Who were the Wesleyan Methodists?
a short introduction
The people called ‘Methodists’
Methodism began in the 1730s as a movement for spiritual renewal within the Church of England. Its principal founders, John Wesley (1703-91) and Charles Wesley (1707-88), were Anglican priests. Born in the market town of Epworth in Lincolnshire, where their father, Samuel, was the Church of England rector, and then educated at Oxford University, the Wesley brothers championed a lively, thoughtful, disciplined and socially engaged approach to Christian faith and life. This first took shape in a group set up by Charles Wesley in Oxford in the late 1720s where students met to study together, to attend church and to bring practical help to poor families and prisoners. Sceptical contemporaries gave this ‘serious’ group some mocking nicknames, including ‘Holy Club’, ‘Bible Moths’, and ‘Methodists’. The last name stuck.
Their quest for peace with God took the Wesleys from Oxford to the new American colony of Georgia in 1735. Returning early in 1738 to a country beginning to experience the first stirrings of the movement often labelled the ‘Evangelical revival’, John Wesley experienced a new assurance of faith at a religious meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, on 24 May 1738. Gradually, the Wesley brothers found their distinctive place within a broad, and sometimes fractious, coalition of evangelical leaders. Their message – a gospel of grace and faith, open to all and leading to a transformed life – was expressed in preaching, personal testimony, popular pamphlets and lyrical hymns. John Wesley was the eighteenth century’s best-selling author and Charles Wesley was one of the most prolific and influential hymn writers in the English language.
The Wesleys’ societies
Working with a small band of colleagues, some fellow-clergy and some lay preachers, the Wesleys established a network of groups across the country. These ‘societies’ served to nurture Methodists in their faith and Christian living, and were bases for further outreach. Charles Wesley married, and settled first in Bristol and then in London, but John Wesley continued an itinerant ministry throughout his life, superintending the growing ‘connexion’ of societies and preachers until his death in 1791.
During the Wesleys’ lifetime the Methodist movement remained within the Church of England. Although Charles Wesley was keen to keep the Methodists in the Church, a growing organisation with its own structure, leadership and activities sat uncomfortably within the Establishment. Some of John Wesley’s actions, particularly his ordination of preachers from 1784 and his vesting of authority in the annual Conference, helped create the conditions for the survival of the movement after his death and then for separation from the Church. There was no formal split; instead, Methodism gradually moved beyond the Church of England into its own independent identity.
The Wesleyan connexion
The Wesley brothers were not the only evangelical leaders in the eighteenth century and theirs was not the only ‘connexion’ of like-minded preachers and local groups. Critics of the revival were inclined to dismiss all evangelicals as ‘Methodists’ or ‘enthusiasts’, terms used as negatively as ‘fundamentalist’ might be used today. So the formal designation of ‘the people called Methodists, in the connexion established by John Wesley’ came to be shortened to ‘Wesleyan Methodists’ or simply ‘Wesleyans’ to distinguish this group from others.
In the first half of the nineteenth century the Wesleyan movement grew rapidly. By its centenary in 1839 the denomination claimed over 400,000 members and an institutional infrastructure to match: thousands of chapels, large and small; day and Sunday schools; a Missionary Society for work overseas; an array of publications; and an army of volunteers serving the Connexion as chapel trustees, local preachers, stewards, class leaders and Sunday school teachers. John Wesley’s small band of ‘travelling preachers’ had become Wesleyan ministers.
Supervising this dynamic enterprise, managing extraordinary expansion and guiding an evolving structure required rare skills, and it is perhaps not surprising that differences of policy, personalities and priorities emerged. These resulted in divisions as a number of groups broke away or were expelled from the ‘old’ Connexion. By mid-century there were half a dozen competing Methodist groups: the Methodist New Connexion, the Bible Christians, the Primitive Methodists, the Wesleyan Methodist Association, the Wesleyan Reformers and the Independent Methodists. Although weakened by these controversies, the Wesleyans remained the largest connexion, with the widest geographical coverage, the broadest appeal across society and the most substantial resources.
The Forward Movement
In the second half of the century Wesleyanism continued to grow, but at a much slower rate. Among the most significant developments of this period were the expansion of overseas missions, a more decisive turn away from the Church of England and towards cooperation with older Nonconformist denominations and an initiative for reform and renewal dubbed the ‘Forward Movement’. Promoted by the Rev. Hugh Price Hughes, founder of the Wesleyan West London Mission, the aims of the Forward Movement were to save people’s souls and to “sanctify their circumstances”. It sought to provide centres of evangelism and, at the same time, work for the relief of poverty and distress. This led to the building of ‘central halls’ in many big cities. Although primarily places for worship, the halls also offered facilities for wholesome entertainment and provided a wide range of social services. Their purpose-built premises were designed to look quite different from the prevailing Gothic style of conventional churches.
The Wesleyans entered the twentieth century conscious of challenges and opportunities, but also aware of their unprecedented strength and influence. These elements came together in the Twentieth Century Fund, launched in 1898 to raise “a million guineas from a million Methodists”. The appeal had raised nearly £1,076,000 by 1904, which was used to build chapels and schools, and to support overseas mission, temperance work and children’s homes, as well to build Westminster Central Hall in London (opened in 1912) as a national centre for the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion.
Methodist union in 1932
The following year conversations towards Methodist union began between the three major Methodist denominations. In 1932 the Wesleyans joined with the Primitive and United Methodist connexions to form the current Methodist Church of Great Britain.