According to Rupert E Davies’ obituary in The Independent, his one volume study ‘Methodism’ is still the best short introduction in the field – and I certainly found it to be concise, informative and very readable.
I knew vaguely about the origins of the Methodists, and I thought their history and foundation was entirely synonymous with John Wesley – but of course it wasn’t. There were other characters hugely supportive and hugely influential that helped to power the 18th Century’s ‘Evangelical Revival’. There were people like the famous brother Charles Wesley who made theology sing inside a verse of a hymn, and others like George Whitefield who differed and favoured a more Calvinistic theology.
Methodism, I discovered, was not for the large part of its early foundation a dissenting tradition. John Wesley was profoundly catholic in that he did not question the creeds or the catholicity of the faith. And he saw himself as operating very strongly within the Anglican tradition. He went to Oxford University and was ordained an Anglican priest and his ‘so-called’ Holy Club was made of Anglican members.
What I learnt then was a question of trajectory and acquired historical circumstance – and this fascinated me greatly. Methodists setup Religious societies, but these were not initially chapels or separate to the Church of England. They ran in parallel, and were kind of an ‘ecclesiola in ecclesia’ at their best. It was only later, once the Methodist Church had been formed outside of the Church of England, and when the Church of England began to embrace some of the fever and flavour of the Oxford Movement – its ritualism, its style and Anglo-Catholic beliefs – that the permanence of the disparity between the two churches began to finally cement. Methodism began, slowly, to be associated with the Free Churches and the Non-conformist conscience which created a different, less sacramental theology – but this did happen over time. But to my reading, this was new. Methodism grew in a trajectory that made it more and more recognisable as a non-conformist Free Church, whilst the Church of England was going in the opposite direction with its infusion and debate with the ideas of the 19th Century’s Oxford Movement.
I feel that this will be a separate post to write at some point, but John Wesley is a character who I have profound respect for. I believe he was a true man, true in his convictions and life, and ultimately possessed by the spirit of God.