The 18th-century religious movement called Methodism was founded by the Anglican priest John Wesley. As Methodist converts increased, the clergy of the Church of England often refused to administer them the sacraments. Wesley adamantly encouraged the Methodists to remain in the Anglican fold, but it was not meant to be. In 1795, Methodist leaders issued the Plan of Pacification which allowed their clergy to administer the sacraments to their own members. This marked the formal separation of Methodists from the Church of England. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during that time.
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John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was born in the town of Epworth in 1703. He was one of the nineteen children born to the former Nonconformist and Epworth rector Samuel Wesley by his wife Susanna Wesley (also called “the mother of Methodism” by the movement’s historians). His grandparents, however, were Puritan Nonconformists. The younger Wesley studied at the Charterhouse School, Christ Church, and Lincoln College, Oxford. His ordination as a deacon came in 1725 and became an ordained priest three years later.
In 1729, he returned to Oxford and discovered that his brother Charles and a few of their friends had formed a study and spiritual improvement group called the “Holy Club.” Members of the “Holy Club” (later labeled “Methodists”) met to pray and study the Greek New Testament. John joined them, and it was not long before he became the group’s leader.
Wesley traveled to North America in 1735 at the invitation of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. He was supposed to work as a missionary to the Native Americans in Georgia, but the time he spent in America ended in failure. However, this period in his life was not completely a waste of time. Before he returned to England in 1738, he had met a few Moravians whose beliefs and piety impressed him. He met a Moravian named Peter Boehler when he returned to London, and the two soon became friends. Boehler’s guidance and presence in Wesley’s life reinvigorated him. Another event that changed his life that year was a meeting in Aldersgate Street where he listened to a reading from Martin Luther’s commentary on the book of Romans.
After visiting a Moravian leader at Hernhut, he returned to London and started to preach on salvation through Jesus Christ. His enthusiasm ruffled the feathers of some Anglican clergymen who later barred him from preaching behind the pulpit. Far from deterred and with some encouragement from his friends, Wesley began organizing church societies in some cities and towns in England, Scotland, and Ireland. So began the religious movement called Methodism.
Life as a pioneer of a religious movement was not easy. The clerics of the Church of England viewed the Methodists with animosity. There were also a couple of instances when Wesley himself was attacked by mobs. Loyal to the core, he encouraged the Methodists to attend Anglican services and celebrate the Holy Communion with Anglican members. Anglican ministers, however, forbade Methodists from taking the Holy Communion with them. Methodist ministers began to hold the Lord’s Supper among themselves and their members–something Wesley himself discouraged. Despite these difficult experiences, he remained faithful to the Church of England and its teachings and encouraged the Methodists to do the same.
Independence from the Church of England
The separation between the Methodists and the Church of England became inevitable as the years passed. By the 1770s, the movement had grown to a point that there were more than a hundred Methodists preachers working in Britain and the North American colonies. The newly created United States of America, however, had a shortage of Methodist ministers. Wesley responded by bypassing the authority of the Anglican bishops and ordaining ministers with authority to dispense the Communion.
Until his death in 1791, Wesley continued to encourage the Methodists to maintain a connection with the Church of England. The rift between the two denominations only widened as the years passed. The issue regarding the dispensation of the sacraments continued to be a bone of contention between the Anglicans and the Methodists (and even among the Methodists themselves). Some members wanted to submit to the Church of England with regards to the sacraments issue, while others advocated total separation. This issue was repeatedly addressed in annual conferences starting in 1791, but no concession could be reached for another four years.
Finally, in the 1795 conference, the Methodist leaders decided to allow the administration of sacraments if the majority of church officials consented. The 1795 Plan of Pacification marked the total separation of the Methodists from the Church of England.
Picture by: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Boswell, John W. A Short History of Methodism. Nashville: The M.E. Church, South, 1903.
Skevington Wood, Arthur. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by J. D. Douglas and Earle E. Cairns. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.
Telford, John. Popular History of Methodism. London: Charles H. Kelly, 1900.
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