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Wesleyanism

The term was used, at least occasionally, from as early as 1740 to distinguish the followers of John Wesley from other Methodists such as 'Whitefieldites' and the Countess of Huntingdon\'s Connexion. But it did not come into more general and formal use until early in the nineteenth century, when it served to differentiate the 'Original Connexion' from its offshoots (see below) and, in Wales, from Calvinistic Methodism. Thus the 'new Kingswood' established in Yorkshire in 1811 was described as 'the Wesleyan Academy at Woodhouse Grove'. In 1813 the first District Missionary Society (and in 1818 its connexional counterpart) was labelled 'Wesleyan Methodist'. In 1822 the word was added to the title of the connexional *Methodist Magazine. Throughout most of the century, however, the key phrase describing the denomination was 'Wesleyan Methodist Society'; not until 1891 did the Conference approve the change to 'Wesleyan Methodist Church', and this change was not reflected on the quarterly class tickets until December 1893.

'Wesleyanism' was thus that part of John Wesley's movement which stemmed most directly from his ministry and the provisions he made towards the end of his life (notably by the Deed of Declaration in 1784) to perpetuate its fruits. But in 1791 the determination of the preachers in Conference 'to follow strictly the plan which Mr Wesley left us at his death' proved too ambiguous a formula to guarantee unanimity. Wesleyan Methodism was divided into two camps, the 'Old Planners' (or 'Church Methodists') who continued to see themselves as 'Methodist Anglicans' and the 'New Planners' who were eager to cut the umbilical cord by which they were still, at least in theory, attached to Mother Church.

Inevitably, unresolved issues occupied the Conference and exercised the minds of both ministry and laity. The most contentious of these were the status and role of the itinerant preachers (and the pastoral office they fulfilled), their administration of the Lord\'s Supper in the Methodist chapels and the timing of Methodist services in 'church hours'. Control of the chapels by the Superintendents (representing the Conference) rather than by the lay trustees, was a vital factor in these issues. Although laymen held an increasing range of connexional offices, they were not admitted to the WM Conference until 1878.

During the Napoleonic period the WM hierarchy was desperately eager to demonstrate its patriotism to an administration fearful of any sign of radicalism, and both the leadership and much of the membership remained politically well to the right of the other Methodist bodies. One early result of the internal struggles after Wesley's death was the formation of the Methodist New Connexion in 1797. Other secessions followed in the nineteenth century: notably the Protestant Methodists (1827), the Wesleyan Methodist Association (1835) and the Wesleyan Reform movement, from which sprang the United Methodist Free Churches (1857). In addition there were non-WM bodies which the old Wesleyan wineskins could not contain: Primitive Methodism from 1811, the Bible Christians from 1815, and the short-lived Tent Methodism (from 1814). Although triggered by expulsions from WM, these were not secessions, but fresh outbursts of the evangelical fervour which had characterized Methodism's earliest days. Other smaller dissenting groups found their way into the Independent Methodist fold.

This fissiparous tendency was partially reversed by the formation of the UMFC, and more fully by the successive Methodist Unions of 1907 and 1932. Despite these developments, WM remained by far the largest of the Methodist denominations. It continued to cherish what it believed to be its special relationship with the Established Church and was slow to recognise its place in the Nonconformist camp, at least until the rise of Anglo-Catholicism. Nevertheless Pusey's belated overtures in 1868 proved stillborn and were scornfully rejected. In 1851 (the year of the Religious Census) WM membership was double that of all others combined, despite substantial losses during the recent Reform agitation. By 1932 the gap had narrowed, but WM membership in England was still 447,122 against a combined total of 338,568 from PM and the UM Church.

In America 'Wesleyan' is often used in phrases like 'Wesleyan theology', where it is synonymous with 'Methodist' in the sense of 'derived from or associated with the tradition originating with the Wesleys'. The Wesleyan Holiness Church, theologically conservative and evangelical in its stance, is of nineteenth century American origin, with a minimal presence in England.

Sources

  • Bernard E. Jones, 'Society and Church in Wesleyan Methodism, 1878-93', in WHS Proceedings, 36 pp.134-38
  • R.E. Davies, Methodism (revised edn., 1976) pp. 113-34
  • Henry D. Rack, 'Wesleyanism and "the World" in the later Nineteenth Century', in WHS Proceedings, 42 pp.35-54
  • J. Munsey Turner, Conflict and Reconciliation: Studies in Methodism and Ecumenism in England, 1740-1982 (1985)
  • David N. Hempton, 'Motives, Methods and Margins in Methodism's Age of Expansion', in WHS Proceedings, 49 pp.189-207
  • Barrie Tabraham, The Making of Methodism (1995) pp.63-74
  • John Munsey Turner, Wesleyan Methodism (Peterborough, 2005)

Entry written by: JAV
Category: Denomination

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