Ryan Nicholas Danker. Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. See here to purchase the book.
Ryan Nicholas Danker teaches about the history of Christianity and Methodism at Wesley Theological Seminary. Wesley and the Anglicans is about John Wesley’s relationship with the Anglican church of England, which was the established church.
Danker argues that the split between John Wesley and the Anglican evangelicals in England was largely political rather than theological. According to Danker, Methodism was widely viewed as subversive, and unpleasant memories lingered about the English Civil War, in which religion played a significant role. As the English government under George III cracked down on people deemed to be religious dissidents, evangelicals were pressured to adhere to the Establishment. That contributed to the rupture between Wesley and Anglican evangelicals.
Danker acknowledges religious reasons for the disputes among the Wesleys, the Anglicans, and the Anglican evangelicals, for religious convictions had political ramifications. There were Anglicans who feared John Wesley’s emphasis on having a conversion experience, thinking that this encouraged Christians to look down on their Anglican spiritual leaders as unconverted. Yet, Wesley’s understanding of conversion was influenced by Anglicanism, and he initially saw Methodism as a reformist movement within the Anglican church. But Wesley’s vision could not be contained within Anglican confines. Anglicanism divided England up into parishes, and people were to be loyal to their local parish. Wesley, however, viewed the entire world as his parish. Methodist preachers roamed the countryside and were considered to be in competition with the Anglican clergy. Many Anglicans opposed the Methodist preachers serving communion, believing that the church was the body authorized to administer the sacraments. John Wesley himself agreed with the Anglicans on this, and yet Methodist preachers continued to serve communion. Methodism was not monolithic, as Danker demonstrates, for Wesley disagreed with other Methodist leaders on certain issues, and even with his brother Charles, who supported working within the Anglican system more than John did.
The book is informative, as it draws from primary and secondary sources. There are a lot of people and views in the book to absorb, however, and that includes the tensions within the thinkers themselves. Danker could have organized his story better than he did, in a less scattered manner. Perhaps he could have focused more on telling the stories of the thinkers to present a more coherent or humanizing picture of them, while also emphasizing particular themes, such as the reasons why Wesley was distancing himself from Anglicanism. There were some places in which Danker provided a cogent summary of his argument that pulled things together, and cases in which that was sorely lacking.
Danker also does presume some knowledge of English history on the part of the reader. For instance, he mentions John Wesley’s support for the Jacobites, without really defining who the Jacobites were. Danker did not necessarily need to reinvent the wheel or divert himself from his thesis in providing background information, but perhaps a brief summary of the English revolution and the Jacobites, a glossary, or a timeline could have assisted readers not as familiar with English history.
This book is largely historical, but there was one place in the book that religiously edified me. Samuel Walker was an Anglican evangelical who, like Wesley, organized religious societies. Walker’s approach was similar to that of his archbishop, and Walker’s archbishop wrote: “Hoping for perfection in any human being, is visionary; and murmuring for want of it, is resolving never to be happy; and taking irregular methods to obtain it, is the sure way to be wretched” (quoted on page 121). Walker’s design for people in his society was for them to glorify God and “become more useful among our neighbors” (quoted on page 122). That strikes me as a reasonable, low-key approach to religion, which contrasts with Wesley’s strict and high standards. Danker himself did not contrast Walker with Wesley on their approach to spirituality, but Walker’s approach was salient to me.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.