While Wesley remained a loyal Anglican, he recognized that Church of England polity (not to mention the outright hostility with which many in the church looked upon him) was hampering the progress of his work, particularly in the American colonies. This, coupled with his awareness that the New Testament does not distinguish between bishops (overseers) and priests (elders), led him to ordain preachers to forward the ministry. With this came the founding of Methodism as a denomination separate from the Anglican Church—and very much to the loss of both.
Concurrent with the Wesleys’ ministry, there was a growing evangelical presence in the mainstream of the Church of England. The gospel was being preached with a new conviction and fervency and church members were beginning to come to a new awareness of their call to be salt and light in society.
One example of early evangelicalism is Charles Simeon (1759-1836), vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge for more than fifty years. Initially his ministry met with great opposition, particularly from the moneyed classes. He was not permitted to preach there on Sunday mornings for the first twelve years of his incumbency. When he did preach on Sunday afternoons, the pews were locked and empty, leaving only the aisles for his congregation, who very soon were so numerous that they could not find room. Gradually Simeon won over his parish through his humble, generous and patient manner. Not only that, but through the presence of the university his influence spread throughout England and eventually as far as India.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries evangelicals in the Church of England took up the causes of the poor, of slaves, of child laborers and of parliamentary reform. They began to send out missionaries to bring the message of Christ to people in India, Africa and the Americas. To accomplish these tasks, they became inveterate founders of voluntary societies: the Church Society, the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor (1796), the Church Missionary Society (1799), the Religious Tract Society (1799), the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804) and the Church Pastoral-Aid Society (1836), to name just a few.
Referring to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century evangelicals, Stephen Neill quotes historians G.M. Young and W.D. Hancock:
To them, more than to any other group or party in the Church of England it was due that, in the words of two secular historians, in the middle of the nineteenth century, ‘England became, perhaps, more nearly a Christian country than she had ever been before …’