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Samuel Wesley & the Crisis of Tory Piety

Samuel Wesley

& the Crisis of Tory Piety, 1685-1720

William Gibson

Oxford University Press, 2021 (ISBN: 978-0-19-887024-1, 216pp)

Gibson, author of The Church of England 1688-1832: Unity and Accord (2001) is a proven master of English ecclesiastical history relating to the ‘long eighteenth century’. This status is blisteringly apparent from his command of sources, texts, and arguments in this new exploration of Samuel Wesley, the ‘grandfather’ of Wesleyanism. Such is Gibson’s dominance within his period that, without irony or pretence, he is able frequently to refer to his own published works in sustaining lines of enquiry, while casually lacing his prose with figures reproduced from his own apparently extensive collection of original works.

This book, perhaps the fruit of labours during the first national lockdown, delivers handsomely. Though not merely a biography, it does benefit from following the drama of a chronology, from Wesley’s undergraduate studies at Exeter College Oxford, through his ordination, marriage, ministry at Epworth, and activities in Convocation. Allied to the thrust of narrative is Gibson’s penetrating interrogation of his subject’s written remains and thorough awareness of their context. 

Wesley is a colourful prism through whom to view the eponymous ‘crisis’ of Tory piety at the turn of the eighteenth century, being the scion not of landed royalists handsomely rewarded at the Restoration, but of impoverished Dissenters hounded from their livings at the Great Ejection. Gibson evidently delights in unravelling the fraught layers of historiography which have accrued around this counter-intuitive character, gently but thoroughly reassessing the conclusions of previous historians of Methodism such as Luke Tyerman and Henry Rack.

The English church owes an incalculable debt to the Reformation and church historians have traditionally crowded in to peer ponderously at the sixteenth century. The Restoration and Revolution settlements by contrast have been less popular topics, but writers like Gibson demonstrate splendidly the continuing relevance of debates from these eras. Questions such as the legitimacy of a de facto sovereign and the justifiable grounds for church separation remain as pertinent now as ever. 

Edward Keene, Little Shelford