Methodism, worldwide Protestant movement dating from
1729, when a group of students at the University of Oxford, England, began to
assemble for worship, study, and Christian service. Their fellow students named
them the Holy Club and “methodists,” a derisive allusion to the methodical
manner in which they performed the various practices that their sense of
Christian duty and church ritual required.
Among the Oxford group were John Wesley, considered
the founder of Methodism, and his brother Charles, the sons of an Anglican
rector. John preached, and Charles wrote hymns. Together they brought about a
spiritual revolution, which some historians believe diverted England from
political revolution in the late 18th century. The theology of the Wesleys
leaned heavily on Arminianism and rejected the Calvinist emphasis on
predestination; (see Calvinism). Preaching the doctrines of Christian perfection
and personal salvation through faith, John Wesley quickly won an enthusiastic
following among the English working classes, for whom the formalism of the
established Church of England had little appeal.
Opposition by the English clergy, however, prevented
the Wesleys from speaking in parish churches; consequently, Methodist meetings
were often conducted in open fields. Such meetings led to a revival of religious
fervor throughout England, especially among the poor (see Revivals, Religious).
John Wesley's message as well as his personal activities among the poor
encouraged a social consciousness that was retained by his followers and has
become a hallmark of the Methodist tradition. Methodist societies sprang up, and
in 1744 the first conference of Methodist workers was held. Wesley never
renounced his ties with the Church of England, but he provided for the
incorporation and legal continuation of the new movement.
Soon after John Wesley's death in 1791, his followers
began to divide into separate church bodies. During the 19th century many such
separate Methodist denominations were formed in Great Britain and the United
States, each maintaining its own version of the Wesleyan tradition. In 1881 an
Ecumenical Methodist Conference was held to coordinate Methodist groups
throughout the world. Conferences have been held at regular intervals since
then. They are currently known as the World Methodist Conference, which meets
every five years. The centennial gathering was convened in Honolulu in July
Early in the 20th century in Great Britain, the
separate Methodist bodies began to coalesce. The Bible Christians, the Methodist
New Connexion, and the United Methodist Free Churches united in 1907 to form the
United Methodist Church, which in 1932 joined with the Primitive Methodist and
Wesleyan Methodist churches to bring the long chapter of Methodist disunity in
Great Britain to an end. Today the Methodist Church in the United Kingdom has
the distinction of being the “mother church” of world Methodism.
of British Methodism
The governing body of the British Methodist Church is
the Conference. All church courts and committees derive their authority from the
Conference and are responsible to it for the exercise of their appropriate
functions. Below the Conference administratively is a church court for each
district, circuit, and society. Geographic districts number 34. Each district is
divided into circuits, generally 30 to 40 in number. Each circuit is subdivided
into local societies, the number varying considerably. Administration of the
church is not only delegated to the lower courts but also to 13 connexional
departments. The work of each department is carried on at the district, circuit,
and society level by responsible committees. By this means the Conference
maintains control over the work of the various levels of the church.
Communication is thus maintained between the Conference and all the members. The
Conference also maintains missions around the world.
of Methodism in the U.S
Methodism was brought to the U.S. before the American
Revolution by emigrants from both Ireland and England. The earliest societies
were formed in about 1766 in New York City, in Philadelphia, and near Pipe
Creek, Maryland. In 1769 John Wesley sent his first missionaries to America.
Francis Asbury, commissioned in 1771, was the missionary most instrumental in
establishing the American Methodist church. The first annual conference was held
in Philadelphia in 1773.
At the Christmas Conference held in Baltimore,
Maryland, in 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church was formally organized as a
body separate from the English Methodist structure. Asbury and Thomas Coke were
given the title bishop and became heads of the new church. Wesley sent
Twenty-five Articles of Religion, adapted from the Thirty-nine Articles of the
Church of England, to serve as its doctrinal basis.
Methodism, spread by the circuit rider and the
revival meeting, advanced westward with the frontier. During the early 19th
century, the tolerant doctrinal positions of Methodism and its stress on
personal religious experience, universal salvation, and practical ethics gave it
a major role in religious awakening and attracted converts in large numbers.
Organization and Sacraments
Annual geographic conferences were organized
throughout the U.S. in the early 19th century. A democratic form of government
similar to the federal governmental system was adopted in the Methodist
Episcopal Church, and it remains the basic structure of the United Methodist
Church. A Council of Bishops was set up as the executive branch of the church,
with a General Conference as the legislative branch. Later, a judicial council
was established to serve as an ecclesiastical court. The bishops and the
judicial council were to meet under the supervision of the General Conference.
Within both British and American Methodism, two
sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper (see Eucharist), are recognized.
Baptism may be administered by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling. Methodists
interpret the Lord's Supper as either a celebration of the presence of Christ,
as taught by the French Protestant theologian John Calvin, or in a strictly
memorial sense, as taught by the Swiss Protestant reformer Huldreich Zwingli.
In the U.S., as in Great Britain, division among
Methodists came early. At the end of the 18th century, black members in
Philadelphia withdrew from the church, where segregation had been forced upon
them, and established an independent congregation. Soon church groups from other
cities along the Atlantic seaboard joined with them to form the African
Methodist Episcopal Church. In the second decade of the 19th century in New York
City a similar movement developed independently; it attracted black
congregations from other cities and became the African Methodist Episcopal Zion
Church. Agitation against the power of the bishops and a desire for lay
representation caused another split in 1830, resulting in the formation of the
Methodist Protestant Church. Slavery became the most divisive issue in the
history of Methodism. Radical abolitionist Methodists (see Abolitionists) broke
away from the Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1840s to form the Wesleyan
Methodist Church, which in the 20th century merged with the Pilgrim Holiness
Church to become the Wesleyan Church.
In 1844 the largest schism in American Methodism
occurred when the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was formed by supporters of
slavery after the General Conference became deadlocked over the issue. In the
1860s the holiness controversy produced another schism, when a group of
Methodist dissenters who believed in a reemphasis on Wesley's doctrine of
personal holiness broke away to form the Free Methodist Church of North America;
(See also Holiness Churches).
After the American Civil War, the two black Methodist
denominations and the Methodist Episcopal Church tried to proselytize the black
congregations within the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which in response
encouraged and authorized its black members to form the Colored Methodist
Episcopal Church, now known as the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
Each of these separate Methodist bodies formed
denominational agencies to manage education, missions, evangelism, and
publishing. Through their individual missionary programs, competing Methodist
missions appeared around the world. It became apparent that some cooperation was
essential, and each Methodist denomination joined one or more international
missionary organizations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of these
was the Ecumenical Methodist Conference, which first met in 1881.
The movement for unity did not succeed as completely
in the U.S. as it did in Great Britain, where one Methodist church resulted.
After much effort, three of the major Methodist bodies in the U.S., namely, the
Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Protestant Church, and the Methodist
Episcopal Church, South, united in 1939 to form the Methodist Church.
In 1946 two small denominations of German ethnic
origin that were unaffiliated with Methodism but greatly influenced by it, the
Evangelical Church and the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, united to
form the Evangelical United Brethren Church. In 1968 this church joined with the
Methodist Church to become the United Methodist Church, bringing more than half
of world Methodism into one denomination.
Methodist churches in other countries generally stem
from either the British or the American Methodist traditions. Some national
Methodist churches have become independent of their parent churches, which
increases the importance of their cooperation through the World Methodist
Council. The ecumenical movement, in which Methodists have been leading
participants, has resulted in the unification of some Methodist groups with
other denominations, making their long-term relationship with world Methodism
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