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7. Methodists



Methodism began in the 18th century as a religious society that wished to reform the Church of England from within; by force of circumstance it became separate from its parent body and took on the characteristics of an autonomous church.


i) Origins.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was born in 1703. After ordination in the Church of England, he was elected a Fellow of Lincoln College at Oxford in 1726. In the following year he left Oxford temporarily to act as curate to his father, the rector of Epworth. Back in Oxford, to which his younger brother Charles had now come, he found himself a member and soon the leader of a group of earnest students pledged to frequent attendance at Holy Communion, serious study of the Bible, and regular visitation of the filthy Oxford prisons. The members of this group received the sobriquet of Methodists.

In 1735 both John and Charles Wesley set out for Georgia to be pastors to the colonists and missionaries (it was hoped) to the Indians, at the invitation of the founder of the colony, James Edward Oglethorpe. They were unsuccessful in their pastoral work and did no missionary work. The brothers returned to England conscious of their lack of genuine Christian faith. They looked for help from members of the Church of the Brethren, who were staying in England for a while before joining Moravian settlements in the American colonies; among these Peter Böhler was especially important. On May 24, 1738, John Wesley's Journal narrates that he "felt" his "heart strangely warmed" and continues, "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." Charles Wesley had reported a similar experience a few days previously. (see also Index: conversion)

Some months later John Wesley was invited by his friend George Whitefield, also an Anglican clergyman who had undergone a "conversion experience," to come to the city of Bristol and help to preach to the colliers of Kingswood Chase, just outside the city, where human conditions were at their lowest. Wesley came and found himself, much against his will, preaching in the open air. This enterprise was the beginning of the Methodist Revival. Whitefield and Wesley at first worked together but later separated on doctrinal grounds: Whitefield believed in double predestination; Wesley regarded this as an erroneous doctrine and insisted that the love of God was universal.

Under the leadership at first of Whitefield and afterward of Wesley the movement rapidly gained ground among those who felt themselves neglected by the Church of England. Wesley differed from contemporary Anglicans not in doctrines but in emphases: he claimed to have reinstated the biblical doctrines that a man may be assured of his salvation and that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, he is capable of attaining perfect love for God and his fellows in this life. Wesley's helpers included only a few ordained clergymen and notably his brother Charles, who wrote more than 6,000 hymns to express the message of the Revival. In spite of Wesley's wish that the Methodist Society would never leave the Church of England, relations with Anglicans were often strained.

In 1784, when there was a shortage of ordained ministers in America after the Revolution, the Bishop of London refused to ordain a Methodist for the United States. Wesley, acting in an emergency and on biblical principles that allow (as he thought) a presbyter to ordain, ordained Thomas Coke as superintendent and two others as presbyters. In the same year, by a Deed of Declaration, he appointed a Conference of 100 men to govern the Society of Methodists after his death.

The definite break with the Church of England came in 1795, four years after Wesley's death. After this, English Methodism, with vigorous outposts in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, rapidly developed as a church. But in order not to perpetuate the split from the Church of England, it was reluctant at first to ordain with the laying on of hands. Its system centred in the annual Conference (at first of ministers only, later thrown open to laypeople), which controlled all its affairs. The country was divided into districts and the districts into circuits, or groups of congregations. The ministers were appointed to the circuits, and each circuit was led by a superintendent, though much power remained in the hands of the local trustees. (see also Index: Methodist Church, The)

This tightly knit system enabled the Wesleyan Methodist Church to grow rapidly throughout the 19th century, at the end of which it counted 450,000 members. The growth was largest in the expanding industrial areas. There their faith enabled Methodist workers, men and women, to endure economic hardship, while at the same time working for the alleviation of poverty. Because their faith encouraged them to live simply, their economic status tended to rise, with the unintended result that Wesleyan Methodism became a middle-class church that was not immune to the excessive stress on the individual in material and spiritual matters that marked the Victorian age.

At the same time the autocratic habits of some ministers in authority, notably Jabez Bunting, an outstanding but sometimes ruthless leader, alienated many of the more ardent and democratic spirits, and there was a series of schisms. The Methodist New Connexion broke off in 1797, the Primitive Methodists in 1811, the Bible Christians in 1815, and the United Methodist Free Churches in 1857.

The smaller Methodist groups were in closer contact with the working classes than the Wesleyans and provided the leadership in early trade unionism to an extent disproportionate to their size. The Wesleyans were at first conservative in politics but in the second half of the 19th century identified themselves more and more with the liberalism of William Gladstone.

A movement to reunite the Methodist groups began about the turn of the century and reached success in two stages. In 1907 the Methodist New Connexion, the Bible Christians, and the United Methodist Free Churches joined to form the United Methodist Church; and in 1932 the Wesleyan Methodist Church, the Primitive Methodist Church, and the United Methodist Church came together to form the Methodist Church.

The Methodist Church has shared with the other English churches in the numerical decline that began about 1910. This decline, together with changes in modern life and thought, roused it out of its Victorian complacency and filled it with a desire to express Wesley's original ideals in a contemporary form. It continued to plan new attempts at evangelism. Its concern for education, shown especially in the development of Kingswood School (Wesley's foundation) and other boarding schools, as well as in the training of Christian teachers at Westminster and Southlands colleges, has not abated. Its strong social interest has expanded from preoccupation with total abstinence to a wide range of national and international issues, especially those connected with race, poverty, and peace.

The Methodist Church involved itself in the ecumenical movement when it began in 1910. Thereafter the church shared in all negotiations for church union. Relations with the Church of England improved so much by the 1960s that a plan for the reunion of the two churches (in two stages) was approved in principle by both in 1965. The final form of the plan was approved by the Methodist Church with a very large majority in 1969, but the Church of England did not muster a large enough majority to bring the plan into effect. The same thing happened in 1972.

Proposals for a "Covenant for Visible Unity," to include the United Reformed Church and the Moravian Church as well as the Methodists and the Anglicans, were put to the churches in 1982; once again the Anglican vote fell short, while the other churches were in favour. Most Methodists were grievously disappointed, but many threw themselves into projects in their own neighbourhood intended to realize locally the unity that was not possible nationally. In these projects Anglicans, United Reformed Church people, and sometimes Baptists and Roman Catholics, are taking part.

As a founder member of the British Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, the Methodist Church has shared fully in the activities of these councils and provided many leaders. Official discussion with Roman Catholics on national and world levels has revealed a surprising degree of agreement while promoting tolerance and understanding of previously contentious issues.

The first woman was ordained to "The Ministry of Word and Sacraments" in 1974. This was the climax of many years of discussion and controversy. It indicated a growing appreciation of the place of women in the life of the church. The theological objections had been carefully considered and rejected before the final step was taken.

ii) Methodism in America.

Methodism was taken to America by immigrants from Ireland who had been converted by John Wesley. Wesley also sent preachers, and by far the most successful of these was Francis Asbury, a blacksmith, who arrived in 1771 and covered vast distances. He adapted Wesley's principles to the needs both of the settled communities and of the frontier. Wesley took the side of the English government at the time of the Revolution, but Asbury aligned himself with the new American republic. Wesley sent the men whom he had ordained as presbyters, with Thomas Coke as superintendent, to help Asbury. The Methodist Episcopal Church was constituted in 1784 and regarded itself as autonomous. Asbury and Coke allowed themselves to be called bishops.

The next 50 years saw a remarkable advance led by the circuit riders who preached to the frontiersmen in simple terms. The slavery issue split the Methodist Church into two: the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (organized in 1845). After the Civil War both churches increased rapidly and became gradually assimilated to the general pattern of American Protestantism. When it was clear that the old issues no longer divided them, they began to move together. But it was not until 1939 that they came together to form The Methodist Church. The Methodist Protestant Church, a smaller group, joined in the same union. (see also Index: American Civil War)

The church in the South lost its black members before and during the Civil War. At the time of the union the Central Jurisdiction was formed for all the black members wherever they lived; it existed alongside the other jurisdictions that were determined by geography. The Central Jurisdiction was abolished in 1968; and black Methodists are now integrated in the church. (see also Index: black American)

The originally German-speaking Evangelical United Brethren Church, itself a union of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical Church, was united with The Methodist Church in 1968 to form the United Methodist Church. Women were given limited clergy rights in 1924 and were accepted for full ordination in 1956.

iii) Methodism in Canada.

Methodism was extended to Canada by preachers from the United States and later reinforced by British Methodists. In 1874 The Methodist Church of Canada became autonomous; it went on to negotiate a union with other Canadian nonepiscopal churches to form The United Church of Canada in 1925.


Methodism is marked by an acceptance of the doctrines of historic Christianity; by an emphasis on those doctrines that indicate the power of the Holy Spirit to confirm the faith of the believer and transform his personal life; by insistence that the heart of religion lies in personal relationship with God; by simplicity of worship; by the partnership of ordained ministers and laity in the worship and administration of the church; by a concern for the underprivileged and the betterment of social conditions; and (at least in its British form) by the formation of small groups for mutual encouragement and edification.

All Methodist churches profess allegiance to the Scriptures as the supreme guide to faith and practice. They welcome the findings of modern biblical scholarship (except for the fundamentalist groups to be found within them). They accept the historic creeds and hold themselves to be in the tradition of the Protestant Reformation. Arguments about the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Jesus do not greatly concern Methodists; they allow for differences of conviction on these points within the historic faith. They emphasize the teaching about Christian perfection, interpreted as "perfect love," which is associated with John Wesley, who held that every Christian should aspire to this by the help of the Holy Spirit.

Methodist churches assert the value of infant baptism and the need to receive regularly the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, in which they believe Christ to be truly present, though they have no precise definition of the manner of his presence. They believe themselves to be integral parts of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and their ministers to be true ministers of Word and sacrament in the church of God.


i) Patterns of service.

Methodist worship everywhere is partly liturgical, partly spontaneous. John Wesley regularly used the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and adapted it for use in the United States. He also conducted services that included extemporaneous prayer. His custom was continued in Britain. In the 20th century Anglican Morning Prayer gradually dropped out of Methodism, but Anglican Holy Communion continued until the Liturgical Movement impelled all churches, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, to revise their liturgies. The Methodist Service Book (1975), written in a modern language, offers much opportunity for congregational participation. The Sunday Service, or Holy Communion, restores the traditional fourfold pattern--the offering of bread and wine, the thanksgiving, the breaking of the bread, and the sharing of the elements. Non-liturgical services, which constitute the majority, tend to be stereotyped although they claim to be spontaneous. Far more services are conducted by lay preachers than by ordained ministers.

In American Methodism services are rarely conducted by laypeople. The Liturgical Movement affected the Book of Worship (1965), the Ordinal (1980), and the United Methodist Hymnal, subtitled The Book of United Methodist Worship (1988), which is arranged to eliminate all traces of sexism.

Hymns are important in all branches of Methodism. Those of Charles Wesley are still dominant in British Methodism, but they are mingled with many contemporary hymns as well as hymns from other traditions. In Hymns and Psalms (1983) certain changes were made in order to eliminate sexist overtones. American books contain fewer hymns by Wesley.

ii) Polity.

In the churches of the British tradition the annual Conference is the supreme authority for doctrine, order, and practice. All ministers have parity of status, but special functions are exercised by the president and secretary of the Conference, the chairmen of districts, the secretaries of divisions, and superintendents. District affairs are regulated by Synods, Circuits by Circuit Meetings, local Societies by Church Councils. The American tradition is episcopal; the bishops are elected by the Jurisdictional Conferences, which, like the General Conference, meet every four years. Each diocese has an annual Conference and is divided into District Conferences, each with its superintendent. The dioceses are combined into five Jurisdictions that cover the nation. The circuit system is not developed. A minister is ordained first deacon, then elder.

In the United States the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church antedate the explosion of the slavery question; the Colored (now "Christian") Methodist Episcopal Church was founded as a result of it. All three are exclusively black but follow the doctrine and organization of the United Methodist Church.

There are minority Methodist churches in most European countries. Those in Italy and Portugal are of English origin, that in Germany is of mixed English and American origin; the rest are all derived from American Methodism, though they exhibit many similarities in spirituality to the English type.

iii) Missions.

Thomas Coke began the missionary activities of British Methodism by his eloquence and ceaseless travels. The first area where missions took root was the West Indies; then came Sierra Leone and southern Africa. The Gold Coast, French West Africa, and Nigeria received missionaries not much later, though the climate in many parts of Africa took a toll of missionary lives.

In India converts were very few until about 1880, when a mass movement swept many thousand low-caste Indians in the south into the Methodist and other churches. In China missionary work had a checkered career, though there were mass movements there also. The last missionary left China in 1949. In Australia the Methodist Church began in 1815 and, like the Methodist Church in South Africa, became independent before the end of the 19th century. The movement toward autonomy became a flood after World War II; only a few small churches remain under the control of the Overseas Division of the church. Most of the autonomous churches negotiate for united churches in their countries; and the Church of South India, including Anglicans, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, has been in existence since 1947, and the Church of North India since 1970.

American Methodists have been equally enthusiastic for missionary activity, and their greater resources have carried them over still larger areas of the Earth's surface. North India, Mexico, and most of the other countries of Latin America, Cuba, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and many parts of Africa possess Methodist churches of the American tradition. The movement toward autonomy took place more slowly in these areas than in the British sphere of influence. The General Conference of the United Methodist Church makes plans for combining fraternal relations among them with their newly found independence.

1.        World Methodism.

The two Methodist traditions diverged considerably for most of the 19th century but toward its end began to converge again. Ecumenical Methodist (since 1951 World Methodist) Conferences have been held regularly since 1888. The World Methodist Council represents some 80 churches.

2.        Methodism in the world church.

In Britain the Methodist Church is the largest of the Free Churches; it is not a nonconformist church but stands between nonconformity and Anglicanism, with affinities to both. In the United States it is closely aligned with the other non-Anglican Protestant denominations. (R.E.D.)

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