views updated Jun 08 2018


METHODISM. Methodism began as a movement in eighteenth-century England, part of the larger Protestant evangelical revival that endeavored to bring spiritual renewal to the nation and the Church of England and to increase the effectiveness of the church's ministry, especially to the poor. The term "Methodist" was applied about 1729 to a small group of students at Oxford University who devoted themselves to a strict method of study and religious practice. While the members of this group referred to themselves as the Holy Club, other university students and leaders reproachfully labeled them Methodists. The three principal figures in the origin and development of Methodism were members of the Holy Club, John Wesley (17031791), an Anglican clergyman who became its leader; his younger brother Charles Wesley (17071788); and George Whitefield (17141770).

Charles Wesley and Whitefield also became ordained clergymen in the Church of England. The Wesleys and Whitefield not only accepted the tradition and doctrines of Anglicanism, they also advocated an evangelical experience of conversion, notably in their preaching. Rather than settling into parish assignments, they engaged in an itinerant ministry, preaching in various churches when permitted but also speaking in private homes and in the open air at marketplaces, mines, and in fields.


The Methodism of the Wesleys differed theologically from that of Whitefield at one main point. Whitefield advocated a form of Calvinism that held that, due to the blight of original sin, humans have no free will. Salvation is limited to those predestined or unconditionally elected by God to receive divine favor. The Wesleys, who identified with the teachings of the Dutch theologian Jacob Harmensen (Jacobus Arminius, 15601609), claimed that God's grace is universal. It is available to all people, freeing them to respond to God's offer of forgiveness and reconciliation. Whitefield's brand of Methodism was particularly popular in Wales and gained substantial support from the preaching of Howell Harris (17141773) and the financial assistance of Selina Hastings (17071791), the countess of Huntingdon. The emphasis of the Wesleys on the universalism of divine grace had a wide appeal and resulted in larger numbers for their brand of Methodism.

The main doctrinal emphases of Wesleyan Methodism included the seriousness of human sin and its dire consequences; preventing (or prevenient) grace, which frees the human will; justification of the sinner by faith in God's grace; the experience of divine pardon in spiritual new birth; personal assurance of being in God's favor; and sanctification or holy living. The Wesleys believed that holy living is both personal and social. In addition the goal of the Christian life is loving God with all that one is and has and loving one's neighbor as oneself. These emphases are delineated in John Wesley's sermons and other writings as well as in the approximately nine thousand hymns written by his brother Charles.

Worship and the sacraments were important to Methodism from its beginning. Both of the Wesleys appreciated the formal liturgical worship of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. However, they also encouraged less-formal worship in Methodist meetings. The Sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion were accepted as means by which God's grace is conveyed to the recipient. Wesleyan Methodism also stressed Bible reading, prayer, and fasting. From the Moravians they adapted a love feast for special occasions, at which the members served each other bread and water as a sign of Christian affection and fellowship.


Unlike Whitefield, the Wesleys effectively organized their followers. John Wesley, a skillful organizer, arranged the Methodist people into societies that met regularly for worship and Christian fellowship. Since Methodism was intended to revitalize the Anglican Church, not to supercede it, Methodists were expected to attend society meetings as well as the services of their local Anglican parish churches. Each society was divided into subgroups of about twelve people, called classes, that met weekly for spiritual encouragement under the direction of class leaders. Society and class membership was guided by a set of General Rules for moral living devised by Wesley.

As Methodism grew across England, Scotland, and Ireland, John Wesley engaged laypeople to meet with the societies, preach in their meetings, provide pastoral care, and administer the General Rules. Since the lay preachers were not ordained, they were not permitted to administer the Sacraments. Lay leadership facilitated the movement's growth. In June 1744 the Wesleys met in London with four Anglican clergy sympathetic to the Methodist movement and four lay preachers, a gathering that evolved into an annual conference of the movement's leaders. At these important annual meetings the preachers discussed theological issues, deliberated business, mapped strategy, and received preaching assignments for the ensuing year. During John Wesley's lifetime the annual conference advised him but did not override his authority in governing the movement.

Methodists acquired buildings for their gatherings as membership increased. In 1739 John Wesley purchased an abandoned cannon factory in London that he renovated for worship and called the Foundery. Other chapels and meeting places, including the celebrated New Room constructed in Bristol in 1739, were purchased or built for Methodist gatherings. In 1768 Wesley formulated a Model Deed designed to govern the use of Methodist chapels and buildings and to protect them from what he considered erroneous doctrine.

The Wesleys and their followers encountered verbal abuse and physical persecution. Their opponents, both laypeople and Anglican clergy, complained about their insistence on an evangelical conversion; their criticism of some forms of public entertainment; " irregular" practices, such as allowing laypeople to preach; and holding worship in the open air. Persecution was especially severe in the 1740s but declined significantly in the decades that followed.

When John Wesley's overtures to Anglican bishops to ordain some of his lay preachers for work in America were refused, he ordained two of them in 1784, dispatched them to the United States, and authorized them to form a Methodist church. During Wesley's lifetime this was the only Methodist church he sanctioned. In the decades following his death, other Methodist churches were formed by his followers in Great Britain.

John Wesley and the Methodists adopted forceful positions on many social questions. They opposed slavery, offered assistance to the poor, ministered in prisons, promoted medical treatment and healthy living, fostered education, and criticized violence and war. Although some historians claimed that Methodism kept Britain from sliding into a form of revolution that engulfed Europe, this thesis is widely disputed. Nevertheless, Methodism was quite influential in British life in the eighteenth century and beyond.

See also Church of England ; Wesley Family .


Primary Source

Heitzenrater, Richard P., general ed. The Works of John Wesley. Vols. 14, 7, 9, 11, 1826. Nashville, Tenn., 1975.

Secondary Sources

Davies, Rupert, A. Raymond George, and Gordon Rupp, eds. A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain. 4 vols. London, 19651988.

Heitzenrater, Richard P. Wesley and the People Called Methodists. Nashville, Tenn., 1995.

Vickers, John A., ed. A Dictionary of Methodism in Britain and Ireland. Peterborough, U.K., 2000.

Yrigoyen, Charles, Jr. John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life. Nashville, Tenn., 1996.

Charles Yrigoyen, Jr.


views updated Jun 08 2018


There are more than twenty Methodist denominations in America that trace their origins directly to the movement begun in England by the Anglican priest John Wesley (1703–1791). Wesley was the dominant figure in establishing the beliefs, structure, and practices of American Methodism.

Methodism was organized in America in the 1760s, when immigrant laypeople from Ireland and England began to preach an evangelical message and formed Methodist societies and classes similar to those established by Wesley. At Christmas 1784 in Baltimore, Maryland, American Methodists, with Wesley's blessing, founded the Methodist Episcopal Church. It was the parent church of American Methodism. Several denominations trace their ancestry to the Methodist Episcopal Church, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1821), the Methodist Protestant Church (1830), the Wesleyan Church (1843), the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1845), the Free Methodist Church (1860), and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (1870). Three of these denominations, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, have almost entirely African-American memberships. In 1939 the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Protestant Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, reunited to form the Methodist Church. In 1968 the Methodist Church united with the Evangelical United Brethren Church, a denomination with similar polity and theology, to become the United Methodist Church, at the time the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. The churches that are identified with the Holiness and Pentecostal movements in America also share the theological heritage of the Wesleyan/Methodist churches.

United Methodists share a similar connectional polity with the three African-American denominations. Each is divided into geographical annual conferences presided over by elected bishops who serve as their spiritual and administrative leaders. Bishops also perform the important task of appointing the clergy to their ministerial work. Bishops are assisted by episcopally appointed superintendents who advise the bishop and act as liaison between the annual conference and the local churches within its bounds. Each of these denominations has a general conference, with elected representatives from the annual conferences; the general conference meets every four years to set the official policies of the denomination. The structure and policies are set forth in the denomination's Book of Discipline as revised by the general conference.

From its earliest days American Methodism has considered three theological documents of major importance, although it has not always paid much attention to them. They include John Wesley's Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (first published in 1755), Wesley's Sermons on Several Occasions (a series of doctrinal sermons published in 1787–1788), and Articles of Religion, sent to America by Wesley in 1784. United Methodism has added The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church (1963) to its collection of documents called Doctrinal Standards. In 1972 United Methodism also adopted a document titled Our Theological Task (revised in 1988), which sets forth a theological methodology using Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as bases for understanding and practicing the Christian faith.

Worship is considered important in each of the Methodist denominations, especially the Sunday morning gathering of the congregation. Usually 30 to 40 percent of the membership attends Sunday morning worship. Although worship practices vary considerably among the churches in a denomination, the liturgies employed among Methodists tend to be less formal. The order for worship includes hymns, prayers, perhaps music by a choir, Scripture reading, offering, and a sermon, which is the centerpiece of worship. Two sacraments are observed: the baptism of infants and adults, and the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion.

Theological diversity characterizes the Methodist family, especially United Methodism, where theological controversy has been quite pronounced since the 1960s. One of the parties in this theological dispute has adopted a more liberal theological stance. It is represented by the Methodist Federation for Social Action, founded in 1907. The federation emphasizes a social action agenda, including the elimination of racism, boycotts of corporations that threaten the environment or exploit workers, and acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle. Their views are explicated in their newsletter Social Questions Bulletin. Another party, represented by the Good News Movement, founded in 1966, believes that the denomination has drifted too much toward liberalism and theological pluralism. They hold that the church must return to its evangelical roots, reaffirm the primacy and authority of the Bible, and continue its ban on ordaining homosexuals. In 1984 Good News launched its own Mission Society to correct what it judged to be the liberal agenda of the denomination's General Board of Global Ministries. Furthermore, the Good News leaders were instrumental in three theological documents that state Good News views: the Houston Declaration (1984), the DuPage Declaration (1990), and the Louisville Declaration (1990). Much of the disagreement between these two parties concerns the issue of whether the denomination should make evangelism or social action its priority. A large number of United Methodists stand between these two positions, believing that both should be emphases of the denomination.

Another recent theological development has been the rediscovery of the theology of John Wesley. The theologian/ecumenist Albert C. Outler (1908–1989) was the key figure calling attention to the substance and relevance of Wesley's thought for the second half of the twentieth century. Outler's leadership, the publication of the definitive new edition of Wesley's writings, The Works of John Wesley (thirty-five volumes when complete), and many books and articles on Wesley's theology have appeared regularly and continue to do so.

Most of the Methodist denominations are members of the World Methodist Council, founded in 1881, with offices at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. The council sponsors a World Methodist Conference every five years, usually outside the United States. The largest Methodist bodies are also active members of other ecumenical organizations, including the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. The African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal, and United Methodist denominations are engaged in a Pan-Methodist Movement, which seeks closer relationships and cooperation in common areas of ministry.

A number of critical tensions and controversies have been evident among Methodists in recent years. One of the more serious problems has been declining membership in the largest Methodist denomination.

United Methodism's falling membership, not unlike the drop in some other American Protestant bodies, has caused alarm. In response, some call for new programs of evangelism, the restructure and streamlining of the denomination to make its ministry more effective, and new programs and forms of worship to attract and involve children, youth, and young adults. Declining membership also puts stress on the sources of funding on which the churches rely to perpetuate their ministries.

The United Methodist Church has been at the forefront of a number of internal theological and structural conflicts. Although the racially divided structure created by the Methodist Church in 1939 was formally eliminated in 1968 in the union with the Evangelical United Brethren, much was still required to develop a racially inclusive church. Therefore it established the Commission on Religion and Race in 1968 to ensure racial inclusiveness. Since 1968 racial/ethnic caucuses have also been important forces in drafting legislation and ensuring representation in United Methodist denominational life.

The status and role of women has been another decisive area in Methodism. Laywomen have always been prominent in the life of Methodist congregations, but their role in leadership has been limited until recently. Beginning with the 1960s, women's role in the larger Methodist denominations has expanded. Women are now eligible for ordination in them, and growing numbers of women are voting members of the boards and committees of local churches, annual conferences, the general conference, and denominational agencies. In 1980 the United Methodist Church elected its first female bishop, Marjorie Matthews (1916–1986), and a significant number of women are currently pastors, superintendents, and bishops in the denomination. One noteworthy controversy related to the place of women in the church is the use of inclusive language, especially for God, in which references to God as masculine are eliminated in favor of gender-neutral language.

Other social issues generate controversy at the denominations' policymaking level, such as abortion, homosexuality, war and peace, economic and business matters, criminal justice including the death penalty, and international affairs.

Source:yearbook of american and canadian churches.
United Methodist10,300,00010,031,0009,230,0008,549,000
African Methodist Episcopal1,166,0001,166,0002,210,0002,100,000
African Methodist Episcopal Zion770,0001,025,0001,134,001,036,000
Christian Methodist Episcopal444,000467,000719,000719,000

See alsoDenomination; Evangelical Christianity; Human Rights; Mainline Protestantism; Publishing, Religious.


Campbell, James T. Songs of Zion: The African MethodistEpiscopal Church in the United States and South Africa. 1995.

Frank, Thomas Edward. Polity, Practice, and the Missionof the United Methodist Church. 1997.

Heitzenrater, Richard P. Wesley and the People CalledMethodists. 1995.

Kirby, James E., Russell E. Richey, and Kenneth E. Rowe. The Methodist. 1998.

McEllhenney, John G. United Methodism in America: ACompact History. 1992.

Charles Yrigoyen, Jr.


views updated Jun 11 2018


METHODISM. In 1744 in England, John Wesley founded the Methodist church as a separate entity. He had initially hoped to reawaken the Church of England to the demands of vital piety. Wesley's theology was a warm-hearted evangelicalism that stressed the experience of Christ within the heart, humanity's capacity to accept Christ's offer of redemption, and the need for a disciplined life. In his later years, Wesley came to believe in the possibility of entire sanctification or holiness (a state of perfection) and taught that it should be the goal of every Christian. This latter doctrine has contributed to many of the divisions within Methodism.

Methodist ideas entered the American colonies informally at first, notably through the efforts of Robert Strawbridge in Maryland and Virginia, Philip Embury and Barbara Heck in New York, and Captain Thomas Webb in Pennsylvania. Their success prompted Wesley to send Richard Broadman and Joseph Pilmoor to America in 1769. Two years later, Wesley sent Francis Asbury, who was to become the great apostle of early Methodism in America. At first, Methodism was an extremely small movement that existed on the fringes of the Anglican church. Members listened to Methodist preachers but still received the sacraments from the Church of England because the Methodists were yet to ordain ministers of their own. Moreover, John Wesley's personal opposition to American independence made his emerging denomination unattractive to many who supported that cause. By the end of the the American Revolution, however, Methodism had become prominent enough to separate itself completely from the Church of England. The Christmas Conference, held in Baltimore in 1784, marks the beginning of the Methodist church in America. At that meeting, sixty preachers joined with Wesley's delegates Richard Vassey, Richard Whitcoat, and Thomas Coke in ordaining Francis Asbury and establishing an order for the church. The conference decided on a form of government by deacons, elders, and superintendents (later bishops); adopted the Book of Discipline, which regulated the life of the church and its members; and elected Coke and Asbury as its first superintendents.

Almost immediately after the Christmas Conference, Methodism entered a period of rapid expansion. The system of circuit riders, which Wesley had experimented with in England, met the need for clergymen in outlying regions and allowed relatively uneducated men to enter the ministry. Wherever the circuit rider could gather a crowd, he would stop, preach a sermon, and organize a Methodist class to continue the work until he was able to return. Religious zeal rather than material reward motivated these circuit riders because remuneration was sparse. Methodist theology was also easy for the average person to understand, and the Methodist emphasis on discipline was invaluable to communities that were far from the ordinary restraints of civilization. The Methodist combination of simplicity, organization, and lay participation not only made it the largest Protestant denomination but also decisively influenced the other frontier churches. Other denominations, even those of Calvinist background, had to accept elements of Methodist theory and practice in order to survive.

The nineteenth century was a period in which the Methodists, like many other American denominations, experienced internal division. Despite Wesley's unequivocable distaste for slavery, the question of slavery became an important issue for Methodist churches in both the North and South. Mistreatment of black ministers and members by white Methodists led some African American Methodists to form their own churches, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816 and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church five years later. In 1843, the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, a small antislavery church, formed. The next year at the general conference of the Methodist Episcopal church, that branch

split into two separate ecclesiastical bodies: the Methodist Episcopal church and the Methodist Episcopal church, South. At issue was whether or not one of the denomination's bishops could serve in that capacity while he owned slaves, and delegates from the slave states founded their own church when the general conference suspended the offending bishop. After the American Civil War, even more black Methodists formed their own denominations. In the same period, the increasingly middle-class nature of the church contributed to disputes over the issue of entire sanctification, and the lower-class membership largely withdrew into the "Holiness" or "Pentecostal" movement. Nevertheless, during the late nineteenth century, the various branches of American Methodism dramatically increased in both members and wealth.

In the twentieth century, Methodism was involved in both the ecumenical movement and the Social Gospel. In 1908, the Federal Council of Churchs adopted the Methodist Social Creed as its own statement of social principles. Methodism has also begun to heal the divisions within its own ranks. In 1939, the Methodist Episcopal church; the Methodist Episcopal church, South; and the Methodist Protestant church merged into the Methodist Church, which resulted in a new denomination of almost eight million people. In 1968, the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist church with approximately eleven million members. The Evangelical United Brethen itself had come out of an earlier merger of two churches, the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical Association, in 1946. These two other denominations had arisen about the same time that Methodism emerged as a separate church and had always shared similar beliefs.

Like many mainstream Protestant churches, United Methodist faced falling membership in the second half of the twentieth century. In 1974, the United Methodist church had almost 10.2 million members, but that number had fallen to only 8.4 million by 1999. Nonetheless, the church remains the third largest Christian denomination in the United States and has substantially expanded its membership in Africa and Asia. Current membership levels for other prominent branches of Methodism, which have all grown over the last fifty years, include the African Methodist Episcopal church, 3.5 million members; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, 1.2 million members; and the Christian Methodist Episcopal church, 800,000 members.


Andrews, Dee. The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760– 1800: The Shaping of an Evangelical Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Campbell, James T. Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Richey, Russell E. Early American Methodism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Schneider, A. Gregory. The Way of the Cross Leads Home: The Domestication of American Methodism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Wigger, John H. Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Gleen T.Miller/a. e.

See alsoAfrican American Religions and Sects ; Camp Meetings ; Dissenters ; Evangelicalism and Revivalism ; Protestantism ; Religion and Religious Affiliation .


views updated Jun 11 2018


Originating in mid-eighteenth-century England under the leadership of John Wesley, Methodism began as part of a wider evangelical revival within the Church of England. Wesley, an ordained Anglican minister, felt that the church had lost its sense of missionary zeal and was failing particularly to appeal to the poor in society. Heavily influenced by the pietism of the Moravians, he set out to reform and revive religious life.


Ignoring the confines of ecclesiastical boundaries, Wesley journeyed extensively throughout Britain, preaching outdoors, forming local societies, and using lay preachers to spread his message of Christian perfection and justification by faith (that the individual, alienated from God by sin, is reconciled not by his merits or good works but through faith in Christ). He particularly emphasized the importance of personal salvation and conversion, and Methodism, with its emotional class meetings, spiritual discipline, and practical support, reached out to many of those neglected by the more established religions. The importance attached to thrift and temperance perhaps appealed particularly to women, while the early use of women preachers introduced a dimension of novelty into popular religious life. But although Wesley's zeal and organizational talents ensured rapid growth, both his methods and his criticism of established religious authorities led to clashes with more conventional clerics. The first annual conference took place in 1744, and with Wesley ordaining his own preachers from 1784, Methodism emerged as a distinct religious body, which broke with the Church of England after his death in 1791.

Methodism in Ireland

Wesley considered Ireland to be an important mission field and visited the country on a total of twenty-one occasions, beginning in August 1747. Although Methodist preachers were often denounced as "black caps," "swaddlers" or "cavalry preachers," growth was rapid in these early years, with outdoor meetings at markets, fairs, and wakes generating intense religious emotion and excitement. Following the United Irish rebellion in 1798, a mission was established, engaging Irish-speaking preachers in an attempt to win over the Catholic peasantry. Demographic data, however, indicate that although early Methodism was strong in southern cities and market towns from the 1780s onwards, the province of Ulster was the most successful recruiting ground. Indeed, it has been suggested that Methodism was both a beneficiary of and a contributor to sectarian tensions in south Ulster during the last two decades of the eighteenth century, with its vehement anti-Catholicism helping to reinforce and revitalize northern Protestantism. Wesley's links with ascendancy figures in Ireland, and Methodist input into the so-called Second Reformation of the 1820s, also reflect the perceived link between social unrest and religious allegiance. The sect was particularly strong within traditional Anglican areas and in the "linen triangle" of south Ulster, and, by 1815, 68 percent of Irish Methodists lived north of a line drawn from Sligo to Dundalk.

Many divisions followed Wesley's death. In Ireland the Wesleyan Methodists became an autonomous Church, while the Primitive Methodists retained their Anglican links. These groups were united in 1878 following the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. Membership numbers reached their peak in 1844. Thereafter, with increased financial and administrative responsibilities, Methodism became progressively institutionalized, moving away from outside preaching and its more spontaneous activities.

Rather than its numerical strength, however, Methodism's most important contribution to Irish society was the stimulus that it gave to a much wider evangelicalism. Many Methodist characteristics, particularly itinerant preaching, and the establishment of voluntary religious societies were taken up by individuals, missionary organizations, and eventually the main churches themselves. The 1859 revival, known as the Great Awakening, provides the best evidence of the extent to which evangelicalism had infiltrated mainstream religions by the middle of the nineteenth century.

Methodism in the Early Twenty-First Century

Today's Methodist ministers undergo a period of probation: five years for university graduates, six for others, and spend a maximum of eight years on one circuit (group of local societies of churches). Early female preaching had been brought to an end in 1804, but in line with developments elsewhere, the first Methodist woman to be ordained entered the ministry in 1977. There are currently seventy-six circuits in Irish Methodism, administered by quarterly meetings of ministers and officials. Circuits are grouped into districts, which hold a synod twice yearly. The annual conference remains the governing body and is made up of both ministerial and lay representatives who have equal voting rights. Ministerial sessions deal with the admission, probation, discipline, appointment, expulsion, and retirement of ministers, as well as with appeals and ministerial and pastoral concerns. The representative session deals with matters of government and management. The president of the Methodist Church in Ireland is elected annually from among the Irish ministers.

Concerned to spread the gospel message, the Methodist church has long been involved with overseas missions and continues to send both lay and clerical missionaries to all parts of the world. In contrast to the situation in late-eighteenth-century Ireland, it also enjoys harmonious relationships with other religious denominations, and participates in joint prayer and study groups with the Catholic Church.

SEE ALSO Evangelicalism and Revivals; Religion: Since 1690; Second Reformation from 1822 to 1869; Temperance Movements


Cole, Richard Lee. A History of Methodism in Ireland, 1860–1960. 1960.

Cooney, Dudley. The Methodist in Ireland: A Short History. 2001.

Crookshank, Charles Henry. History of Methodism in Ireland. 3 vols. 1885–1888.

Hempton, David. Methodism and Politics in British Society, 1750–1850. 1984.

Hempton, David, and Myrtle Hill. Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster Society, 1740–1890. 1992.

Myrtle Hill


views updated Jun 27 2018

methodism began as a religious revival in the 18th cent. and grew to become the largest of the nonconformist churches. Under the leadership of John Wesley, societies for cultivating religious fellowship were set up, intended originally as auxiliary to the established church, but soon forced into independence by the hostility of the clergy. The movement grew rapidly from the 1740s and developed distinctive institutions, notably the weekly class meeting of 10–12 members and an itinerant body of lay preachers, who visited the societies, preaching in the homes of members and in the open air. At Wesley's death in 1791, there were 72,000 members of methodist societies and perhaps nearly half a million adherents. By 1850 membership was about half a million and an estimated 2 million persons (one-tenth of the total population) were under direct methodist influence. In Yorkshire one-sixth and in Cornwall one-third of the total population attended methodist services in 1851. During Wesley's lifetime there was no open breach with the Church of England, but after his death the methodists became a separate denomination with their own chapels. Schismatic tendencies led to the establishment of a number of different methodist churches (‘connexions’). Later in the 19th cent. a process of reunion began and was completed in 1932.

Theologically, methodism differed little from the evangelical wing of the Church of England, stressing personal conversion and salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ. But socially methodism was a transforming force. Most of the 18th-cent. ‘people called methodists’ were of humble origin without advantages of education, wealth, or social position. However, their puritan virtues brought them worldly prosperity and, by the 1830s and 1840s, the big Wesleyan chapels in northern towns were dominated by wealthy mill-owners and businessmen. Official methodism in the 19th cent. was middle class and socially conservative. Yet underneath there was a more liberal and democratic spirit. Methodism in the 18th cent. was a popular movement, and most of the schisms which rent the central Wesleyan body until 1849 were attempts in one form or another to reassert this basic characteristic. The breakaway churches (such as the methodist New Connexion, primitive methodists, Bible Christians, protestant methodists, Barkerites, Wesleyan reformers) were characterized by differences of organization and personalities, not doctrine. Methodism, unlike the Church of England, was essentially a layman's religion. In addition to the full-time ministers (who had the superintendence of a number of chapels in a circuit), there was an army of active lay helpers, numbering in 1850 some 20,000 local preachers, over 50,000 class leaders, together with trustees, stewards, prayer leaders, and Sunday school teachers. Around the chapel there developed an intense world of personal and social relationships, which lasted into modern times. Friendship, marriage partners, help and support in time of need, a sense of security and personal worth were assured to methodists, who were exhorted to ‘watch over one another in love’.

Methodism made an important contribution to the leadership of working-class movements like trade unionism and chartism by providing opportunities for self-education and training in leadership and organization in running the chapel. The general culture of methodism was toward respectability through living a temperate, thrifty, hard-working life; and early government fears that methodism was potentially disruptive gave place to the realization that it was more a force for stability than conflict in a working-class community. Indeed, historians have argued (somewhat exaggeratedly) that it was methodism that prevented revolution in Britain during the revolutionary decades 1789–1848.

Methodism has been criticized as providing a useful work-discipline for Victorian employers, and also as a religion which encouraged pessimism, repression, guilt feelings, and psychic inhibitions. Certainly some of its manifestations were crude, emotional, narrow, and self-righteous. But to thousands of ordinary men and women, methodism offered a view of human nature which harmonized with and interpreted their own experiences. In a world full of disease, early death, injustice, and all kinds of insecurity, methodism brought joy and hope. When a miner or farm labourer or domestic servant ‘found Jesus’, their life was transformed. Methodism gave them a cheerful conviction that in God's providence there was a place for everyone, however humble.

John F. C. Harrison


views updated May 23 2018

Methodism. A Christian denomination, itself made up of several parts, deriving from the preaching and ministry of John and Charles Wesley, and initially of George Whitefield. The term ‘methodist’ was in origin used derisively by opponents of the Holy Club at Oxford, but Wesley used it from 1729 to mean the methodical pursuit of biblical holiness. The rapid success of Methodism, reaching places and people that the established Church did not, soon set up a tension, since the class system seemed to be setting up a ‘parish’ within a parish, especially when those converted wanted no connection with the parish church. In any case, Wesley was compelled by the shortage of ordained preachers in America (after the war of Independence) to ordain his fellow presbyter, Thomas Coke (1747–1814), as Superintendent over ‘the brethren in America’, who became the Methodist Episcopal Church; the title of Superintendent became that of Bishop in 1787. Many divisions occurred in the 19th cent.: the Methodist Episcopal Church divided in 1844 over the issue of slavery; before that, two black Churches had been established, the African Methodist Episcopal (1816) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (1820), which now number over 4 million. Among many groups in Britain, the Wesleyan, Primitive, and United Methodists came together in the Methodist Church of Great Britain and Ireland, in 1932. In the USA, a similar process brought into being the United Methodist Church in 1968. The World Methodist Council was set up in 1951, not only to draw Methodists together, but to seek transconfessional actions and unions. Methodists number about 60 million in 100 countries.


views updated May 18 2018

Meth·od·ist / ˈme[unvoicedth]ədəst/ • n. a member of a Christian Protestant denomination originating in the 18th-century evangelistic movement of Charles and John Wesley and George Whitefield.• adj. of or relating to Methodists or Methodism: a Methodist chapel.DERIVATIVES: Meth·od·ism / -ˌdizəm/ n.Meth·od·is·tic / ˌme[unvoicedth]əˈdistik/ adj.Meth·od·is·ti·cal / ˌme[unvoicedth]əˈdistikəl/ adj.


views updated May 23 2018

Methodism Worldwide religious movement that began in England in the 18th century. It was originally an evangelical movement within the Church of England, started in 1729 by John and Charles Wesley. John Wesley stayed within the Anglican Church until his death in 1791. In 1795, the Wesleyan Methodists became a separate body and divided into other sects, such as the Methodist New Connection (1797) and the Primitive Methodists (1811). The United Methodist Church reunited the New Connection with the smaller Bible Christians and the United Methodist Free Churches in 1907; in 1932 these united with the Wesleyans and Primitives. In the USA, the Methodist Episcopal Church founded in 1784. Today, there are more than 50 million Methodists worldwide.


views updated May 23 2018

Methodist a member of a Christian Protestant denomination originating in the 18th-century evangelistic movement of Charles and John Wesley and George Whitefield. The Methodist Church grew out of a religious society established within the Church of England, from which it formally separated in 1791. It is particularly strong in the US and now constitutes one of the largest Protestant denominations worldwide, with more than 30 million members. Methodism has a strong tradition of missionary work and concern with social welfare, and emphasizes the believer's personal relationship with God.

The original reason for the name is not clear, but it probably reflects the use of Methodist to mean someone who advocates a particular method or system of theological belief, especially with reference to doctrinal disputes about grace and justification.