A Brief History of John Wesley and Methodism

 

The Rev. John Wesley was born June 17, 1703, the 15th of 19 children of the Rev. Samuel and Susanna Wesley.  Samuel was controversial because of his political leanings.  Locals mocked his children, burned the family crops, and damaged the rectory of the Epworth Anglican Parish in Lincolnshire, England.

 

John Wesley graduated from Oxford University and became a priest in the Church of England in 1728.  Beginning in 1729, he participated in the Holy Club, a religious study group organized by his brother Charles (1707-1788).  Critics ridiculed the “Methodists” for their methodical study and devotion.  Bound by covenant, they worshipped, prayed and studied-and visited prisoners and cared for the poor, orphans and the sick, emphasizing both personal and social holiness.

 

A turning point in Wesley’s life followed a two-year missionary trip (1735-1737) to Savannah, GA.  On May 24, 1738, Wesley, then 34, attended a Moravian service at Aldersgate Street in London.  Listening to the reading of Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, he heard an explanation of faith and the doctrine of justification by faith.  “I felt my heart strangely warmed,” he wrote. “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins.”  In 1739, Wesley accepted an invitation from his friend George Whitefield to preach in the open air to miners near Bristol.  He said he had “till very lately” considered preaching outside a pulpit as “almost a sin.”  The miners’ response led him to preach outside the church often to working-class people who found little welcome in established churches.  Other Anglican clergy refused to follow his example, so Wesley allowed lay people to preach and teach.

Some scholars credit the Wesleyan movement with preventing civil war in England, especially as it crossed class lines and allowed women to share in leadership.

 

In 1743, as the number of societies grew, Wesley prepared “General Rules” for the societies. They became the nucleus of the Methodist Discipline.  The breach between Wesley and the Church of England gradually widened, but he never considered his societies to be outside the Anglican Church.  After Anglican clergy fled America during the Revolution, Wesley was faced with caring for some 15,000 followers there.  The Bishop of London refused to ordain any clergy for him, so Wesley ordained ministers on his own authority, an important step in the creation of the Methodist Church in America.

 

Wesley is believed to have traveled more than 250,000 miles and to have preached more than 40,000 times.  He died in 1791.   He affirmed the Trinity, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the “sufficiency of Scriptures for salvation.”  He did not believe in Purgatory and opposed the practice of clergy speaking in Latin or any language not understood by parishioners.  He accepted only baptism and communion as sacraments.  He used reason, tradition and experience as tools to derive the truth contained in Scripture.  He considered the doctrines of justification and new birth to be fundamental.  “In the moment we are justified by the grace of God, through the redemption that is in Jesus, we are as “born of the Spirit,’” Wesley wrote.

 

The Methodist Episcopal Church in the US was organized in Baltimore on Dec 24, 1784.  Brought to America in 1766 by English and Irish immigrants, the colonial Methodists organized themselves at the famous Christmas Conference in 1784, and held their first General Conference in 1792.  Leaders of the movement included Bishop Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke. 

 

The Evangelical United Brethren Church was formed in 1946 by the union of the Evangelical Church and the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.  Both denominations originated in the early 1800s among German speaking immigrants.  The Evangelical Church was begun by the evangelical efforts of Jacob Albright, a Lutheran convert to Methodism.  The United Brethren in Christ came into being as a result of the preaching of Philip Otterbein, a German Reformed pastor, and Martin Boehm, a Mennonite bishop.  These two denominations, just as their Methodist counterparts, had an Episcopal form of church government, and held similar theological beliefs emphasizing prayer, a life of devotion to Christ, and the responsibility to the individual.  These churches grew and expanded rapidly during the 1800s and into the 1900s, spreading across the continent as the nation expanded westward.  Unfortunately, there were several divisions over the issues of slavery and church governance.  Methodists reunited in 1939 as The Methodist Church.  Thus, the 1968 union of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches was in fact a consolidation of groups which traced their heritage from the protestant evangelical revivals which swept the nation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

These churches also incorporated programs of social outreach in their ministries, encouraging and promoting education, missions, hospitals, youth groups, women’s work, institutional chaplaincies, and other benevolent work.  The circuit riding itinerant preacher traveling on horseback to minister to settlers on the frontier is a part of the American saga.  From these early beginnings has grown an American church of 8.7 million members.  Go to this page for a history of the Trenton United Methodist Church

 

3-15-09

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