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A Very Brief History of Methodism

Methodism traces its origins to 18th-century England with the evangelical movement led by John Wesley, his brother Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield. The movement sought to reform the Church of England (the Anglican Church) and revitalize Christianity in England through a methodical approach to faith and practice, hence the name “Methodism” (which was originally a derogatory title given to the original participants).

What became a world-wide movement began with the Wesley brothers’ zeal and hunger for a powerful, devout, and pietistic Christianity that moved beyond the cultural Christianity which marked much of Anglicanism in England at the time. The Wesley’s believed in the promises of scripture for believers who were supernaturally empowered by the Holy Spirit—on the basis of Christ’s atoning work—to live free not only from the guilt of sin but also the power of sinning. They believe that 2 Timothy 3:5 perfectly described Anglican Christianity as a “form of religion  but denying the power” (2 Tim. 3:5), and were moved by the hunger for righteousness to preach the good news of a life that conformed to the risen-ness of Christ rather than the fallen-ness of Adam.

John Wesley famously wrote in “Thoughts Upon Methodism”:

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America, but I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.

Because of his passion for discipleship in addition to evangelism, John Wesley emphasized the importance of small group accountability through “class meetings” and “bands.” His preaching in open fields, often to the working class, led to the growth of Methodism as a separate movement within the broader streams of orthodox Christianity. 

Wesley never intended to start a movement that was separate from the Church of England, but his unconventional methods of preaching and evangelism, along with the Revolutionary War in America, were driving factors behind Methodism becoming something independent from the Anglican Church. 

As the Second Great Awakening was kindling in America, Wesley needed leaders who could preach and administer sacraments. The Anglican Church was unwilling to ordain lay leaders for such roles in America, so Wesley, following his sense of the leading of the Holy Spirit, moved forward in ordaining lay ministers for the sake of advancing the Kingdom of God in America. 

At the time of the founding of the United States, Methodism gained massive ground through the efforts of circuit riders like Francis Asbury, who traveled extensively to spread the Methodist message across the frontier. Methodism, then, became a leading force during the Second Great Awakening, contributing to the shaping of American religious landscape.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Methodism experienced several schisms and mergers, resulting in the formation of various denominations such as the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church. These denominations eventually united in 1939 to form The Methodist Church, which later merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968 to become the United Methodist Church.

Since 2019, more than 7,000 congregations across the United States have disaffiliated from the United Methodist Church over the church’s views on sexual ethics (specifically, the ordination of practicing homosexuals). While sexual ethics has been the presenting symptom for this most recent schism, the true cause of the split is the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of scripture. 

Today, Methodism remains one of the largest Protestant denominations worldwide, with various branches and offshoots continuing the Wesleyan tradition.

Interesting Facts about Methodism and John Wesley

  1. For many years John Wesley struggled with being sure of his salvation, which was a major contributor to John Wesley’s understanding of the doctrine of entire sanctification and total assurance of salvation.
  2. John Wesley was greatly influenced by the Moravians. After a failed missionary assignment in Savannah, Georgia, Wesley was on a ship back to the British Isles when they encountered a life-threatening storm. Wesley was one among many on the ship who panicked in fear for their lives. However, there was a group of Moravian Christians who were at perfect peace and sang hymns during the storm. Wesley envied the Moravians and sought them out to understand and obtain what seemed to be the fulfillment of many of Scripture’s promises for true Christians. Finally, the Moravians—originating in the Czech Republic—are considered by many to be the original Protestants, even before Martin Luther.
  3. “Methodist” was originally a pejorative term. Some of Wesley’s peers at Oxford were making fun of Wesley and his friends by calling them “Methodists” because they were so methodical about their Christianity. The reality was that Wesley was so hungry for righteousness, internal cleansing, freedom from the power of sin and assurance of salvation that he concentrated his every effort to live a life that was aligned with the promises of Scripture.
  4. John Wesley didn’t want to start a movement independent from the Anglican Church. Wesley was a devout, ordained Anglican. Methodism began as a revivalistic movement within Anglicanism. Wesley’s commitment to the great commission, however, held priority over his commitment to the Church of England, and so he ordained lay ministers to keep the work going.
  5. In his ministry John Wesley rode over 250,000 miles on horseback. That is enough miles to circle the earth over 10 times. John Wesley believed in the power of personal relationships. This is evidenced not only in his insistence to visit methodists everywhere, but also in his insistence on band meetings. Wesley understood salvation as being something much more than transactional (i.e., get forgiven of your sin). Wesley understood that the Scriptures teach that Christianity is a lifestyle and that it offered a radical transformation of our very nature.
  6. Methodism grew from four to 132,000 members in Wesley’s lifetime. 

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