The causes and effects of the divisions within Methodism in Bradford, 1796-1857
Some years ago I completed an M. A. degree at Huddersfield University on 'The Fly Sheet Controversy and the Wesleyan Reform movement in Birstall and the Spen Valley 1849-1857'. The present study is wider in scope and includes all the divisions within Methodism and is centred on Bradford, but includes the Bingley and Shipley circuits and the Birstall and Cleckheaton circuits, the whole being referred to as 'the Bradford area'. Between 1796 and 1857 several groups of Methodists left their Wesleyan chapels to create new societies, still Methodist in doctrine and tradition, but with different styles of church government. The Independent Methodists, Primitive Methodists and Bible Christians were looking for greater freedom to organise their worship and evangelical outreach without the restrictions imposed by Conference and the ministers. In other cases secessions followed disputes over specific issues - the Methodist New Connexion sought greater democracy and more lay involvement, the Protestant Methodists resented the approval by Conference of an organ at Brunswick Chapel, the Wesleyan Methodist Association objected to arrangements for ministerial training and the Wesleyan Reformers complained of ministerial domination of Methodism. Each division was different, but behind them all lay a pattern of continuing conflict between ministers and lay members. This obliged many Methodists to make difficult and far-reaching choices between remaining within Wesleyan Methodism and making a new commitment to an uncertain future. In every dispute both sides claimed the moral high ground, and both were certain that they were right. Wesleyan ministers claimed authority in accordance with the principle of the Pastoral Office, but found themselves in a difficult situation, being obliged by Conference to rule as well as to lead. Lay members felt in a strong position among family and friends within their chapels, but many were unwilling to give unquestioning obedience to men who were little different in background from themselves, preferring instead a more open and more democratic style of Methodism. The national background of each dispute is outlined before its impact on the Methodists in the Bradford area is considered in detail, and the outcome of each confrontation is then examined. An attempt is then made to assess the significance of membership of the different Methodist denominations in terms of political activities and relationships with other churches, although it is suggested that little evidence is available to distinguish between members of the various Methodist groups. In summary, conflict between ministers supported by Conference and the lay members weakened local Methodism. The hardening of attitudes by both sides and their refusal to compromise, which led to the creation of new Methodist groups, destroyed the unity of Methodism in the Bradford area.