Methodism, Origins and History

The Dictionary tells us a Methodist is :- "A member of an evangelical Protestant church founded on the principles of John and Charles Wesley in England in the early 18th century and characterised by active concern with social welfare and public morals", however this does not even begin to tell us the story of how and where the Methodist Church came into being.

John Wesley
John Wesley (1703-1791)
Samuel Wesley, the Rector of Epworth in Lincolnshire and his wife Susanna had two sons, John born in 1703 and Charles born in 1707. The puritan background of Samuel and Susanna was to have a great influence upon John and Charles' lives.
The two brothers would both go to study at Christ Church at the University of Oxford. John Wesley went on to become a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford.
In a move unusual at the time and despite the ridicule that they received a group of students would meet on a regular basis to study the bible, pray, receive communion and undertake charitable works. The group came to be known as 'The Holy Club'. George Whitefield was one of the members of this 'Holy Club'. He would later become one of, if not the greatest preachers of the time. John, Charles and George along with some of the other leaders of the 'Holy Club' were ordained Church of England clergy. The 'Holy Club' or 'Methodists', as they were also known, were a short lived group in Oxford, however, the pattern for Evangelical revival had been set.

Charles Wesley
Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
The Wesley's were invited to go to the American Colonies to serve as Chaplains and this they did in 1735. However, the venture was an unsuccessful one and they both returned 3 years later in 1738. It would be over 50 years later before their followers returned to America to introduce the 'New World' to Methodism.
Having been influenced by the Moravians the Wesley's joined a 'Religious Society' in London. In May 1738 they both underwent a profound spiritual experience. John Wesley famously described this in his journal,
"In the evening I went unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther and preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. 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."

George Whitfield
George Whitfield (1714-1770)
"Three days earlier and following his own 'conversion' Charles had written a hymn
"Where shall my wondering soul begin
How shall I all to heaven aspire?"
Over the next fifty years Charles Wesley continued to write such hymns. It is thought that he wrote some 6000 hymns. Whilst Charles wrote hymns John became the organising genius who turned a spontaneous movement into the structured body that became the origin of today's world wide Methodist Church.
In 1739 John Wesley was invited by George Whitefield to preach to crowds of working classes in the open air in Bristol. As the working classes were often excluded from the churches 'field preaching' would become a key feature of the Revival. Wesley recorded addressing gatherings of many thousands. His published Sermons became and remain the doctrinal standard of the Methodist Church.

John Wesley Preaching
John Wesley Preaching
Wesley formed converts into societies, originally modelled upon the 'Religious Societies' and his Oxford group. They were subdivided into classes which met weekly. John Wesley travelled the country every year to visit, encourage and admonish the societies as well as preach. He insisted that the Methodists regularly attend their local parish church as well as the Methodist meetings. For the Wesleys, 'works' as well as faith were essential to the whole Christian living, and caring for the poor, for prisoners, for widows and orphans mattered a great deal. Methodists were not only interested in welfare, they were concerned to remedy social injustice, and John Wesley's last known letter urged the abolition of "that execrable villainy"; black slavery. The Wesleys were an influence in prison reform and they earned a reputation as pioneers in education.
Among Charles' hymns, still sung today, are numbered some of the finest ever written and through them the Methodists received and expressed their Christian experience and learned their beliefs. After his marriage in 1749, Charles remained mostly in London and Bristol.

Wesley Chapel
Wesley Chapel
The assurance of the free grace of God was early experience of the early Methodists, which the Wesleys set in the Christian tradition of 'arminianism', emphasising within the human freewill the need for holy living as an outcome of the faith leading towards 'Christian perfection'. The Calvinists (such as Whitefield) by contrast stressed the absolute sovereignty of God and believed in predestination.
Although Wesley declared "I live and die a member of the Church of England", the strength and impact of the movement, especially after John Wesley's clandestine ordinations in 1784, made a separate Methodist body inevitable.
In the 19th century Methodism in Britain flowed in several channels, including Primitive Methodism which began with 'camp meetings' in 1807 and was organised into a separate body in 1811. Over the years the Methodists grew into an influential and respectable section of society. They were characterised by the 'Nonconformist Conscience' and also the 'Temperance Movement' and many members with poor origins became prosperous. The Methodist message was spread worldwide by the Missionary Movement.

The Holy Club
The Holy Club
Engraving by S. Bellin after painting by Marshall Claxton, printed in London by Thomas Agnew & Sons, 1861
As the Methodist societies grew at a fast rate, John Wesley held what became an annual conference of Methodist preachers as a means of keeping in touch and organising the societies. He made a provision in 1784 for the continuance as a corporate body after his death of the 'Yearly Conference of the people called Methodists'. 100 people were nominated by Wesley and declared them to be members and laid down the method by which their successors to be appointed. The leadership passed to the Methodist Conference after Wesley's death and instead of one person exercising leadership for a long period of time. The President of the Conference became the representative of the Conference and Leading Minister of the church for the year of the office. There were many factions in the church in the 19th century. Gradually there were re-united, with the last union being in 1932.
The Methodist Church has a Connexional structure rather than a congregational one. This is where the whole church acts and decides together. It is where a local church is never independent of the rest of the Connexion. Everyone who becomes a member through confirmation is a member of the Methodist Church as a whole, not just their local church.

The Methodist Church is part of the whole Church of Christ. It claims no superiority of inferiority to any other part of the Church. All those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and accept the obligations to serve him in the life of the Church and the world are welcome as full members of the Methodist Church.

The information on this page was adapted from "A brief history of Methodism" on the Methodist Church website