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Dissent

The Church of England and Protestant Dissent were both represented in John Wesley’s bloodstream. Both his paternal great grandfather and grandfather and his maternal grandfather lost their livings in the 'Great Ejection' of 1662; although both his parents, Samuel and Susanna (née Annesley) returned to the established Church.

In the early years of his ministry John, like his brother Charles, was a staunch churchman, taking a firm stand, for example, on the invalidity of baptism by Dissenters. His views became more liberal in later years, and Puritan influence was still in evidence, though he continued to protest his loyalty to the established Church. Despite declaring its liturgy to be the best in the world, he conceded by the 1750s that it was not without faults and it has been claimed that the Sunday Service of the Methodists, his substantial revision of the Book of Common Prayer for use in America, was influenced by 17th century Puritan criticisms of the book.

The mature Wesley found himself more in sympathy with Presbyterians and Independents than with Baptists and Quakers, the former being, in his view, ‘at the smallest distance from us’. But his ordinations in the closing years of his life were irregular as much by Presbyterian as by Anglican standards.

Shortly after Wesley’s death, in a pamphlet asking ‘Are the Methodists Dissenters?’, Samuel Bradburn put forward the view that the Methodists were now, as he claimed Wesley himself had anticipated, ‘mild Presbyterians’. ‘We are not Episcopalians; we cannot be. We are not Independents, we will not be because it would destroy the Itinerant Plan... Therefore we must be Presbyterians, whatever we may chuse to call ourselves.’

Its ambivalent relationship with both Anglicans and Nonconformists dominated the Methodist search for identity in the first half of the 19th century. Wesleyan leaders cherished their Anglican roots and were reluctant to align themselves with Nonconformity. Pockets of ‘Church Methodism’ survived through much of the century and, more markedly in Ireland in the Primitive Wesleyan Church. Nevertheless, by the end of the century the Wesleyans, influenced in particular by the rise of Anglo-Catholicism, had followed the younger branches of Methodism into the Free Church camp, while remaining closer to the Established Church than the other denominations.

In 1892 the National Free Church Council was formed, as a response to Anglo-Catholicism, adopting the title ‘National Council of the Evangelical Free Churches’ in 1896. In 1919 the Federal Council of Evangelical Free Churches was formed, as a possible step towards a united Free Church. The two bodies were united in 1940 as the Free Church Federal Council. Methodism was involved in these developments. But when the time came in the 1950s, it was Methodism that showed a willingness, with whatever reservations and however unfruitfully, to enter into ‘Conversations’ with the Anglicans.

Sources

  • Samuel Bradburn, The Question, Are the Methodists Dissenters? Fairly Examined (1792)
  • Maldwyn L. Edwards, 'The Place of Methodism in the Free Churches: a short historical survey', in This Methodism (1939) pp.115-28
  • Duncan Coomer, English Dissent under the Early Hanoverians (1946) pp.108-23
  • Michael R. Watts, The Dissenters, 2 vols., Oxford, 1978, 1995
  • John A. Vickers, ‘Good Red Herring: Methodism’s relations with Dissent’, in WHS Proceedings, 47 (October 1989) pp. 77-93
  • Ralph Waller, 'Converging and Diverging Lines: Aspects of the Relationship between Methodism and Rational Dissent', in WHS Proceedings, 53 (October 2001) pp.81-92
  • Henry Rack, 'John Wesley and Eighteenth-Century Dissent' in Mervyn Davies (ed.), A Thankful Heart and a Discerning Mind (2010) pp.40-56

Entry written by: JAV
Category: Subject

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