The eighteenth century was a violent age in which the means of law enforcement were rudimentary. Methodism was perceived by the authorities as a proletarian movement, nationally organized, a new generation of 'Levellers' which disrupted the social fabric, threatened law and order in both Church and State, and was a challenge to the prevailing moralism of the parish clergy. (Justification by faith was seen as leading to antinomianism.) It did not help that the Toleration Act was of dubious relevance to Methodists so long as they claimed to be Anglicans, not Dissenters. Physical persecution, often at the instigation of clergy and gentry and carried out by the local mob, occurred where civil authority was weak (as at Wednesbury in 1743 and Colne in 1748), or where Methodism had clashed with vested interests such as the theatre, or as a result of general outrage at the incursion of strangers threatening the accepted patterns of behaviour. A mob incited to violence by their 'betters' and plied with drink was unlikely to be deterred merely by reading the Riot Act. Nor did Magistrates always act against rioters, though the government was in principle opposed to persecution for religious opinion; but John Wesley knew the law and was prepared to demand its application to those who violated it.

The persistent courage of preachers and members did much to transform hostility into admiration. By 1791, Methodism had a footing in national life and persecution in England had largely ceased. But during the Napoleonic period Methodists in the Channel Islands were targeted by the authorities for their refusal to join in Sunday exercises; and the missionaries in several West Indian islands suffered at the hands of the plantation owners because of their opposition to slavery.

Persecution resurfaced in the 19th century against the BC and PM preaching, especially in southern counties, and later against the Salvation Army. Local preachers were evicted from their farms, cottagers risked loss of employment for allowing a room to be used for a religious meeting, and the law was sometimes used as a pretext for persecution.

  • J.H. Barr, Early Methodists under Persecution (New York, 1916)
  • Leslei F. Church, More about the Early Methodist People (1949) pp.57-98
  • D. Dunn Wilson, 'Hanoverian Government and Methodist Persecution', in WHS Proceedings, 33 pp.94-99
  • Arthur P. Whitney, The Basis of Opposition to Methodism in England in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1951)
  • David Dunn Wilson, Many Waters Cannot Quench (1969)
  • J. Walsh, 'Methodism and the Mob in the 18th Century' in Popular Belief and Practice (Studies in Church History, 8, 1972) pp. 213-27
  • J. Leonard Waddy, The Bitter Sacred Cup: the Wednesbury Riots 1743-44 (1976)