Wesley’s Problem with Dissent

John Wesley said of himself, “I live and die a member of the Church of England, and that none who regard my judgement or advice will ever separate from it.”. Many times throughout his ministry Wesley exhorted the Methodist people to remain loyal to the services of the Anglican church. As methodism took larger numbers of dissenters,– men and women who never belonged nor had ties to the established church– animosity to Anglican establishment grew, pressing demands upon Connexional leadership to separate. While the Weleys remained alive, Dissenters in the Connnexion were generally suppressed. But Dissent rose to prominence after the brothers’ passing, severing ties to what many ought to call the “Mother” of English Protestantism.

Nonetheless, Questions of Separation were first addressed during early 1740’s, answering accusations of schism. In 1742 the Conference asked, “Q. 9. Do we separate from the Church?” whereupon the pastors replied in the Minutes,

“We conceive not. We hold communion therewith for conscience sake, by constant attending both the word preached and the sacraments administered therein.” (p. 142 Outler).

The Conference provided further commentary on this matter the next year, publicizing Wesley’s tract, An Earnest Appeal to Men of Religion. Wesley rebuffs criticisms of separation by two claims. First, he defends the United Societies by claiming they ultimately strengthen the piety of the church. Secondly, Wesley  equivocates the difference between visible vs. invisible congregations, saying the latter sort is impossible to split.  Of course, the first defense in the stronger argument since it tends to give a direct reply to the charges leveled against Wesley. Meanwhile, the second reply seems to evade Wesley’s own belief in ecclesiastical election, in which case there’s little difference between the Societies and the Church (unless Enthusaism be mistaken for Perfection). He says,

85. “related to this is another objection that we ‘divide the Church.’ Remember, the Church is ‘the faithful people’, or true believers. Now, how do we divide these? Why, by our societies. Very good. Now the case is plain. We ‘divide them’ by uniting them together. Truly, a very uncommon way of dividing. ‘O, but you divide those who are thus united with each other from the rest of the Church’. By no means. Many of them were before joined to all their brethren of the Church of England (and many were not, until they knew us) by ‘assembling themselves together’ to hear the Word of God, and to eat of one bread and drink of one cup. And do they now forsake that assembling themselves together? You cannot, you dare not say it. You know they are more diligent therein than ever; it being one of the fixed rules of our societies, ‘that every member attend the ordinances of God’, i.e., that he do not divide from the Church. And if any member of the Church thus divide from or leave it, he hath no more place among us. 86. I have considered this objection the more at large because it is of most weight with sincere minds. And to all these, if they have fairly and impartially weighed the answer as well as the objection, I believe it clearly appears that we are neither undermining nor destroying, neither dividing nor leaving the Church. So far from it that we have great heaviness on her account, yea, continual sorrow in our hearts. And our prayer to God is that he would ‘repair the breaches of Zion, and build the walls of Jerusalem’, that this our desolate Church may flourish again and ‘be the praise of the whole earth’.

And since a loyal churchman is also a loyal subject, Wesley next shows how the Methodist Revival has indeed created better countrymen:

“if you had been told that this living knowledge of the Lord would in a short space overspread our land, yea, and daily increase, in spite of all the opposition which the devil and his children did or could make against it, would you not have vehemently desired to see that day, that you might bless God and rejoice therein? Behold, the day of the Lord is come. He is again visiting and redeeming his people…The houses of God are filled; the Table of the Lord is thronged on every side. And those who thus show their love of God show they love their neighbor also, by being careful to maintain good works, by doing all manner of good (as they have time) to all men. They are likewise careful to abstain from all evil. Cursing, Sabbath-breaking, drunkenness, with all other (however fashionable) works of the devil are not once named among them. All this is plain, demonstrable fact, for this also is not done in a corner.” (paragraphs 97-99)

It might be noted in An Appeal Wesley credits making Dissenters into Churchmen where he says, “Many of them were before joined to all their brethren of the Church of England (and many were not, until they knew us)”. According to Wesley, it was the peculiar Glory of the Methodists to be a people who ‘being no sect or party, are friends to all parties, and endeavor to forward all in heart religion’ (p. 556, Sermons). But Wesley says more of this special calling, “Be Church-of-England men still; do not cast away the glory which God hath put upon you, and frustrate the design of Providence, the very end for which God raised you up.” Without a tangent discussion regarding Wesley’s commitments to Primitive Christianity, it’s apparent Wesley believed continuing within the Church of England was crucial to his design. Where the Methodists had been constrainted to leave regular fellowship, Wesley often excuses the Societies on two counts. First, their ministers had been ‘thrust out’ of the Church. Secondly, the Societies would not refuse delivering people from sin who are either neglected by establishment or have never even known the Church. As we discussed in the earlier post (Whitefield’s ‘New Methodism’), the first open-air preaching by the Methodists was at the mining camps outside Bristol, where neither Anglican school nor church building existed.

In 1755 the Conference set Rules respecting good will toward established clergy. The rules are summed in the letter, Reasons Against Separation, attached to the Minutes of the Leeds Conference, which Wesley would often refer to in future admonitions for keeping Church order. This paper enters into some definition of  what is ‘expedient’. Evidently, ‘expedient’ is NOT simply avoiding what is inopportune but pertains to Wesley’s sense of Methodist calling which entails the building of Establishment . The paper not surprisingly begins with Wesley speaking of brethren who,

“…evil Fruits have already followed, such as Prejudice against the Clergy in general; and aptness to believe Ill of them; Contempt (not without a Degree of Bitterness), of Clergymen as such, and a Sharpness of Language toward the whole Order”.

Then, holding out the purpose by Wesley believed his Methodist people called, he insists,

“That we do and will suffer all Things for our Brethren’s Sake, tho’ the more we love them, the less we be loved: But should act in direct Contradiction to that very End, for which we believe GOD hath raised us up. The chief Design of his Providence in sending us out, is undoubtedly, To quicken our Brethren. And the first Message of all our Preachers is, to the lost Sheep of the Church of England. Now would it not be a flat Contradiction to this Design, To Separate from the Church?”

While Wesley goes into some explanation as to why the Methodists are above sects, his first concern is the welfare of the Church– an affection Methodists should share given mutual civil and ecclesiastical origins; hence,

“We look upon England as that Part of the World, and the Church as that Part of England, to which all we who are born and have been brought up therein, owe our first and chief Regard”.

Consequently, Wesley begs compassion, if not deference, to the Church. To this end, he sets Rules that constrain preachers, encouraging support for Anglican clergy where feasible, but he also places limits on fraternization with Dissent. Interestingly, the ‘peculiar Glory’ of Methodism may indeed be cross-denominational or ecumenical, etc., but it’s activity was primarily directed to revitalize the national Church. We can detect throughout these Rules where Wesley struggles against a portion of his ministers who are partial to Dissent:

“IT is true, that when any of these openly wrest the Scriptures, and deny the grand Truths of the Gospel, we cannot but declare and defend, at convenient Opportunities, the important Truths which they deny… Contempt, Sharpness, Bitterness can do no Good. The Wrath of Man worketh not the Righteousness of GOD. Harsh Methods have been tried again and again (by two or three unsettled Railers); At Wednesbury, St. Ives, Cork, Canterbury. And how did they succeed? They always occasioned numberless Evils; often wholly stopt the Course of the Gospel. Therefore, were it only on a prudential Account, were Conscience unconcerned therein, it should be a sacred Rule to all our Preachers, “No Contempt, no Bitterness to the Clergy.””

Wesley’s second rule (below) restricted participation at Dissenting services. Evidently, Dissenting meetings typically conflicted with Church services:

“MIGHT it not be another (at least prudential) Rule, for every Methodist Preacher, “Not to frequent any Dissenting Meeting?” (Tho’ we blame none who have been always accustomed to it) But if we do this, certainly our People will. Now this is actually separating from the Church. If therefore it is (at least) not expedient to separate, neither is this expedient. Indeed we may attend our Assemblies, and the Church too; because they are at different Hours. But we cannot attend both the Meeting and the Church, because they are at the same Hours.

The main problem was a tendency to judge the ministers of the national church as corrupt or unconverted– an opinion often impressed by Wesley himself– so is it really odd the Societies occasionally abandon parish clergy for other ministers, often times non-conforming? Such was a continual problem stirred yet repeatedly qualified by Wesley, placing a real tension between the present corruption vs. uncommon virtues within the Church of England. So, Wesley corrects himself, reminding methodists by a Third Rule,

“IF it be said, “But at the Church we are fed with Chaff, whereas at the Meeting we have wholesome Food:” We answer, I. The Prayers of the Church are not Chaff: They are substantial Food for any who are alive to GOD. 2. The LORD’S Supper is not Chaff, but pure and wholesome for all who receive it with upright Hearts. Yea, 3. In almost all the Sermons we hear there, we hear many great and important Truths. And whoever has a spiritual Discernment, may easily separate the Chaff from the Wheat therein.

On the fourth coming cause, notice the two kinds of Dissenters  which Wesley likely believes have infected the Connexion. We might suppose Wesley is speaking of the strict Calvinists v. the Quietest/Moravian sort, and, in Wesley’s fairly high-church mind, both kinds were outside the doctrine of the Establishment:

“4. How little is the Case mended at the Meeting? Either the Teachers are New Light Men, denying the LORD that bought them, and overturning his Gospel, from the very Foundations: Or they are Predestinarians, and so preach Predestination and Final Perseverance, more or less. Now whatever this may be to them who were educated therein, yet to those of our Brethren who have lately embraced it, repeated Experience shews it is not wholesome Food: Rather to them it has the Effect of deadly Poison. In a short Time it destroys all their Zeal for GOD. They grow fond of Opinions and Strife of Words. They despise Self-denial and the daily Cross; and the compleat all, wholly separate from their Brethren.”

Wesley continues a basic shunning of Dissent where he demands Methodists retain the ‘culture’ of the national Church. Mostly this is a reference to the proper speaking of lectures. By ‘tone’ Wesley means exaggerated emotion, and by ‘Language’ he explains as the duration of prayer– not whether it is fixed or not, etc.:

“NOR is it expedient for any Methodist Preacher, to imitate the Dissenters in their Manner of Praying: Either, in his Tone: All particular Tones both in Prayer and Preaching, should be avoided with the utmost Care (1): Nor in his Language; all his Words should be plain and simple, such as the lowest of his Hearers both use and understand: Or in the Length of his Prayer, which should not usually exceed four or five Minutes, either before or after Sermon. One might add, Neither should be sing, like them in a slow, drawling Manner: We sing sift, both because it saves Time, and because it tends to awake and enliven the Soul.”

In the fourth Rule, Wesley once more judges ‘expediency’ as something more than mere situation. Wesley’s indicates a Dissenting mindset where he suggests ‘two parties’. Of course, the Dissenter wishes to publicize the sins of the Church. Wesley would curb this disrepute by silencing harsh criticism in a manner not unlike Shem and Japheth who also covered the nakedness of Noah. Evidently, Wesley would see Dissenter acquire a temper like Churchmen.

“IF we continue in the Church not by Chance, or for want of Thought, but upon solid and well weighed Reasons, then we should never speak contemptuously of the Church, or any Thing pertaining to it. In some Sense, it is the Mother of us all, who have been brought up therein. We ought never to make her Blemishes Matter of Diversion, but rather of solemn Sorrow before GOD, We ought never to talk ludicrously of them; no, not at all, without clear Necessity. Rather, we should conceal them, as far as ever we can, without bringing Guilt upon our own Conscience. And we should all use every Rational and Scriptural Means, to bring others to the same Temper and Behaviour. I say, All; for if some of us are thus minded, and others of an opposite Spirit and Behaviour, this will breed a real Schism among ourselves. It will of course divide us into Two Parties; each of which will be liable to perpetual Jealousies, Suspicions and Animosities against the other.”

And, finally, Wesley’s fifth Rule that the public gatherings of the national Church be regularly attended. Hence, the reason why no methodist service or meeting ought to conflict with Church hours. Perhaps this also was a reason for pressing the Christian Sabbath among his people. But, note, he ‘who has no scruple’. Generally speaking, Wesley would allow methodists who joined the Societies from Dissenter churches to continue therein, if they could not be convinced otherwise of the good of the national Church (2). However, he frowned and often expelled those who abandoned the settled Church for Dissenting congregations:

 “IN order to secure this End, to cut off all Jealousy and Suspicion from our Friends, and Hope from our Enemies, of our having any Design to separate from the Church, it would be well to every Methodist Preacher, who has no Scruple concerning it, to attend the Service of the Church, as often as conveniently he can. And the more we attend it, the more we love it, as constant Experience shews. On the contrary, the longer we abstain from it, the less Desire we have to attend it at all.”

Despite the setting of Rules at the Leeds Conference, Wesley remained in constant struggle to keep Dissenters within the Connexion at bay. He refers to the Rules at Leeds in his 1776 Sermon, ‘On Attending the Church Service’,

“Nineteen years ago, we considered this question in our public Conference at Leeds,– Whether the Methodists ought to separate from the Church; and after a long and candid inquiry, it was determined that it was not expedient for them to separate. The reasons were set down at large, and they stand equally good at this day.”

But Wesley also admits the waxing of Dissent caused a disaffection for the national church:

“For more than twenty years this never entered into the thought of those that were called Methodists. But as more and more who had been brought up Dissenters joined with them, they brought in more and more prejudice against the Church. In process of time, various circumstances concurred to increase and confirm it. Many had forgotten that we were all at first setting out determined members of the Established Church. Yea, it was one of our original rules, that every member of our Society should attend the church and sacrament, unless he had been bred among Christians of any other denomination.”

By the middle-1780’s Methodism fell to crisis over the the circumstances of the American Revolution as well as the presence of Dissent within the Connexion. Wesley’s writings naturally increase their apologetic tone, and he is frequently purging his Connexion of libertines. Nonetheless, Wesley reminds critics the success of the Society from it’s start in 1739 until the 1780’s in his sermon ‘The Ministerial Office’. It shows some of the trouble and stubbornness of Dissent:

Many of our Society were totally separated from the Church; they never attended it at all. But now they duly attend the Church every first Sunday in the month. ‘But had they not better attend it every week’? Yes; but who can persuade them to it? I cannot. I have strove to do it twenty or thirty years, but in vain. The Second is weaning them from attending Dissenting meetings, which many of them attended constantly, but have now wholly left. The Third is, the constantly hearing of sound doctrine which is able to save their souls”. p. 555, Complete)

Evidently there were exceptions and a sliding scale for established Church attendance, but Wesley has his obvious bias. Yet the influence of Dissent upon the Methodist societies had root to the same leniency. Once Wesley passed, the problem obviously did not diminish, but it seized the United Societies. The new Methodists differed in several points from the “old”. Indeed, they allowed non-churchmen into their ranks whereas the “old societies” required Bishoping. Also, the standards for preachers and other methodist leaders tended to be eirenic regarding denominational affiliation. This was a double-edged sword. While it brought many men back to the ‘Mother Church’, it simultaneously planted the basis for ongoing conflict. More significantly, Wesley never successfully elected a successor. Fletcher died early-on, and his brother, Charles, retired in disgust of John’s American policy. Wesley finally agreed upon Connexional government but limited it to a hundred trusted preachers. Eventually, the entire Connexion was open to all preachers, allowing the Dissenting element rise to the fore. This was absolutely NOT Wesley’s plan.

In the future I hope to explore  examples of actual conflict and disciplinary measures applied within the Connexion against Separatists as well as how Dissent won the final victory within the United Societies, making a division with the Church of England more or less inevitable. Another subject worth exposition is the relation of Wesley’s concept of Primitivism to the doctrine of the Anglican Church, providing a due context for the Methodism’s “peculiar Glory”, or why the Anglican church was privileged by Methodists among English denominations. 


1. While “language” is self-explanatory given the quote, what composed the ‘tone’ of dissenting preachers is uncertain. However, there is a 1770 letter by Wesley to his preachers about correct ‘pronunciation and gesture’. Here, Wesley delineates common problems with tone,

” But the greatest and most common fault of all is, the speaking with a tone: Some have a womanish, squeaking tone; some a singing or canting one; some an high, swelling, theatrical tone, laying too much emphasis on every sentence; some have an awful, solemn tone; others an odd, whimsical, whining one, not to be expressed in words.”

Perhaps Wesley’s dislike of Dissenter Tone is the lack of discipline and training given to the voice, especially ‘theatrics’. Could ‘theatrics’ be a jab at the dissenting Societies of Whitefield? see Directions Concerning Pronunciation and Gesture.

There’s also a comment by G. R. Balleine from his History of the Evangelical Party in the CoE (1908) which provides further context regarding ‘tone’. It’s pretty obvious Wesley disliked excess. 

p. 32 “John Wesley’s preaching was of a quite different type. He had all the scholar’s scorn of rhetoric and exaggeration. He spoke in quiet level tones and short direct sentences. At first he read over his sermons to an old maid-servant, crossing out every phrase which Betty could not understand, and so he taught himself to use simple Saxon words, and a style so terse and luminous and clear that it produced results even more sensational than those of Whitefield’s oratory. His meetings were often disturbed by strange hysterical seizures. There were always men and women in the crowd whose power of self-control was weakened by years of sin, and, as his quiet searching words found their way to the heart, the most terrible outbreaks of physical anguish occurred with distressing frequency…But though sadly troubled and perplexed, he never allowed these interruptions to turn him aside from his purpose.” 

2. Regarding this provision, “[the Wesleys] were members of the Church of England, and had no design of separating from it. And they advised all that were to continue therein, although they joined the Methodist society; for this did not imply leaving their former congregation, but only leaving their sins. The Churchmen might go to church still; the Presbyterian, Anabaptist, Quaker, might still retain their own opinions, and attend their own congregations. They having a real desire to flee from the wrath to come was the only condition required of them. Whosoever, therefore ‘feared God and worked righteousness’ was qualified for this society.” p. 554 Complete

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