If you’re like me, you probably don’t know that much about how Methodism separated from the Church of England. There were a few minutes of discussion in my Church History II class about John Wesley trying to keep his people inside the Church of England, but having it fall apart shortly after he died. That’s about all I knew, though if you had asked me, I would have credited it to some of the theological differences between the Anglican communion and the revivalistic Methodists.
In his recent book, Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism, Ryan Danker gives a much more nuanced account. Even if the origins of Methodism are not a major interest for you, this book is enjoyable for students of historical theology.
Danker’s argument, fleshed out in nine chapters, is that the the divisions between John Wesley and the Anglicans were much more than theological. In fact, they were not primarily theological. After all, the same Church of England that eventually spit out the Methodists remained hosts to some Unitarians and other heterodox (and perhaps some heretical) theologians. Instead, the chief points of dissent between the Church of England and Wesley were those related to politics.
Chapter One outlines the characteristics of English Evangelicalism, which included Methodists, but also included more traditional members of the Church of England and dissenters on the outside of the sanctioned church. The second chapter places Wesley within the context of English Evangelicalism. He lived on the edge of acceptable circles, given his seeming drift toward dissenting ecclesiology combined with a surprising desire to remain within the high church tradition. He was at once too radical and too conservative for many English Evangelicals.
In Chapter Three, Danker surveys the vast array of pamphlets and tracts published about the Wesleys and by the Wesleys, which served to confuse people regarding the actual position of the Methodist movement about many issues. Fake news and propaganda had a place in this dispute as well. The fourth chapter considers the influence that political history in England had on the Methodist movement. As outliers on the ecclesial scale, the drift away from the Anglican communion caused many to remember the negatives of Cromwell and his revolutionaries. Indeed, there were echoes of ethical stringency among the Methodists that brought back unpleasant memories of Puritan political hegemony. This added to the negative view many had of Wesley and his followers.
Chapter Five reflects on the territorial tensions caused by Wesley and his large network of lay preachers. Parishes were generally divided by geographical boundaries, but Wesley’s unsupervised, unsanctioned lay preachers went to wherever their message was needed. This led to tension between Evangelical Anglicans who saw Methodist preachers making inroads in their territory, making it more difficult for them to reform. The sixth chapter documents how this tension was even increased as the Methodist lay preachers began to administer the Lord’s Supper, which was traditionally reserved for ordained clergy. This is a theological issue that gave momentum to the departure of the Methodists from the Church of England upon Wesley’s death.
Chapter Seven records the shifting political tide against the Methodists, as young men practicing some of the methodistic practices were expelled from state universities. This increased the attempts of the reform-seeking Evangelical Anglicans to distance themselves from the irregularities of Methodism and aided in the final alienation of Wesley’s tribe. Chapter Eight attempts to paint Wesley as a reformer in line with earlier forms of Christianity rather than the English reformation. Danker concludes the volume in the ninth chapter documenting Wesley’s final attempt to be reconciled to the Evangelical Anglicans, which eventually failed and caused him to drift farther from the Church of England.
As a Baptist theologian reading about the life of Wesley and the split with Anglicanism, I found myself unfamiliar with some of the nuances of the history Danker expounds. His book, for me, was informative and engaging. It provides a gateway into the conflict of the origins of the Methodist denomination.
Danker argues his thesis well. He makes a solid case that there was much more to the division between the Wesleyan tradition and the Church of England than a dispute over Arminianism and Calvinism. (These are Danker’s terms on page 13.) Based on the story that Danker tells, it is clear that political tensions, territorial feuds, and a whole host of very human difficulties caused the final schism between the Methodists and the Church of England.
Whether Danker is right in his final analysis or whether he has overlooked significant evidence is a matter for the Methodists and Anglicans to fight out. I’ll bring my popcorn and enjoy the debate.
However, as a theologian and one who appreciates Church History, I applaud the care in Danker’s analysis to show that this is a complicated question. Too often history falls prey to the magic bullet explanation that neutralizes all counter arguments and makes simple that which is complex. That is what the Arminian/Calvinism split explanation has been for surveys of Church History and the reason for the Methodist exodus. Danker does well to show that there was much more at play. Humans are complicated creatures and our theological debates are often driven by more than simply the doctrinal question at hand. Here is a nuanced account of how one historical debate unfolded.
This volume could have been improved had Danker added a chapter laying out the accepted arguments for the split. He mentions in passing the soteriological explanation traditionally given in his introduction, but for those of us who have little background in Methodist/Anglican history, a bit more fleshing out would have been beneficial. That criticism aside, this is a helpful and interesting book that a student of Protestant Church History and Theology will likely find instructive and enjoyable.
Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.