Methodist originated as a pejorative designation by critics of the members of the Holy Club in Oxford, but John Wesley (1703‑91), its Anglican leader from 1729 and himself converted to serious Christian living in 1725, used it to mean a methodical pursuit of biblical holiness.*
Methodism, one of Protestantism’s most influential evangelistic renewal movements, has become a worldwide communion. The current (2000) edition of the World Methodist Council Handbook states that worldwide Methodist membership now numbers about 38 million persons, whilst the Methodist world community, comprising both members and all those who come within the sphere of influence of the Methodist churches, now stands at over 75 million. Although the national churches have their own statements on doctrinal standards and church order, Methodism possesses a real unity* derived from the spiritual heritage which its principal founder, John Wesley, by his missionary preaching, and his brother Charles (1707‑88), by his colossal output of hymns and religious poetry, bequeathed to it.
John Wesley’s missionary experience in the English colony of Georgia (1736‑37) was in many ways a failure, but it did provide him with the setting for shaping his concept of the small class under an appointed leader as the basic grouping for Bible‑centred Christian nurture, vital to the harmonious growth of the Methodist movement. With an increase of dependable collaborators, Wesley later constituted the itinerant pastorate in correlation with local Methodist societies, each composed of several classes. The itinerant pastorate bound these societies together in a form of living communion which avoided both the danger of fragmentation inherent in congregational church polity and the tendency towards static centralization in the Presbyterian churches (see church order ).
Returning to England from Georgia, Wesley experienced a second conversion on 24 May 1738. He received the grace to foresake reliance on his own efforts to attain perfection and to surrender himself totally, in loving trust, to the work of God’s grace within him. Wesley thus became the instrument of divine power, which alone accounts for the stupendous missionary and pastoral achievement of his remaining 50 years as undisputed head of Methodism.
The priority Wesley resolutely gave, in the face of bitter opposition from the Church of England’s establishment, to the materially and socially underprivileged coincided with the beginning of the industrial revolution and the springing up, in England, of huge industrial cities (still major centres of Methodism). A century before Karl Marx became a public name, Wesley had brought the gospel and concomitant social and cultural betterment to the first working class in the world.
Against Anglican‑Calvinists who believed in predestination, Wesley taught that the redemptive love of Jesus excludes no person; God calls each freely to respond to that love. Against Protestants who held a narrow understanding of faith alone, he insisted that free response entails not only an initial conversion but also continued cooperation with the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies and leads one ultimately to the perfection of love the ability to triumph over sinful desires and selfish motives (see sanctification ). Moreover, the trusting, loving self‑surrender to the Father brought about by God’s Spirit gives one the assurance that the blood of Jesus is victorious over personal sin (Rom. 8:14‑16,38‑39). The only requirement for admission into a Methodist class (10‑12 members) was a desire to seek inner holiness and to live a life of prayer and discipline in the fellowship of the Spirit. In thus focusing all his teaching on the doctrine of grace, Wesley made Anglican credal orthodoxy incandescent with the love of Jesus in the Spirit. Herein lies the heart of the Wesleyan spiritual heritage.
By inheriting, too, the Wesleyan insistence on the unity between worship and service, Methodism improved social relationships wherever it took root. The Wesleyan vision of Christian personhood has enabled modern Methodist missionaries in recent contact with Latin American liberation theology* to embrace its rightful aspirations, while avoiding theological deviations.
Wesley never intended his renewal movement to separate from the Church of England, yet a separation was inevitable. Entering the movement were large numbers of unchurched people who had no contact with the state-established church and wanted none. For such people Wesley created ministerial structures for their pastoral care, and they could not but exercise an authority parallel with legitimate Anglican authority, rather than be subordinate to it.
Since the American Methodists had been deprived of episcopally ordained preachers by the war of independence (1775-83), pastoral necessity drove Wesley to ordain his fellow presbyter Thomas Coke (1747‑1814) as superintendent over the brethren in America. Wesley sent Coke to the new United States in 1784 with the authority to establish an independent church, which took the name Methodist Episcopal Church. The title superintendent was changed to bishop in 1787.
Wesley’s Anglican loyalties made him more circumspect in his dealings with British Methodists. No formal acts of separation from the Church of England were made during his life-time, but the company of 100 preachers, whom he had made his legal successors by a deed of declaration (1784), inevitably became the governing body of an autonomous church after his death seven years later. British Methodism remains non‑episcopal in church order.
The seeds of future dissension were already sown. The plan of pacification (1795) reversed Wesley’s conscientious refusal to allow itinerant preachers who were not episcopally ordained to administer communion, but the plan retained his policy of concentrating pastoral initiative in the preachers’ hands, to the eventual detriment of lay participation. Resulting protests gave rise to new denominations in the first half of the 19th century, either by secession or by separate foundation. More significant for Methodism’s present ecumenical role, bitter controversy with the Anglican Tractarian movement hastened the decline of British Methodism from the high theology and practice of the Lord’s supper shared by the Wesley brothers, hardened its non‑sacramental understanding of the ordained ministry and pushed it definitively into the non‑conformist camp.
Several schisms* also racked American Methodism over church polity, required unworldly discipline and public social issues, especially racism and slavery. Already in 1816 and 1820 two black churches were founded the African Methodist Episcopal and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion. In 2001 these two, along with the black Christian Methodist Episcopal (1870), numbered 5.3 million members in over 15,000 congregations. In 1844 the Methodist Episcopal Church itself divided over the slavery question into two separate churches.
These alarming divisions, however, did not prevent either the growth of the family of Methodist churches or their missionary outreach. In Great Britain the connexions totalled 800,000 members by 1900. In 1813 the Wesleyan Missionary Society was founded, and in the wake of British colonial expansion, large Methodist churches grew up in Canada, Australia and South Africa, where the church had a large black following, and in other parts of Africa and in Asia. In the USA the largely white Methodist denominations grew from 2 million in 1900 to 10 million in 1960. Fully integrated into American society, they poured personnel and money into the evangelization of India and China and had a pervasive influence on American Protestantism as a whole.
The Ecumenical Methodist Conference of 1881 brought to London delegates from 30 Methodist bodies in 20 countries. It was a turning point in the healing of Methodist divisions at national levels. In Great Britain, by a series of mergers beginning in 1907, the various Methodist bodies united, until by 1932 almost all had become the one British Methodist Church. In the US the northern and southern branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church re-united in 1939, a union joined also by the Methodist Protestant Church, created by secession in 1828. In 1968 a merger of this largely white, unified Methodist church with the Evangelical United Brethren formed the United Methodist Church, with over 11 million members. The successful outcome of Churches Uniting in Christ (see Consultation on Church Union, covenanting ) in which United Methodism, along with other denominations, is in dialogue with the three large black Methodist churches, would help to heal the most serious rift in the family.
This earnest seeking for a form of unity which is the necessary visible expression of invisible communion in love has taken the Methodist family beyond intraconfessional dialogue. For more than half a century Methodist churches have participated in church unions which transcend confessional barriers. In some of these, Anglican participation has made it possible to overcome the fundamental divide between episcopal and non‑episcopal church order (notably in the Church of South India and the Church of North India). But some negotiations involving Methodists have failed. In 1969 and in 1972 a plan for organic union* between the Church of England and the British Methodist Church was defeated. The chief problem lay in how Methodism was to acquire the historic episcopacy.* The rejection has been detrimental to Methodism’s ecumenical endeavours. Those efforts, however, have found concrete expression, at the world level, in bilateral dialogue with Lutherans, Reformed, Roman Catholics and (finally) Anglicans, made possible by the World Methodist Council* (WMC), formerly the Ecumenical Methodist Council.
Through the WMC’s participation in the conference of secretaries of Christian World Communions,* world Methodism was able to play its part in ecumenical initiatives for the new millennium. The book 2000 Years since Bethlehem , published by Methodism’s Upper Room Movement, brought together brief passages from the spiritual writings of all Christian traditions throughout the centuries.
In the ecumenical movement, Methodists such as John R. Mott (1865‑1955) and G. Bromley Oxnam (1891‑1963) played key roles in the founding of the WCC at its first assembly in 1948. In 2001 there were 37 national Methodist churches in the WCC. Of the five WCC general secretaries, two have been Methodists Philip Potter (1972-84) and Emilio Castro (1985-92).
The first WMC conference (1951) echoed Wesley’s original intention not to found a church but to inspire and organize a movement for church renewal. The WMC rejoiced to see Methodist churches give up separate confessional existence to find new life in the wider community of transconfessional unions. As recent experience shows, however, such unions can remain imprisoned within cultural and national boundaries. Could the WMC, therefore, enable Methodism, without becoming entrenched in a confessional exclusiveness Wesley never intended, to witness to a love which, by being rooted in self‑forgetfulness, transcends all human‑devised barriers?
n R. Davies, Methodism , London, Epworth, 1976 n R. Davies, A.R. George & G. Rupp, A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain , 4 vols, London, Epworth, 1965‑88 n N.B. Hamon ed., Encyclopedia of World Methodism , Nashville TN, United Methodist, 1974 n R.P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists , Nashville TN, Abingdon, 1995 n T.A. Langford, Methodist Theology , Peterborough, UK, Epworth, 1998 n F. Norwood, The Story of American Methodism , 7th ed., Nashville TN, Abingdon, 1989 n T. Runyon ed., Wesleyan Theology Today , Nashville TN, United Methodist Publ., 1985 n G. Wainwright, The Ecumenical Moment , Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans, 1983, ch. 11 n G. Wainwright, Methodists in Dialogue , Nashville TN, Abingdon, 1995.
The text above is extracted from Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)