Licensing of preachers

The Toleration Act of 1689 gave a measure of protection to Dissenting preachers by providing for them to register as such either at the episcopal or archdiaconal courts or at the Quarter Sessions, on condition that they demonstrated their loyalty by taking oaths and making declarations. This presented a dilemma to John Wesley, once he had begun to rely on lay preachers (whether local or itinerant) and he hesitated for a long time, insisting that the Methodists were not Dissenters but Anglicans. In a letter of 19 July 1768 he admitted that, for their own protection, some of the preachers had applied to be licensed and some had been refused on the grounds that they were not 'Protestant Dissenters'. The right of the magistrate or court to refuse a licence was successfully contested by Thomas Brisco, but Wesley was still hesitating in 1787. After consulting his solicitor, William Clulow, he then reluctantly agreed to the licensing of preachers, but as 'preachers of the gospel', not as Dissenters.

Several test cases brought before the courts between 1793 and 1812 were settled in favour of the Methodists. But abuse of the Toleration Act during the Napoleonic Wars to avoid military service was condemned by the Conference, eager for Methodism to be seen as patriotic. Following the defeat of Lord Sidmouth's Bill in 1811 the Conventicle and other Acts were repealed by 52 Geo.III c.155, which provided for preachers to take the oaths and make declarations before a JP.

  • John S. Simon in WHS Proceedings, 11 pp.103-11,130-7