Wesleyan, Primitive and United Methodists: what's the difference?

The Wesleyan, Primitive and United Methodist Churches were autonomous entities with a shared Methodist heritage and very similar organisational methods.

The disagreements which had caused their separate identities were partly due to issues of authority but also reflected pressure on the movement caused by the challenging political situation at the time.

Primitive Methodism arose out of a desire to recapture the spirit and enthusiasm of the early days of Methodism. Their determination to hold open air camp meetings in the febrile atmosphere following the French Revolution, led to their expulsion from the “Wesleyan” church in 1811. Generally a working class movement, their evangelical efforts were aimed at those with little or no church connection. Many became involved in the trades union movement. Primitive Methodist preachers were first active in the Oxford area in 1824.

In the 1790s, 1820s and 1830s discontent with the leadership of the Wesleyan Connexion led to resignations or expulsions, and the creation of new Methodist groups. Pressure for change in the 1840s, and some personal antagonisms, resulted in the ‘Reform’ crisis of 1849, when the expulsion of three dissident ministers triggered a nationwide campaign for their reinstatement. In Oxford this coincided with local disagreements and tensions. A dozen local preachers resigned, several local churches declared for the Reformers, and there was a substantial loss of membership. In 1857 nationally, most of the Wesleyan Reformers* joined with the Wesleyan Methodist Association to create the United Methodist Free Churches, which in 1907 merged with the Methodist New Connexion and Bible Christians to form the United Methodist Church.

Whilst the three strands operated independently in Oxford and the surrounding areas, there was in fact some cooperation on the ground particularly between the Primitive and United Methodist Free churches. A Free Church Council formed in Oxford in the 1890s points to a growing acceptance that more could be achieved together than by working separately. Happily in 1932 the Wesleyan, Primitive and United Methodist Churches combined to form the Methodist Church of Great Britain.

Detailed diagram setting out the branches of the Methodist movement.

*Some Wesleyan Reformers did not go into the United Methodist Free Church and they formed the Wesleyan Reform Union, which is still in existence. These included the societies at Deddington, Fritwell and Souldern.

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