Calvinistic Methodism

The key elements in the theological system associated with the Swiss reformer John Calvin (1509-64) were an emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God, the predestination of certain 'elect' people to salvation, the perseverance of the saints and an insistence on ecclesiastical discipline. Whether Calvin actually taught the 'horrible decree', i.e. of predestination to 'damnation', in the manner often ascribed to him has been questioned, but it was certainly propagated by his spiritual heirs. A distinction is sometimes made between the 'High' Calvinism which insisted on this extreme form of predestinarian teaching and the 'low' Calvinism which did not concern itself with such issues as whether the 'decrees' predated the Fall.

Calvinism was widespread in Puritanism, and hence among both Anglican and dissenting evangelicals, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Wesleys strongly opposed it over predestination, final perseverance and its attack on their doctrine of Christian perfection, believing that it denied the universal availability of grace and the power of the Spirit to 'save to the uttermost'. The issue, with the related one of antinomianism, was discussed at the Conferences of 1744 and 1745 and, above all, 1770. Many of Charles Wesley's hymns (e.g. HP 520, 'Father of everlasting grace') were written to refute the limited availability of salvation. In turn, John Wesley was bitterly attacked, especially during the controversy of the 1770s, his teaching on perfection being perceived as 'popery'.

The intermittent dispute impaired the co-operation between Wesleyan and other evangelicals (notably George Whitefield and Lady Huntingdon).Whitefield had no desire to found a denomination, but concentrated on his preaching tours. The English Calvinists looked initially to their Welsh brethren for guidance; but after 1749, the year Howell Harris withdrew from the Welsh movement and Whitefield distanced himself from administrative concerns, they turned increasingly to the Independents. After they died, most of their English societies became Congregational.

See also Arminianism

  • A.C. Outler, John Wesley (Oxford, 1964) pp. 425-91
  • Edwin Welch, 'A Forgotten Thread in Congregational History: the Calvinistic Methodists', in Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, XXI (1971), pp.84-93
  • H.D. Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism (1989) pp.198-202, 450-61
  • Rodney L. Reed, 'Calvin, Calvinism and Wesley: the doctrine of assurance in historical perspective', in Methodist History 32:1 (October 1993) pp.31-43
  • A. Brown-Lawson, John Wesley and the Anglican Evangelicals of the Eighteenth Century (Bishop Auckland, 1994) pp.301-54
  • Geoffrey Wainwright, 'Charles Wesley and Calvinism', in Kenneth G.C. Newport and Ted A. Campbell (eds.), Charles Wesley, Life, Literature & Legacy (Peterborough, 2007) pp. 184-203
  • Jerry J. Walls, 'John Wesley on Predestination and Election', in Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies ed. W.J. Abraham and J.E. Kirby (2009), pp.618-32
  • John Munsey Turner, 'Calvinism and Arminianism - Again: A contribution to Anglican-Methodist relations', in Mervyn Davies (ed.), A Thankful Heart and a Discerning Mind (2010) pp.144-64