Wesley, Whitefield and the 'Free Grace' Controversy: The Crucible of Methodism, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

Wesley, Whitefield and the 'Free Grace' Controversy

The Crucible of Methodism, 1st Edition

By Joel Houston


224 pages

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Hardback: 9781138317352
pub: 2019-12-03
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When approaching the most public disagreement over predestination in the eighteenth century, the ‘Free Grace’ controversy between John Wesley and George Whitefield, the tendency can be to simply review the event as a row over the same old issues. This assumption pervades much of the scholarly literature that deals with early Methodism. Moreover, much of that same literature addresses the dispute from John Wesley’s vantage point, often harbouring a bias towards his Evangelical Arminianism. Yet the question must be asked: was there more to the ‘Free Grace’ controversy than a simple rehashing of old arguments?

This book answers this complex question by setting out the definitive account of the ‘Free Grace’ controversy in first decade of the Evangelical Revival (1739-49). Centred around the key players in the fracas, John Wesley and George Whitefield, it is a close analysis of the way in which the doctrine of predestination was instrumental in differentiating the early Methodist societies from one another. It recounts the controversy through the lens of doctrinal analysis and from two distinct perspectives: the propositional content of a given doctrine and how that doctrine exerts formative pressure upon the assenting individual(s).

What emerges from this study is a clearer picture of the formative years of early Methodism and the vital role that doctrinal pronouncement played in giving a shape to early Methodist identity. It will, therefore, be of great interest to scholars of Methodism, Evangelicalism, Theology and Church History.


"The controversy between Whitefield and Wesley over predestination in the early 1740s had a profound effect on the emergence and shape of both Methodism and Evangelicalism. Joel Houston’s detailed study at last explores the controversy over Calvinism in the depth it deserves. One of the virtues of this study is that it does justice to both the Whitefieldian and Wesleyan perspectives - something that has not always been the case in Methodist scholarship. The very different outlooks of Reformed and Arminian evangelicals continues to mark the evangelical movement even in the present and so this work is heartily recommended to all who wish to understand both the ‘Free Grace’ controversy itself, but also the DNA of English–speaking Evangelicalism."

David Ceri Jones, Aberystwyth University, Wales

"Houston offers a fresh exploration of the Free Grace controversy, without doubt one of the most formative events in the rise of the Methodist movement. While not less than a doctrinal disagreement between John Wesley and George Whitefield over the nature of predestination, Houston convincingly demonstrates that it was also much more than that, simultaneously performing an identity-giving role among Calvinistic and Wesleyan Methodists. This insightful work is an important contribution to our understanding of eighteenth-century transatlantic evangelicalism's social and theological origins."

Ian Maddock, FRHistS, Sydney Missionary & Bible College, Australia

"Dr Joel Houston provides John Wesley and George Whitefield scholars, as well as the broader audience of Methodist scholars, the most exhaustive treatment of the "Free Grace" controversy to-date. Houston argues that this debate was due to a clash between two formidable personalities (Whitefield vs. Wesley) who disagreed on an equally formidable theological battleground (predestination vs. conditional election). Houston determines that this controversy did not end because of theological considerations, but because of organizational considerations due to Whitefield’s resignation as the head of the Calvinistic Methodist societies in 1749. Houston’s systematic and lucid analysis of Wesley’s Free Grace sermon and Whitefield’s response within this volume is a major contribution to the debate all on its own."

Sean McGever, Faculty, College of Theology, Grand Canyon University, USA

Table of Contents




Part 1 – Historical Development of the Doctrine of Predestination

Chapter 1 – The 'Location' of the Free Grace Controversy: Historical and Theological Precedents

Excursus: Supra, Infra, and Sub-Lapsarianism

Chapter 2 – Arminius and British Predestinarianism

Part 2 – Wesley, Whitefield, and the Function of Predestinarian Doctrine

Chapter 3 – Wesley and Whitefield: Formative Influences

Chapter 4 - "Beginning a Society of Their Own": The Bristol Division

Chapter 5 – Analysis of the Sermon, ‘Free Grace’, and Whitefield’s Response. Doctrine and Polemic in Context

Chapter 6 – An Awkward Armistice: The Cessation of the ‘Free Grace’Controversy


About the Author

Joel Houston is Assistant Professor of Theology at Briercrest College and Seminary in Saskatchewan, Canada, and a junior fellow of the Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, UK.

About the Series

Routledge Methodist Studies Series

Editorial Board: Ted A. Campbell, David N. Hempton, Priscilla Pope-Levison, Martin Wellings and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker

Methodism remains one of the largest denominations in the USA and is growing in South America, Africa and Asia (especially in Korea and China). This series spans Methodist history and theology, exploring its success as a movement historically and in its global expansion. Books in the series will look particularly at features within Methodism which attract wide interest, including: the unique position of the Wesleys; the prominent role of women and minorities in Methodism; the interaction between Methodism and politics; the ‘Methodist conscience’ and its motivation for temperance and pacifist movements; the wide range of Pentecostal, holiness and evangelical movements; and the interaction of Methodism with different cultures.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
HISTORY / Modern / 18th Century
RELIGION / General
RELIGION / History
RELIGION / Christianity / Methodist
RELIGION / Christian Rituals & Practice / General
RELIGION / Christian Theology / General
RELIGION / Theology
RELIGION / Christian Church / History