Most Christians are instinctively uneasy about breaking fellowship with other believers. They have read of Saint Paul’s desire to end the schisms in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10–17), and they know that division frustrates our Lord’s fervent prayer that we should be one (John 17:11).

Thus Christian leaders, throughout history, have tended to shy away from even the idea of schism. And those who ended up starting new denominations did not set out to do so. They did not wake up one morning and decide the world could use another denomination or two. Instead, denominations are, by and large, formal and final results of various theological/social/political/ecclesial movements that took shape over the course of several years, perhaps decades.

The history of Methodism provides a perfect illustration. Most of the world’s estimated 70 million Methodists look to John and Charles Wesley and the Evangelical Revival of eighteenth-century England as the roots from which their denominations grew. But although John Wesley is revered by Methodists as the “founder” of their tradition, Methodism, as implied above, did not begin as an attempt to form a new denomination. Only through a peculiar set of circumstances was a religious movement transformed into several separate, formally organized church bodies. In fact, it is hard to pinpoint exactly when the Methodists became a “denomination.”

The Methodists emerged as a part of the Evangelical Revival that swept across Britain beginning in the 1730s. The revival began with a small number of women and men, including George Whitefield; Selina, the Countess of Huntingdon; leaders of the Moravian Church in England; and eventually John and Charles Wesley; all of them were associated with a religious society that met in the London suburb of Chelsea. The earliest revival leaders stressed conviction of sin, the “assurance of pardon,” the importance of growth in holiness, and the application of the gospel in Britain’s newly industrialized society.

Within a few months, however, the original nucleus of the revival began to divide. Leaders from the Church of England (“Anglicans,” including the Wesleys) could not agree with Moravian leaders who claimed that seekers who had not experienced the “assurance of pardon” should be excluded from the Lord’s Supper. Within a few years the Wesleys, who insisted that salvation in Christ was available to all human beings, had broken with George Whitefield, the Countess of Huntingdon, and other Calvinist evangelicals who maintained that Christ’s death was only for those predestined by God’s love to eternal life. Despite many later reconciliations and cooperative efforts (John Wesley preached Whitefield’s funeral oration in London), the Methodists associated with John and Charles Wesley were separated from other evangelicals from the middle of the 1740s on.

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Even after going a separate way, however, the Wesleyans understood themselves to be members of the Church of England, not a separate church or denomination. They existed as a loosely federated union of religious societies throughout England, to which a “connexion” of traveling preachers was attached. Part of the weekly discipline of the Methodist societies (and their further subdivisions of “classes” and “bands”) was a commitment to “attend upon all the ordinances of God,” which explicitly meant attending the Lord’s Supper in their parish churches. Although Anglican leaders objected to the Methodists’ itinerant preaching (especially the Methodists’ lay preachers), John Wesley tried to explain that the preachers had a unique “extraordinary” ministry that did not usurp the place of the “ordinary” ministers of their church. The Methodists built “preaching houses” from the 1740s, but as the name implies, these were not “churches” or even “chapels,” and the Methodists did not at first use them for celebrating the Lord’s Supper or baptism.

During the next four decades, tensions increased between Methodist and Anglican leaders, who grew further and further apart. By the 1750s the Wesleys were celebrating the Lord’s Supper in a chapel they had purchased on West Street in London, but they were careful not to schedule services at the same time as those of the Anglican parishes nearby. On All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) in 1778, John Wesley opened a new chapel on City Road in London. This chapel can be called the first Methodist church, since it was built not only with a pulpit, but also with an altar for celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Despite calls from preachers to declare their independence (a popular idea in the 1770s), Wesley consistently refused, staunchly maintaining that the Methodists proclaimed none other than the “old religion” of the Bible, the “primitive Church,” and thus the Church of England.

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But events transpiring in North America would soon force John Wesley’s hand. The growing number of Methodist societies in America faced a crisis at the time of the Revolution when most Anglican ministers returned to England, leaving the Methodists without sacramental ministry. By the beginning of the 1780s, some American Methodists had already tried to organize a separate church along Presbyterian lines. Wesley tried in vain to have Anglican bishops ordain some of his preachers to serve in America.

As the crisis grew, Wesley was forced to take steps that in the past he had tried hard to avoid. In 1784, John Wesley did three things that, in the minds of most Anglicans, made the Methodist people a separate church in fact, if not in name. First, he registered a formal “Deed of Declaration” for Methodist preaching houses and chapels that would allow English Methodists freedom of public worship under the Act of Tolerance (1689). Second, he edited the Book of Common Prayer and published it as the Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (although it was to be used in Britain as well). Third—and perhaps most decisively for Anglicans—he explicitly broke with the laws of the Church of England by ordaining two preachers to serve as “elders,” and one to serve as “superintendent” in America. When these preachers arrived in North America late in the year, they called the American preachers together, and, at the “Christmas Conference” in Baltimore, they formally organized as “The Methodist Episcopal Church.”

Incredible as it may seem (and it did seem so to many in his time), John Wesley still refused to allow the Methodists in England to constitute themselves as a separate church. Even in registering the “Deed of Declaration,” he maintained that he did not “dissent from” (disagree with) the Church of England in doctrine or in practice. By the time of his death in 1791, he had ordained Methodist preachers to serve as “elders” in Scotland and then (most reluctantly) in England; but he went to the grave unwavering in his claim that the Methodists should not separate.

Wesley’s will stipulated that his role as leader of the Methodist movement should be taken by a group of 100 preachers; but when his will was probated, his plan was found to be impracticable. In 1795, the conference of preachers Wesley had established reorganized themselves, acknowledging at last that they were a church. Even after this, Anglican priests celebrated the Lord’s Supper in Wesley’s Chapel through the 1820s.

And so it has happened that those who did not want to separate have often awakened to the realization that for a long time, in fact, they were already separate. From that point, they are left to get on with the business of discipleship and, one would hope, reconciliation.

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