by Ruth Mason (University College London)
Ruth is a PhD student in the Geography Department at University College London. Her research focuses on the designed spaces and material culture of Wesleyan Methodism in London between 1851 and 1932 and what they can reveal about contemporary congregational experiences of Methodism. Alongside other graduates from the Royal College of Art and Victoria & Albert Museum’s History of Design MA, Ruth is a founding member of the Fig.9 experimental History of Design Collective. She is also a co-editor of www.visit1862.com, an online space dedicated to exploring the 1862 International Exhibition.
A ceramic mug. 12.2 cm in diameter. 12.2 cm high. On each side of the cup is a handle. It is made of lead-glazed earthenware. Its white ceramic base is decorated with underglaze transfer-printed green foliage, repetitive patterns and the word ‘LOVEFEAST’.
This object is both familiar and unfamiliar. Ceramic in material form, in many ways it is similar to the mug you areMetho presently drinking your tea or coffee from. However, this mug is much bigger, it has two handles rather than one, and while your mug might have your name or a picture of your favourite film character on it, this mug is branded with the strange word ‘LOVEFEAST’.
This cup is a ‘loving cup’, or ‘love-feast mug’. Dating from 1840, it was used in Methodist chapels during ‘love feasts’ and is one of many love-feast mugs made and used by Methodists in Victorian Britain.
Instigated by the ideas and practices of the Anglican Minister John Wesley, the Methodist Church originated in the eighteenth century and is one of many protestant non-conformist groups such as the Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Initially established within the Church of England, it gained its name in response to the methodical approach it encouraged followers to take in their pursuit of holiness. Methodism became a distinct denomination, rather than a movement within the Church of England, after Wesley’s death in 1791 and during the course of the nineteenth century split into several different factions, including: Wesleyans, Primitive Methodists and the Methodist New Connexion.
Despite these denominational varieties, love-feasts were practiced in Methodist chapels throughout Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century. Love-feasts brought Methodists together to share food, stories of answered prayers and spiritual experiences. Initiated by John Wesley, these gatherings of like-minded Christians were inspired by the practices of the Moravian Brethren in Germany and were intended to develop partakers’ faith as they learnt from their Methodist community and the work of God in the lives of their spiritual brothers and sisters.
Some aspects of the mug’s design had practical purposes. Its two-handled design allowed it to be easily passed between congregational members and its large size enabled it to hold enough water to be shared between all participants. Some aspects of the mug’s design positioned it within contemporary religious practices. The word ‘LOVEFEAST’ labelled it as a religious object for a particular religious activity and its two-handled design resembled contemporary communion chalices. But some aspects of the mug’s design were more confusing. The mug’s cheap and readily available ceramic form made it materially similar to contemporary domestic objects and it’s decorative patterns and foliage were not unique to Methodist love-feast mugs, but were commonly used on contemporary domestic ceramic wear. Therefore, this love-feast mug was not a simple ‘religious object’. The material it was made out of, the shape it was made into and its aesthetic qualities, resulted in it constantly moving between religious and secular meanings.
The fluidity of the this love-feast mug and the constant tension between its religious and secular meanings, is in many ways representative of the ideal purposes of Victorian Methodism. Maintaining Wesley’s desire to methodically engage with God and his divine character, nineteenth-century Methodists were also involved in outward facing evangelism and social action. Interaction with the ‘unchurched’ was not new in the nineteenth century, persuading the ‘unchurched’ of the benefits of Godly living and converting them to Methodist Christianity had been central to Wesley’s practices from Methodism’s very inception. However, the nineteenth century presented Methodists with a new set of challenges that demanded alterative evangelical practices.
Like all Churches in England, the 1851 Religious Census scared all the branches of the Methodist Church. They became painfully aware of how few chapels were available for England’s ever expanding population. Therefore, in London, the Wesleyan Methodist Metropolitan Chapel Building Fund was established in 1861 to provide financial support for building new chapels. In the early 1870s, the Wesleyan Church also published the Wesleyan Methodist Atlas, explicitly intending to identify parts of the country that had no Wesleyan chapels and were therefore in desperate need of Wesleyan influence. Methodists also began to host different evangelic events designed to appeal their ‘unchurched’ neighbours. At Hinde Street Chapel in Marylebone, sewing classes were organised for local seamstresses, where they could come to make clothes for themselves using material provided by the chapel. The Wesleyan East End Mission purchased the Old Mahogany Bar, an old Music Hall, in 1880 as a hub for their evangelical engagements with local Dockers.
Therefore, nineteenth-century Methodist chapels were simultaneously religious and secular places, like this love-feast mug was both a religious and a secular object.
Baker, Frank, Methodism and the Love Feast (Epworth Press, London, 1956)
Mann, Horrace, (compiled on behalf of the General Register Office) Census of Great Britain, 1851, Religious Worship, England and Wales, Report and Tables (1853)
McGonigle, Herbert, ‘Love-feast’, Dictionary of Methodism in Britain and Ireland, http://www.wesleyhistoricalsociety.org.uk
The Wesleyan Methodist Atlas of England and Wales, Containing Fifteen Plates Carefully designed and arranged by the Rev. Edwin H Tindall (London, Bemrose and Son, n.d.)