By writing a novel that was so intently focused on religion, Eliot risked causing a stir by seeming to sympathize with Methodists--or, conversely, by seeming to denigrate religion in general . Methodism, like other types of non-conformism to the Church of England (the Anglican Church), were extremely unpopular when Eliot wrote this novel. Her work was extremely well researched, however, and it was based on some personal experiences with Methodism.
The Anglican Church had been formed by Henry VIII of England, who officially seperated his country from Catholicism in 1534 when the Pope would not allow him to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to take a new wife. Methodism is a Protestant denomination of Christianity which began in the 18th century and was still quite new in the year in which Eliot sets Adam Bede--1799. Theologically, Methodism emphasizes the idea (common in other denominations) that all people can be saved, an emphasis which appealed to the new industrial workers of England.
Methodism was founded in England by John Wesley and his younger brother, Charles. The two focused on Bible study and personal interpretations of what Jesus said. They also emphasized good deeds, especially visiting the sick in hospitals and the guilty in prisons, trying to help save the souls of those about to die. Dinah visits Hetty in prison not only as her cousin and friend, but also as a Methodist trying to save her soul, according to her tradition.
Eliot worked hard to pinpoint the exact type of talk common among Methodists. She read Southey's Life of Wesley and used details about open-air revivals, evangelism, and bibliomany (opening the Bible at random and reading whatever one sees first as a way to gain divine guidance) for her novel.
Beyond the research that she did, Eliot had a personal experience with Methodism relating to her Aunt Elizabeth, Elizabeth Evans, who married Samuel Evans. She was one of a small number of female preachers who helped spread Methodism through Britain in its early stages. Eliot models the character of Dinah largely on this aunt. Eliot pinpoints the "germ" of her idea to begin work on Adam Bede as a story that her aunt told her as a child, which affected her emotionally. Her aunt described traveling to a Nottingham jail to minister to a young woman who was sentenced to death for murdering her own baby. Elizabeth Evans accompanied her in the death-cart to attend her execution. Eliot made this journey the central scene in her original conception of Adam Bede.