Methodist Episcopacy:

In Search of Holy Orders
By: Gregory S. Neal

John Wesley never stopped thinking of himself as an Anglican. Regardless of what his brother, Charles, and others might have said, the Reverend Fr. John Wesley, "late Fellow of Lincoln Collage in Oxford, Presbyter of the Church of England," [1] never consciously admitted to separating himself from his mother Church. This remarkable fact can be seen both in Wesley's journal and letter entries, as well as--and, indeed, even--in Thomas Coke's certificate of ordination, which Wesley had provided when he had "set apart" Coke to be a general superintendent in America. [2] Wesley's fidelity to the Church of England was boldly proclaimed for all to hear and read, but it would seem rather clear that his actions -- and especially his ordinations -- do, indeed, signal a radical change in Wesley's functional relationship with the Anglican Church.

Charles Wesley's often quoted declaration that "ordination is separation" [3] sets the problem in its proper perspective. John Wesley was only an ordained presbyter of the Church of England, for him to ordain others to anything, let alone to an episcopal office, represents a clear and unmistakable break with the Anglican conception of episcopacy. As had been usually (but not always) asserted, only a bishop may ordain people into holy orders -- this goes for the ordination of deacons and presbyters, as well as of bishops. And yet, on September 1, 1784, John Wesley did exactly that: he ordained Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vassey deacons. The following day, he ordained them "elders," and he also ordained the Reverend Dr. Thomas Coke to the office of the episcopacy. If this was not separation, as Charles and many others have stated, then it must certainly be understood as a radical change of some sort. In the very least, through his ordinations for America, it can be said that Wesley was giving birth to a new creation for a new nation. The nature of this new creation, Methodist Episcopacy as Wesley understood and perpetuated it, is the subject which will occupy this paper.


From as early as January 20, 1746, John Wesley's understanding of episcopacy can be said to be fundamentally different from the conventional Anglican position. His understanding stemmed from his reading of two extremely important books: Lord Peter King's Account of the Primitive Church [4] and Edward Stillingfleet's Irenicum. [5] It was from King's work that Wesley gained his understanding of the episcopacy as equal in order with the presbyter; according to Lord King [6]:

Whatever a bishop did, the same did the presbyter; the particular acts of their office were the same; the only difference that was between them was in degree; but this proves there was none at all in order . . . . I hope no one will be offended when I have asserted the equality or identity of the bishops and presbyters as to order, and their difference only as to pre-eminency or degree. . . . [7]

Stillingfleet's address on the.subject of episcopacy was more complete than King's, [8] but from Stillingfleet it appears that Wesley learned that the episcopacy, while attested to in the Scriptures, is not required by the scriptures. As Wesley wrote to James Clark in his letter of July 3, 1756:

I still believe "the Episcopal form of Church government to be both scriptural and apostolical". . . . But that it is prescribed in Scripture I do not believe. This opinion (which I once heartily espoused) I have been heartily ashamed of ever since I read Dr. Stillingfleet's Irenicon. [9]

Additionally, Stillingfieet agrees with King that bishops are of the same order as presbyters, but of a different and higher office. [10]These two Anglican divines provided John Wesley with a firm theological grounding for his understanding of ministry and ordination. Combined with the fact of his extra-ordinary ministry, these concepts lead to the conclusion that he, himself, was a presbyter exercising the office of the "scriptural episcopos."


John Wesley was ordained a deacon on September 19, 1725, and a priest on September 22, 1728, in Oxford; but, even though he had assisted his father at Epworth, he never served as rector of a conventional parish. Instead, his career revolved, at first, around education and then, later, as the leader of an evangelical reform movement of societies. As an itinerant preacher, he moved from parish to parish, preaching from pulpits when they were open to him; when they were not, he preached from balconies, as well as in the streets and fields. As the societies began to grow, he preached in its many various chapels, but he was never confined to any of these settings. After all, it is from him that the often misquoted phrase: 01 look upon all the world as my parish,' comes. [11] He was called to preach to all who would hear him, all over England, Scotland, Ireland; he was never called to be "located." This extra-ordinary ministry, stemming from an extraordinary call and ordination, eventually had him serving as "a kind of bishop" over his Methodist societies.

He was sometimes called "bishop" in England ... He obviously exercised the office in actual practice ... Since he was founding father [of Methodism] certain rights and responsibilities rested on him: he was 'director' of the people called Methodists; he had authority to appoint the preachers, to remove and censure, to set up conferences, to hold deeds for property, to arrange for his successor. Indeed he held a lifelong monarchical role. He was an extraordinarius early aware that he was raised up by God for a special ministry thoroughly approved by its fruits. [12]

To say that he exercised the office of bishop in actual practice is not going too far so long as it is realized that the one function of the bishop which no one else could exercise, that of ordination, Wesley himself only exercised after much lengthy hesitation and only after the situation (literally) forced his hands.

It was not as if Wesley doubted his right do ordain. His many statements as to the efficacy of his status as a "scriptural episcopos" span most of the thirty eight years between his reading of Lord Peter King's Account and the ordinations of 1784, but none are more stunning for their lack of modesty than the following:

I verily believe I have as good a right to ordain as to administer the Lord's supper. But I see abundance of reasons why I should not use that right, unless I was turned out of the Church. [13]

For many years I have been importuned from time to time to exercise this right by ordaining part of our traveling preachers. But I have still refused, not only for peace' sake, but because I was determined as little as possible to violate the established order of the National Church to which I belonged. [14]

I am now firmly attached to the Church of England as I ever was since you knew me. But meantime I know myself to be as real a Christian bishop as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet I was always resolved, and am so still, never to act as such except in cases of necessity. [15]

It should be noted that Wesley, either directly or by implication, first affirms his right to ordain, but then counters himself with restraint; he would only ordain if the situation were such that he could not otherwise act with a clear conscience. It should be recognized, however, that a progression of thought on the degree of restraint can be detected in the above statements. In his letter to his brother, Charles, on June 8, 1780, John says that he would only ordain if he were "turned out of the Church." However, by March 25, 1785, he has moderated his restraint, saying that he would exercise the episcopal office only "in cases of necessity." This shift should be clearly understood: Wesley once said that he would be willing to ordain only if he were forced out of the Church of England, but half a year after having ordained Coke a "superintendent," Wesley still considered himself to be 'firmly attached to the Church of England.' Perhaps Charles' understanding of ordination as separation was not too far off the mark from what his brother had originally said; from Charles' point of view, it must have appeared that his brother had willfully turned himself out of the Church by ordaining Whatcoat, Vassey, and Coke.


So, why did John Wesley ordain ministers for his societies in America, and what was his intent in so doing? The situation must have been intense: the Revolutionary War had split the colonies off from the mother country, the 1783 Treaty of Paris having finalized the break; the Church of England was, effectively, dead in the fledgling country, and there were literally thousands of Christians who lacked the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. [16] It was this lack of the sacraments, and the controversy over how ordinations would be conducted to supply them, that forced Wesley to act.

No example, other than the Fluvanna Conference of 1779, is really needed. At the 1779 Annual Conference, at Broken Back Church in Fluvanna County, Virginia, the preachers decided that they would have to provide for the ordinances themselves by setting up a presbytery of four ministers. These four would first ordain each other, and then ordain all those preachers who "desired to administer the sacraments." [17] This drastic step was eventually delayed--thanks to Asbury's quick action--and, at the 1780 Annual Conference, those who had supported the idea of a presbytery were deemed to be "no longer Methodists until they returned to the discipline" (Mathews: p. 80-81). In addition, it was agreed that they would delay in taking further action until Wesley could be consulted. But the question of how the sacraments were to be provided for didn't go away until the ordinations 1784.

The importance of the sacraments for Wesley must be understood if we are to comprehend why this was such an important issue for him. He was, after all, a 'sacramentarian;' he thought that frequent Communion was very important, but not absolutely essential, for Christian nurture. However, as important as Holy Eucharist was, it could never be celebrated by just anybody. To officiate at the Supper, one must be regularly and properly ordained; and, for Wesley, the Church of England, and the Methodist societies, this meant being episcopally ordained. The controversies over lay celebration lasted for a long time, both in England and in the colonies, but Wesley remained ardently opposed to Methodist lay preachers celebrating the Eucharist. [18] Since Methodism was a movement within the Church of England, it was intended that, by-and-large, the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion would be received in Church, not in the Methodist chapels. But, in the New World, the Anglican Church was effectively non-existent, and this was Wesley's dilemma.

His whole spirit was opposed to lay ministration of the ordinances, but to ordain them himself, when bishops refused to, was tantamount to separation from the Established Church. [19]

The need for a sacramental ministry in America was the prime motivation for Wesley's ordinations. John Wesley's theological rational for his being able to perform the ordinations has already been discussed, but the practical reasons why he considered his act acceptable have not been addressed; however, they can be seen as the result of pragmatic realizations of the situation in the new world.

Wesley attempted to obtain ordinations from Dr. Lowth, the Bishop of London, but failed. Most notable among these attempts was that of John Hoskins, on whose behalf John Wesley wrote the bishop, saying:

He [Mr. Hoskins] asked the favour of your Lordship to ordain him that he might minister to a little flock in America. But your Lordship did not see good to ordain him; but your Lordship did see good to ordain and send into America other persons who knew something of Greek and Latin, but who knew no more of saving souls than of catching whales. [20]

It appeared that there would be few, if any, ordinations for Anglican-Methodists. This situation lead to drastic moves, similar to those recommended earlier in the infamous Benson-Fletcher Correspondences of 1775. Of special interest is the letter of I August, from the Rev. John Fletcher to the Rev. John Wesley. This letter is most striking because it calls for the formation of an independent Methodist Church in England.

In order to this it is proposed:--1. That the growing body of Methodists in Great Britain, Ireland, and America be formed into a general society--a daughter church of our holy mother.... 3. That this society shall be the Methodist church of England, ready to defend the yet unmethodized church against all unjust attacks of the dissenters . . . partaking of her sacraments, and attending her service at every convenient opportunity. [21]

Among the more important of the points in his letter, Fletcher also recommends that a revised Articles of Religion and Book of Common Prayer be published for use by the Methodists, and that the Bishops be requested to ordain the Methodist preachers, upon the testimony of Wesley as to their qualifications for holy orders. If this last point is not agreed to by the Bishops, then Fletcher recommends that:

Wesley will be obliged to take an irregular (not unevangelical) step, and..... ordain upon a Church of England-independent plan such lay preachers as appear to them qualified for holy orders. [22]

This provision is the most striking, for it states that the Methodist societies--in England, as well as in the colonies--would have to split from the Church of England for the purpose of ordination. Additionally, Fletcher had recommended, in a letter to Samuel Benson on July 12, 1775, that Wesley should, before taking the above step and exercising his episcopal authority, request, from the Bishops, formal episcopal ordination for himself.

I mention to Mr. Wesley that before he take that step [of exercising the episcopal office], it would be expedient that he desire, in print, the Bishops to take it [of ordaining him to the episcopacy. It would be but form, I grant; it might, however, show that he would not break off without paying proper deference to Episcopacy. [23]

Thus, it can be seen that as many as nine years prior to the 1784 ordinations, there was at least some sentiment for either a "daughter church," or an independent Methodist Church with John Wesley as its "Archbishop." It goes without saying, that if Wesley had obtained episcopal orders from the Church of England, than his situation would not have been at all precarious, and what he would have been establishing in America would have been a Methodist Church in full communion with the Church of England. However, this was not to be.


The situation worsened for the Methodists in America, and by 1784 the only answer appeared to be for Wesley to provide for the sacraments through the exercise of his right, as a "scriptural episcopos," to ordain. These ordinations began, as stated above, on September 1, 1784, with the ordination of Whatcoat and Vassey. The following day, on September 2, 1784, not only did he ordain these two elder, but he also "ordained" the Reverend Dr. Thomas Coke, then already a presbyter of the Church of England, a "Superintendent." While his Journal says that he "appointed" Whatcoat and Vassey, and his entry for 2 September is vague concerning what took place with Coke, Wesley wrote in his diary that he had, "Prayed, ordained Dr. Coke as a Superintendent, by the imposition of my hands, and prayer (being assisted by other ordained ministers)." [24] The wording "ordained" must be taken at face value, especially for Whatcoat and Vassey. But what, exactly, are we to understand Wesley to mean in his "ordaining' of Coke, already a priest, to the "Superintendency." According to Bishop Mathews, by ordaining we should understand the traditional meaning of "setting apart," and in the case of the superintendency, the Setting apart' of a presbyter for a higher functional office.

Wesley had fulfilled that office for England and America and had delegated it to Coke for America only, an office essentially episcopal in nature. [25]

Frank Baker is even more explicit:

Wesley himself was not only a presbyter with a presbyter's inherent right to perform the office of presiding presbyter or bishop; by his extraordinary call to found and rule the Methodist societies it had been demonstrated that in function he was the equivalent of a scriptural bishop . . . . Both in ordine and gradus he was a scriptural episcopos. [26]

"Both in ordine and in gradus," both in order and in grade, both in order and office, John Wesley was qualified to ordain Thomas Coke to the office of the episcopacy. What occurred was not a presbyterial creation of an episcopal polity, but a passing on of the episcopal authority which God had granted to Wesley through his extraordinary calling.

Wesley's changing of the name of the office from Bishop to Superintendent should be seen as an attempt to focus on the function of the episcopacy as an office of the presbyter over its acquired nature as an order within Anglican circles. And yet, the Methodist Superintendency functioned almost exactly like the Anglican Episcopacy, although lacking many of the royal and worldly trappings of the latter. According to Mathews, Methodist Superintendency:

. . . was an unique, practical, and functional episcopate, resting on the presbyterate but set apart by election and consecration to well-defined constitutional rights and responsibilities. [27]

These rights and responsibilities served to characterize Methodist Episcopacy in terms of its function. While lacking a third order identity, it served the very same purpose: to lead, care for, and "preside over the Flock of Christ" through council, direction, and ordination. As such, while in theory is was different, in function, power, and ontological essence, it was the same as the Anglican Episcopacy. [28]


What the ordinations created was an episcopal polity, which was then transferred to the new world and dropped -- like a seed -- into the Christmas Conference of 1784. What sprouted was the Methodist Episcopal Church. But, had Wesley intended for a new church to be formed?

It is not problematic to say that what Wesley produced on the morning of September 1, 1784, was a new creation. Bishop Mathews and Campbell both clearly state that Wesley did, indeed, intend to create a new Church in America. [29] On this point, Wesley is also clear in both his letter to "The Brethren in America," and in his provision of The Sunday Service, with its ordinal and its abridged Articles of Religion. A new and independent Methodist Church was founded, but one which was not intrinsically hostile to the Church of England, just other than. [30]

It was a new Church -- a new episcopal Church -- for a new nation. In America, following the Revolutionary War, a Methodist Episcopal Church would not be in any appreciable conflict with the Church of England because the mother church simply was not operating in America. In response to questions concerning the validity of establishing a new Church, Wesley says in his letter to "The Brethren in America,"

. . . The case is widely different between England and North America. Here [in England] there are bishops who have a legal jurisdiction: in America there are none, neither any parish ministers. So that for some hundred miles together there is none either to baptize or to administer the Lord's Supper. Here, therefore, my scruples are at an end; and I conceive myself at full liberty, as I violate no order and invade no man's right by appointing and sending labourers into the harvest. [31]

And so, in his letter to the American Methodists, Wesley commends the new Superintendent, Coke, along with elders Whatcoat and Vassey and the provision for the ordination of Francis Asbury. He also sends the Sunday Service, with its liturgy to be used on the Lord's Day by all traveling preachers and elders. His closing point is of special importance, for in it he releases the American Methodists to form a church.

As our American brethren are now totally disentangled from both the State and from the English hierarchy, we dare not entangle them again either with the one or the other. They are now at full liberty simply to follow the Scriptures and the Primitive Church. [32]

By cutting the American societies loose from the Church of England Wesley, in effect, was telling them to form an independent Church. With liturgies of word and table, with polity and doctrine, the Methodist societies in America could be understood as little else than a church.

This was how Wesley understood his own actions more than a year later, in 1786, when, in a letter to Henry Brooke, he wrote:

Last year the case of our brethren in North America was considered, wholly cut off from both the English Church and State. In so peculiar a case I believed it my duty to take an extraordinary step in order to send them all the help I could. [33]

It was an extraordinary step, but not too extraordinary for the extraordinarious. Wesley's understanding of the nature of episcopacy, as an office of the presbyter and not a third order, made possible the ordinations. He was, as he said in his letter to his brother, "a scriptural episcopos, as much as any man in England or in Europe." [34] But this did not mean that he wished to separate from the Church of England. His Methodist children in America were forced to separate by the fact of the colonies' Independence, but he had not been so forced. Or, at least, that was how John Wesley understood it.


[1] James K. Mathews. Set Apart To Serve: The Role of Episcopacy In the Wesleyan Tradition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985) p. 86.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dennis M. Campbell. The Yoke of Obedience (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988) p. 66.

[4] The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M. ed. Nehemiah Curnock, Standard ed., 8 Vols. (London: Epworth Press, 1938), 3:232.

[5] The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M. ed. John Telford, Standard ed., 8 Vols. (London: Epworth Press, 1931), 3:182.

[6] Ibid. 7:21; and 238.

[7] As cited in John M. Moore Methodism in Belief and Action (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1946) p. 107.

[8] Mathews, p. 110.

[9] Wesley, Letters 3: 182.

[10] Campbell, p. 60.

[11] The Works of John Wesley ed. Frank Baker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980) Letters I, p. 286.

[I2] Mathews, p. 108.

[13] Wesley, Letters 7:21.

[14] Ibid., p. 238.

[15] Ibid., p. 262.

[16] Ibid., p. 238.

[17] Frederick A. Norwood The Story of American Methodism (Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1974) pp. 91-92.

[18] Wesley, Letters, 3:186-188.

[19] Mathews, p. 83.

[20] Wesley, Letters, 7:31.

[21] Ibid. 8:332-333.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., p. 330.

[24] Wesley, Journal, 8:15.

[25] Mathews, p. 106

[26] Frank Baker John Wesley and the Church of England (Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1970) p. 263.

[27] Mathews, p. 112.

[28] Ibid., p. 86.

[29] Ibid., p. 105; see also Campbell, p. 65.

[30] Wesley, Letters, 7:138-139.

[31] Ibid., p. 238.

[32] Ibid., p . 239.

[33] Ibid., p. 333.

[34] Ibid., p. 284.


Baker, Frank. John Wesley and the Church of England. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970.
Campbell, Dennis M. The Yoke of Obedience. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988.
Mathews, James K. Set Apart To Serve: The Role of the Episcopacy In the Wesleyan Tradition. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985.
Moore, John M. Methodism in Belief and Action. Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1946.
Norwood, Frederick A. The Story of American Methodism. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1974.
Wesley, John. The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M. Ed. Nehemiah Curnock. Standard ed. 8 Vols. London: Epworth Press, 1938.
Wesley, John. The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M. Ed. John Telford. Standard ed. 8 Vols. London: Epworth Press, 1931.
Wesley, John. The Works of John Wesley. Ed. Frank Baker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.


© 1991 Gregory S. Neal*
All Rights Reserved

*This paper was written in 1991 for a Course in Methodist Theology and Polity which Rev. Neal took while in the Masters Degree program at Duke University.

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from