Wesley and the Anglicans

Political Division in Early Evangelicalism

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Ryan Nicholas Danker
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , April
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The modern British evangelical movement was born within the Church of England. Both John Wesley and George Whitefield were Anglican clergymen, and for most of his life, Wesley attempted to contain his movement as an auxiliary to participation in the parish church. Yet by the 1770s, a widening gulf separated the growing number of evangelical clergy within the Church of England, increasingly conformist in their adherence to Anglican church order, and the followers of Wesley, who began to abandon the original vision of Methodist societies as a supplement or aid to reform within the established church. In Wesley and the Anglicans, Ryan Nicholas Danker attempts to provide an explanation for this split.

One traditional interpretation attributes the divide between Anglican Evangelicals and Methodists to disagreements over two major aspects of theology: predestination and perfectionism. Evangelicals within the Church of England were, in general, adherents to a moderate form of Calvinism; while Wesleyan Methodists were vehement Arminians, convinced of the necessity of free choice in salvation and, in a distinctive Wesleyan twist, intent on attaining to the sinless state of entire sanctification. The two factions could not long remain unevenly yoked. Danker credits this view of the matter, but argues that this explanation is not sufficient. Had the central issue been Arminianism, the divide would have happened much earlier—Wesley’s aggressive stance on free will had been apparent in the 1730s. Danker argues that instead it was the issue of “polity and its social repercussions” (212) that led to the schism within evangelicalism. Evangelical Anglicans, he contends, looked back to the English Reformation and the Puritans as forebears, while Wesley was far more influenced by a high church Anglicanism that looked to the church fathers and the Caroline divines for inspiration. Wesley’s “restorationist” vision stood against the efforts of the Calvinists to resurrect the “Old Divinity” of the Reformation church (239).

Rather than a theological divide, Danker claims, the Evangelical-Methodist split was a matter of “polity.” Yet the author employs the term “polity” loosely to refer to church parties. These parties were dominated by particular theological visions, and hence Danker’s rhetorical claim to novelty disintegrates into a distinction without a difference. At its root, the reason for the split is still the same theological one, especially when we consider that there was no Puritan church party in the eighteenth century, and that Wesley’s identification with the high church was reciprocated by a continuing flood of obloquy from actual high churchmen. What is disappointing about Danker’s circular claim that church party, not theology, was at stake in the final 1770s split between Methodists and Evangelicals is that in the chapters leading up to this argument, the author had set the groundwork for what could have been a persuasive case for the importance of polity, properly defined as church government, not church party.

Danker paints a compelling picture of the two classes of preachers engaged in the Evangelical Revival. On the one hand are the evangelical clergymen of the Church of England, educated at Oxford or Cambridge, who, although tempted to irregularity early in the Revival, became over time more suspicious of field preaching, trespassing without invitation in other parishes, and lay-led conventicles. This class included Charles Wesley, as well as many allies like William Romaine, John Newton, and Henry Venn. On the other are the Wesleyan preachers, normally drawn from the artisan class, without formal education, engaged in preaching within the Methodist circuits and increasingly prone to acts that would mark them as dissenters, such as celebration of the Eucharist or ordination outside the Church of England. Thus the sanctity of the parochial system and the formal prerogatives of the ordained clergy became markers of difference between the two camps. John Wesley was increasingly forced to decide between the two, as for instance in Venn’s Huddersfield parish, where he initially agreed to hold back the formation of a separate Methodist society, only to give way in 1764 to the desires of his lay preachers (151). Had Danker managed to tie together his portrait of the disagreements between lay preachers and clergymen with his claim about the eventual divide, he might have made a cohesive argument that tied together polity (adherence to the structures of the Church of England), issues of class and university education, and theological distinctions. Instead, Danker settles into an argument about theological camps (“polity”) that offers little new to church historians.

This lack of novelty is not restricted to Danker’s approach to the final split in the 1770s. For most of the book, he is obsequiously deferential to the major modern historians of Methodism. While his approach to the development of early Methodism provides a good summary of the important work of figures such as David Hempton, Henry Rack, Richard Heitzenrater, W. R. Ward, and John Walsh, it rarely adds additional insights. These scholars not only show up in the footnotes, but with great frequency in the text, where Danker spices his narrative with numerous quotations from their writings.

There are other puzzling choices in the book. One is to exclude from consideration other evangelical currents within the Revival. Rarely do we get a glimpse of the Calvinistic Methodists of Howell Harris, Whitefield, and the Countess of Huntingdon who faded in England but dominated Wales. Instead Lady Huntingdon seems to serve mostly as a patron for the evangelical clergy. Nor do we get a sense of the importance of Moravians as an influence and threat to Wesley’s power. Although inclusion of these groups might have complicated the neat Methodist-Evangelical binary, their development, and ultimate decline in England in the face of Wesleyan Methodism would have strengthened Danker’s argument. Another absence is the lack of granular social historical analysis. We seldom see ordinary Methodist men and women and their plebeian preachers in a local context. For a fuller explanation of Methodism’s rise, we must surely look beyond the Wesley brothers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas E. I. Whittaker is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Christianity at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
November 3, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ryan Nicholas Danker (ThD, Boston University) is assistant professor of the history of Christianity and Methodist studies at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D. C. He previously served as visiting assistant professor of church history and theology at Greensboro College in Greensboro, North Carolina. He has written and spoken widely on topics such as evangelicalism, John and Charles Wesley, Methodism, Wesleyan theology, the transatlantic evangelical revival and the Church of England. He has also served as a United Methodist pastor.


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