Introduction ? what is Methodism?
Methodism is arguably the most significant single Christian religious movement since the Protestant Reformation, now numbering some 80 million members and adherents worldwide. Other denominations (such as the Nazarenes and the Salvation Army) owe their origins or their beliefs to Methodism, which has also influenced the Pentecostal movement.
Although Methodism has come to be associated most closely with the Protestant Christian denomination usually linked to John Wesley, the term was probably current during the seventeenth century Puritan period. In the eighteenth century, a little 'religious society', based at Oxford University, was established around 1730 and one of the derogatory names it gained was 'Methodists'. The group was apparently also caustically known as 'Bible moths', 'Sacramentarians', or the 'Holy Club'. The Wesley brothers, John (1703-1791), and Charles (1707-1788) were leaders of this group and although they disliked the word, it stuck and they came to refer to the movement that later developed as 'the people called Methodists'.
The Methodist movement was not an isolated phenomenon. It had its roots in unresolved tensions from the Reformation, both in continental Europe and in Britain. In parts of Germany small groups of 'Pietists' emphasised a strong communal religious life, of which one such group became the 'United Brethren' or 'Moravians', who strongly influenced Methodism. In England tensions between Puritans (who wanted to purify the church and nation further than the Reformation had done) and the High Church party, which were a major cause of the Civil Wars in the 1640s, continued to simmer. John Wesley could claim elements of both in his family background.
A member of the 'Oxford Methodists' was George Whitefield (1715-1770), who started preaching outdoors to large crowds in the late 1730s. He was 'Calvinist' in doctrine and one early tension in the Methodist movement was between 'Calvinists' and 'Arminians'. The French Reformer John Calvin, in the sixteenth century, tended to emphasise the supreme power and authority of God. A later Dutch theologian, known by his latinized name as Jacobus Arminius gave more weight to the capacity to choose (or otherwise) to respond to God. These positions polarised and the argument continued to smoulder and flare between those who held to divine predestination and those who stressed human freewill. While Whitefield held to the Calvinist position, the Wesleys insisted on the Arminian.
So there was a major doctrinal rift running through the disparate 'Methodist' groups from the outset. A pamphlet war took place in the 1770s (known as the 'Calvinistic' or 'Minutes' controversy), following which Wesley's 'connexion' of 'societies' became more separate and grew (developing a large membership in the newly-founded United States of America). Increasingly this body was known solely as the Methodists. In Wales, however, Methodism is still generally Calvinistic.
The Wesleys, like Whitefield, were ordained Church of England ministers. The movement aimed 'to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land'; it did not envisage forming a separate body. So during the eighteenth century 'Methodist' referred to an evangelical, usually a member of one of the growing Methodist 'societies', within the national church [Church of England], although sometimes in Dissenting congregations.
There were ? and perhaps are ? many 'Methodisms'. Following Wesley's death the movement fragmented so that by the end of the nineteenth century there were a number of separate denominations. In Britain the largest was always the Wesleyans, followed by the Primitive Methodists (often known as the 'Prims.'). Others included the Methodist New Connexion, the Bible Christians, the United Methodist Free Churches and the Wesleyan Reform Union. Their differences were not great, but generally the breakaway groups ensured that laypeople had greater power. In 1932 the majority united to form The Methodist Church of Great Britain.
British Methodism (often referred to as a 'connexion') is governed by its annual Conference. Each year a minister is elected as President of the Conference (considered as being in succession to John Wesley), with a layperson (or deacon) as Vice-President. Although divided into regional Districts, Circuits are the fundamental organisational units, comprising a number of local 'Societies' (although generally understood to be a group of chapels).
In early Methodism, Wesley deployed travelling preachers ('Assistants') throughout the country, as well as 'local' preachers in the circuits. In time these became distinct as an ordained ministry and lay preachers (who still conduct the majority of Methodist Sunday services). Methodist ministers are still expected to move ('itinerate') through their career, being 'stationed' in different circuits. Originally these were annual appointments; the average stay today is probably around seven years. In each circuit a Superintendent minister has overall charge. In the late nineteenth century several Methodist denominations developed 'deaconess' orders as a further form of ministry. The Methodist ministry today is open to men and women and also includes deacons.
The British Methodist churches spread globally through their missions, largely within the British Empire. Methodism in Ireland was, and remains, separate from Britain. American Methodism became autonomous from 1784, and (unlike British Methodism) has always had bishops; the structure of American Methodism (which has a global spread) is also different. The term 'Wesleyan' in British Methodism generally indicates association with the 'Wesleyan Methodists', the continuation of Wesley's original body from which others split. Elsewhere, 'Wesleyan' is used to indicate a doctrinal position, or a denomination broadly in the tradition established by John Wesley.
For useful reference see the Dictionary of Methodism in Britain and Ireland, online at http://www.wesleyhistoricalsociety.org.uk/Dictfr1.html
The Wesley Historical Society and its library
The society was founded in 1893 for 'the advancement of interest in the history of all branches of the Methodist Church'. Its stated aims were 'to study the history and literature of early Methodism; research into the Wesleys, and investigation into the beginnings and development of Methodism'. It was closely linked to the production of full editions of John Wesley's Journals and letters. Published through Methodist Church imprints, the Journal appeared between 1909-1916 (edited Nehemiah Curnock, 8 volumes) and Letters in 1931 (edited John Telford, 8 volumes).
One founding member of the Society was Revd. F.F. Bretherton, who was its General Secretary from 1919 and President from 1941. He built up a substantial library of Wesley and early Methodist material which he left to the Society on his death in 1956. This became the foundation of the Society's library which today holds the second largest collection of published British Methodist material after The John Rylands Library, Manchester (the archive repository for the British Methodist Church). The WHS Library also holds some manuscript and other material.
The library was moved to Oxford in 1993 and is now one of a number of special collections within the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History. It is available for public use as well as by members of the Society or academics. http://wesleyhistoricalsociety.org.uk/index.htm
Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History
Following the merger of the Methodist Westminster College, with Oxford Brookes University in 2000, a centre was established to maintain a Methodist link and oversee the historic Methodist collections. Westminster College was founded in London in 1851, to train teachers, and moved to Oxford in 1959. As well as the WHS Library these include several groups of archives as well as art collections.
Oxford can claim to be the birthplace of Methodism since it was here that the first small group known as 'Methodist' met, which included the Wesleys. The Centre has links with the Methodist Church and historic sites in Oxford, including arranging an annual 'John Wesley lecture' at Lincoln College.
The library and archives are available for researchers on weekdays; a prior appointment is requested. http://www.brookes.ac.uk/wie/research/ocmch
Methodism and its publications
The eighteenth century saw a huge expansion in printing and publishing. Ownership and readership of books increased, newspapers and magazines were founded, education enabled most ordinary people to read, although not all could write. Methodism's growth was directly linked to this ? and other social and economic developments.
John Wesley capitalised upon this and saw to it that people in his 'societies' had both education (he set up schools) and publications available. His travelling preachers carried and sold stocks of the 'book room's' output ? hymnals, tracts, abridged editions of important or popular books. In his lifetime he wrote or edited some 400 separate publications. These were not all religious; they included an English Dictionary (based, without acknowledgement, on Dr Johnson's 1755 Dictionary), a Concise History of England and A Calm Address to our American Colonies (both 1775, the latter plagiarising Johnson again) and perhaps his best known book Primitive Physic (1747), a homespun collection of herbal remedies and quacks' cures (including rubbing the head with half an onion to cure baldness!) which has remained in print virtually since its first appearance.
His brother Charles was one of Christianity's greatest hymnwriters, penning (it is estimated) some 7-9,000 religious verses of which around 2,000 became used as hymns. Charles Wesley's hymns have stood the longevity test of good literature and many are now sung universally, including Hark! The Herald-angels Sing (although those are altered words), Love Divine All Loves Excelling; Christ the Lord is Risen Today; And Can it Be? and Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending.
After John Wesley, publishing continued to be a major activity. Because Methodism was a centralised organisation the production, promotion and sales of books could be readily co-ordinated. The various Methodist denominations had their own publishing operations, which disseminated official publications, devotional works and the ubiquitous hymnbooks. The range of material began to grow so, for instance, with the growth of Sunday Schools came the production of educational material for children, and the expansion of overseas missions spawned reports and magazines for home support.
The evolution of the modern newspaper by the mid nineteenth century (with the possibility of national distribution by railway) enabled denominations to produce their own; at times of controversy and schism in Methodism, early papers (such as The Watchman or Methodist Times) often promoted a party line ? in this case respectively defending and critical of the Wesleyan Methodist hierarchy. The Methodist Recorder, which commenced publication in 1861, was more liberal than The Watchman and became the principal Methodist title in the twentieth century.
The Arminian/Methodist/Wesleyan Methodist Magazine
John Wesley started one of the world's earliest magazines: the Arminian Magazine first appeared in 1778 and was published monthly until its eventual demise in the 1960s. It was renamed the Methodist Magazine in 1798 and the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine in 1822. Following Methodist Union in 1932, it reverted to the Methodist Magazine.
Its original purpose was to publish writings supportive of Wesley's doctrinal Arminianism. It was to have 'no news, no politics, no personal invective' and 'nothing offensive'. However he rapidly saw that it could fulfill a broader purpose and began to add his own material including his sermons and accounts of the religious experience of Methodists. Later he added 'religious intelligence' describing providential events or supernatural phenomena, as well as accounts of foreign travel.
After Wesley's death some content became more uncritically supernatural or miraculous in tone. In the nineteenth century the scope of the Magazine broadened considerably, being the sole news media of the Wesleyan denomination. As well as domestic reports, such as chapel openings or circuit events, it included commentary on current affairs and accounts of the domestic and overseas growth of Methodism. Between 1811-1870 there was also a cheaper 'Sixpenny' abridged edition. There were also Irish and Welsh editions.
The editors of the Magazine were also general editors for the Wesleyan church's publications, so their direct involvement with the content was varied. A number of prominent and influential figures (all ministers) served as Editor, including Joseph Benson (1804-1821), Thomas Jackson (1824-1842), Benjamin Gregory (1876-1893) and John Telford (1905-1932). Jabez Bunting, who was the dominant figure in Wesleyan Methodism in the first half of the nineteenth century, served as Editor between 1821-1824.
Some of the key articles of interest to researchers today relate to the religious experience of early Methodists, particularly conversion and 'happy death' narratives. In the nineteenth century these tended to be superseded by obituary texts, which also provide useful sources. After the middle of the nineteenth century Methodist newspapers tended to carry news, obituaries and death notices, so the Magazine content gradually changed again to longer, feature articles. Although the Magazine appeared monthly, copies which survive are usually bound in years.
Up till about 1860 each monthly issue carried a portrait print of a leading Methodist individual. Originally fairly crude engravings (the first in January 1778 was of John Wesley) their quality improved considerably after J. Ridley became responsible for them from the mid-1790s. The noted artist John Jackson R.A. provided portraits from 1813; following his death in 1831 many were made by William Gush.
The development of photography around 1840 changed the world of portraiture. It was followed within decades by photo-engravure techniques which altered the relationship between image and text in publications such as the Magazine. By the 1860s, the frontispiece portrait had had its day; but then Methodist newspapers were appearing and the Magazine was changing in a number of ways to meet their challenge.
Primitive Methodist Magazine
The various branches of Methodism published their own magazines. The 'Prims' were the biggest group to spilt from the Wesleyans, between 1807-11, and were so called because they wanted to get back to Methodism's original aims of outdoor evangelism and strict discipleship. Originating from north Staffordshire and also known as 'Ranters', they tended to be strongest in the midlands and north of England. Following two previous, unsuccessful, attempts the Primitive Methodist Magazine appeared monthly from 1820.
The Primitive Methodist Magazine was edited by Hugh Bourne, one of the founders of the denomination. At first it was a small format but in 1831 changed to octavo, and in 1898 was re-titled as the Aldersgate Primitive Methodist Magazine. It merged with other Methodist denominational magazines following 1932 Methodist Union. Like them it included news of local and national events, chapel openings and anniversaries, extracts from preachers' journals and foreign mission reports.
Minutes of Conference ['Minutes of Several Conversations']
In 1744, five years after commencing his open-air preaching and forming his first 'society', John Wesley gathered a group of four clergy friends, with four lay preachers in attendance, for 'conversations' about the progress of their evangelistic work. The 'conference' came to meet annually, in different centres around Britain. John Wesley always presided, and its function was to advise, not govern. It was the arbiter in doctrinal and disciplinary matters. After Wesley's death the conference became, in effect, the parliament of Methodism.
Its published record became universally known as the 'Minutes of Conference', although titled 'Minutes of Several Conversations?'. The Minutes do not contain great detail about the business of the Conference. The official record of the Conference is the 'Conference Journal' (which is not published). From 1881 a printed Agenda, circulated to Conference members, gave reports from the different sections of the church such as 'Chapel affairs' (property), Home and Overseas Missions, as well as special reports. This can be a much more informative source.
The Minutes quickly became a handbook or directory for the 'connexion', listing all the travelling preachers (later, and more generally, known as 'ministers') and from 1878 gave their addresses, as well as obituaries for those who had died. The Minutes also printed membership returns, financial statements, lists of committees and other appointments and changes to connexional regulations. The early Minutes defined the doctrinal position of Methodism, summarised in 1753 in what became known as the 'Large Minutes'.
Early copies of the Minutes are rare, and although there had been previous cumulative compilations in 1749 and 1753 the collected editions of 1812 and (more usually) 1862 are generally used. Although the Minutes of Conference are a major source for aspects of Methodist history, it should be emphasised that they are not always wholly accurate.
A critical edition The Methodist Societies, The Minutes of Conference in the Works of John Wesley series [Abingdon Press from 1984] was published in 2011. This presents the Minutes to the death of John Wesley, with ancillary material, references and variant readings of the early conferences.
The different strands of Methodism which emerged, mostly through the nineteenth century, held their own annual Conferences (as did the Irish Methodist church) and also published their Minutes.
From the early nineteenth century a cumulative listing of Wesleyan ministers with their appointments ('stations') was published, on average at 3-yearly intervals and for many years compiled by William Hill, so is often known as 'Hill's Arrangements'. This enables a minister's career to be traced through the 'circuits' in which he served ? although a minister who left for any reason ceased to be included. Lists of Primitive and United Methodist ministers have also been compiled more recently. Another publication listing circuits and the ministers who served in them first appeared in 1873, edited by Joseph Hall, and is known as 'Hall's Circuits and Ministers'.
The first Methodist newspaper, this remained in publication for a half a century, from 1835 to 1884. It first appeared in response to a challenge by Samuel Warren to the Wesleyan Conference in the 1830s, over the autocratic power wielded by Jabez Bunting, particularly with respect to his being irregularly nominated as President of the Theological Institution (the church's seminary for ministers, which was then being founded). The 'Warrenite agitation' resulted in the formation of the breakaway Wesleyan Methodist Association, and The Watchman was a conservative newspaper loyal to the Wesleyan conference.
From 1849 its full title was The Watchman and Wesleyan Advertiser. In 1849, following further challenges to the denomination, several ministers were acrimoniously expelled from the conference. They were suspected of having written and circulated the anonymous 'Fly Sheets', critical of the Wesleyan hierarchy under Bunting and circulated from 1844 to Wesleyan ministers. Following their expulsion some 100,000 Wesleyan Methodists left ? about one-third of the membership.
The change of title reflected further emphasis on loyalty to the Wesleyan connexion, also reflected in its reporting of Methodist and other news. The appearance of the more liberal Methodist Recorder from 1861 acted as a counterbalance and it declined over the following twenty years before ceasing publication.
To cite this resource:
Peter S Forsaith (2011) Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist periodicals: an introduction to the British Online Archives edition, https://boa.microform.digital/collections/3/view. Last updated: January 2012.