John Wesley, his brother Charles, and George Whitefield, belonged to a group at Oxford that in 1729 began meeting for religious exercises. From their resolution to conduct their lives and religious study by "rule and method," they were given the name Methodists. The beginning of Methodism as a popular movement dates from 1738, when both of the Wesley brothers, influenced by contact with the Moravians, undertook evangelistic preaching. From the Moravians, too, they took the emphasis on conversion and holiness that are still central to Methodism.
The leaders of the movement were ordained ministers of the Church of England; neither of the two Wesleys ever disclaimed the holy orders of that church, but they were barred from speaking in most of its pulpits, in disapproval of their evangelistic methods. They preached in barns, houses, open fields, wherever an audience could be induced to assemble. Societies were formed, "class meetings" of converts were held, and lay preachers were trained and given charge of several congregations. The moving of preachers from one appointment to another was the beginning of the system of itinerancy.
Theologically, John Wesley was essentially a follower of Jacobus Arminius. Whitefield, unable to accept the Arminian doctrines of Wesley, broke with him in 1741 and became the leader of the Calvinistic Methodists. In 1744 the first annual conference was held and the Articles of Religion were drawn up. They were based to a considerable extent upon the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, but great emphasis was laid upon repentance, faith, sanctification, and the privilege of full, free salvation for everyone. By 1784 the spread of the movement, especially in America, made an organization separate from the Church of England necessary. In 1784, Wesley issued a Deed of Declaration giving legal status to the yearly Methodist conference. That same year he ordained Thomas Coke superintendent of the societies in America.
In 1791, after Wesley's death, the English Methodists were formally separated from the Church of England and established the Wesleyan Methodist Church. In both England and America various groups seceded from the main branch to form independent Methodist churches. Some of them later reunited. In Great Britain the Methodist New Connection was the first group to form a separate branch. Then followed the Primitive Methodists, the Bible Christians, the Protestant Methodists, the Wesleyan Methodist Association, and the Wesleyan Reformers.
In 1857 the last three formed a union as the United Methodist Free Churches; in 1907 these were incorporated with the Methodist New Connection and the Bible Christians as the United Methodist Church. Finally, in 1932, the Wesleyan Methodists, the Primitive Methodists, and the United Methodists merged to become the Methodist Church in Great Britain. By 1995 there were about 388,000 Methodists in Great Britain. There are Methodist churches in most parts of the world, with United churches in South India, Canada, and Zambia. There are over 26 million Methodists worldwide.
John and Charles Wesley visited America in 1735 as spiritual advisers to James Oglethorpe's colony in Georgia, but the actual beginnings of Methodism in America came after 1766, when Philip Embury, a Wesleyan convert from Ireland, began to preach in New York, and Robert Strawbridge started a congregation in Maryland. In 1769, Wesley sent several itinerant preachers into the new field; Francis Asbury arrived in 1771. The first annual conference in America was held in 1773. In 1784, Thomas Coke, acting on authority from Wesley, proceeded with the organization of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America. At a Christmas conference in Baltimore, Asbury and Coke were elected superintendents (and shortly thereafter styled bishops), and the order of worship and articles of religion prepared by Wesley were adopted.
The first General Conference of the new church was held in 1792. In 1830, after controversy over lay representation in conferences and other questions, the Methodist Protestant Church was formed, without bishops or presiding elders. The Wesleyan Methodist Connection was organized (1843) at Utica, N.Y., in a strong antislavery protest. The independent Methodist Episcopal Church, South, began in 1845 over the issue of slavery. In 1939 a great reunion was realized—the Methodist Episcopal Church (North), the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church united as the Methodist Church. In 1968 the Methodist Church joined with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form the United Methodist Church, now the largest body of Methodists in the world with about 8.5 million members (1997).
Among the 22 other branches of Methodism in the United States are the Primitive Methodist Church (est. c.1830), the Congregational Methodist Church (est. 1852), and the Free Methodist Church of North America (est. 1860). Black Methodist denominations, founded by pastors such as Richard Allen, include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (formerly the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church).
See R. Davies and G. Rupp, ed., A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain (3 vol. to date, 1965-84); F. Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England (1970); N. B. Harmon, ed., The Encyclopedia of World Methodism (2 vol. 1974); F. A. Norwood, The Story of American Methodism (1974); T. A. Langford, Weslyan Theology (1984).
Early Methodists were drawn from all levels of society, including aristocracy. But the Methodist preachers took the message to labourers and criminals who tended to be left outside of organised religion at that time. Wesley himself thought it wrong to preach outside a Church building until persuaded otherwise by Whitefield.
Doctrinally, the branches of Methodism following Wesley are Arminian, while those following Harris and Whitefield are Calvinistic. Wesley did not let this difference of interpretation change his friendship with Whitefield, and Wesley's sermon on Whitefield's death is full of praise and affection. Methodism has a very wide variety of forms of worship, ranging from high church to low church in liturgical usage. The Wesleys themselves greatly valued the Anglican liturgy and tradition, and based Methodist worship in The Book of Offices on the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
Methodism currently claims approximately seventy million adherents worldwide, although global membership may be as low as 9.8 million.
The early Methodists acted against perceived apathy in the Church of England, became open-air preachers and established Methodist societies wherever they went. These societies were made up of individual classes - intimate groups where individuals were encouraged to confess their sins to one another and to build each other up. They also took part in love feasts which allowed for the sharing of testimony, a key feature of early Methodists.
Methodist preachers were notorious for their enthusiastic sermons and often accused of fanaticism. In those days, many members of the established (Anglican) church feared that new doctrines promulgated by the Methodists, such as the necessity of a New Birth for salvation, of Justification by Faith, and of the constant and sustained action of the Holy Spirit upon the believer's soul, would produce ill effects upon weak minds. Theophilus Evans, an early critic of the movement, even wrote that it was "the natural Tendency of their Behaviour, in Voice and Gesture and horrid Expressions, to make People mad." In one of his prints, William Hogarth likewise attacked Methodists as "enthusiasts" full of "Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism." But the Methodists resisted the many attacks against their movement. (See John Wesley and George Whitefield for a much more complete discussion of early Methodism.)
John Wesley came under the influence of the Moravians and Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, while Whitefield adopted Calvinistic views. Consequently, their followers separated, those of Whitefield becoming Calvinistic Methodists. Wesleyan Methodists have followed Arminian theology.
Robert Strawbridge began a Methodist work in Maryland at the same time as Embury began his work in New York. They did not work together and did not know of each other's existence. Strawbridge ordained himself and organized a circuit. He trained many very influential assistants who became some of the first leaders of American Methodism. His work grew rapidly in numbers and in geography. The British missionaries discovered Strawbridge's work and annexed it into the American connection. However, the native preachers continued to work side-by-side with the missionaries. Plus, they continued to recruit and dispatch more native preachers. Southern Methodism was not dependent on missionaries in the same way as mid-Atlantic Methodism.
Up until this time, with the exception of Strawbridge, none of the missionaries or American preachers was ordained. Consequently, the Methodist people received the sacraments at the hands of ministers from established Anglican churches. Most of the Anglican priests were Loyalists who fled to England, New York or Canada during the war. As such, a group of native preachers ordained themselves. This caused a split between the Asbury faction and the southern preachers. Asbury mediated the crisis by convincing the southern preachers to wait for Wesley's response to the sacramental crisis. That response came in 1784. At that time, Wesley sent the Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke to America to form an independent American Methodist church. The native circuit riders met in late December. Coke had orders to ordain Asbury as a joint superintendent of the new church. However, Asbury turned to the assembled conference and said he would not accept it unless the preachers voted him into that office. It was done. From that moment forward, the general superintendents received their authority from the conference. Later, Coke convinced the general conference that he and Asbury were bishops and added the title to the discipline. It caused a great deal of controversy. Wesley did not approve of the title.
By the 1792 general conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the controversy related to episcopal power boiled over. Ultimately, the delegates sided with Bishop Asbury. However, the Republican Methodists split off from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1792. Also, William Hammett (a missionary ordained by Wesley who traveled to America from Antigua with Bishop Coke), led a successful revolt against the MEC in 1791. He opposed Bishop Asbury and the episcopacy. He formed his people into the American Primitive Methodist Church (not directly connected with the British Primitive Methodist Church). Both American churches operated in the Southeast and presaged the episcopal debates of later reformers. Regardless, Asbury remained the leading bishop of early American Methodism and did not share his "appointing" authority until Bishop McKendree was elected in 1808. Coke had problems with the American preachers. His authoritarian style alienated many. Soon, he became a missionary bishop of sorts and never had much influence in America.
In recent theological debates, clergy members have cut across denominational lines so that theologically left-leaning Methodist and Reformed churches have more in common with each other than with more conservative members of their own denominations.
One popular expression of Methodist doctrine is in the hymns of Charles Wesley. Since enthusiastic congregation singing was a part of the early Evangelical movement, Wesleyan theology took root and spread through this channel.
Methodism affirms the traditional Christian belief in the triune Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as the orthodox understanding of the con-substantial humanity and divinity of Jesus. Most Methodists also affirm the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. In devotional terms, these confessions are said to embrace the biblical witness to God's activity in creation, encompass God's gracious self-involvement in the dramas of history, and anticipate the consummation of God's reign.
Sacramental theology within Methodism tends to follow the historical interpretations and liturgies of Anglicanism. This stems from the origin of much Methodist theology and practice within the teachings of John and Charles Wesley, both of whom were priests of the Church of England. As affirmed by the Articles of Religion, Methodists recognize two Sacraments as being ordained of Christ: Baptism and Holy Communion. Methodism also affirms that there are many other Means of Grace which often function in a sacramental manner, but most Methodists do not recognize them as being Dominical sacraments.
Methodists, stemming from John Wesley's own practices of theological reflection, make use of Tradition as a source of authority. Though not on the same level as Holy Scripture, tradition may serve as a lens through which Scripture is interpreted (see also Prima scriptura and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral). Theological discourse for Methodists almost always makes use of Scripture read inside the great Tradition of Christendom.
It is a historical position of the church that any disciplined theological work calls for the careful use of reason. By reason, it is said, one reads and interprets Scripture. By reason one determines whether one's Christian witness is clear. By reason one asks questions of faith and seeks to understand God's action and will.
The church insists that personal salvation always implies Christian mission and service to the world. Scriptural holiness entails more than personal piety; love of God is always linked with love of neighbors and a passion for justice and renewal in the life of the world.
A distinctive liturgical feature of Methodism is the use of Covenant services. Although practice varies between different national churches, most Methodist churches annually follow the call of John Wesley for a renewal of their covenant with God. It is not unusual in Methodism for each congregation to normally hold an annual Covenant Service on the first convenient Sunday of the year, and Wesley's Covenant Prayer is still used, with minor modification, in the order of service. In it, Wesley avers man's total reliance upon God, as the following excerpt demonstrates:
Whereas most Methodist worship is modeled after the Anglican Communion's Book of Common Prayer, a unique feature of the liturgy of the American Methodist Church is its observance of the season of Kingdomtide, which encompasses the last thirteen weeks before Advent, thus dividing the long season after Pentecost into two discrete segments. During Kingdomtide, Methodist liturgy emphasizes charitable work and alleviating the suffering of the poor. Some Methodist churches utilize a more contemporary and less defined liturgy, either in conjunction with traditional Methodist liturgy or in exclusion of it.
British Methodism does not have bishops, though a report, "What Sort of Bishops?", to the Conference of 2005, was accepted for study and report. This report considered if this should now be changed and if so what forms of episcopacy might be acceptable. It has however always been characterised by a strong central organization, the Connexion, which holds an annual Conference (note that the Church retains the 18th century spelling "connexion" for many purposes). The connexion is divided into Districts in the charge of a Chair (who may be male or female), except the new London District, created in September 2006, which has three chairs with a "Lead" chair. Methodist districts often correspond approximately, in geographical terms, to counties - as do the dioceses of the Church of England. The districts are divided into circuits governed by the quarterly Circuit Meeting and led and administrated principally by a "superintendent minister", and ministers are appointed to these rather than to individual churches (though some large inner-city churches, known as Central Halls, are designated as circuits in themselves - Westminster Central Hall, opposite Westminster Abbey in central London is the best known). Most circuits have fewer ministers than churches, and the majority of services are led by lay local preachers, or by supernumerary ministers (ministers who have retired, called supernumerary because they are not counted for official purposes in the numbers of ministers for the circuit in which they are listed). The superintendent and other ministers are assisted in the leadership and administration of the Circuit by lay Circuit Stewards, who collectively with the ministers form what is normally known as the Circuit Leadership Team.
Schisms within the original Methodist church, and independent revivals, led to the formation of a number of separate denominations calling themselves Methodist. The largest of these were the Primitive Methodist church, deriving from a revival at Mow Cop in Staffordshire, the Bible Christians and the United Methodist Church (not connected with the American denomination of the same name, but a union of three smaller denominations). The original church became known as the Wesleyan Methodist Church to distinguish it from these bodies. The three major streams of British Methodism united in 1932 to form the current Methodist Church of Great Britain. The Wesleyan Reform Union and the Independent Methodist Connexion still remain separate. The Primitive Methodist Church had branches in the USA which still continue.
In the 1960s, the Methodist Church made ecumenical overtures to the Church of England, aimed at church unity. Formally, these failed when they were rejected by the Church of England's General Synod in 1972; conversations and co-operation continued, however, leading in 2003 to the signing of a covenant between the two churches. From the 1970s onward, the Methodist Church also started several Local Ecumenical Projects (LEPs, later renamed Local Ecumenical Partnerships) both with the Church of England and with the United Reformed Church, which involved sharing churches, schools and in some cases ministers. In many towns and villages there are United Churches which are most commonly Methodist and URC.
Traditionally, Methodism was particularly popular in Wales and Cornwall, both regions noted for their non-conformism and distrust of the Church of England. It was also very strong in the old mill towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire, where the Methodists stressed that the working-classes were equal to the upper-classes in the eyes of God.
The Methodist Council also helps to run a number of schools, including two leading Public Schools in East Anglia: Culford School and The Leys. It helps to promote an all round education with a strong Christian ethos.
An example of a traditional English Methodist Church in chapel style is Great Glen Methodist Church, built in 1827.
The new style of sermons and the way people practiced their faith breathed new life into religion in America. People became passionately and emotionally involved in their religion, rather than passively listening to intellectual discourse in a detached manner. People began to study the Bible at home, which effectively decentralized the means of informing the public on religious matters and was akin to the individualistic trends present in Europe during the Protestant Reformation.
The first American Methodist bishops were Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, whose boyhood home, Bishop Asbury Cottage, in West Bromwich, England, is now a museum. Upon the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America at the Baltimore Christmas Conference in 1784, Coke (already ordained in the Church of England) ordained Asbury a deacon, elder, and bishop each on three successive days. Circuit riders, many of whom were laymen, traveled by horseback to preach the gospel and establish churches until there was scarcely any crossroad community in America without a Methodist expression of Christianity. One of the most famous circuit riders was Robert Strawbridge who lived in the vicinity of Carroll County, Maryland soon after arriving in the Colonies around 1760.
The Second Great Awakening was a nationwide wave of revivals. In New England, the renewed interest in religion inspired a wave of social activism among Yankees; Methodism grew rapidly and established several colleges, notably Boston University. In the "burned over district" of western New York, the spirit of revival burned brightly. Methodism saw the emergence of a Holiness movement. In the west, especially at Cane Ridge, Kentucky and in Tennessee, the revival strengthened the Methodists and the Baptists.
Disputes over slavery placed the church in difficulty in the first half of the 1800s, with the northern church leaders fearful of a split with the South, and reluctant to take a stand. The Wesleyan Methodists (later became The Wesleyan Church) and the Free Methodist Churches were formed by staunch abolitionists, and the Free Methodists were especially active in the Underground Railroad, which helped to free the slaves. Finally, in a much larger split, in 1845 at Louisville, the churches of the slaveholding states left the Methodist Episcopal Church and formed The Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The northern and southern branches were reunited in 1939, when slavery was no longer an issue. In this merger also joined the Methodist Protestant Church. Some southerners, conservative in theology, and strongly segregationist, opposed the merger, and formed the Southern Methodist Church in 1940.
The Third Great Awakening from 1858 to 1908 saw enormous growth in Methodist membership, and a proliferation of institutions such as colleges (e.g., Morningside College). Methodists were often involved in the Missionary Awakening and the Social Gospel Movement. The awakening in so many cities in 1858 started the movement, but in the North it was interrupted by the Civil War. In the South, on the other hand, the Civil War stimulated revivals, especially in Lee's army.
In 1914-1917 many Methodist ministers made strong pleas for world peace. To meet their demands, President Woodrow Wilson (a Presbyterian), promised "a war to end all wars." In the 1930s many Methodists favored isolationist policies. Thus in 1936, Methodist Bishop James Baker, of the San Francisco Conference, released a poll of ministers showing 56% opposed warfare. However, the Methodist Federation did call for a boycott of Japan, which had invaded China and was disrupting missionary activity there. In Chicago, sixty-two local African Methodist Episcopal churches voted their support for the Roosevelt administration's policy, while opposing any plan to send American troops overseas to fight. When war came in 1941, the vast majority of Methodists strongly supported the national war effort, but there were also a few (673) conscientious objectors.
The United Methodist Church was formed in 1968 as a result of a merger between the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) and the Methodist Church. The former church had resulted from mergers of several groups of German Methodist heritage. There was no longer any need or desire to worship in the German language. The merged church had approximately 9 million members as of the late 1990s. While United Methodist Church in America membership has been declining, associated groups in developing countries are growing rapidly.
American Methodist churches are generally organized on a connectional model, related but not identical to that used in Britain. Pastors are assigned to congregations by bishops, distinguishing it from presbyterian government. Methodist denominations typically give lay members representation at regional and national meetings (conferences) at which the business of the church is conducted, making it different from episcopal government. This connectional organizational model differs further from the congregational model, for example of Baptist, and Congregationalist Churches, among others.
In addition to the United Methodist Church, there are over 40 other denominations that descend from John Wesley's Methodist movement. Some, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Free Methodists, the Wesleyan Church (formerly Wesleyan Methodist), the Congregational Methodist Church and First Congregational Methodist Church are explicitly Methodist. The Primitive Methodist Church is a continuing branch of the former British Primitive Methodist Church. Others do not call themselves Methodist, but are related to varying degrees. The Evangelical Church was formed by a group of EUB congregations who dissented from the merger which formed the United Methodist Church. The Salvation Army was founded by William Booth, a former Methodist, and derives some of its theology from Methodism. Similar "social justice" denominations include the Church of the Nazarene and the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Some of the charismatic or pentecostal churches such as the Pentecostal Holiness Church and the Assemblies of God also have roots in or draw from Wesleyan thought.
The Holiness Revival was primarily among people of Methodist persuasion, who felt that the church had once again become apathetic, losing the Wesleyan zeal. Some important events of this revival were the writings of Phoebe Palmer during the mid-1800s, the establishment of the first of many holiness camp meetings at Vineland, New Jersey in 1867, and the founding of Asbury College, (1890), and other similar institutions in the US around the turn of the 20th century.
From its beginning in England, Methodism laid emphasis on social service and education. Numerous originally Methodist institutions of higher education were founded in the United States in the early half of the 19th century, and today altogether there are about twenty universities and colleges named as "Methodist" or "Wesleyan" still in existence.
Additionally, the Methodist Church has created a number of Wesley Foundation establishments on college campuses. These ministries are created to reach out to students, and often provide student housing to a few students in exchange for service to the ministry.
The United Methodist Church allows for a wide range of theological and political beliefs. For example, Republican President George W. Bush is a member. Vice President Dick Cheney attends the United Methodist Church (though he is not a member). Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are both members of the United Methodist Church.
United Methodist pastors may marry and have families. They are placed in congregations by their bishop. Pastors can either ask for a transfer or their church can request that they be transferred. The church is also required to have a house for the pastor or give them a housing allowance.
An estimated 75 million people worldwide belong to the Methodist community, however the number has gone into steady decline, especially in North America, where an increasing number of people are becoming more inclined to join theologically conservative denominations. Almost all Methodist churches are members of a consultative body called the World Methodist Council, which is headquartered at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, in the United States.
Methodism came to India twice, in 1817 and in 1856, according to Mr. P. Dayanandan who has done extensive research on the subject. Dr. Thomas Coke and six other missionaries set sail for India on New Year's Day in 1814. Dr. Coke, then 66, died en route. Rev. James Lynch was the one who finally arrived in Madras (present day Chennai) in 1817 at a place called Black Town (Broadway), later known as George Town. Lynch conducted the first Methodist missionary service on March 2, 1817, in a stable. The first Methodist church was dedicated in 1819 at Royapettah. A chapel at Broadway (Black Town) was later built and dedicated on April 25, 1822. This church was rebuilt in 1844 since the earlier structure was collapsing. At this time there were about 100 Methodist members in all of Madras, and they were either Europeans or Eurasians (European and Indian descent). Among those names associated with the founding period of Methodism in India are Elijah Hoole & Thomas Cryer, who came as missionaries to Madras. In 1857, the Methodist Episcopal Church started its work in India, and with prominent Evangelists like William Taylor the Emmanuel Methodist Church, Vepery, was born in 1874. The Methodist Church in India is governed by the MCI - the Methodist Church of India.. in 1947 the Methodist Church in India merged with Presbyterians, Anglicans and other protestant churches to form the Church of South India.
Methodist and Wesleyan traditions in the Philippines are shared by three of the largest mainline Protestant churches in the country - The United Methodist Church , Iglesia Evangelica Metodista En Las Islas Filipinas (Evangelical Methodist Church in the Philippine Islands) , and The United Church of Christ in the Philippines There are also evangelical Protestant churches in the country with Methodist and Wesleyan tradition like The Wesleyan Church of the Philippines , Free Methodist Church of the Philippines , and the Church of the Nazarene in the Philippines
In 1945 the Rev. Dr. Kingsley Ridgway offered himself as a Melbourne based "field representative" for a possible Australian branch of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of America, after meeting an American serviceman who was a member of that denomination.. The Wesleyan Methodist Church of Australia was founded on his work.
The Methodist Church of Australasia merged with the majority of the Presbyterian Church of Australia and the Congregational Union of Australia in 1977, becoming the Uniting Church. The Wesleyan Methodist Church of Australia continues to operate independently. There are also other independent Methodist congregations, some of which were established by, or have been impacted by, Tongan immigrants.