Spiritual Bedfellows? The Quaker-Methodist Connection

This article was first published in The Friend on 16 February 2018.

Five years ago, I was involved in a Quaker-Methodist dialogue event at Woodbrooke, in which a third of the participants identified as Quaker, a third as Methodist, and a third had an active involvement in both communities. Over the past two hundred and fifty years, in Britain and globally, Quakers and Methodists have interacted, intermingled, and inter-influenced one another. This relationship has not always been a comfortable one, but it has often been significant. Why is this?

These two groups emerged within early modern Britain: the Quakers, during the mid-seventeenth century; and the Methodists, during the mid-eighteenth century. Both were charismatic Christian renewal movements that achieved rapid growth due to the vigorous public preaching campaigns of itinerant ministers. Both were condemned for religious enthusiasm, were regarded as a threat to social order, and were accused of being Catholics in disguise. Each adopted a name that was originally used as a term of abuse by their opponents.

Because Methodism began as a renewal movement within the Church of England, it differed from traditional Quaker faith and practice in a number of significant ways. These included the presence of an ordained clergy, a commitment to the outward sacraments, expressive and emotional programmed worship, Scripture as the primary religious authority, and the importance of the ecumenical creeds. However, if we look at the words of John Wesley (1703-1791), it is possible to observe convictions that fit well with a range of historic Quaker concerns and emphases. I have identified seven examples that reflect the close connection between Quakers and Methodists, each illustrated by a short passage from Wesley’s writings.

God’s love is unconfined, so salvation is available to all:

“How freely does God love the world! While we were yet sinners, "Christ died for the ungodly." While we were "dead in our sin," God "spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all." And how freely with him does he "give us all things!" Verily, free grace is all in all! The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is free in all, and free for all.” Sermon 128, Free Grace, 1740
Real transformation is possible in this life, so our lives can reflect God’s love:

“By salvation I mean not barely according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven, but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity, a recovery of the divine nature, the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice mercy and truth.” A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, 1745

War is evil and an example of human sin: 

“And surely all our declamations on the strength of human reason, and the eminence of our virtues, are no more than the cant and jargon of pride and ignorance, so long as there is such a thing as war in the world. Men in general can never be allowed to be reasonable creatures, till they know not war any more. So long as this monster stalks uncontrolled, where is reason, virtue, humanity? They are utterly excluded; they have no place; they are a name, and nothing more.” The Doctrine of Original Sin, 1757 

Slavery is evil and an example of human sin: 

“Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is, to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you but his own act and deed, by his own voluntary action. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion. Be gentle toward all men; and see that you invariably do with everyone as you would he should do unto you.” Thoughts Upon Slavery, 1773
Social justice and acts of mercy are the essential fruits of faith:
“Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and, indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?” Sermon 126, The Danger of Increasing Riches, 1772 

There should be toleration in matters of belief and conscience: 

“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.” Sermon 39, The Catholic Spirit, 1755 

Creation is good; God loves all creatures, therefore, so should we: 

"If the creator and Father of every living thing is rich in mercy towards all; if he does not overlook or despise any of the works of his own Hands, if he desires even the meanest of them to be happy according to their degree – how comes it to pass that such a complication of evils oppresses, yea, overwhelms them?" Sermon 60, The Great Deliverance, 1782 

During the eighteenth century, relations between Quakers and Methodists were cool in principle, but rather warmer in practice. John Wesley, being the good Anglican churchman, was highly critical of the sectarian dimensions of the Quaker faith, especially its form of worship, its rejection of the sacraments, its quietism, and its willing acceptance of women as ministers. These views may also reflect his family’s Puritan lineage. However, Wesley maintained good relations with individual Quakers, some of whom provided financial support for his philanthropic works. He also drew on Robert Barclay’s Apology, when developing his arguments against the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, and on the writings of Anthony Benezet, in his anti-slavery works. The synergies between the two traditions went beyond mutual cooperation. A group calling themselves the ‘Quaker Methodists’ developed in Cheshire in the early nineteenth century. They combined Quaker practices such as unprogrammed waiting worship, plain speech and dress, non-sacramentalism and the rejection of a paid ministry, with Methodist class and band meetings, a circuit system and a preaching plan. Over time, however, the Quaker influence weakened, and the group merged into the Independent Methodist movement. 

During the eighteen hundreds, within North America in particular, the impact of the Wesleyan revival on Friends was to prove more significant and divisive. At this time, many Quakers moved towards an Evangelical Protestant position. It is said that, for those Friends who felt that their Quaker communities had lost spiritual vitality, the expressive and emotional aspects of Methodist worship, along with its strong commitment to social reform, seemed inherently attractive. In many ways, the Hicksite-Orthodox schism, and the Gurneyite-Wilburite separation which fractured the Quaker family in America, were fuelled by disagreements over the compatibility of Protestant Evangelicalism with the Quaker way. Gurneyite Friends, who have incorporated a number of Wesleyan emphases into their faith and practice, inherited a strong missional imperative from their Methodist cousins. Today, as a result, it is this expression of Quakerism that has grown and spread most widely, accounting for a significant majority of Friends in the world. 

In view of these long-standing connections and interrelationships, metaphorically speaking, I would suggest that George Fox and John Wesley have been close spiritual bedfellows for over two hundred and fifty years. It will be interesting to see how this relationship develops in the future.


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