War and peace

Several of the early Methodist itinerants, including Thomas Beard, John Crook and John Haime, and laymen like Sampson Staniforth) had served in the Army and Methodist soldiers were instrumental in establishing societies in many places, especially overseas. John Wesley was ahead of his time in denouncing the evil of war ('that fell monster'), notably in his treatise on Original Sin, where he dealt with its causes and condemned it as destructive of the 'work of God'. On the other hand, he responded to the threat of a French invasion in 1756 by offering to raise a 'company of volunteers' from among his followers. In the Napoleonic period Methodists were eager to demonstrate their loyalty, objecting only to drilling on Sunday. The Jersey Methodists took a stand on this issue and were given protection from punitive measures only after an appeal to the Privy Council by Coke and others.

In more recent times Methodists were divided in their attitude to war. Wesleyans such as H.P. Hughes supported the British stance in the South African War of 1899-1902, but Samuel Keeble used his Methodist Weekly to oppose it. The Primitive Methodists were more divided in their views, though their 1914 Conference condemned arms manufacturers as 'direct foes of the gospel'. In World War I the vast majority of prominent Methodists, including such leading figures as Scott Lidgett and Dinsdale Young supported the war, while others such as W.F. Lofthouse opposed it. In World War II Henry Carter and Donald Soper were prominent pacifists.

In World War l conscientious objection arose only after the introduction of conscription in 1916. Among the Methodists who registered and suffered severe treatment was Alf Myers, an ironstone miner from Carlin Howe, Cleveland. Another was Bert Brocklesby of Conisbrough, S. Yorks., a teacher trained at Westminster College, local preacher and chapel organist. However, it should be noted that conscientious objectors and their supporters formed only a small minority of Methodists.. The majority were fully supportive of Britain's engagement in the conflict, which they viewed as a battle for right over the military might of a Germany which had brutalized 'brave little Belgium'. The diary of Ernest Goodridge, The Same Stars Look Down (2000) exemplifies the belief of many Methodists that signing up for military service was their Christian duty.

The modern attitude of the Methodist Church to war is set out in the Conference Declarations of 1937 and 1957 and reflected in Conference resolutions on such specific issues as nuclear weapons, the arms trade and disarmament. Methodism acknowledges that war is contrary to the spirit, teaching and purpose of Christ, but recognizes that Christians are divided: some believing that loyalty to the teaching of Jesus requires the total renunciation of the use of military force, others that there are situations in which resort to arms is the lesser of two evils. The 1937 Declaration sets out the divergence of views on Christian participation in war in two statements, (a) by Henry Carter on the pacifist position and (b) by Walter H. Armstrong on the position of those who could not endorse the pacifist position. The 1957 Declaration re-examined the doctrine of the 'Just War', especially in the light of the development of nuclear weapons.

The Christian pacifist position is rooted in a theological interpretation of the Cross. The non-pacifist argues that sometimes the claims of peace and justice conflict and justice then has the prior claim. The Church is pledged to uphold the rights of conscience of both pacifist and non-pacifist. The development of weapons of mass destruction has led to the conclusion that no war fought with such weapons can be just. The recognition that the search for military security is undermining the achievement of the environmental security on which the future of the planet depends is leading to similar re-examination.These developments in Methodist thinking are part of a wider concensus which is critical of war as a means of settling international disputes. The Churches, through their leaders, have emphasized the need to strengthen the UN and have strongly resisted unilateral military initiatives and the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes.

A.S. Peake republished his articles from the Primitive Methodist Leader as a book, Prisoners of Hope: the Problem of the Conscientious Objector (1918).

Leslie Weatherhead set out the dilemma presented by modern warfare in his Thinking Aloud in Wartime (1939)
  • Conference Agenda, 1933, 1937 and 1957
  • Maldwyn L. Edwards, 'John Wesley and War', in This Methodism (1939) pp.67-91
  • Michael S. Edwards, S.E. Keeble, the rejected prophet (Broxton, 1977) pp.38-44
  • G.Thompson Brake, Policy and Politics in British Methodism 1932-1982 (1984) pp.443-56
  • A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, vol.4 (1988) pp.630-4
  • Brian K. Turley, 'John Wesley and War', in Methodist History, 29:2 (January 1991) pp.96-111
  • Kenneth G. Greet, Fully Connected (1997), pp.137-54
  • Michael Hughes, 'Methodism, peace and war, 1932-45', in Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 85, no. 1 (2003) pp. 147-67
  • Michael Hughes, 'The Development of Methodist Pacifism 1899-1939', in WHS Proceedings, 53 pp.203-15
  • Michael Hughes, 'British Methodism and the First World War', in Methodist History, vol.41 (2002-2003) pp.316-28
  • Peacemaking: a Christian Vocation (2006)
  • Michael Hughes, Conscience and Conflict: Methodism, Peace and War in the Twentieth Century (Peterborough, 2008)
  • Will Ellsworth-Jones, We Will Not Fight: the untold story of World War One's Conscientious Objectors (2008)
  • Norman W. Taggart, 'War and Peace and Methodist Missions in the 20th century: an Irish perspective', in Bulletin of the Methodist Historical Society of Ireland, vol.16, 2011, pp.97-106
  • 'Methodism and the Great War', in Methodist Recorder, 1 and 22 August 2014
  • Michael Hughes, 'Methodism and the Challenge of the First World War', in WHS Proceedings, 60, pp.3-17
  • Martin Wellings, 'Oxford's Free Churches and the Outbreak of the Great War', in WHS Proceedings, vol.60 p.151-62
  • D. Colin Dews, 'To fight or not to fight? The Primitive Methodist Dilemma' in WHS Yorkshire Bulletin, no.109, Spring 2016, pp.13-25
  • Stuart Bell, in * Methodist Recorder, 21 September, 19 October, 2 and 9 November 2019