What Makes a Methodist?

By Whalen, William J. | U.S. Catholic, May 1995 | Go to article overview

What Makes a Methodist?


Whalen, William J., U.S. Catholic


With their talk of social reform and personal discipline, John Wesley and his followers touched a chord in people's hearts that turned backwoods revival camps into one of the largest mainstream churches in America.

When John Wesley launched a revival of early 18th-century Anglicanism, he began a religious movement that at one time reported the largest membership of any American church.

Today the World Methodist Council represents 29 million members of some 60 churches that trace their heritage to Wesley and his brother, Charles. Of these, more than half live in North America, which means that Methodists are scattered rather thinly across the rest of the globe.

From a constituency of a few thousand at the time of the American Revolution (which Wesley himself opposed), the Methodists grew to make up the largest church in the U.S. by 1850. Later, they were overtaken by the Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists, but the Methodist family of churches - the United Methodist Church (UMC), three predominantly black Methodist bodies, and several smaller churches - still ranks third in number.

Often characterized as the quintessential American denomination, the United Methodist Church has been accommodating in theology, optimistic, ecumenical, activist, and superbly organized. Over the years Methodism has moved from a church of the poor to what one Methodist bishop called "the chaplain to the middle class."

Methodists outnumber any other group of Protestants in Congress, but only three Methodists have occupied the White House: Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William McKinley. Such household names as Walter Mondale, George McGovern, David Frost, and Fran Tarkenton grew up in Methodist parsonages. Today Methodist ranks include Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, singer Dionne Warwick, Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, and football coach Tom Landry. When Oral Roberts left the Pentecostal Church in which he had been ordained, he joined the United Methodist Church.

Like most other mainstream Protestant churches, the UMC has seen a substantial decline in membership in recent decades. When the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968, the combined membership exceeded 11 million. Since then, the population of the U.S. has grown about 30 percent, but the UMC has fallen to 8,725,000 communicants. These United Methodists attend 37,000 local churches whose average size is about 235 souls. (In contrast the average Catholic parish registers 2,900.) Any village or town large enough to support a post office probably also supports a Methodist church. About 7,000 of these UMC congregations report fewer than 50 members while some city and suburban churches register thousands.

Unlike earlier reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, Wesley sought to arouse the lethargic Church of England rather than to challenge medieval Catholicism. He lived and died a priest of the Church of England and never himself belonged to a Methodist church.

Several Catholic scholars have observed that in different circumstances Wesley would probably have become the founder of a religious order, such as the Franciscans or Dominicans.

This remarkable Christian was born to the rector of a small Anglican parish and his wife in 1703. Wesley had 18 siblings. He left for prep school at Charterhouse in London in 1714 and entered Oxford University six years later. He studied for the ministry and was ordained an Anglican priest in 1728. For a time he served as curate in his father's parish and then returned to Oxford.

There Wesley discovered that his brother Charles and some companions had formed a small club aimed at fostering the spiritual growth of its members. Wesley soon assumed leadership of the group. These young men were expected to study the Bible every day, pray regularly, fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, and engage in evangelism and charitable works. …

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