The WRU originated during the struggles for reform in WM in the mid-nineteenth century, brought to a head by the anonymous Fly Sheets and the expulsion of James Everett and others in 1849. Wesleyan Reformers regard this as their year of origin. But 'Wesleyan Reform' was not, at that time, a new denomination, but an agenda for change within WM itself. Thus, at the Reformers' Delegate Meeting of 1852, a Declaration of Principles was drawn up, insisting that 'Christ is Head over all things to His Church' and that 'preachers of the Gospel are not 'lords over God's heritage'. To this was added a 'solemn demand' for 'the complete and immediate repeal of all rules and regulations whereby the rights and liberties of the People ... have been restricted or destroyed' and that 'all future deliberations affecting the interests of the Church ... be conducted in the presence of the people, who shall ... be fully and fairly represented.'
By 1859 hope of reform and reconciliation had waned and the Delegate Meeting of that year drew up a formal Constitution under the designation 'Wesleyan Reform Union', incorporating the 1852 Declaration and explicitly affirming the autonomy of the local church. It also provided for an annual Conference and an elected Executive Committee to act between Conferences. Initially a chairman was elected at the commencement of each Conference session, but from 1864 there was provision for an annual Presidency.
Nevertheless, it is clear from numerical returns that WR had limited success in maintaining itself as a distinct movement without disintegration. As early as 1857 no fewer than 20,000 out of a membership of 46,000 amalgamated with the WMA to form the UMFC and within two years membership had further reduced to 17,000. By 1881 numbers were down to just over 7,000. Thereafter the decline was less rapid and as late as 1932, following Methodist Union, a society was formed in Scotland at Clydebank, with a chapel opened in 1938 (bombed in 1942).
The Union was at first involved in the negotiations that resulted in the union of 1907, but dropped out in1904.
Theologically, the Union has strongly maintained its identity as an evangelical Methodist body and is a member of the Free Churches' Group and the Evangelical Alliance. Its headquarters are in Sheffield.