Wesleyan Reform Society (1849–1857)

Aimed to reform Methodism, in particular by reducing the influence of the ministers.

Despite being instrumental in secession of 1,000 members to form the Protestant Methodists in 1828 and 21,000 to form the Wesleyan Association in 1837, Rev. Jabez Bunting did not mend his ways. A series of anonymous papers, circulated to Wesleyan Methodist ministers between 1844 and 1849, were critical of what they called ‘centralization’ – some leading ministers staying too long in office, and in London; of Mission House extravagance; of the Connexional Committee and of the Stationing Committee. On almost every page Bunting’s name appeared in a bad light. A pamphlet war ensued. Instead of answering the complaints, Conference set about trying to discover the author(s). Ministers were asked to sign a declaration that they disagreed with the criticism and were not involved in their production. Thirty-six ministers had not signed by the time Conference met in 1849, and a move was made to examine them, rather like the Mccarthy era in the United States in the 1950s. Three ministers, James Everett, Samuel Dunn and William Griffith were expelled when they refused to incriminate themselves. The expulsions met with condemnation throughout the Connexion and, eventually, the loss of 100,000 members. A flavour of the vigour with which the Wesleyan Methodist leadership attacked those who raised concerns, and the response, can be seen in an anonymous letter to the Leicester Mercury of 22 March 1851 reporting on a meeting held in Quorndon.

“Excellent addresses relative to the abuses of Methodism as it is, and the necessity of Reform … were delivered by [three individuals] all of whom a few months ago were Wesleyan local preachers, but who, through the despotic and anti-christian proceedings of the Methodist preachers, are now connected with the branch circuit which has lately been established.”  The writer went on to state that the local chapel had split and “The congregations at the Wesleyan chapel are exceeding small, while the Reformers, generally speaking, have been encouraged by excellent congregations, a powerful spiritual influence has often pervaded their meetings, and they can say with their venerable founder ‘the best of all is God is with us’ ”.

The 1851 Religious Census showed there to be 177 Reform chapels with a further 182 meeting places.  As the press report indicates they were sometimes described as Wesleyan Branch chapels. An aggregate congregation of 30,000 was recorded on the morning of 31 March 1851, with 44,000 attending in the evening.  Reformers were mainly concentrated in the North Midlands, north Norfolk, north-east Somerset and south-west Gloucestershire.In 1857 about half of the 46,000 membership joined with the Wesleyan Methodist Association to form the United Methodist Free Churches.

Details of Circuits, chapels and ministers may be found in the Free Methodist Manual of 1898 which will feature elsewhere on this site.

Further information about the Wesleyan Reformers may be found in the following books.

Beckerlegge, Oliver A.  The United Methodist Free Churches: a study in freedom (1957)  Wipf & Stock Publishers; Reprint edition (29 Aug. 2017) ISBN 978-1532638336

Baxter, Matthew. Methodism: Memorials of the United Methodist Free Churches, with Recollections of the Rev. Robert Eckett and some of his Contemporaries. London: W. Reed, 1865, ix, 514pp.       Available as a free download through Google Books

Kirsop, Joseph. Historic Sketches of Free Methodism. London: Andrew Crombie, 1885,113pp.                           Available as a free download through Google Books

The other half of the Wesleyan Reformers, about 25,000 members, chose not to merge and in 1859 they reconstituted themselves as the Wesleyan Reform Union. This body remains outside the current Methodist Church, and now has about 2,000 members. The WRU have their own website, https://thewru.com/ which is the best source of information about the movement.

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