During their days at Oxford, John Wesley (1703-1791) and his brother, Charles (1707-1788) connected with a small group of men who started a disciplined practice of prayer, Bible study, fasting and exercising kind acts toward the poor. This expression of faith was a response to William Law´s work A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Their methodical, regimented approach to the spiritual life resulted in their being referred to as "the Holy Club" and "Methodists"
Being ordained by the Church of England in 1728 John ministered beside his father for a couple of years until his father´s death. He then returned to Oxford to teach. A few years later, he and Charles traveled to the Colonies, arriving in Georgia in 1735. his two years in Georgia were generally unsuccessful.
A brief but life-changing encounter with a group of Moravians occurred onboard the boat enroute to America when John was taught the simple gospel. He was so moved by their piousness that upon arriving back in England, he visited a Moravian worship service on Aldersgate Street. There, after hearing Luther´s "Preface to the Epistle of the Romans," he felt his heart "strangely warmed". It was then he understood the Scriptural teaching of "justification by faith" that ignited the Reformation.
This experience so energized his life he immediately began the fervent preaching that typified Methodism in England and later in America. Soon Wesley and his friend George Whitfield form their Oxford days were preaching in public because their former Church the Church of England had denied them pulpits to proclaim their message. Due to the open air nature of their ministry they attracted many from the working class who would not have felt welcome in the staid English Church.
Their appeal to repentance, regeneration, justification, holiness and sanctification caused a spiritual upheaval among all levels of English society but especially among the lower classes. Charles roused fervor with his many hymns that touched both the head and the heart and still are some of the most beloved words and music in hymnody. In 1740, in London the Methodist had their First self-sustaining ministry.
Part of their continued effectiveness was their organization ability. Due to few ministers they developed a "circuit system" whereby clergy would ride from location to location and preach and minister. In America this put incredible strain on Methodist ministers simply because of the phenomenal size of the new country. Yet, the Circuit Riders proved to be equally effective in America.
It was then he understood the Scriptural teaching of "justification by faith" that ignited the Reformation.
Despite their attempt to continue in the Anglican Church it was soon evident they would be forced to begin a separate work. In 1784 legal status was granted to the annual Methodist conference when Wesley completed the Deed of Declaration which laid out guidelines for personal conduct as Methodists.
At the same time, in America, Wesley had sent leaders to minister among the growing Methodist population, which had become especially effective in the American South. Among the First were Francis Asbury and Thomas Rankin. It was Rankin who called the First Methodist conference in America to meet in Philadelphia in 1773. Despite Wesley´s pro-British beliefs during the Revolutionary War Methodists were among the few who grew as a group.
Eventually, Asbury and Thomas Coke, ordained by Wesley became what was later known as Bishops. Their tireless work made in possible for Methodism to expand even more in the camp meetings being held throughout the growing American westward expansion. Yet, the continued the circuit riding ministry to isolated homes, churches and schoolhouses in the wilderness. Riding on horseback for days at a time they would often fall asleep. John Wesley could occasionally be found asleep on his horse with sermon notes he had pinned to his clothes for easy recall.
With growth comes inevitable change, however, and Methodism began to split into smaller groups in the early 1800s. As in nearly every other Christian organization of its time, the division of the nation especially impacted the Methodists over slavery. Northern Methodists condemned Southern Methodist leaders who owned slaves and attempted to force their removal. Those in the South split away and formed groups that included the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church of the South and the Methodist Protestant Church. It wasn´t until nearly a hundred years later, in 1939, that the diverse groups were reunited with their Northern brethren.
During this same time, another group who referred to themselves as Brethren was growing under the leadership of Jacob Albright (1759-1808). Doctrinally, very similar to Methodism, they eventually united in 1968 to become the United Methodist Church. Currently, there are commissions meeting to discuss reuniting other Methodist groups including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church.
Methodist Churches are generally non-liturgical but many do repeat the Apostle´s Creed during Worship. Methodist, similar to the Church of England, are Arminian theologically. Arminius taught that each individual is responsible for his or her relationship before God with freedom of will to decide. Thus, unlike Calvin who taught irresistible grace (God´s forgiveness could not be resisted) and Christ´s atonement was for the elect only, Methodism teaches that Christ´s death was for all mankind, not just the elect.
Methodists practice baptism of both adults and infants, usually by sprinkling, and Communion as symbols of faith. They also believe in traditional Christian doctrines including the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), the sinfulness of man, justification by faith in Christ alone, sanctification and holiness as reflected in daily living.
Local churches are called "charges" where members decide on issues that impact them directly while the Bishop at the Annual Conference appoints ministers and acts on more general questions. The General Conference is the Annual Meeting is where national and international issues are discussed. United Methodists still practice "circuit ministry" where pastors are reassigned on a rotating basis to other churches based on certain criteria.
Among those who practice Methodism in America are the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Congregational Methodist Church, Evangelical Church of North America, Evangelical Congregational Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, Free Methodist Church of North America, Primitive Methodist Church, U.S.A., Southern Methodist Church and the largest group with over 30,000 churches is the United Methodist Church.
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