How Did Methodism Begin?
Methodism began with the meetings at Oxford University of four young men who spent several evenings a week reading and discussing the Bible. One of the young men was John Wesley (1703-81) who became the leader of a great religious movement called the Methodists. The name was given to the group originally as a kind of joke, because of the regular and methodical way in which they led their lives.
George Whitefield and John Wesley’s brother Charles Wesley were also significant early leaders in the movement. It originated as a revival within the 18th century Church of England and became a separate denomination after Wesley’s death.
The movement spread throughout the British Empire, the United States, and beyond because of vigorous missionary work, today claiming approximately 80 million adherents worldwide. At first there was no attempt to break away from the established Church, for the Methodists wished only to help people to take their religion more seriously. They preached in fields, market places and halls, with the preachers moving from group to group and attended the Church of England services on Sundays.
However, their eagerness and enthusiasm made many people more interested in the Methodist Society than in the established Church. In 1784 John Wesley wanted to send a group of preachers to America, but thought they should be ordained as priests before they went. The Bishop of London refused to ordain them. Wesley realized that some means must be found of giving Methodist leaders power to administer the sacrament of Communion.
He therefore assumed the powers of a bishop, though he was only a priest, and ordained the preachers himself. The Church of England would not recognize Wesley’s ministers, so reluctantly he allowed his movement to grow into a completely separate church. Wesley’s theology focused on sanctification and the effect of faith on the character of a Christian.
Distinguishing Methodist doctrines include an assurance of salvation, imparted righteousness, and the possibility of perfection in love, the works of piety, and the primacy of Scripture. Most Methodists teach that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for all of humanity and that salvation is available for all; in theology, this view is known as Arminianism. This teaching rejects the Calvinist position that God has pre-ordained the salvation of a select group of people.
However, Whitefield and several others were considered Calvinistic Methodists and held to the Calvinistic position. Methodism emphasises charity and support for the sick, the poor, and the afflicted through the works of mercy. These ideals are put into practice by the establishment of hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, and schools to follow Christ’s command to spreadthe gospel and serve all people.
The movement has a wide variety of forms of worship, ranging from high church to Low Church in liturgical usage. Denominations that descend from the British Methodist tradition are generally less ritualistic, while American Methodism is more so, the United Methodist Church in particular. Methodism is known for its rich musical tradition, and Charles Wesley was instrumental in writing much of the hymnody of the Methodist Church.
Early Methodists were drawn from all levels of society, including the aristocracy, but the Methodist preachers took the message to labourers and criminals who tended to be left outside organised religion at that time. In Britain, the Methodist Church had a major effect in the early decades of the developing working class (1760–1820). In the United States, it became the religion of many slaves who later formed “black churches” in the Methodist tradition.