Methodism and the Wesleys


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.


The Wesleys


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.


Division and Reunification


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 1981.


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.


Structure 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.


Origins 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 problematic.


Contributed by:         John H. Ness


"Methodism," Microsoft (R) Encarta. Copyright (c) 1993 Microsoft Corporation. Copyright (c) 1993 Funk & Wagnall's Corporation

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