So You’re a Baptist; But Are You Also a Methodist?

Published February 9, 2015 by Tim Scott in Church History, Church of England, Evangelicalism, Methodists, Religion & Spirituality

john_wesleyThe Church of England in the 18th century had lost much of the spiritual vitality it had possessed in the 16th & 17th centuries. The Puritans had been expelled from the Church in 1662 due to the Act of Uniformity issued by Charles II, and many of the spiritually devote High Churchmen had been forced out in 1688 for refusing to swear allegiance to William and Mary. The resultant state of the church was anything worthy of spiritual commendation. Rationalism, deism, heresy, and skepticism characterized many of the clergyman who remained in the National Church. Certainly those who doubted the very doctrine of Christianity would not be zealous for its advancement. G. R. Balleine, an Evangelical historian, complained about the Church of England at the outset of the 18th century:

Alas! It was the Glacial Epoch in our Church History. Puritan enthusiasm had been driven out at the Restoration, and High Church enthusiasm had departed with the Nonjurors; only the cautious and the colourless remained, Laodiceans, whose ideal Church was neither hot nor cold [note 1].

J. C. Ryle said much the same thing:

The Church of England existed in those days, with her admirable articles, her time-honoured liturgy, per parochial system, her Sunday services, and her ten thousand clergy. The Nonconformists body existed, with its hardly won liberty and its free pulpit. But one account unhappily may be given of both parties. They existed, but they could hardly be said to have lived. They did nothing; they were sound asleep [note 2].

This state of affairs changed greatly with the dawning of the Evangelical revivals that began in the 1730s. Religious fervor once again visited the Church of England as gospel preaching was rediscovered by some of her clergymen. Key players in those revivals were John Wesley (1701-1791) and George Whitefield (1714-1770), men who were destined to become the fathers of the modern Methodist denomination that exists to this day. Not surprisingly, though, many of the rationalist clergymen in England were not pleased with the spiritual excitement that spread as a result of the revivals. Non-Evangelical clergymen flooded the presses with attacks against “Methodism” [note 3]. One of the unfortunate (I use this term Calvinistically) by-products of these attacks was that the term Methodist itself became almost useless as a theological or denominational label. People who had no ecclesiastical association with Methodists were lumped into their camp by anti-revivalists. One correspondent to the Evangelically-minded Christian Observer magazine listed out 35 ways the term Methodist¬†was used in common parlance. Here is what he wrote:

A Methodist is either, first, a person who pays some regard to decency and propriety: or 2ndly, one who possesses some moral principles: or 3rdly, one who founds his morality on religion; or 4thly, a man who carries his religion into practice; or 5thly, any clergyman who does more than the customary duty; or 6thly, and this is the most general definition, any person who is a little stricter than oneself; or 7thly, one who is not satisfied with his own observance of religion, but is for making others as religious as himself; or 8thly, any member of any society for suppressing immorality or vice; or 9thly, a person who does not play at cards; or 10thly, one who never goes to the play-house or other places of public amusement; or 11th, one who is strict in observing the Sabbath, and is an enemy to Sunday drilling [i.e. civilian military exercises for national defense]; or 12th, one who will not tolerate a licentious song, countenance a loose or profane jest, or join an improper toast; or 13th, one who has family prayers in his house; or 14th, one who credits all the things contained in the Bible, and professes to make it the rule of his conduct; or 15th, a man who lays a great stress on faith, and thinks with our Church that a man is justified only by grace through faith; or 16th, a person who conceives that baptism is the sign of regeneration, and not regeneration itself; or 17th, one who is so attached to the doctrines of the Church, that if his parish minister neglects to preach them, he will go to hear them preached in any other regular Church, or 18th, one who will hear sound doctrine out[side] of the Church, when he is so circumstanced that he thinks he cannot hear sound doctrine in it; or 19th, one who, if he does but hear sound doctrine, is indifferent whether it be in Church or Meeting; or 20th, a follower of Mr. Whitfield who was a Calvinist; or 21st, a follower of Mr. Wesley who was an Arminian; or 22nd, any believer in sudden conversion; or 23rd, any believer in election, reprobation, and final perseverance; or 24th, any person who is for singing hymns instead of psalms; or 25th, any minister who preaches extempore, or any person who attends extempore preaching; or 26th, any pious man who happens to have black hair, an ill cut coat, and a look which is a little melancholy; or 27th, one who is rather forward in talking about religion, or 28th, one who uses coarse, low, or familiar phrases in religion, or 29th, one who, in speaking of religion, uses a scriptural phraseology; or 30th, a religious hypocrite; or 31st, an extravagant person of almost any kind, whether Churchman or Dissenter, whether Independent or Presbyterian, whether General Baptist or Particular Baptist, whether Sublapsarian or Supralapsarian, whether Antinomian, Solifidian, or Mystic; or 32nd, any man who supports or countenances, protects or harbours, any of the persons reputed as Methodists; or 33rd, any person who is the husband, brother, sister, uncle, cousin, of any Methodist; or 34th, any person who does not sufficiently despise, hate, vilify, and persecute, all kinds of Methodists; or 35th, and which is worst of all, any person, who like you, Mr. Editor, “presumes to expose these diversities in the meaning of the word” Methodist, “and thus endeavors to lessen that injustice which arises from the misapplication of it” [note 4].

This list almost sounds like a Methodist version of Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck if” joke series, but it goes a long way toward illustrating how elastic the term Methodist became and how difficult it is for historians (like myself) to figure out what a specific writer is referring to when he uses the term. Though I am a Baptist by conviction and denominational affiliation, it is quite possible that I would have been called a Methodist had I lived in 18th century England, if this list is used as the basis for classifying a Methodist. How about you?

P.S. I hope #30 does not apply to me, and I know that #21 does not.

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[Note  1]: G. R. Balleine, A History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1911), 10-11.

[Note 2]: J. C. Ryle, Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1990), 14.

[Note 3]: Richard Green has compiled a list of 606 such attacks in the 18th century alone! See Richard Green, Anti-Methodist Publications Issued During the Eighteenth Century (London: C. H. Kelly, 1902).

[Note 4]: The Christian Observer, vol. 4 (London: C. Whittingham, 1805), 94-95.

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