Wesleyan Church History

The History of the Wesleyan Church Chronicles the Fight Against Slavery

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John Wesley (1703-1791). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Wesleyan Church history shows that the church can be a powerful instrument for change, even when the rest of the world is set against it.

As its name implies, this Christian denomination goes back to the teachings of John Wesley, a traveling evangelist in England during the mid 1700s. Wesley saw that slavery was contrary to the Bible, but defenders of that practice argued that it was an economic necessity in the British empire.

Wesley Influences Wilberforce

The preaching of John Wesley and the hymns of his brother Charles led to a spiritual awakening in England. By 1772 the tide had turned, and the country freed its slaves--but only in England, not in the rest of its empire.

A few years later, John Wesley published Thoughts Upon Slavery, an 80-page essay that laid out the ugly details of that institution, including the facts about the capture, transport, and vicious punishment of West Africans. The pamphlet was reprinted in the American colonies in 1778.

One of the people Wesley influenced was the British member of Parliament, William Wilberforce. Wesley died in 1791, just a short time after he wrote Wilberforce to continue the fight for abolition. In 1807, Wilberforce convinced the government to ban British ships from engaging in the highly profitable slave trade. A month after Wilberforce's death in 1833, England freed all the slaves throughout the British empire.

Opposing Slavery in the United States

Slavery was firmly entrenched in the southern United States, however. Plantation owners argued that slave labor was crucial to keep the price of cotton and tobacco down. Southern clergy, beholden to the rich members of their churches, preached that the Bible approved of slavery.

In the northern states, few mainline Protestant preachers took a stand against slavery. Again, the rich merchants and manufacturers in their congregations relied on cheap southern imports to make a profit.

Going against the tide, Wesleyans joined the abolitionist cause. At a conference in Utica, New York in 1843, several ministers from the Methodist Episcopal Church voted to break away from that body. They formed a federation called the Wesleyan Methodist Connection. Orange Scott was one of the leaders of the group, along with Lucius C. Matlack and Luther Lee.

Lee became intensely involved in the antislavery movement before the U.S. Civil War and even operated a station on the Underground Railroad from Syracuse, New York. Lee wrote out "passes" for runaway slaves which were honored by pro-abolition railroad conductors, who let the slaves ride free in boxcars to Canada. After the Civil War, when slavery had been abolished in the U.S., Lee returned to the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Modern Merger and Female Clergy

Today's Wesleyan Church is a result of a 1968 merger of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, the Pilgrim Holiness Church, and the Alliance of the Reformed Baptist Church in Canada. The Pilgrim Holiness Church came about in 1922 after successive unions of several Holiness denominations.

The Alliance of the Reformed Baptist Church in Canada was the previous name of the Atlantic District of the Wesleyan Church.

The church's forerunners have a long history of supporting women's rights. Citing Galatians 3:28, Luther Lee gave the sermon "Woman's Right to Preach the Gospel" when Antoinette L. Brown became the first woman ordained to the clergy in 1853.

A member of the National Association of Evangelicals, the Wesleyan Church ordains women to the ministry today despite the unpopularity of that position. It supports equality of women in all religious offices:

Throughout the Scriptures we see that it is like God to work in ways contrary to traditional human systems of authority. God has never limited revelation to kings, rulers, or government officials. To the contrary, we see God divinely empowering the poor, the prostitute, the virgin, and the widow. Even Jesus came to earth as a poor carpenter. God has always worked counter-culturally to bring about the revolutionary Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 1:26-31). It is in keeping with the character of God that women are called to ministry.

(From A Position Statement on Women in the Ministry in The Wesleyan Church)

(Sources: wesleyan.org, Yarmouth Wesleyan Church, Pilgrim Holiness Church, Thoughts Upon Slavery, by John Wesley; The Orange Movement, and New World Encyclopedia.)