moved to Concord, N.H., in 1847, then to Boston in 1867, where it was chartered anew as the Boston Theological Seminary. In 1869, when BU was founded, the seminary became the University’s School of Theology.

This has been a big year for Hempton. On September 10, for his insatiable appetite for all matters Methodist, along with his award-winning scholarship — not to mention his proven teaching record — he received the 2004 University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award, which is sponsored by the United Methodist Church. Chancellor John Silber presented him with the award, which carries a $2,000 prize, at BU’s new faculty orientation.

The award recognizes outstanding faculty members for their dedication and contributions to the learning arts and to their institution and is conferred at colleges and universities that are historically affiliated with the United Methodist Church. But make no mistake, this accolade isn’t presented just to those who study Methodism. Recipients have included professors in disciplines such as social work, physics, music, math, and political science. Still, Hempton looks upon the coincidence of this year’s honor being conferred upon a scholar in the history of Methodism as a “happy accident,” especially since this past June marked the 300th birthday of John Wesley, the founder of the denomination.

The term Methodist was derived from criticisms by Wesley’s Oxford University colleagues, who accused him of being too organized and methodical. The denomination, characterized by an active concern with social welfare and public morals, emphasizes conversion and salvation through regeneration and a spiritually transformed personal life.

“ The world is my parish,” one of Wesley’s favorite expressions, has been taken as the Methodist motto for mission across the globe. And his words would prove true. “In the book, I try to treat Methodism as a phenomenon not just for a particular country, but as a transnational religious movement,” says Hempton, “and to give people some idea of its scope.”

He dedicates one chapter in the book to opposition to Methodism. “At times, it was vigorously opposed, both in Europe and the United States,” he says. “In its early years, it was regarded as a threat to traditional notions of religion by making its followers’ experience more emotional.” It was also seen by some as disruptive and divisive among families and in villages. For example, Methodists had rituals called “love feasts,” which were rumored to be orgies, but were actually prayer gatherings and Scripture readings, where followers ate a simple meal of bread and water.

An Empire of the Spirit is Hempton’s fifth book, his third on Methodism. Although still in the prepublication stage, it has already won the prestigious Jesse Lee Prize, awarded by the General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church. With published articles on religion and political culture, as well as identity and ethnic conflict, Hempton is interested in other subjects, but he says that he wrote yet another book on Methodism in an attempt to get at its essence. After all, academics and authors are supposed to strive to “penetrate the heart,” he points out, not just describe a chronological history. After his first two books, about Methodism’s rise in England and the British Isles, he wanted to put it in the framework of an international movement. “My purpose now comes from a strong conviction that there is still something to be done on Methodism that has not been done,” he says. “This conviction came after gaining a much deeper acquaintance with Methodism on the American side of the Atlantic.”

Hempton came to BU in 1998, after 19 years of teaching at Queen’s University in Belfast, where he was director of the university’s school of history. He first became interested in the Methodist movement as a Queen’s undergraduate after reading Edward Thompson’s 1963 book The Making of the English Working Class, a history of 19th-century England, its working class, and class conflict. He was hooked by what he calls its “thundering” chapter “The transforming power of the cross,” which is about Methodism and popular politics in England during the industrial revolution.

Hempton’s intellectual love feast is not limited to just Methodist history. He also plans to write about the religious components of world conflict zones, and the comparative secularization trajectories of Western Europe and the United States. He is even planning to publish an article on Vincent van Gogh’s religious sensibilities. Hempton has a passion for history in general, and this devotion, he says, also helps his teaching. “Demonstrating a passion for one’s discipline,” he says, “is the surest way of persuading others of its importance.”


12 September 2003
Boston University
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