Methodism in the Early 1750s
Methodism in the Early 1750s
Abstract and Keywords
By 1749 Methodism had put down firm roots in communities across the British Isles. The movement's size and the increasing sophistication of its structure and worship life imposed a distance with the parent Church of England and this was worsened by the hostility of many Anglicans. Some Methodist preachers started to react against the Church and also against the discipline imposed by the Wesley brothers. The rising tension boiled over in 1754 when preachers in London and Reading administered the Sacraments contrary to Anglican practice. The resulting crisis was worsened by Charles Wesley's suspicion that his brother was sympathetic to the separatists. John eventually decided against separation from the Church of England, but his brother's fears for the future were not eased, establishing a pattern for the future of his relationship with John Wesley and the Methodist movement.
At the same time that the relationship between the Wesley brothers was being tested to the point of destruction, Charles was becoming aware that Methodism was heading in directions that he found rather unsettling. The root causes of the problem were the movement's rapid expansion, and the widening gulf that had appeared between the Methodists and their Anglican point of origin. The Wesleys were in one sense, victims of their own success: by 1748, just nine years after their first venture into open-air evangelism, the brothers found themselves at the head of a sophisticated network of over seventy societies grouped into nine circuits. The geographical spread of the movement was patchy, as one might expect, but a presence had been established in all parts of the United Kingdom, and the way seemed open for continued growth in the years to come.
As Methodism left its pioneer years behind and moved into a period of maturity and growing self-confidence, the brothers faced the challenge of determining what should be the institutional end-result of their efforts? Should Methodists remain part of an Anglican Church that had, at the very least, mixed feelings towards the Evangelicals? Or did the brighter future lie in separation from the parent denomination? The dilemma that this represented was exacerbated by the fact that the movement, by the end of the 1740s, had arrived at a point where the ability of the leadership to maintain effective personal control was threatened. This newly provoked concern over the future of Methodism, and the Wesleys’ own authority, combined with the loss of brotherly trust to set the stage for controversies that were to plague the rest of Charles's life.
One of the essential components of success had been the establishment of a network of lay preachers, responsible for consolidating and often introducing the Revival into many parts of the British Isles. Two categories of preacher evolved: on the one hand were itinerants who were required to abandon their normal occupation and devote themselves entirely to the work of God. Appointed to labour in a specific circuit for periods of one to three years, the itinerants supervised the societies, with the assistance of lay officials such as the class leaders and stewards. The itinerant preacher filled the role of a minister in many respects, except that he was not allowed to administer the Sacraments. Local preachers on the other hand remained in one place and maintained their usual employment, often serving also as class leaders and chapel trustees, providing much-needed continuity. As significant as local preachers were at a local level, it was the full-time itinerants who formed what was effectively a second tier of Methodist leadership. For the sake of simplicity, when reference is made to preachers in the rest of this study, the reader should assume that it is the itinerants who are being referred to. The Wesley brothers were also assisted by a number of ordained Anglican ministers, such as William Grimshaw and John Fletcher, and these were accorded greater status than the preachers. They were, however, only a small handful compared with the itinerants and often had parish responsibilities that limited their effectiveness.
By the early 1750s the itinerants’ success and indispensability were becoming major sources of concern to the Wesleyan leadership; in particular, Charles's relationship with certain of these men became a running sore. One of the major issues was that of separation from the Church of England, and that will be examined later in this chapter. First, it is necessary to sketch in the background to the relationship between the brothers and their ‘Sons in the Gospel’.
The Wesleys first sanctioned the employment of lay preachers no later than 1741 and their number rose steadily as the work expanded. The early Methodist historian William Myles listed thirty-nine laymen and six Anglican ministers (excluding the Wesley brothers) who commenced itinerant preaching between 1740 and the end of (p.112) 1744.1 Myles's list should not be regarded as definitive, but it does reflect the important role that preachers were assuming at an early date.
The inherent danger in elevating members of the laity to positions of responsibility was recognized from the outset. At the 1744 inaugural Conference, John Wesley emphasized that he and his brother were in charge:
Act in all things, not according to your own will, but as a son in the Gospel. As such, it is your part to employ your time, in the manner which we direct …Above all, if you labour with us in our Lord's vineyard, it is needful you should do that part of the work which we advise, at those times and places, which we judge most for his glory.2
To the end of his life, John insisted that the preachers and people submit to his authority. This was not simply a reflection of his controlling nature but was also an inevitable result of the Methodist situation: the movement consisted of isolated societies administered by men of differing levels of ability and education, and it required a central authority capable of imposing uniformity of doctrine and practice.
The existence of a strong guiding hand does not mean that the Methodists submitted easily, and from the earliest days the brothers discovered that many of their followers were reluctant to fall into line with their commands. Such rebelliousness took several forms, from negligence on the part of two out of three senior preachers3 to general breaches of discipline. The large-scale expulsions that were a feature of the Wesleys’ nationwide tours illustrate the difficulties experienced in keeping control, and these problems were magnified when individual itinerants rebelled against the leadership.
One of the earliest divisions occurred in March 1741 when John Cennick parted with the Wesleys on theological grounds. This was at a very early stage in the evolution of a specifically Wesleyan movement, but it does illustrate an interesting point. Cennick, who may have been the first authorized lay preacher, was a man of considerable (p.113) ability; when he withdrew from connexion with the Wesleys, he was joined by ninety of the one hundred and forty-two members of the Kingswood society,4 despite the fact that one or other of the brothers had been in the vicinity for much of the previous year. The Cennick separation represented a relatively rare occurrence in the first decade of Wesleyan Methodism, but it was one with implications for the future.
The Wesleys and the itinerants forged a strong bond during the 1740s. The brothers were aware of their reliance on lay helpers, while for their part the preachers felt called by God to serve under the Wesleys’ direction. There is little evidence to indicate that before the end of the decade Charles's relations with the preachers were unduly troubled. He occasionally expressed doubt concerning individual lack of ability, but personal hostility and mistrust on either side appear to have been lacking, except where there were doctrinal disagreements. Charles expressed appreciation of the talents of several of the lay preachers5 and was quick to leap to their defence when he felt that they were unjustly criticized.6 There is virtually no extant correspondence between Charles and the preachers before 1750, but the impression that is given in other primary sources such as the journal is that his relations with the itinerants were harmonious.
It is understandable that Charles's relations with the lay preachers were at their best in this early period as the itinerants were few in number and their influence was limited. Of the nine men who attended the Conference of 1746, four were Anglican ministers;7 by way of comparison, sixty lay preachers and just three Anglican ministers, including John and Charles Wesley, attended the Conference of 1755.8 Given such a rapid expansion of the itinerancy, it is hardly surprising that the Wesleys began to experience difficulty in upholding their authority. Another contributory factor to Charles's good relations with the preachers was the fact that his own travelling ministry was second to none. He had personal knowledge of the itinerants (p.114) and shared their triumphs and hardships. The loss of this contact in later years has been cited as a factor in Charles's alienation from men who, unlike himself, remained in the vanguard of the Methodist movement.9 There is an element of truth in this argument, but it will be made clear that the difficulties between Charles and the preachers after 1750 owed a great deal to causes other than Charles's retirement from the road.
A dramatic turning point came at the beginning of the 1750s prompted by a number of developments. The expansion in the itinerants’ numbers, the enhanced standing that they enjoyed in the societies and the increasing sophistication of their duties brought into sharper focus the potential threat that they represented. Some of the preachers had been in the work for a decade and had grown in confidence and stature; a few started to flex their muscles accordingly. Tension began to surface between the Wesleys and men who had hitherto been among their most trusted helpers.
One of the earliest intimations of trouble came on 10 July 1749, when Charles expressed concern about James Wheatley who had gone to the north of England contrary to Charles's advice.10 This was the beginning of a long-running problem that was not to be resolved until Wheatley's expulsion five years later. Wheatley had joined the itinerancy in 1742 and attended at least one of the Conferences: his origins are obscure, but he possessed charisma and was able to seduce several women in the Norwich and Bristol circuits, which misdemeanours came to light at about the same time as his unauthorized visit to the northern societies. An added cause of concern with Wheatley was his irregular mode of preaching, described by one contemporary as ‘unconnected rhapsody of unmeaning words’.11 Evidently designed to promote a state of high emotion, it belonged to a category of extempore discourse that seemed to justify the fears of the Wesleys’ Anglican critics. Wheatley's so-called method became influential in the societies and appears to have attracted other exponents from among his fellow preachers. Despite such scandalous behaviour, John Wesley pardoned Wheatley on at least one occasion, on condition (p.115) that he mend his ways, and Charles played an important role in counselling the miscreant.12 When he was finally expelled, Wheatley was able to disrupt the Norwich society,13 and it appears that several of the preachers may already have been lost to the Methodists because of his influence.14
At the same time that the Wesleys were trying to curb Wheatley's excess, some of his colleagues were also causing them disciplinary problems. The former pedlar William Darney for example, who had incorporated his societies into the Wesleyan movement in 1747, started to create difficulties with his Calvinist theology and independent ways. On 26 January 1750 John Bennet, who by this time had his own points of grievance with the Wesleys, recorded in his journal:
In the morning [William Darney] came to meet me. We walked out into the field and he showed me a letter he had received from Mr Wesley wherein he reproves him sharply of many things, particularly of singing his own hymns which he tells him are nonsense. [William] Darney also informed me that a few days ago he saw a letter which Mr Wesley sent to brother [William] Shent …wherein he tells him that ‘Brother Darney is not in connexion with him etc’.15
Darney appears to have escaped public censure on that occasion, but the following year, he published his own hymn-book, the preface of which contained criticism of the Wesleys’ poetic works as being too refined for a northern audience.16 It is hardly surprising that Darney was subsequently suspended from the itinerancy, although he was eventually readmitted and continued in an uneasy relationship with the brothers until 1768.
A more serious division occurred in April 1752 with the final collapse of the relationship between John Bennet and the Wesleys. The tension arising from the Grace Murray affair has already been discussed, but it is clear that there were unrelated concerns within the societies that Bennet was able to exploit in order to lead a separation. Among his criticisms of John Wesley was the allegation of (p.116) popery;17 this was both in the doctrinal sense, and implied that Wesley conducted himself in a highhanded manner. In support of his contention, Bennet cited the harsh treatment meted out to William Darney and the Wesleys’ insistence on having legal title to preaching houses. This latter point represented a direct attack on one of the foundation stones of discipline, as legal title meant that the brothers could dictate doctrine and exclude preachers.18 That Bennet was not alone in feeling disquiet concerning aspects of the Wesleys’ leadership is shown by the fact that parts of several societies left with him.
The preceding examples are only the most prominent and best documented of a rash of disciplinary problems that came to a head between 1750 and 1756. These were revealed in clashes over doctrine, suitability of preachers, and breaches of discipline. Whatever the details of individual cases, the problems as a whole were indicative of a growing feeling within the itinerancy that the preachers should have a voice in determining the character and future of Methodism—something that was anathema to the Wesleys’ High Church view of ordained ministry. As early as August 1751, the preacher Charles Skelton was arguing for the itinerants to be given a place in Connexional decision-making,19 and Charles Wesley reported to his brother that same month that the preachers were complaining all over England that John was ruling with a ‘rod of iron’.20
The brothers had been aware for some time that storm clouds were gathering. In the summer of 1750 John revealed his growing frustration in a number of letters to the itinerant Edward Perronet, from which these passages are taken:
Charles [Perronet] and you behave as I want you to do. But you cannot, or will not preach where I desire. Others can, and will, preach where I desire, but they do not behave as I want them to do. I have a fine time between one and the other21(p.117)
I have not one preacher with me, and not six in England, whose wills are broken enough to serve me as sons in the gospel.22
Charles was equally concerned over what he viewed as the related problems of indiscipline and preachers’ gifts. His close involvement with the Wheatley affair convinced him of the need for examining the itinerants, and after discussions with his brother he assumed this responsibility on 28 June 1751.23 Charged with the duty of returning to their normal occupations, individuals who failed to meet the requisite standards, he found much to disturb him during his travels. In Bristol on 5 August, he recorded in his journal:
[I] went to the Room that I might hear with my own ears one, of whom many strange things had been told me. But such a preacher have I never heard, and hope I never shall again …I cannot say he preached false doctrine; or true; or any doctrine at all, but pure, unmixed nonsense …I could scarce refrain from stopping him …Some begged me to step into the desk and speak a few words to the poor dissatisfied hearers. I did so, taking no notice of Michael Fenwick, late Superintendent of all Ireland!24
Other sources confirm that there was indeed a problem with the quality and character of some of the preachers. In November 1751, Sarah Perrin complained to Charles that John Hewish had been permitted to preach again despite his drunkenness—John Wesley had been persuaded by the itinerants to give him a second chance. She also mentioned that there had been complaints about Edmund Wells too.25
On 11 August 1751, Charles wrote to John Bennet thanking him for the information concerning the unworthiness of Robert Gillespie, whom Charles had consequently relieved of his duties.26 Charles placed all the responsibility for Gillespie being accepted into the itinerancy onto his brother's shoulders: ‘A friend of ours [John Wesley] (without God's consent) made a preacher of a taylor. I with God's help shall make a taylor of him again.’27 This letter also serves as a reminder of the recent and continuing personal differences between (p.118) the brothers, as it is inconceivable that Charles would have commented in such a way to a third party just a few years previously. At precisely the time that tension was developing within Methodism, a wall had been erected between the Wesleys.
Several preachers were disciplined as a result of Charles's tour of inspection. Extant in the Methodist Archives is a notebook containing shorthand passages that document the prevailing mood of disquiet.28 In one of these, Charles records a meeting with his brother on 25 November 1751 in the presence of their friend and adviser Vincent Perronet. After the customary expression of solidarity, the brothers pledged to admit or expel from the itinerancy, only those men whom they both agreed upon and that neither they nor Perronet would restore to the ranks of the itinerants, without the consent of the other two, any preacher who was found wanting. The assistants Michael Fenwick, James Wheatley, William Darney, Eleazer Webster, Robert Gillespie, James Watson, David Trathen, John Madern, and Thomas Webb were consequently relieved of their duties.
This action of expelling no fewer than nine of the approximately forty active itinerant preachers appears to be a firm executive decision designed to reinforce discipline and maintain standards. On closer examination however, an interesting fact emerges—at least four of the nine were subsequently readmitted.29 Charles may have been scathing in his denunciation of the talents of Fenwick and Gillespie, but it did not prevent them, after an interval, from continuing their Methodist ministry until 1797 and 1764 respectively. John Wesley described James Wheatley in July 1751 as a ‘wonderful self-deceiver and hypocrite’,30 yet he was not finally expelled for another three years. Even after Wheatley was thrust out, there was a partial reconciliation in 1758, leading to a cooperation that lasted for a further seven years.31
Christian forgiveness and forbearance presumably had a part to play in this acceptance of unworthy assistants back into the fold, but it also reveals just how strong a position the preachers enjoyed: simply put, if Methodism was to prosper, then the itinerants were indispensable and had to be handled accordingly. It was one of John Wesley's (p.119) gifts that he knew instinctively when to give way to pressure and by how much, yet without seeming to loosen his grip. This balancing act was not something that Charles was temperamentally suited for, but even so, he must have agreed to preachers being readmitted, indicating that either he was not so severe in practice, or that his hands were tied by the necessity of providing for the societies. Charles's position with regard to the preachers was weak at a surprisingly early date. If he was unable to insist that men, deficient in abilities, morals, or doctrinal conformity, were cast out permanently, it should come as no surprise that their more talented colleagues were able to defy him, much to his frustration.
John was certainly worried that Charles would go too far in his enthusiastic purges. On 24 July 1751 he wrote to his brother: ‘As to preachers, my counsel is not to check the young ones, without strong necessity. If we lay some aside, we must have a supply, and of the two I prefer grace before gifts.’32 On 8 August, he reminded Charles that they must have forty itinerants or abandon some of the work.33 Despite his own concern with discipline, it is clear that John wavered between the need for regularity and provision for the societies. The overriding impression is that from 1750 at least, despite the appearance of dictatorial power, John Wesley was in practice a lax disciplinarian, at least where his assistants were concerned, and when his own personal authority was not being called into question.
Within a short space of time between 1750 and 1752, the relationship between the brothers and their preachers altered in step with the changing dynamics of the Wesleyan movement. Charles was to suffer the most from this development: his gradual withdrawal from the itinerancy and short temper fuelled dislike on the part of certain preachers, and the fact that he felt isolated from his brother aggravated the situation. The rising temperature of Methodist affairs can be seen to best effect when looking at the question of separation from the Church of England—yet another fundamental issue that first came to a head in the early 1750s.
The danger that the Methodists would one day divide from the Anglican Church did not escape notice by early observers. Susanna Wesley and Samuel Wesley junior were both concerned about the irregular nature of John and Charles's activities as early as 1739, and in April of that year, Samuel informed John that ‘my mother tells me she fears a formal schism is already begun among you, though you and Charles are ignorant of it. For God's sake take care of that, and banish extemporary expositions and extemporary prayers.’34 Susanna did eventually become reconciled to her sons’ Evangelical involvement, but Samuel junior remained deeply suspicious of their infringement of Anglican discipline, and of John's ambition. A few weeks before he died on 6 November 1739, he wrote to their mother that ‘they design separation …They are already forbid all the pulpits in London, and to preach in that diocese is actual schism. In all likelihood it will come to the same all over England if the bishops have courage …As I told Jack I am not afraid the church should excommunicate him …but that he should excommunicate the church …’35 Samuel's concern was reflected in the charge made by other critics that the Wesley brothers, far from revitalizing the Church of England, were potential or actual schismatics.
John took every opportunity to contest the charge of fostering a separation, but there were justifiable grounds to doubt his Anglican loyalty. At the first Conference of 1744, in response to the question ‘How far is it our duty to obey the bishops?’ Wesley replied, ‘In all things indifferent. And on this ground of obeying them, we should observe the Canons, so far as we can with a safe conscience.’36 He reiterated this principle at the 1747 Conference: ‘we will obey the rules and governors of the church whenever we can consistent with our duty to God: whenever we cannot we will quietly obey God.’37 Such qualifying statements show clearly that his commitment to Anglican–Methodist unity was not to be taken for granted.
(p.121) John Wesley's conditional loyalty to the Church of England did not represent a sudden development but was apparent from soon after his Evangelical conversion. In 1739, he responded to Samuel Wesley junior's criticism of his activities with the remark: ‘I love the rites and ceremonies of the Church. But I see, well pleased, that our great Lord can work without them.’38 The roots of this independent thinking can be traced to before the Aldersgate experience of May 1738—the holy club was regarded by some of the Wesleys’ contemporaries as a dangerous innovation, while John's pioneering Georgia Hymnal of 1737 ran counter to prevailing Anglican practice. The seeds of Methodist independence from the Church of England may have been planted before the movement was even founded.
Charles Wesley during the 1740s also publicly stated his wish to remain true to the Anglican Church,39 but in practice this garb of loyalty sat lightly on his shoulders. He attended all the Conferences convened during that decade, with the exception of 1748, but there is no indication in the journal or extant correspondence that he was in any way concerned about his brother's wavering allegiance. Indeed, there are indications that his own defiance would have matched any attempt by the bishops to impede his freedom of action. On 8 July 1743 he wrote that ‘John Bray came to persuade me not to preach, till the Bishops should bid me. They have not yet forbid me; but, by the grace of God, I shall preach the word in season, out of season, though they and all men forbade me.’40 Early the following year, after being told that local Methodists were being repelled from the Sacraments, Charles made the ominous prediction that ‘the time, we know, will come, when they shall put us out of their synagogues’.41 Whether Charles would have ever considered separating from the Church will never be known, but in the first decade of the Revival, he would have hesitated at little else. It was only later in life, beginning with the years between 1750 and 1756 that the foundations of Charles's reputation as the ultimate Church Methodist were laid.
(p.122) On 17 July 1751, John complained to Charles that the preachers Charles Skelton and Joseph Cownley were attacking the Church of England. In his annotation, Charles queried if the brothers should not insist on ‘invariable attachment to the Church’ as a condition of admission to the itinerancy.42 On 16 January 1752, an agreement was entered into by the brothers stating the conditions governing the acceptance of travelling preachers,43 and several weeks later the Wesleys signed a statement with eleven itinerants pledging mutual loyalty and support.44 Later that year on 16 March, a further agreement was made between the Wesleys and four leading preachers stating their intention ‘never to leave the communion of the Church of England’ without the consent of the other signatories.45 This document was issued under Charles's name, and it appears that he, not John, was the person primarily responsible.46 Despite the appearance of harmony, there was underlying tension on this question. After the meeting on 25 November 1751, Charles consulted privately with Vincent Perronet and was advised not to press his brother with regard to signing the articles of agreement, as John might suspect that Charles doubted his word.47
The 1752 agreement of mutual trust and loyalty was publicly restated at the Methodist Conferences held between 1754 and 1756,48 but Charles remained convinced that the itinerants were a potentially destructive force. Even worse, he viewed his brother as a man who could no longer be trusted. As early as August 1751, he had linked these two points in a letter to the Countess of Huntingdon, which is worth quoting at length as an undisguised statement of his views at an important time in Methodist history: (p.123)
Unless a sudden remedy be found; the preachers will destroy the work of God—what has well nigh ruined many of them is their being taken from their trades—most of them was novices without much experience or stability: as fit to command an army as to guide a Christian flock; hence they quickly run themselves out of breath; losing first their grace; then their gifts; then their success; the universal respect they met with turned their heads—the tinner, barber, thatcher forgot himself and set up for a gentleman and looked out for a fortune—having lost the only way of maintaining himself: some have been betrayed by pride into still greater sins …What will become of them …will not each set up for himself and make a new party, sect or religion—or supposing we have authority enough to quash them whilst we live …who can stop them after our death …The most, the only effectual way in my judgement is to set them to work again, to prove them heartily [sic] which has any grace left, and which has not; who is sent of God and who of flesh and blood, sloth, pride and the devil—that man who disdains to work after the apostles’ example is no fellow labourer for us …the man who consents to labour at times at his calling proves his obedience and humility, both to us and the Church, he stops the mouths of gainsayers, relieves the poor people of that intolerable burden.49
With regard to his brother, Charles confided that he had an additional motive for insisting that the preachers support themselves:
namely it will break his power, their not depending on him for bread, and reduce his authority within due bounds, as well as guard against that rashness and credulity of his, which has kept me in continual awe and bondage for many years, therefore I shall insist on their working as the one point; the single condition of my acting in concert with him, because without this I can neither trust them, nor him—if he refuses I will give both preachers and society to his sole management; for this ruin shall not be under my hands.50
Charles was recovering from a fever and had written on 28 July that he had dictated to Sarah Perrin his ‘confused thoughts’ regarding the state of the Church.51 It should, however, be questioned just how ‘confused’ Charles really was, as he was already well on the way to recovery when the Huntingdon letter was written,52 and any (p.124) suspicion that his strident views were solely the result of feverish ramblings can probably be dismissed. Charles's letter was intercepted and passed to John,53 not surprisingly evoking a storm of protest. The circumstances in which the letter was copied, and the implications of that particular act, will be examined in the next chapter.
The Sacramental Controversy
The next major incident connected with the separation question occurred in October 1754, with the revelation that the itinerants Charles Perronet and Thomas Walsh had administered Communion in London and Reading, inspiring three others to follow what Charles termed their ‘vile example’.54 This represented a serious infringement of discipline, signifying a de facto separation from a denomination where administration of the Sacraments was the preserve of the ordained ministry.
It is not known how strong or early the call was within the societies for receiving the elements from the hands of lay preachers, but it is interesting that the rebel itinerants administered in London, as the society there was the best placed of any with regard to accessibility to the Lord's Table, either in the capital's many churches or from ordained clergymen in Methodist chapels such as West Street. The argument could therefore be made that this episode is indicative of a separatist trend. Against such an interpretation is evidence from six years later in 1760, when the London society appears to have been solidly against lay administration of the Sacraments. The precise truth is impossible to ascertain as it revolves around the thorny question of the detailed state of Connexional opinion. It may be the case that ordinary Methodists did not equate separation with receiving Communion from a much-loved itinerant and did not particularly care about such details of church order.
The Wesleys discussed the crisis on 19 October 1754 and it became clear to Charles that John himself was on the brink of division: ‘I was with my brother, who said nothing of [Charles] Perronet, except, “We (p.125) have in effect ordained already”. He urged me to sign the preachers’ certificates; was inclined to lay on hands; and to let the preachers administer.’55 This response was in one sense typical of John Wesley, who throughout his Methodist ministry wavered periodically from loyalty to the Established Church, to tacit acceptance of the principle of a distinct Methodist denomination, often professing one while promoting the other. This ambiguity was not new; what was different in the early 1750s was that Charles was no longer his brother's devoted partner.
Charles mustered the support of Anglican Evangelicals such as Walter Sellon and the Countess of Huntingdon. His mistrust of John and the preachers is explicit, together with a hint of jealousy of the relationship enjoyed by some of the itinerants with his brother: ‘Pride, cursed pride, has perverted him [John Wesley] and them [the preachers] …In your fidelity to my old honoured mother [the Church of England], you are a man after my own heart …What a pity such spirits should have any influence over my brother! They are continually urging him to a separation …I stand alone, as our preachers imagine.’56 Charles and others in the pro-Anglican camp went so far as to suspect that John had already ordained in secret.57 In a letter of 14 December 1754, he complained that he had been excluded from his brother's ‘cabinet council’, although Charles attributed this to the influence of the preachers rather than to any breakdown in his own relationship with John.58
Matters came to a head at the Conference in May 1755, the largest such assembly to date. In attendance were sixty-three itinerants and three Anglican ministers,59 which statistic is revealing—even allowing for the fact that John retained the decisive voice within Conference until the end of his life, it was inevitable that the views of the preachers would achieve greater prominence. John had already begun to waver from his initial conviction that he should allow the (p.126) Sacraments to be administered and on 4 February 1755, Charles wrote to Sellon with the news that their efforts were having an effect: ‘He has spoken as strongly of late on behalf of the Church of England as I could wish; and everywhere declares he never intended to leave her.’60
Conference discussed the separation question at length before concluding that regardless of the legality of such a step, it was inexpedient. His purpose achieved, Charles left the meeting to discuss more mundane matters: this may have indicated to the assembled preachers that he felt his primary role was no longer working alongside his brother, but the prevention of separation. Charles was later to acknowledge that this was indeed the case,61 and towards that end, he engaged in public agitation within the societies. Writing to Sarah a few days after he left Conference, he made the following statement: ‘I have delivered my own soul in this society, exhorting them to continue steadfast in fellowship with the Church of England. The same exhortation I hope to have with every society throughout the land.’62 In the same letter, Charles declared that while the brethren had agreed not to separate, the wound had been only ‘slightly’ healed. He was obviously unable to relax his guard despite the Conference decision.
Charles Wesley was not alone in fearing that the matter had yet to run its course. William Grimshaw, the Anglican Evangelical and friend of the Wesleys, made this clear in a letter to Mrs Gallatin: ‘The design of administering the Ordinances etc by our preachers got seemingly quite quashed at the Leeds Conference. Though since, there appears an intention of reassuming it there. Insomuch that, a rupture is expected in these Societies in a little time.’63 Charles was characteristically more barbed in his comments—writing to Sellon prior to the Conference, he referred to the separatists as ‘delinquents’ (p.127) and ‘hypocrites’64 and victory in the assembly did nothing to moderate his opinions.
How justified was Charles in his suspicion of the preachers? Comparatively few itinerants’ personal papers have survived from this period, but for the debate to be taking place at all, there must have been agitation in favour of, if not separation, at least greater freedom with regard to such issues as the Sacraments and registration of chapels as meeting houses. However, Charles was not alone in his support for the Church of England: the legendary Yorkshire itinerant John Nelson wrote in March 1755 that if the Wesleys ever left the Church, he would leave them, and William Shent, the pioneer of Leeds Methodism, was apparently of the same opinion.65 There was obviously a wide spectrum of opinion within the itinerancy on this important issue. Some men, such as the Perronet brothers, were in favour of formal separation, while others such as John Nelson were vehemently opposed. In between these two extremes were preachers who were content to remain within the Church, but who were at the same time applying for preachers’ licences and registering chapels for the legal protection that was afforded.
As for the societies, it is difficult to assess how wide the split had grown with the Church, and the Wesleys appear to have been equally uncertain as to the true picture: John declared in October 1755 that nineteen out of twenty of the preachers ‘and an equal majority of the people’ were against separation.66 On the other hand, Charles declared in his sermons and correspondence that he expected to bring only ‘the third part through the fire’, although this perhaps owes more to the tie-in with the biblical text than any reasoned estimate. As confused as the picture appears to have been, it seems that the Methodist preachers and people were not as inclined towards formal separation as Charles feared.
Do you not understand that they all promised by T. Walsh not to administer even among themselves? I think that a huge point given up: perhaps more than they could give up with a clear conscience.
They showed an ‘excellent spirit’ in this very thing …when I reflected on their answers I admired their spirit and was ashamed of my own.
The practical conclusion was, ‘not to separate from the Church’. Did we not all agree in this? Surely either you or I must have been asleep, or we could not differ so widely in a matter of fact!
Here is [Charles Perronet] raving because his friends have given up all, and [Charles Wesley] because they ‘have given up nothing’. And I in the midst, staring and wondering both at one and the other.67
The clearest indication of what the future held, was provided by John Wesley in a letter of 24 September 1755 to Samuel Walker:
At present I apprehend those, and those only, to separate from the Church who either renounce her fundamental doctrines, or refuse to join in her public worship. As yet we have done neither, nor have we taken one step further than we were convinced was our bounden duty. It is from a full conviction of this that we have, (1), preached abroad; (2), preached extempore; (3) formed societies; and (4), permitted preachers who were not episcopally ordained. And were we pushed on this side, were there no alternative allowed, we should judge it our bounden duty …to separate from the Church than to give up any of these points.68
This letter was written after the 1755 Conference affirmed the link with the Church of England and shows beyond doubt that Charles was correct to suspect his brother on this issue: John never did abandon these points, or ever looked like doing so.
Tension continued in the period between the Conferences of 1755 and 1756. Charles remained on edge, complaining in a letter of 9 June 1755 that ‘the preachers are swiftly following the separatists through my brother's dissimulation’.69 In this letter, and one written two days later, Charles referred to his sense of isolation,70 which was something that was very much on his mind after the years of close collaboration (p.129) with his brother. His earlier satisfaction at John's swing back to loyalty to the Church of England was short-lived, and again, he accused John of being untrustworthy.71
As for the preachers, Charles regarded them with increasing suspicion and took every opportunity to scrutinize their conduct by enquiry of other people. He was also sharp in his public criticism. In October 1756 he wrote an open letter to the Leeds Society: ‘I knew beforehand that the Sanballats and Tobiahs would be grieved when they heard there was a man come to seek the welfare of the Church of England. I expected they would pervert my words …but not let their slanders move you. Continue in the old ship …’72
One of the most striking features of Charles's ministry during this period was an almost obsessive concern with loyalty. During his last great preaching tour of 1756, he preached eight times on what he described as his favourite subject: ‘I will bring the third part through the fire.’73 Additionally, there was barely a day when he did not discourse both publicly and privately on the necessity of remaining loyal to the Church of England. This is exemplified by a journal entry written during his visit to Rotherham:
I then advised them to go to Church. The weak and waning were confirmed; 3 out of 4 of the others offended and said ‘I made the Church Christ.’ After preaching as awakening as I could I plainly told the Society ‘that there is no salvation out of the Church, that is out of the Mystical Body of Christ or the company of faithful people.’ When I had fully explained myself on this head we were all of one mind and heart.74
No doubt, most eighteenth-century Christians would have agreed in principle with Charles's observations, but his implied identification of the Church of England as the only true ‘Mystical Body of Christ’ caused irritation and confusion in places where some preachers were communicating a different message. Charles muddied the waters still further with his own public criticism of the Church, as on 21 October 1756 when he referred to ‘the melancholy state of the members of the Established Church, who are the most unprincipled and ignorant of all that are called Protestants’.75 Charles could presumably have (p.130) justified such an apparently contradictory statement, but there is no wonder that Methodists, most of whom would have been unacquainted with the twists and turns of theological debate, were somewhat bewildered.
Manchester is a good example of the prevailing uncertainty. Charles arrived on 20 October 1756 to discover that the society membership had halved because of the activities of dissenting preachers. In a meeting with the society, which he described as ‘most unsettled and unadvisable’,76 he urged his listeners to attend church and the Sacraments constantly. He subsequently confided in his journal that:
I make more allowance for this poor shattered Society, because they have been sadly neglected, if not abused, by our Preachers. The [class] leaders desired me to not let Joseph Tucker come among them again; for he did more harm than good, by talking in his witty way against the Church and clergy. As for poor John Hampson, he could not advise them to go to Church, for he never went himself; but some informed me that he advised them not to go.77
This preaching tour took place after the 1755 Conference ended with the Wesley brothers’ ‘strong declaration of our resolution to live and die in the communion of the Church of England’.78 These words when placed against events in Manchester and elsewhere lose some of their force.
Nineteen days before the 1756 Conference opened Charles outlined his emphatic thoughts on what his brother must do:
What I desire of my brother is: 1. That the unsound, unrecoverable preachers should be let depart just now. 2. That the wavering should be confirmed …and established in their calling. 3. That the sound ones should be received into the strictest union and confidence, and …prepared for orders.
To this end my brother ought …to declare and avow, in the strongest and most explicit manner, his resolution to live and die in the communion of the Church of England. 1. To take all proper pains to instruct and ground, both his preachers and his flock in the same …2. To wait with me upon the Archbishop, who has desired to see him, and tell him our whole design. (p.131) 3. To advise …with such of our brethren the clergy as know the truth, and do nothing without their approbation.79
The final Conference decisions would have satisfied Charles on few of these points. There was for example no wholesale expulsion of ‘dissident’ preachers and while it was determined that Methodism would remain in the Church, it would only be for so long as it was ‘lawful and possible to continue in it’.80 Within a few months of the 1756 gathering, Charles had withdrawn from the itinerant ministry, an act symbolic of the brothers’ divergent paths.
The first half of the 1750s represented a fundamental turning point in Charles Wesley's life and ministry. The sharp definition of the dividing line between his pre-1750 place in Methodism and the years that followed, particularly after 1756, will become explicit in the remainder of this study. Having introduced the themes of private disagreement and public discord, it is necessary to conclude with a statement of what these years tell us of Charles's personality, and the way that his Methodist role evolved.
One could argue that John Wesley's ambiguous actions with regard to the separation question justified his brother's suspicions, but this does not explain Charles's failure to react until after 1749, despite explicit warnings from family members and fellow Anglicans. There were occasions during the 1740s when Charles felt the need to remind his brother that Methodism was a part of the Anglican Church, as in March 1744 when he advised that the words of a loyal address to King George II could be construed as presenting Methodism as an independent sect, but the warning is mild and lacks the undertone of mistrust that coloured later communications on the separation question. A foretaste of his later attitude was revealed on 17 October (p.132) 1748, when Charles came across the licence registering the New Room as a Dissenters’ meeting house. He scribbled his opinion on the document in no uncertain manner: ‘I protest against this needless, useless, senseless license—Charles Wesley.’81 However, this was an isolated incident compared with the bitter confrontations of just a few years later.
It is difficult to identify anything in the early 1750s so radically different in John Wesley's public views on Methodism and the Church as to justify his brother's suspicion of his motives; and it must always be remembered that Charles himself had been a prime mover in leading the Methodists down a separate path with statements and actions that were no less radical than those of his brother. As for the preachers, their growing numbers and increasing confidence would eventually have given rise to disciplinary problems, but here again, there were underlying factors that provoked particularly sharp differences with Charles Wesley. Attacks by preachers on the Church were not unknown in the 1740s, but this did not result in Charles regarding the body of preachers with innate suspicion, unlike the post-1750 period.
What had changed was the brothers’ relationship. Their engagements and marriages destroyed their trust in one another and Charles was not the kind of person who could divorce his ministry from his personal anxieties. This seismic shift occurred over the course of just a few months in 1749, and was compounded by John's marriage a year later. Charles's sense of betrayal was so deep that it literally altered the course of his life and ministry, and it is against this background that his constant preoccupation with keeping faith should be viewed. For the rest of his life, he exhibited deep mistrust of his brother and the preachers. His regular exhortations to the societies to remain true to the ‘Old Ship’ were no accident and so emphatic did this aspect of his character become that a close family member remarked that ‘he could not replace his confidence where he had experienced treachery’.82 The twist in the tale was that it was not the itinerants’ (p.133) alleged rejection of the Church that was at the root of Charles's bitterness, but his conviction that having betrayed their relationship, John could no longer be trusted on any important question. This is not to argue that issues such as the Church and the preachers were unimportant, but they were the results of the brothers’ alienation, not the cause. Charles's deep resentment of John altered his contribution to Methodism in ways that will become clear in the rest of this work.
(2) Wesleyan Methodist Church, Minutes of the Methodist Conferences from …1744 (London: Methodist Conference Office, 1812), i. (henceforth Conference Minutes), 15.
(3) Ibid. i. 40.
(4) Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast, 199.
(5) ‘Conferred with several who have tasted the love of Christ, mostly under the preaching or prayers of our lay helpers. How can any one dare deny that they are sent of God?’ CWJ, 30 April 1746.
(6) Gill, Charles Wesley, 233.
(7) Conference Minutes, i. 25.
(8) Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England, 165.
(9) Telford, Charles Wesley, 208; Jackson, Charles Wesley, ii. 137.
(10) CWJ, 10 July 1749.
(11) Quoted by Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 185.
(12) CWJ, 20 June 1751.
(13) Jackson, Charles Wesley, ii. 46.
(14) JWJ, 21 August 1751. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, xx. 398.
(15) MS diary of John Bennet, 26 January 1750 (MCA: John Bennet/Grace Murray collection).
(16) Laycock, Methodist Heroes, 110–11.
(17) ‘He told them in the open congregation, that Mr Wesley was a Pope and that he preached nothing but popery …he met the society and said many bitter things of Mr Wesley.’ Quoted by Valentine, John Bennet, 253.
(18) Ibid. 258–9.
(19) JW to CW, MS copy letter, 17 August 1751. Charles Wesley, MS notebook, [c.1750] (MCA: DDCW 8/5).
(20) Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England, 160.
(21) JW to Edward Perronet, Published copy letter [19(?) June 1750]. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, xxvi. 431.
(22) JW to Edward Perronet, Published copy letter [20(?) July 1750]. Ibid. 433.
(23) CWJ, 28 June 1751.
(24) CWJ, 5 August 1751.
(25) Sarah Perrin to CW, MS letter, 4 November 1751 (MCA: ‘Letters to CW II’), 57.
(26) CW to John Bennet, MS letter, 11 August  (MCA: DDCW 1/42).
(28) Charles Wesley, MS notebook [c.1750] (MCA: DDCW 8/5).
(29) Darney, Wheatley, Gillespie, and Fenwick.
(30) JWJ, 8 July 1751. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, xx. 394.
(31) Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England, 129.
(32) JW to CW, MS copy letter, 24 July 1751. Charles Wesley, MS notebook [c.1750] (MCA: DDCW 8/5).
(33) JW to CW, MS copy letter, 8 August 1751. Charles Wesley, MS notebook [c.1750] (MCA: DDCW 8/5).
(34) Samuel Wesley jun. to JW, MS letter, 16 April 1739 (MCA: DDWF 5/15).
(35) Quoted by Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England, 58.
(36) Conference Minutes, i. 8.
(37) Quoted by Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England, 113.
(38) JW to Samuel Wesley jun., Published copy letter, 27 October 1739. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley xxv. 695.
(39) ‘Expounded the Gospel as usual; and strongly avowed my inviolable attachment to the Church of England.’ CWJ, 3 July 1743.
(40) CWJ, 8 July 1743.
(41) CWJ, 11 February 1744.
(42) JW to CW, MS copy letter, 17 July 1751 (MCA: DDCW 8/5).
(43) These conditions included their examination with regard to ‘gifts and grace’ and that neither of the brothers should take a preacher from his trade into the full-time ministry without the consent of the other. Ibid.
(44) JW, CW, etc. to the ‘Methodist Preachers’, Published copy letter, 29 January 1752. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley xxvi. 490.
(45) MS Agreement, 16 March 1752. Ibid. 491.
(46) Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England, 160.
(47) Charles Wesley, MS notebook [c.1750] (MCA: DDCW 8/5).
(48) Baker believes that it may have also been reiterated at the 1753 meeting. Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England, 161.
(49) CW to Selina Hastings, MS letter, 4 August 1752 (MCA: PLP 113.2.5).
(51) Baker, Charles Wesley as Revealed, 83.
(52) On 4 August, the day that the Huntingdon letter was dated, Charles made the following journal entry: ‘found my strength sensibly increase in the fresh air. Spent an hour with the women leaders.’ CWJ, 4 August 1752.
(53) Baker, Charles Wesley as Revealed, 83.
(54) CW to Walter Sellon, 19th-century copy letter, 1754 (MCA: DDCW 6/92a).
(55) Quoted by Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England, 163.
(56) CW to Walter Sellon, 19th-century copy letter, 1754 (MCA: DDCW 6/92a).
(57) ‘Our worthy friend at Clifton [Selina Hastings] could not but believe my brother had laid on hands, or they [the rebel preachers] would not have dared to act thus.’ CW to Walter Sellon, 19th-century copy letter, 1754 (MCA: DDCW 6/92a).
(58) CW to Walter Sellon, 19th-century copy letter, 14 December 1754 (MCA: DDCW 6/92b).
(59) The Wesleys and William Grimshaw.
(60) CW to Walter Sellon, 19th-century copy letter, 4 February 1755 (MCA: DDCW 6/92c).
(61) ‘I stay not so much to do good as to prevent evil. I stand in the way of my brother's violent counsellors, the object both of their fear and hate.’ CW to Samuel Walker, Typescript copy letter, 21 August 1756 (MCA: DDCW 1/55).
(62) CW to Sarah Wesley, MS letter [9 May 1755] (MCA: DDCW 5/87).
(64) CW to Walter Sellon, 19th-century copy letter, 4 February 1755 (MCA: DDCW 6/92c).
(65) John Nelson to CW, Xerox copy letter, 4 March 1755 (MCA: PLP 78.53.1a).
(66) JW to Thomas Adam, MS copy letter, 31 October 1755 (MCA: DDCW 8/1).
(67) JW to CW, MS letter, 20 June 1755 (MCA: DDWes 3/8).
(68) JW to Samuel Walker, Published copy letter [24 September 1755]. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley xxvi. 595.
(69) Quoted by Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England, 168.
(70) ‘My way is plain, to preach everywhere as a supernumerary if not independent. My brother, I foresee will treat me as a deserter.’ Ibid.
(71) ‘I think it safest not to trust him with my thoughts.’ Ibid.
(72) CWJ, 28 October 1756.
(73) CWJ, 17 September–5 November 1756.
(74) CWJ, 24 September 1756.
(75) CWJ, 21 October 1756.
(76) CWJ, 21 October 1756.
(78) Quoted by Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 195.
(79) CW to Samuel Walker, Published copy letter, 7 August 1756. Transcribed by Luke Tyerman, The Life and Times of the Rev. John Wesley, M.A., founder of the Methodists, 3 vols. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1871–2), ii. 245.
(80) Quoted by Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast, 299–300.
(81) Bristol Quarter Sessions, MS licence of the New Room as a Dissenters’ meeting house, 17 October 1748 (MCA: DDCW 6/48).