Methodists Far from Schism

Many volumes could be written on Wesley’s relation to the Church of England (indeed much has been had), and while Wesley’s declared loyalty to the Church is without doubt, the attitude and actions of his people and their preachers was sometimes less clear. It appears there was something of a change in opinion about the Church among methodists as the 18th century passed.

Likewise, at a relatively early date, Wesley is fairly optimistic about the ‘glory of the methodists’. In his 1745 “A Farther Appeal”, Wesley dismisses accusations against the Evangelical Revival for schism, mentioning the sense zealotry for the Church spread by methodism. Of societal members, Wesley mentions four types that commune with the Anglican pale:

“But whatever state they are in, who causelessly separate from the Church of England, it affects not those of whom we are speaking; for they do not separate from it at all. You may easily be convinced of this, if you will only weigh the particulars following.
1. A great part of these went to no church at all, before they heard us preach. They no more pretended to belong to the Church of England, than to the Church of Moscovy. If therefore they went to no Church now, they would be no farther from the Church than they were before.
2. Those who did sometimes go to Church before, go three times as often now. These therefore do not separate from the Church. Nay, they are united to it more closely than before.
3. Those who never went to Church at all before, do go now at all opportunities. Will common sense allow any one to say, that these are separated from the church.
4. The main question is, Are they turned from doing the works of the Devil, to do the works of God? Do they now live soberly, righteously, and godly, in the present world? If they do, if they live according to the directions of the church, believe her doctrines, and join in her ordinances: with what face can you say, that these men separate from the Church of England?”

Methodism generally aimed to reconnect and strengthen ties among awakened Englishmen to their national church– much the case at the time of Wesley’s above defense. However, by the mid-sixties the climate against methodism had decisively changed, rendering irregularity within the Church very difficult. Much of this change was signaled by the lack of assistance Wesley received from established clergy, turning increasingly to his lay-helpers for preaching. This was partly due to nearby incidents where Evangelical clergy left the Church for Dissent, usually Independency. By 1764 suspicions were more or less cemented– especially with the failure of the Wesleyan Conference at Bristol where efforts to relate irregular preaching to regular parish ministry proved impossible. By 1766 the Wesleyan conferences relaxed requirements for methodist intinerants attending Church of England services on Sunday. Thus, beginning the process of separation.

Greater ill-treatment or suspicion of methodism naturally led to the gradual alienation of Wesleyan christians to the parish clergy. In turn, this led to increased clamoring among the lay-preachers to conduct Sunday morning services for their societies. Wesley describes something of this rough-handling in his “Farther Appeal”, otherwise known as methodism being ‘thrust out’:

“It pleased God by two or three ministers of the Church of England, to call many sinners to reprentace; who, in several parts, were undeniably turned from a course of sin, to a course of holiness. The ministers of the places where this was done, ought to have received those ministers with open arms; and to have taken them who had just begun to serve God, into their peculiar care; watching over them in tender love, lest they should fall back into the snare of the Devil. Instead of this, the greater part spoke of those ministers, as if the Devil, not God, had sent them. Some repelled them from the Lord’s Table: others stirred up the people against them, representing them even in their public discourses as Fellows not fit to live: Papists, heretics, traitors; conspirators against their King and Country”

Not only public preaching against methodist conversions, other persecutions could follow; including inciting mobs against methodist homes (probably preaching points or known venues for class meetings), withdrawing parish welfare from poor families, or other imposed social stigmas. Yet, Wesley was determined (to his dying day) the bulk of Methodism (at least) remain in the Church, especially since no stumbling block existed, whether it be of doctrine or worship, between the Church and methodists. If compared to the other English denominations, Wesley said the methodists,

“[We] do not dispute concerning any of the externals or circumstances of Religion. There is no room; for we agree with you therein. We approve of, and adhere to them all: all that we learned together when we were children, in our Catechism and Common Prayer Book. We were born and bred up in your own Church, and desire to die therein. We always were, and are now, zealous for the Church; only not with a blind, angry zeal. We hold, and ever have done, the same opinions, which you and we received from our forefathers. But we do not lay the main stress of our Religion on any opinions, right or wrong: neither do we ever begin, or willingly join in any dispute concerning them. The weight of all Religion, we apprehend, rests on holiness of heart and life. And consequently, wherever we come, we press this with all our might. How wide then is the difference between our case and the case of any of those that are above mentioned [English denominations]? They avowedly separated from the Church: we utterly disavow any such design. They severely, and almost continually, inveighed against the doctrines and discipline of the Church they left. We approve both the doctrines and discipline of our Church, and inveigh only against ungodliness and unrighteousness. They spent great part of their time and strength in contending about externals and circumstantials. We agree with you in both; so that having no room to spend any time in such vain contention, we have our desire of spending and being spent, in promoting plain practical religion. How many stumbling blocks are removed out of your way! Why do not you acknowledge the work of God?”

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