Anglican clergy

The eighteenth century Church of England became predominantly Erastian and Latitudinarian in reaction against the religious fanaticism of the previous century. Nevertheless, the high church party retained the support of many of the parish clergy (like John Wesley's father, Samuel) and survived to provide part of the background to the nineteenth century Oxford Movement.

Most evangelicals were Calvinistic. Among the earliest sympathizers and supporters of the Evangelical Revival who had been associated with the 'Holy Club' at Oxford (e.g. John Clayton, James Hervey, Charles Kinchin), but tended to distance themselves from Methodism as it developed under Wesley's leadership, partly because of his Arminianism. Some followed George Whitefield or joined the Countess of Huntingdon. Others became Moravians. Otherwise sympathetic parish clergy had misgivings about such irregularities as field preaching and the use of unordained preachers. In the 1750s Samuel Walker and Thomas Adam joined Charles Wesley in persuading John against a formal separation from the Church.

John Wesley was unable to persuade more than one or two to abandon their parish work for an itinerant ministry, though William Grimshaw, John Berridge and John Baddiley of Hayfield were partial exceptions. Even John Fletcher confined himself largely to Madeley. Some of those who joined him on a full-time basis were ones who had been ousted from their parish because of their evangelical leanings: (Thomas Coke and John Richardson).

Local clergy (who were often also magistrates) sometimes incited the mob against the Methodist preachers, especially if they found themselves the object of criticism for their worldliness or even immorality (e.g. at Wednesbury). Some bishops, including Joseph Butler and Archbishop John Potter, gave qualified encouragement to the movement in its early days, but others (e.g. Edmund Gibson, George Horne, William Warburton and notably George Lavington) were among its outstanding critics.

In March 1745 Wesley drew up for 'a friend' a detailed statement on the relationship between the Methodists and the clergy and printed it in his Journal. In the mid-1760s he made a determined attempt to form a united front among the evangelical clergy of his acquaintance, but his circular letter of 19 April 1764 brought only three responses. The others were unwilling to welcome Wesley's lay preachers into their parishes; instead, a group of them began to meet quarterly in Worcester and by the 1769 Conference Wesley had abandoned his hopes of an alliance of evangelicals, dismissing it as 'a rope of sand'.

During the early nineteenth century the evangelical clergy increased their influence, though they were challenged by the rise of Anglo-Catholicism in the wake of the Oxford Movement, which in turn widened the gulf between Anglican and nonconformist later in the century. Despite the rise of organizations for pan-evangelical activity, Nonconformist hostility to the Established Church tended to antagonize the Evangelical clergy and suspicion of the 'Romanizing' Oxford Movement alienated the Wesleyans. Attacks on Methodism came from such divergent sources as Sydney Smith and E.B. Pusey. In the twentieth century, although Methodism responded more favourably than the rest of the Free Churches to proposals for inter-communion and union with the Church of England, it is noticeable that a combination of extreme Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics defeated the union proposals in the House of Clergy in 1969 and 1972.

See also Anglican-Methodist Conversations; Church Methodists; Owston Ferry Case

  • J.H. Whiteley, Wesley's Anglican Contemporaries (1939)
  • F. Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England (1970)
  • A.Skevington Wood, Brothers in Arms: John Wesley's Early Clerical Associates (1992)
  • A. Brown-Lawson, John Wesley and the Anglican Evangelicals of the Eighteenth Century (Bishop Auckland, 1994)
  • Patrick Streiff, Reluctant Saint: a theological Biography of Fletcher of Madeley (Peterborough, 2001), pp.126-31, 150
  • Methodist Recorder, 24 May 2013