The current issue (24 June 2010, p. 2) of the Methodist Recorder, the weekly newspaper for Methodists in Great Britain, reports the death of Stanley Lucas of Cornwall. Aged 110 (he was born on 15 January 1900), he was thought to be not only the oldest male member of the British Methodist Church but one of the oldest men in the world.
Is this sort of longevity characteristic of Methodists? Seemingly, yes. Analysis of the family announcements printed in the Methodist Recorder shows that in 1973 the mean age of death for laity was 77.9 years for men and 83.0 for women, figures which had risen by 2008 to, respectively, 83.9 and 91.1 – well above the life expectancy for the population as a whole.
The position for male Methodist ministers is similar, with a mean age of death of 83.4 years for those whose obituaries appear in the 2009 edition of the Minutes of the Annual Conference and Directory of the Methodist Church. Too few Methodist women ministers die each year to draw any meaningful conclusions, as yet.
Nor is the phenomenon new. For instance, Kenneth Brown (A Social History of the Nonconformist Ministry in England and Wales, 1800-1930, Clarendon Press, 1988, table 5.8) calculated the average age of death for ministers commencing their ministry between the 1830s and 1920s. Thus, for those starting between 1890 and 1919 the average was: Wesleyan Methodist 73.7, Primitive Methodist 74.9 and United Methodist 72.0 years.
Other relevant ministerial data were gathered by Tim Allison, a medical doctor, for his ‘An Historical Cohort Study of Methodist Ministers Examining Lifespan and Socioeconomic Status’ (University of Manchester MSc thesis, 1995). This studied four cohorts of Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist ministers born in 1850-54 and 1880-84. The thesis is partly written up in Tim Allison and Selwyn St Leger, ‘The Life Span of Methodist Ministers: An Example of the Use of Obituaries in Epidemiology’, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Vol. 53, 1999, pp. 253-4.
Likewise, Clive Field’s unpublished Oxford DPhil thesis of 1974 revealed that, until the beginning of the twentieth century, the death rate per 1,000 among lay members of the various Methodist denominations in Britain was appreciably below the national level, especially in Wesleyan Methodism.
Methodist commentators, both in the Victorian era and since, were quick to point out that the longevity of Methodists was not accidental. They posited a clear link between a religious, ‘clean’ and virtuous life on the one hand and a long one on the other. The avoidance of physical and moral excess was especially advocated.
An increasingly important dimension of this for Methodism was abstinence from intoxicating drinks, a stance which was apparently vindicated by data from life assurance companies showing much lower death rates for teetotallers.
In practice, Methodist folk memory has tended to exaggerate the penetration of temperance sentiments among the Methodist laity (for its actual extent, see Clive Field, ‘“The Devil in Solution”: How Temperate were the Methodists?’, Epworth Review, Vol. 27, No. 3, July 2000, pp. 78-93).
Of equal significance, perhaps, particularly during the twentieth century, has been the disproportionate appeal of Methodism to relatively higher socio-economic groups which tend to experience lower mortality rates. This is allied with their residence in suburban, small town and rural areas where environmental conditions also favour longer life.
All in all, the demography of religion, whether historical or contemporary, is a fascinating topic and one which has been relatively little studied in the British context. BRIN would be delighted to hear from anybody who is presently working in this field.
POSTSCRIPT [4 July]: This post has attracted a considerable degree of interest with the media, bloggers and general public.
The Methodist Church issued a press release about it on 25 June entitled ‘Methodists live longer than the average Brit’. This is at:
In turn, this has informed coverage in the print and online news media, including:
‘Methodists “live more than seven years longer than rest of population”’, Daily Telegraph, at:
‘Methodists outliving the average Brit’, Christian Today, at
‘Lives of Methodists are longer than average, statistics suggest’, Church Times, at
‘Longevity a “characteristic of Methodism”’, Methodist Recorder, 1 July [not available online].
The broadcast media have also picked up the research, including Premier Christian Radio on 28 June. Clive Field was interviewed about the findings for the Sunday Sequence programme on BBC Radio Ulster on 4 July.
Prompted by the BRIN research, there is a string of pertinent and sometimes amusing comments about Methodist longevity on the Ship of Fools website at: