By Peter S. Forsaith, Ph.D., F.R.Hist.S. (Oxford Brookes University) with Rev. Dr. Martin Wellings.
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 jibe, it stuck so 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 (pro-Roman Catholic) party, which were a major cause of the Civil Wars in the 1640s, continued to simmer. The Wesley brothers could claim elements of both in their family background.
One 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 Jean Calvin, in the sixteenth century, tended to emphasise the supreme power and authority of God. A later Dutch theologian Jakob Hermanszoon, usually known by his latinised name as ‘Jacobus Arminius’ gave more weight to the capacity for humans 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 sub-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, although generally in the breakaway groups 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’.
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
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 an annual 'John Wesley lecture' with Lincoln College.
The library and archives are available for researchers on weekdays; a prior appointment is requested. https://ocmch.wordpress.com
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, as well as 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.
Crises, Splits and Wars of Words
After the death of its formative figure, Rev. John Wesley, in 1791, the ‘Methodist’ organisation which he had led entered decades of numerical growth alongside successive crises and schisms. By his particular style of benevolent dictatorship, his ‘connexion’ of local ‘societies’ had largely remained cohesive. But by the 1790s, the backwash of the American and French revolutions, coupled with deteriorating social and economic conditions, was bringing pressure for change.
As has perceptively been commented, ‘a monarch while he lived, Wesley left Methodism to be a republic after he died.’ But what kind of republic? The first main split was the ‘Methodist New Connexion’ in 1797, over the level of participation by ordinary members in the main governing bodies: increasingly it was the salaried ‘itinerant’ preachers (as opposed to unpaid ‘local’ preachers) who were making key decisions. Ten years later there was pressure to allow mass open-air religious meetings, at a time when, during the Napoleonic wars, such large gatherings were suspected of being seditious. Thus the ‘Primitive Methodists’ came into being—going back to the outdoor preachings which characterised Wesley’s ministry.
The growing authority of one key central figure, Jabez Bunting (1779-1858), led to increasing resentment from the 1820s onwards over whether power within ‘Wesleyan Methodism’ (the residual, and largest, grouping) lay with the local ‘societies’ and ‘circuits’ or with the central ‘conference’ which he dominated. Public pressure was mounting for greater democracy, evidenced by the reaction to the notorious ‘Peterloo’ massacre of 1819, or the rise of trades unions – the ‘Tolpuddle martyrs’ were Wesleyan Methodists. But in 1827 Bunting commented that ‘Methodism is as much opposed to democracy as it is to sin’.
During the 1820s and 1830s came a number of smaller agitations and secessions, but the main crisis came in the 1840s, when a series of anonymous ‘Fly Sheets’, circulars critical of Bunting and his cabal, were sent to all Wesleyan ministers. Authorship has never been established definitely but suspicion fell strongly (and probably correctly) on one minister, James Everett (1784-1872), who with three colleagues was expelled in 1849, the year of revolutions across Europe. In the few years following, the Wesleyans haemorrhaged one-third of their membership, the ‘reformers’ becoming the United Methodist Free Churches in 1857.
London Quarterly Review; Primitive Methodist/Holborn Review
The suggestion that Wesleyan Methodism should have its own heavyweight periodical was first canvassed by J.H. Rigg in a letter to the Watchman in 1839. A decade later Rigg repeated his proposal in a letter to William Arthur, then assisting the Connexional Editor. In 1853 the London Quarterly Review was launched, initially with Thomas McNicoll as editor, and Rigg, Arthur, F.J. Jobson, W.B. Pope and George Osborn as effective co-founders. Following the practice of other periodicals of the day, LQR articles were unsigned. For the first eight years of its life the LQR was underwritten by two wealthy Wesleyan laymen, John Robinson Kay and James Smith Budgett, and during this early period the journal briefly changed its name to The London Review (1858-62). Control was transferred to a limited liability company in 1863, but the commercial health of the publication remained precarious: in 1883, heralding a new series, the editors announced a reduction in price from six shillings to four shillings, in an endeavour to triple the number of subscribers. The LQR continued under the single or joint editorship of Pope (1862-86) and Rigg (1883-98), and with practical and financial support from the Wesleyan Bookroom, until 1897, when it became Connexional property. A third series was inaugurated in 1899, with W.L. Watkinson as editor, and the custom of printing unsigned articles ceased. After the one-year editorship of W.T. Davison (1904-05), John Telford took over, guiding the LQR through Methodist Union in 1932.
In style the LQR adopted the approach of other mid-Victorian periodicals, typically printing half a dozen articles in each number. Articles were structured as discussions of recent publications, although they could and did draw on older works as well, and the books listed at the head of each article might be referred to only sparingly in the text. Topics ranged from narrowly Wesleyan concerns, like the revision of the hymn book or the liturgy, through wider ecclesiastical themes, like the history and practice of preaching, to biographical, political, and literary subjects. A section of ‘brief literary notices’, devoted to book reviews, steadily grew through the nineteenth century, developing into ‘short reviews and brief notices’ subdivided into biblical, theological, historical, and literary sections.
While the LQR began as an initiative of London-based Wesleyan ministers and lay grandees, the Primitive Methodist Holborn Review started with the publication of lectures given to the Sunderland PM District Ministerial Association in a periodical named The Christian Ambassador (1854). Under the editorship of C.C. McKechnie a shilling tri-monthly magazine was transformed into a two-shilling periodical, renamed The Primitive Methodist Quarterly Review (1878). In 1892 A.S. Peake took on the editorship of the literature section of the PMQR, thereafter contributing a stream of book reviews, particularly on biblical and theological topics. In 1910 the PMQR became The Holborn Review, reflecting the recent purchase of Holborn Hall as the denomination’s London headquarters. Peake became editor of the HR in 1919, but although he succeeded in significantly increasing the number of subscribers, by the late 1920s the Review was in financial difficulties. The union of 1932 brought about the amalgamation of the two Methodist periodicals under the title The London Quarterly and Holborn Review, and the LQHR in turn merged with The Church Quarterly Review in 1968.
The Methodist Recorder
The evolution of the modern newspaper by the mid nineteenth century (with the availability of national distribution by railway) enabled denominations to produce their own. At times of controversy and schism in Methodism, early papers often promoted a party line, largely either defending or critical of the Wesleyan Methodist hierarchy.
The Watchman, the first Methodist newspaper, was launched in 1835 to defend the Wesleyans against their critics. In 1849 the Wesleyan Times was the pro-reformers title, retitled the Methodist Times in 1867. Against these the Methodist Recorder was launched in April 1861 as a pro-Wesleyan, but more moderate, voice – which reflected the tenor of the latter part of the nineteenth century as the various sub-denominations settled to a more or less tolerant co-existence, focusing on pressing social needs rather than internal politics.
The Recorder was the initiative of six Wesleyan Methodist ministers: James Pond Dunn, Charles Garett, George T. Perks, William Morley Punshon, Gervase Smith and Luke Hoult Wiseman, although it was Punshon (1824-1881) who was the early de facto editor. In 1862 it joined with its more conservative rival, The Watchman, which ceased publication in 1885.
John Wesley’s Arminian Magazine, started in 1778, aimed primarily to promote his doctrinal position. Over the following decades this became the connexion’s main source for news, whether accounts of missionary endeavours, ‘religious intelligence’, extended biographies, obituaries, or brief death notices. However, as the century progressed these started to migrate to the newspapers, which developed significant business with both classified and commercial advertising.
The weekly Recorder soon became Wesleyan Methodists’ principal newspaper. Its content centred on denominational news: in January 1881 (20 years after first publication), for instance, this comprised such topics as ‘Circuit intelligence’ (reports of Quarterly Meetings); ‘Revival intelligence’, ‘Sunday and Day Schools’. This would be topical, so in mid-year came preparations for and reports from the annual Conference. In 1886 and 1887 a ‘Conference Daily’ supplement was published, priced 1d, with detailed reporting of the various sessions and meetings.
More general Wesleyan news was varied, from headings such as an account of ‘Methodist Historical Associations’— notes of places associated with the Wesleys and other early Methodists which might be seen on a walking route in London—to the  report of ‘A Centenarian’ whose ‘sight and hearing have failed, but her memory is remarkably clear. She remembers being taken to Grimsby Church, when four years old, to hear John Wesley preach’.
In a larger map, in 1881 the first Methodist ‘Œcumenical conference’ was held – the forerunner of the World Methodist Conference. Ninety years after John Wesley’s death, Methodism had spread globally. The gathering had 400 delegates from 30 Methodist bodies, though mostly British and American, and met in Wesley’s Chapel in London – so was easily covered by the Recorder.
There was also general news ranging from significant popular topics such as ‘Fenian outrages’
Like many papers it carried classified small advertisements as well as larger, commercial, ones, which enabled it to be financially viable. Since most advertisements were carried on the first and last few pages, they are a prominent feature which we may now find quaint. However, they were a significant message-board for the Methodist community and beyond. Aside from births, marriages and deaths the present system of adoption, with its necessary checks, was unknown. One case, for instance, early in the 20th century has been traced of a childless couple advertising to adopt, and a minister enabling them to take the child of an unmarried girl in his congregation who had become pregnant. Some time later an advertisement appeared for a housekeeper (such jobs were advertised in the ‘small ads’): the same minister saw it and noted similarities. He enabled the girl to be appointed – then some time later the adoptive mother died; in time the housekeeper married the widower, becoming mother to her own child.
Thirty years later, the 50th anniversary of first publication, the content (and appearance) was little altered, although the world of Victorian had passed. One letter to the editor in January 1911 from “A Wesleyan Minister” was concerned about the ‘de-spiritualisation of Methodism’. ‘The craze for pleasure has swooped down upon our national life like the black plague, leaving in its rear ruin and death…soon Methodism will appear to be an organisation for providing cheap and light amusements during the week, and preaching the Gospel on Sundays.’
On the previous page were articles about ‘Modern Evangelistic Methods’; noting the lack of distinction between the Church and the World; ‘Religious folk know religious folk, but they don’t the mind of the irreligious…’. Alongside it went a report from the Royal Commission on Divorce and Matrimonial Clauses; giving the church’s position as upholding the traditional sanctity of marriage, yet while recognising that ‘two personalities rubbing against each other day by day must feel the freshness wearing off, and be disappointed and irritated thereby…’.
As well as the regular weekly paper, the Recorder published a number of special issues. These included:
In 1886 and 1887, and priced at 1d, an extensive and detailed summary of the annual Wesleyan Conference sessions was produced—72 pages in 1886 and selling over 10,000 copies, more than twice the anticipated demand. The 1887 issue was 287 pages and included other Methodist sub-denominations: the Bible Christians conference and United Methodist Free Churches assembly.
On 2 March 1891, 100 years after John Wesley’s death, the Recorder published a ‘Wesley Centenary Number’. The front page did not carry advertisements, but articles headed ‘Our venerable father in the gospel’ and ‘The original account of John Wesley’s death’. Much of the rest of that issue was taken up similarly, accompanied by line drawings of places and items associated with the Wesleys’ lives and ministries.
From 1892 to 1907 the ‘Winter Number’ appeared (or ‘Christmas Number’ as it was sometimes called, since it appeared just before Christmas). This was quite different in appearance, format and content from the weekly edition although it did contain some advertising though usually for Methodist organisations such as residential schools, or the Children’s Home & Orphanage (now ‘Action for Children’). The main content was more extensive articles as well as some fictional short stories.
The content of the Methodist Recorder today remains largely unchanged: denominational news, from large connexional matters (often related to national or global issues) to local events, obituaries, letters, special features—and advertising. Although never an actual Methodist publication, the Recorder became in many ways considered to be the denomination’s official mouthpiece, both by its readers, the church but also to some extent its staff—who at times needed to assert their independence.
Dr. Peter Forsaith is Research Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History, Oxford Brookes University, which holds a series of Methodist-related collections. He is a historian of society, religion and culture in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain and has lectured in Britain and the U.S.A.. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
Rev. Dr. Martin Wellings has worked on the history of the Evangelical school in the Church of England, leading to his first book, Evangelicals Embattled: Responses of Evangelicals in the Church of England to Ritualism, Darwinism and Theological Liberalism 1890-1930 (2003). His subsequent research has focussed principally on Methodist history.