Methodism, the doctrines, polity, and worship of those Protestant Christian denominations that have developed from the movement started in England by the teaching of John Wesley.
John Wesley, his brother Charles, and George Whitefield, belonged to a group at Oxford that in 1729 began meeting for religious exercises. From their resolution to conduct their lives and religious study by
"rule and method,"
they were given the name Methodists. The beginning of Methodism as a popular movement dates from 1738, when both of the Wesley brothers, influenced by contact with the Moravians, undertook evangelistic preaching. From the Moravians, too, they took the emphasis on conversion and holiness that are still central to Methodism.
The leaders of the movement were ordained ministers of the Church of England; neither of the two Wesleys ever disclaimed the holy orders of that church, but they were barred from speaking in most of its pulpits, in disapproval of their evangelistic methods. They preached in barns, houses, open fields, wherever an audience could be induced to assemble. Societies were formed,
of converts were held, and lay preachers were trained and given charge of several congregations. The moving of preachers from one appointment to another was the beginning of the system of itinerancy.
Theologically, John Wesley was essentially a follower of Jacobus Arminius. Whitefield, unable to accept the Arminian doctrines of Wesley, broke with him in 1741 and became the leader of the Calvinistic Methodists. In 1744 the first annual conference was held and the Articles of Religion were drawn up. They were based to a considerable extent upon the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, but great emphasis was laid upon repentance, faith, sanctification, and the privilege of full, free salvation for everyone. By 1784 the spread of the movement, especially in America, made an organization separate from the Church of England necessary. In 1784, Wesley issued a Deed of Declaration giving legal status to the yearly Methodist conference. That same year he ordained Thomas Coke superintendent of the societies in America.
Branches of the Methodist Church
In 1791, after Wesley's death, the English Methodists were formally separated from the Church of England and established the Wesleyan Methodist Church. In both England and America various groups seceded from the main branch to form independent Methodist churches. Some of them later reunited. In Great Britain the Methodist New Connection was the first group to form a separate branch. Then followed the Primitive Methodists, the Bible Christians, the Protestant Methodists, the Wesleyan Methodist Association, and the Wesleyan Reformers.
In 1857 the last three formed a union as the United Methodist Free Churches; in 1907 these were incorporated with the Methodist New Connection and the Bible Christians as the United Methodist Church. Finally, in 1932, the Wesleyan Methodists, the Primitive Methodists, and the United Methodists merged to become the Methodist Church in Great Britain. By 1995 there were about 388,000 Methodists in Great Britain. There are Methodist churches in most parts of the world, with United churches in South India, Canada, and Zambia. There are over 26 million Methodists worldwide.
Methodism in America
John and Charles Wesley visited America in 1735 as spiritual advisers to James Oglethorpe's colony in Georgia, but the actual beginnings of Methodism in America came after 1766, when Philip Embury, a Wesleyan convert from Ireland, began to preach in New York, and Robert Strawbridge started a congregation in Maryland. In 1769, Wesley sent several itinerant preachers into the new field; Francis Asbury arrived in 1771. The first annual conference in America was held in 1773. In 1784, Thomas Coke, acting on authority from Wesley, proceeded with the organization of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America. At a Christmas conference in Baltimore, Asbury and Coke were elected superintendents (and shortly thereafter styled bishops), and the order of worship and articles of religion prepared by Wesley were adopted.
The first General Conference of the new church was held in 1792. In 1830, after controversy over lay representation in conferences and other questions, the Methodist Protestant Church was formed, without bishops or presiding elders. The Wesleyan Methodist Connection was organized (1843) at Utica, N.Y., in a strong antislavery protest. The independent Methodist Episcopal Church, South, began in 1845 over the issue of slavery. In 1939 a great reunion was realized—the Methodist Episcopal Church (North), the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church united as the Methodist Church. In 1968 the Methodist Church joined with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form the United Methodist Church, now the largest body of Methodists in the world with about 8.5 million members (1997).
Among the 22 other branches of Methodism in the United States are the Primitive Methodist Church (est. c.1830), the Congregational Methodist Church (est. 1852), and the Free Methodist Church of North America (est. 1860). Black Methodist denominations, founded by pastors such as Richard Allen, include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (formerly the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church).
See R. Davies and G. Rupp, ed., A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain (3 vol. to date, 1965–84); F. Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England (1970); N. B. Harmon, ed., The Encyclopedia of World Methodism (2 vol. 1974); F. A. Norwood, The Story of American Methodism (1974); T. A. Langford, Weslyan Theology (1984).