History of
Methodist Schisms
and Ecumenism

My first active church experiences were in Methodism. One of my friends was active in a local church, and some of us became involved. There was an emotional involvement for one, and although she was confirmed, they quickly left as he was quite secular in behaviour, though was a little "touched" at times by religious activities. I was interested, but as an agnostic, and then brought it into my research area, and became interested in liberal theology, which led to my exclusion. It was both "old hat" and sowed doubts. I was later confirmed into the Church of England, though had some increasingly critical Bahai involvement, and though in its Fellowship of Vocation, came to pursue that voluntarily in the Unitarian movement, which was a mistake due to its lack of places for pastoral but also theological development, and also because its freedom of belief was not as claimed at congregational level.

I do not think the Methodist Church is a serious choice starting afresh for involvement. This is because it has no contemporary basis for existence, and now ought to be merged with the Church of England, especially because the Church of England's catholic traditionalism has been broken or reformed through the ordination of women (though it needs to go further). With a few compromises the Methodist Church could easily be absorbed back into where it came. I make this argument by charting its schisms and ecumenical restoration.

The Methodist Church is a broad church. The Methodist Church is an example of a movement which contains many theological and eccleisastical views and always did. John Wesley, a relatively high church priest wanting a greater sense of methodical holiness, was not of one narrow ecclesiastical school. Whilst its theology of Arminianism marked it out (rejecting predestination, and with less emphasis on the fall, that people freely chose the grace offered by God), this helped in it being broader. Incidentally this choosing is a different emphasis from the universalist Arminianism that came to post-Calvinist congregations on their way from Presbyterianism or the first General Baptists to Unitarianism (that God loved and saved everyone, not just the few, which was offered to every individual who could choose or accept God's grace).

Timeline of Methodist schisms and restoration

Few sources give a simple timeline of Methodist history, which is a set of cascading schisms in an atmosphere of growing numbers and discipline disputes over fine arguments, and then most of them organising to come back together when those disputes seemed too narrow or lost and there was over capacity.

John Wesley was interested in promoting his growing holiness movement within the Church of England, and to have its co-operation for developments in America. It began in 1738 meeting in members' houses in Oxford but John and Charles Wesley copied George Whitfield peaching in the open air. Whitfield built tabernacles and the Wesleys built preaching houses. All these three and their followers accepted the name Methodist but Whitfield was a Calvinist and the Welseys were Arminian. Perhaps the first schism was the separation so that the Methodists were Arminian. Whitfield's Methodists did not last in England, either rejoining the main branch or becoming independents, but in Wales they had a Presbyterian approach and a style that crowded out later Primitive Methodism. The main Methodist movement became a schism from the Church of England only because the Church of England could not or would not accommodate its growing structure. Wesley himself treaded carefully, so that her regarded his preachers as laypeople who could not administer the communion and sent Methodists to ask Anglican bishops if they wanted ordination.

In the Christian tradition, what makes a church is a set of valid orders by which can preach, teach and give out the bread and wine sacraments. The Anglican tradition, following the Catholic tradition, was of ordained and episcopally consecrated men ordaining and consecrating other men properly through the laying on of hands from the apostles to the present day, and it is these ordained people who can consecrate the bread and wine for the ritual consumption in faith of Christ's body and blood (however the ritual elements are precisely understood). This is challenged on biblical grounds but this was the central issue in the initial breakaway and in reluctance around early developments.

Welseyan holiness took place in the Class Meeting and Preaching Service (originally additions to Church of England services), but this Church on its own moved over time from a focus around communion to more emphasis on preaching (especially as it became obvious that this was a Free Church, after the 1840's and the Anglican Oxford Movement).

John Wesley as only a priest who, on 2nd September 1784 in Bristol, reluctantly had to consecrate an already episcopally ordained priest to Superintendant (a bishop) for the desperate American Methodists, and later he ordained people for places without sacremental cover and also consecrated a Superintendant for England. The Conference of the Legal Hundred which he made to succeed his leadership (he didn't consult them over the first consecration) took decisions regarding ordination and sacraments which sealed the separation. Incidentally, this Legal Hundred continued after reforms (that followed the breakaway of Wesleyan reformers) of the Conference as a ratifying body. The Conference had lay people on committedd from 1861 and in its membership from 1877.

The big question was whether episcopally unordained preachers should give communion. Trustees of churches in general said no whilst members said yes. The 1793 solution of unanimous agreement required of a Methodist Society to permit this in their patch was not sufficient for widespread acceptance (though it dropped a distinction betwen ordained and unordained regarding the sacraments, so that what now mattered was they were in full connexion with the Conference), but in 1795 they decided that a separate meeting majority of trustees and a meeting of class leaders both had to agree for the sacrament to be offered in that place. When this happened the local church offered the sacraments. This meant preachers had become ministers, and the welcoming ceremony into full connexion with the Conference was made grander, to suggest the grandeur of an ordination.

Services had been separate geographically from Anglican availability but in 1786 they started taking place where Anglicans ministers were only 2 miles or more away, or their provision was inadequate regarding half the population, or where they gave heretical opinions or conducted themselves with public disgrace. They didn't call themselves ministers but preachers, and the hatch, match and dispatch functions were left to the local Anglican church. However, once Methodism was its own church, chapel appeared in competition with church, with ministers, and did everything.

It was fully its own church when, in 1836, the Wesleyans decided to give up their reservation regarding the laying on of hands, and its ministers were now ordained this way. This was, as such, the final and complete break with the Church of England.

However, by this time, and in reaching this point, there was already considerable schism within the Methodist Church, so that it had become several churches. Like the Anglican Church, the schisms formed because the Wesleyans were unable to contain its enthusiastic holiness diversities.

For example, Alexander Kilham wanted the trustees to have the full right to call whomsoever they pleased to administer communion, whatever the class leaders might say, in a congregationalist manner. Seen as a disturbance, he refused to stop his arguing, and was evicted, to then found the Methodist New Connexion in 1797.

Whilst the Church was Arminian it wasn't the rational Arminianism that was a rejection of once held predestination on the way to Unitarianism. It was always trinitarian and doctrinal and about enthusiastically (to some degree) choosing to be saved. So theological dissenters of the fundamentals weren't tolerated. If a preacher reading the Bible came to the view that it contains no reference to the doctrine of the Trinity (as it does not) nor states Christ's divinity is co-equal with God (it is ambiguous about his status at best) then this was heresy. Richard Wright of the Unitarian Fund, a Unitarian Baptist and travelling preacher, persuaded Joseph Cooke of Rochdale and nearby independent Methodist congregations to become Unitarian. As a result he was expelled from the Methodist Conference in 1806. Like the Baptists, they were part of the then regeneration and social broadening of the Unitarians and were lost to Methodists.

The Primitive Methodists were founded by Hugh Bourne and William Clowes because the Wesleyan's were afraid of their external reputation as upsetting the social order. In fact they wanted the middle class social order into which many of them were settling (decisively with the 1832 Reform Act), even though the authorities threatened legislation to frustrate Methodist activity (though the Act of Toleration for Old Dissent had set the precedent against state repression). This conservatism was always the case with Wesleyan Methodists, even when they did liberalise, for example in giving no help or support to the Wesleyan Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834. Jabez Bunting was a very conservative leading figure of the Wesleyan Methodists. Thus when Bourne (something of a freelancer who had his church accepted into Methodist structures) carried out a big revivalist American style camp meeting, and the Wesleyan Church was worried about their reports from for emotionalism and lewd behaviour, and stopped him, he reluctantly with Clowes less reluctantly formed their breakaway, which became very successful. It was a third of the size of the Wesleyans and five times bigger than other breakaways, and although it has a strong rural constituency it had concentrations in the Potteries and the Durham Coalfield.

A Cornish enthusiastic preacher William O'Bryan was expelled in 1810 for not keeping to locally situated rules, and though readmitted in 1814 he was removed again for the same reason. He formed the Bible Christian Connexion on a Methodist polity, with an Anglican James Thorne, in 1815, and though he left for America the body grew, at first keeping clear of Wesleyan areas.

The Wesleyan Protestant Methodists were formed when in 1827 the trustees of Brunswick Chapel, Leeds, chose to have an organ in the chapel, which went against some of the Puritan-like opinions of other Methodists. The preachers in a special District Meeting decided to ban the organ, but the trustees took the case to the Conference which decided that the District Meeting was out of order in trying to have a say. The result was that there was a breakaway to form the Protestant Methodists, and the argument that Conference was getting like the Roman Catholic Pope.

There was a state of war in Wesleyan Methodism after this between Jazeb Bunting and an agitating minister, James Everett. He wrote anonymous pamphlets which attacked the authoritarianism of the Conference. It bit back with suspicion about the authorship of Everett and against his supporters in other outlets of his views, and the result of their expulsion (for not declaring themselves honestly) was the formation of the Church of the Wesleyan Reformers in 1849 which soon merged with others into the United Methodist Free Churches.

The result of this schism was a weakened Wesleyan Church. Internal reform had to follow, which Jazeb Bunting did not resist, and this gave more power to local quarterly circuit meetings.

100,000 members left - though not to join the schism - as a result of the internal feuds. This was more than reversed, however, by evangelistic campaigns and the move towards Catholic traditionalism in the Church of England's from its Oxford Movement which labelled Methodism as clearly part of Protestant dissent. It led Wesleyan Methodism to slowly release its Tory sympathies, and realise who its closest denominational bodies really were. These were the other Methodists and also other Free Churches, and this development was pushed by Hugh Price Hughes who helped establish the National Council of Free Churches in 1896. It also moved Wesleyan Methodism towards less emphasis on ritual and more on preaching. Hugh Price Hughes himself actually was rather sacramental in theology like Wesley, but he can be regarded as a Methodist liberal (though he did not extend his Free Church ecumenism to the Unitarians) with a social gospel, though gave criticism of men in power with dodgy private lives. He had Jewish as well as Welsh ancestry. So Methodism moved to the left, politically and theologically (where it has gone since).

Like other Free Church people, he was Liberal and reformist and quite active in political expression, arguing for the material condition of the people as well as their spiritual salvation. The two were embodied together in the Central Halls which still today are a public shop window of the Methodist Church. Yet, like other Free Church people, Methodists were individualists in society and so there was a certain paternalism from the haves to the have nots, offering what they thought was good for the lower orders. This was also the case when the Wesleyan and then New Connexion preacher William Booth and his wife set up the brass band playing militaristic type Salvation Army in 1872 (two appeals - popular music and working class nationalism). All it did was extract out of the working class a few different people rather than convert it as a whole. The Primitive Methodists, in part by their less middle class (but still aspirational) make up, were more collectivist and socialistic in potential, but again this was of marginal impact.

The times of expansion were over, and there was over supply of chapels. This helped start the process of undoing the schisms. There weren't enough differences to keep the Methodist New Connexion, the Bible Christians and United Methodist Free Churches from coming together to form the United Methodist Church.

Although in theology there was a swing against liberalism after the First World War, Methodists went towards it, finding traditional evangelical theology inadequate in the face of all the recent carnage.

This more liberal theology moved against the classical view of atonement (Christ died to save us from our sins), went towards unitarian views of an historical Jesus (keeping trinitarian forms, of course), and looked for the Kingdom of God coming on this earth. This was a phase however.

The question was whether the now three branches could come back together again. The Welseyans were more middle class and sacramental than the other two, the Primitives more respectable working class with nonconformist preaching, with the United Methodists somewhat in between. It was the Wesleyans who thought they could go on being self sufficient, whilst the other two needed to combine resources. They easily agreed to combine, and it was left to the Wesleyans to sort themselves out, who received some leadership from Sir Robert Perks using theological arguments.

The Wesleyans just got the vote through for what was needed (the Pastoral Session vote needed and got 75%). In the Uniting Conference of September 1932 The Legal Hundred came to an end, being replaced by a limited number of three year lay and ministerial terms within Conference; the President of the Conference remained a minister as according to Wesleyans but a new lay Vice Presidency recognised that the Primitive Methodists sometimes had a lay President, and a session for ministers only was set up to recognise the Wesleyan value of ordained ministry. Theologially, all Methodist tendencies were incorporated. A much later development (in 1957) was taking away local pastoral duties from their Chairpeople in rationalised Districts. This allows the possibility of ecumenism with the Church of England, because these people could be converted into bishops. In Methodist terms it was just better organisation.

This is always the effect of ecumenism: a broader theological base an this had a knock on effect (for a time). It happened again when the Presbyterian Church of England (largely a Scottish import) joined the Congregationalists to form the United Reformed Church. As a result, neither of these denominations is particularly open towards charismatic renewal, which can provide some numbers of people coming in (and out) and at least freshen the denominations. Another happening is continuing Churches, those tiny sectarian purist denominations that reject the mergers. These are always doomed because they maintain internal arguments that no one outside can understand. However, even churches on the ground which have been part of the merger continue their old characteristics for some time. The Methodist merger was bureaucratic and top down, meaning that all the old rivalries between different kinds of Methodists continued. Circuit rationalisation varied (a number reduced to one - Conference could not amalagamate circuits or close down surplus churches). Bureaucratic failures regarding merger with the Church of England after the Second World War has recast ecumenism into something that has to be local first, rather than the top-down bureacratic approach.

The Second World War added to the ongoing decline. It also damaged many churches, allowing some rationalisation and economic rebuilding. Later rebuilding was more interesting, but the Methodist Church has still been in decline, with an inability to recruit and not enough interested offspring from within Methodist families. The Methodist Association of Youth Clubs does not provide many young recruits either, and as elsewhere joining a church as a teenager can be its leaving certificate. University Methodist Societies are informal but not "fundamentalist" like so many Christian groups, and have been linked to the Student Christian Movement.

When I used to visit different Methodist churches I always saw the same elderly type congregations. There were were external as well as internal young people (far far healthier than in Unitarianism) but only a tiny number ever stayed on. It just impressed on me that the bulk of these people were getting old at the same time. I could see a huge drop in numbers taking place at the same time, but unlike the Unitarians I could not see the possibility of the Church being distinctive. The arguments which led to Methodism are no longer relevant, and it is no longer a holiness movement in any sense that it was.

It does, however, see reasonably healthy applications for ministry, and people start as local preachers for two or three years and must impress themselves at several levels to get into a college. The process is flexible regarding educational level and ability to pay. So clearly those involved are involved. But ministerial candidates need congregations. In Unitarianism there is a crisis of ministry through retirements and recruitment of trainees is quite low in number, but then so are the congregations who can afford professional ministry. There is a balance of decline, and Methodism has to have that balance too.

Michael Dalling suggests that the greater lay nature of Methodists, which lightens the load of a minister, means a social function is met amongst members, and this emphasis and involvement means that Methodists are more aware of Christian beliefs. (Dalling and Francis in Forster, 1995, 78-107, especially 104). So perhaps friends being invited in is the only way forward from extinction.

The question is what is Methodism for? What of its theological identity? After the Second World War there was some interest in Reformist theology, Lutheranism and the Bible as a self-sufficient document (rather than external experience or as a socio-political allegory). This is nevertheless moderated by the ecumenism of merger and continuing that towards the possibility of merging with or working with non-Methodists.Perhaps also reflecting on outside influences there has been a movement towards sacramentalism and more quality in worship, applying formality and the written word as well as informal and extempore worship. This can lead to some tension with supporters of freer worship. However, there is no longer a specific Methodist theology, and a reduced sense of unique ecclesiology, and Methodist writers never quite gained the prominence of Anglicans. This is partly a matter of resources, and access to publicity and publishers because Methodists do not, barring exceptions (now all dead), provide national figures like the established Church can still produce for an establishment interested man bites dog media.

So it would seem that the future is essentially social functions with a religious involvement. But in this it competes with leisure and group alternatives, and today many religious groupings are formed voluntarily where people think through their own beliefs and practices. Of course Methodist churches join in with presenting Alpha courses and the like, to tell the ignorant about Christian dogmas and try to create emotional commitment, though many now realise and have access to the information that says Christian views are varied and challenged internally. Faith and belief is far more obviously plural now. In my view, Methodism ought to take its social function into the Church of England (once women can be bishops), where it can be a Gemeinschaft holiness movement (in this social and involvement sense), and perhaps make the churches of the Church of England less stuffy. It would add evangelistic attitudes and breadth. Joint gatherings and Local Ecumenical Projects can only go so far.

Adrian Worsfold




Davies, R. E. (1963), Methodism, Penguin.

FitzHugh T. V. H. (1988), The Dictionary of Geneaology, Alphabooks, 196-197.

Goring, J., Goring, R. (1984), The Unitarians, Religious and Moral Education Press.

Goring, J., Goring, R. (1984), The Unitarians, Religious and Moral Education Press.

Parsons, G. (Ed.) (1988), Religion in Victorian Britain: I Traditions, Manchester University Press in association with the Open University, 82-86 and 205-210.

Pelling, G. (1990), Beginning Your Family History, Newbury: Countryside Books with The Federation of Family History Societies, 59 (diagram).