Rev. John Wesley and the Reformation of the Church of England
Updated: Jan 6, 2020
The history of the Established Church of England, known for its controversial policies in eighteenth-century Virginia, helped plant the seeds of the American Revolution. However, there is a less well-known history regarding this denomination. Despite the penalties that this Church-state government imposed on religious dissenters, the Anglican Church had its own evangelical movement. Known as Methodism, it was comprised of Anglican priests who were determined to reform their faith. Worried the church was losing members and losing sight of its spiritual mission, these priests participated in a historic movement that would save their organization. Although, the church-state relationship was eventually disbanded, its activities highlight an important part of Virginia history.
Under the direction and leadership of Rev. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, his ideas centered on revitalizing the community. Concerned about the deplorable conditions of the poor and disfranchised, he believed in establishing a “heavenly fellowship” in the world.1 Before Methodist priests began preaching in the Colony of Virginia, the poor in England “had not needful food” and “many were destitute of convenient clothing; many were out of business, and that without their own fault; and many were sick and ready to perish.”2 Even though the church provided support for the needy, Wesley was growing increasingly troubled that it wasn’t enough.
Another ideal that influenced Methodism was the belief that Methodist priests were called “to preach.”3 Like in England, Anglican priests in Virginia typically read sermons to their congregations. Preferring to communicate a message that inspired a personal relationship with God,4 John Wesley and his followers felt that a spiritual revival was necessary to save the church. The Methodist movement proved successful in drawing large crowds due to this practice.5 Even though, the Church by the time of the American Revolution was severely weakened, it managed to survive because of the work of itinerant Methodist priests. Traveling from community to community, they proved essential in maintaining what was left of their denomination.
This reformation, although party successful, could not prevent the disestablishment of the Church-state government.6 After the Annual Conference of 1777 most of their priests left for England. As loyalists, they could not support the patriotic cause, leaving only a few Methodist priests in the colonies. 7 Those that remained were often accused of being Tories, and were persecuted, even if they agreed with the Patriots. It wasn’t until 1785 that the Methodist denomination officially became a separate church.8 Despite their failure to preserve the Anglican church’s role in government, the future United States’ ecclesiastical culture and history was changed forever by Methodism.
1. The History of American Methodism (New York, Nashville : Abingdon Press, 1964), 23.
2. The History of American Methodism, 23.
3. The History of American Methodism (New York, Nashville : Abingdon Press, 1964), 17.
4. Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist: 2nd Edition (Nashville, Tennessee : Abingdon Press, 2013), 1; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 28 October 2018).
5. John Atkinson, Centennial History of America Methodism (New York : Cranston & Stowe, 1884), 309; digital images Google Books (http://www.books.google.com : accessed 28 October 2018).
6. Virginia State Library, Archive Division, Separation of Church and State in Virginia: A Study in the Development of the Revolution (Richmond, Virginia : Virginia State Library, 1910), 143; digital images, Google Books (http://www.books.google.com : accessed 29 October 2018).
7. The History of American Methodism (New York, Nashville : Abingdon Press, 1964), 161.
8. Methodist Episcopal Church, Minutes of the Annual Conference of the Method Episcopal Church for the Years 1773 – 1828: Volume 1 (New York : T. Mason and G. Lane, 1840), 21; digital books, Google Books (http://www.books.google.com : accessed 29 October 2018).