- Methodism began as a movement to revitalize the 18th-century Church of England, though it eventually emerged as an independent denomination of churches that spread widely in the British Isles and North America. The movement grew from the work of John Wesley (1703-91), an Anglican minister who in 1738 had an intense religious experience that climaxed a period of personal religious searching. Together with his brother Charles Wesley (1708-88), who had had a similar awakening, he began to found religious societies, groups that met informally for prayer, religious discussion, and spiritual nurturing in London and then throughout the British Isles. In his extensive travels in England and Ireland, Wesley called people to a personal experience of the faith into which most of them had already been baptized. Those who assembled in the Methodist societies tried to grow toward holiness or perfection.Wesley commissioned a number of lay preachers, who, though placed in charge of leading workshop, were not authorized to serve the sacraments, a practice reserved for the ordained ministry. Wesley did not want to break with the established church, and he urged Methodists to remain active in their parishes and receive the sacraments from their local priest.Wesley inherited a Calvinist theological tradition mediated by British Puritanism, but he adopted the variation developed by Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560-1690), who rejected predestination. Wesley taught that Christ had atoned for all humans, and God's grace had spread to everyone. This prevenient grace allowed anyone to respond to the Gospel of Christ, repent of their sins, and come to faith. The Wesleyan emphasis on the free grace of God became the basis of global evangelism. Wesley also developed a doctrine of holiness. The Christian's life should be structured toward the goal of growing in grace toward perfection in love, as evidenced by holy living and social action.In the 1760s, Wesley sent preachers to the American colonies to organize societies. When the united states emerged as a new country without an established church, Wesley assumed the role of a bishop and ordained ministers who would create an independent American Methodist organization. In 1784, the American leaders organized the Methodist Episcopal Church (now the united Methodist Church) and accepted ministerial orders from Wesley through his representative, Thomas Coke (1747-1814). British Methodists remained a fellowship within the Church of England until 1795 when, following Wesley's death, the Wesleyan Conference reorganized as a dissenting church.Through the 19th century, both the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Wesleyan Conference experienced a number of schisms, and new Methodist bodies emerged. In the 20th century, however, the process was reversed, and a series of mergers resulted in the United Methodist Church in the United States and the Methodist Church in Great Britain.However, not all American Methodists affiliated with the United Methodist Church, especially African-American Methodists, who have been a vital part of the movement. At two points, early in the 19th century and immediately after the Civil War, large numbers of black Methodists left the predominantly white bodies that existed at the time to form such groups as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. The majority of African-American Methodists still remain separated from United Methodism, though merger talks have periodically been pursued.John Wesley's doctrine of perfection gave birth to the Holiness movement in 19th-century America. Adherents considered perfection not as a distant goal but as the norm of Christian life. In the 1880s, Methodist leaders criticized what they saw as an overemphasis on this particular theme, and many Holiness advocates began to leave and form independent Holiness churches. The Holiness movement itself later spawned Pentecostalism.Methodists were early participants in the Protestant world missionary movement. British and American churches founded missions on every continent. since World War ii, most of these mission churches have become autonomous.Further reading:■ Nolan B. Harmon, ed., Encyclopedia of World Methodism, 2 vols. (Nashville, Tenn.: United Methodist Publishing House, 1974)■ Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1995)■ John G. McEllhenney, ed., United Methodism in America. A Compact History (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1992)■ Frederick A. Norwood, The Story of American Methodism: A History of the United Methodists and Their Relations (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1974).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.