Methodists and Holiness

Janice Holmes

in The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume III

Published in print May 2017 | ISBN: 9780199683710
Published online May 2017 | e-ISBN: 9780191823923 | DOI:

Series: Oxford History Of Dissenting Traditions

Methodists and Holiness

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Methodism was originally a loosely connected network of religious clubs, each devoted to promoting holy living among its members. It was part of the Evangelical Revival, a movement of religious ideas which swept across the North Atlantic world in the eighteenth century. This chapter charts the growth and development, character and nature, and consolidation and decline of British Methodism in the nineteenth century from five distinct perspectives. First, Methodism grew rapidly in the early nineteenth century but struggled to channel that enthusiasm in an effective way. As a result, it was beset by repeated secessions, and the emergence of rival Methodist groups, each with their own distinctive characteristics, of which Wesleyan Methodism was the largest and most influential. Second, while Methodism grew rapidly in England, it struggled to find a successful footing in the Celtic fringes of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. Here, local preoccupations, sectarian tensions, and linguistic differences required a degree of flexibility which the Methodist leadership was often not prepared to concede. Third, the composition of the Methodist membership is considered. While it is acknowledged that most Methodists came from working-class backgrounds, it is also suggested that Methodists became more middle class as the century progressed. People were attracted to Methodism because of its potential to transform lives and support people in the process. It encouraged the laity to take leadership roles, including women. It provided a whole network of support services which, taken together, created a self-sufficient religious culture. Fourth, Methodism had a distinctive position within the British polity. In the early nineteenth century the Wesleyan leadership was deeply conservative, and even aligned itself with the Tory interest. Wesleyan members and almost all of Free Methodism were reformist in their politics and aligned themselves with the Whig, later Liberal interest. This early conservatism was the result of Methodism’s origins within the Church of England. As the nineteenth century progressed, this relationship came under strain. By the end of the century, Methodists had distanced themselves from Anglicans and were becoming vocal supporters of Dissenting campaigns for political equality. Fifth, in the late nineteenth century, Methodism’s spectacular growth of earlier decades had slowed and decline began to set in. From the 1880s, Methodism sought to tackle this challenge in a number of ways. It sought to broaden its evangelical message, and one of its core theological precepts, that of holiness. It embarked on an ambitious programme of social reform. And it attempted to modernize its denominational practices. In an attempt to strengthen its presence in the face of growing apathy, several branches of Methodism reunited, forming, in 1932, the Methodist Church in Britain. However, this institutional reorganization could not stop the steady decline of British members into the twentieth century. Instead, Methodism expanded globally, into previously non-Christian areas. It is now a denomination with a significant world presence. British Methodism, however, continues to struggle, increasingly of interest only as a heritage site for the origins of a much wider and increasingly diverse movement.

Keywords: Methodism; holiness; John Wesley; Jabez Bunting; Hugh Price Hughes; Secessions (or Fly Sheets); class meeting; Forward Movement; secularization; Ireland; Scotland; Wales; Primitive Methodists; Bible Christians; Methodist New Connexion

Chapter.  11543 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Christian Theology

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