The Methodists call for LGBT inclusion can be traced back to the days of John and Charles Wesley. Read more in this blog from Dr. Peter Forsaith, Research Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History, Oxford Brookes University.

When I show people round the sites in Oxford associated with the roots of Methodism, one stop is always St. Michael at the Northgate church because, in a way, that’s where the story begins. Three centuries ago, when John and Charles Wesley were at Oxford, the north gate of the city still stood: above it was a prison, which the Wesleys and their little group visited. In autumn 1732 a Mr. Blair was held there, charged with having a physical relationship with another man, which was potentially a capital offence. The Wesleys thought he was being victimised in prison, so brought this injustice to the attention of the city and university authorities.


The group which formed originally around Charles Wesley a few years earlier was known by various derisory names as ‘Holy Club’ or ‘Bible moths’. ‘Methodists’ was another, recycled from referring to disaffected religious groups in the previous century. Advocacy of a man accused of ‘such an enormous a crime’ seems to have brought criticisms to a head and on 5 November 1732 (a significant date for religious/political disaffection) an anonymous letter appeared in the London press ridiculing a ‘Sect call’d Methodists…’  who ‘…have occasioned no small Stir in Oxford.’ At a time when the civil and religious warfare of the past was being put to bed, their religious ‘enthusiasm’ seemed a dangerous throwback to past conflicts.

That is where the story might be said to begin because it is the first printed use of the word ‘Methodist’ associated with the Wesleys. The letter goes on to denounce the group for its ‘wrong Notions of Religion’, the letter plus other comments recorded make it fairly clear that Mr Blair was most likely accused of having sex with other men.

Less than two months after the letter in the London press, on 1 January 1733, John Wesley was due to preach the ‘university sermon’. The 8th day after Christmas marks Jesus’ circumcision; Wesley used the occasion to defend the ‘Methodist’ group by describing the ‘circumcision of the heart’, proper inward and outward Christian piety – the sermon is in the ’44 Sermons’ (one of which stewards are still supposed to read if the preacher doesn’t show up!). In effect Wesley was turning the image of genital mutilation back on his critics. Mr Blair, incidentally, was found guilty but only fined, when it could have been the rope or the pillory.

What does this say about same-sex relationships and early Methodism? It at least indicates that the Wesleys did not see them as utterly despicable. But did John Wesley’s views change through the course of his life and ministry? 

Some evidence survives of Wesley’s itinerant preachers having homosexual leanings, although sparse and fragmentary, and needing careful interpretation. The idea of sexuality as orientation only developed in the late 19th century, so things were understood quite differently before then. Late in the 1800s several preachers parted from Wesley’s connexion under circumstances which seem to be homosexual. James Perfect, for instance, left the ministry in 1785 for ‘repeated acts of immodesty such as I could not name to a woman’ – a phrase which seems to be code for same-sex behaviour.

Clearest is the case of Nathaniel Ward who left Wesley in 1784/5 ostensibly over financial irregularities, but probably jumping before he was pushed, to join Lady Huntingdon’s Connexion. However, the Countess later instigated enquiries and was told:

He has in Time past, too near approached a Line of Conduct, unnatural in itself and too indelicate to mention. Rom.1.27. … Mr Ward had been very acceptable, and much respected, in Mr W–’s Connection. But being suspected in a certain Particular, he had been admonish’d; acknowledg’d his Error; and promis’d future Amendment. In this, however, he fail’d; the consequence of which was, he was dismissed the Connection.

After Wesley’s time another preacher was expelled, again accused of embezzlement. John Kingston served in the Caribbean for several years, then in Cornwall where in 1800 he married Jane Branwell of Penzance (aunt to the Brontë sisters). However, in 1807 he was charged with the theft of funds, against which he gave an account, but also of ‘improper behavior towards two young men, the Circumstances of which must be explained to the Conference … Mr. Kingston’s conduct in this matter has been very vile…’

There was also a Mary Hamilton, born c.1721, who in her teens was converted to both Methodism and lesbianism by her neighbour Anne Johnson, with whom she went to live in Bristol. Cross-dressed as a man, she subsequently courted and married first a widow in Dublin (where ‘she became a Methodist teacher’), then a young lady in Devon and another in Somerset. She was eventually brought to trial under the vagrancy act, there being no other legislation to cover her case.

To conclude: first, it needs to be made absolutely clear that there is no suggestion or inference, or evidence, that John or Charles Wesley were in any sense ‘gay’. What this article does try to show is that LGBTQ+ issues are not something new, but were there from the very start of Methodism. It would be interesting to trace similar threads between then and now, but I’ll leave that for some future historian.

Peter S Forsaith
Oxford, January 2024

This article is extracted from the author’s  ‘‘…too indelicate to mention…’: transgressive male sexualities in early Methodism.’, Methodist Review 12 [online], January 2020.

Dr. Peter Forsaith is a historian of culture, religion and society in 18th and early 19th century Britain. He is Research Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History, Oxford Brookes University. Among his publications is Image, identity and John Wesley: a study in portraiture [Routledge, 2018].