The Emergence of Methodism

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The Emergence of Methodism


Methodist Piety and Good Works Methodism had its origins in a prayer and Bible–study group founded by the recently ordained Anglican clergyman John Wesley (1703–1791) at Oxford around 1729. Detractors of the group called the group “Methodists” because of their ystematic approach to their devotions, and the term was subsequently applied to all Wesley’s followers. While he and his brother Charles were serving as Anglican missionaries in the American colony of Georgia during the years 1735–1737, Wesley, who advocated spiritual self-discipline and the performance of charitable acts, met and was deeply influenced by the Moravians, a German pietist sect that stressed the individual’s personal relationship to God. In 1739 Wesley began a lifetime of itinerant preaching, traveling some 250,000 miles on foot and horseback throughout England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland by the time of his death in 1791.

Methodist Organization Wesley organized the people who converted to Christianity into fellowship groups known as Methodist societies. Like the members of the club at Oxford, these Methodists were encouraged to gather together during the week for a time of preaching, praying, singing, and testifying and then to attend the Anglican services on Sunday at their parish churches, where they would worship according to the Book of Common Prayer and receive the sacraments of the Church of England. The Methodist societies welcomed into their fellowship anyone who expressed the desire to “flee from the wrath to come” and to follow the three general rules: avoid evil, do good, and employ the means of grace to grow spiritually. Later, Wesley also divided the societies into “classes,” smaller groups of about a dozen people each. In these intimate spiritual–support groups members met once a week to share their spiritual struggles and victories and to answer the weekly question: “How goes it with your soul?” Occasionally, the opposition against Wesley and the Methodists turned violent. Despite such threats, however, this renewal movement within the Church of England grew so rapidly that it encouraged Wesley to commission lay preachers and assistants to help him in his work. Beginning in 1744, Wesley began to meet with his preachers at Annual Conferences, where the preachers discussed issues of theology and mission and received preaching assignments from Wesley for the following year.

Women and Methodism Most of the leaders of the early small Methodist groups were women. Some Englishmen

men insisted that Wesley and his associates were undermining family values by allowing women to spend large amounts of time away from home attending Methodist meetings and performing Methodist “good works” such as visiting the sick. Wesley initially had some doubts about allowing women to preach, but in 1787, over the objections of some male preachers, he officially authorized the first female Methodist preacher, Sarah Mallet. After Wesley’s death in 1791, however, the opposition against women preachers was rekindled, and in 1803 the Methodist practice of authorizing female preachers was halted and not resumed until the late nineteenth century.

From Movement to Church Wesley never intended to start a new denomination. His aim was to awaken the masses from their spiritual slumber and bring vitality to the Church of England. Throughout most of his life, he reprimanded those who wished to break away from Anglicanism. He never left the Church of England, nor was he ever disowned by it. Nonetheless, Anglican authorities disapproved of Methodist “irregularities” such as preaching without regard for parish boundaries and ultimately refused to recognize Methodist services as Anglican worship. English law allowed non-Anglicans to hold worship services only if their religious group was officially registered. Wesley thus found himself in a difficult situation. If the Methodists registered, they would be acknowledging that they were not Anglicans; but if they did not register, they would be breaking the law. In 1787 Wesley made the difficult decision to instruct his preachers to register, the first step toward legal separation. By the time of his death in 1791, the British Methodists were well on their way toward establishing themselves as an independent church, just as the American Methodists had done, with Wesley’s blessing, in 1784.

The Legacy of Methodism Methodism influenced and was influenced by the Industrial Revolution. One result of the rapid industrialization of Great Britain during the late eighteenth century was the mass movement of people toward the emerging industrial centers. Uprooted people in economic peril tended to lose their connections with the parish church. Methodism, with its informal and vibrant piety and its practice of taking religious services to the people, was better positioned to meet the spiritual needs of these uprooted masses than the structured Anglican establishment. Wesley was a Tory and had little to do with social reform, but he did support the abolition of slavery. He also campaigned to stop the production of distilled spirits and the excessive breeding of horses because he believed that reserving grain for making liquor and feeding aristocrats’ horses showed the upper class’s contempt for the poor. The Methodist movement appealed to the industrial masses and brought thousands of British workers into the church. Historians have fiercely debated the political consequences of this proletarian revival. Some credit, or blame, the Methodists for preventing a British revolution like the one that occurred in France. Others insist that Methodism slowed reform by diverting discontent into religious rather than political activity. Yet, others argue that Methodism assured the ultimate success of social reform by providing a method for nonviolent change that was in keeping with the British temperament. Most historians agree, however, that Methodists’ humanitarian concerns, coupled with their passion for order, exerted a powerful influence on the social and political landscape of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England.


A. D. Gilbert, Religion and Society in Industrial England: Church, Chapel and Social Change, 1740–1914 (New York: Longman, 1976).

Francis J. McConnell, John Wesley: A Biography (New York: Abingdon Press, 1939).

Bernard Semmel, The Methodist Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Pantheon, 1964).

Charles Yrigoyen Jr., John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life (New York: General Board of Global Ministries, 1996).

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The Emergence of Methodism

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The Emergence of Methodism