AN INTRODUCTION TO METHODIST HISTORY
This introduction is necessarily
very brief. At this point, it is intended to serve only as an outline.
Please consult other sources, especially books rather than the internet for further detail.
Methodism has become, over the past two and a half centuries, a denomination. Or rather, it is a collection of denominations, the chief of which is what is commonly known as The Methodist Church.
Methodism was essentially a revival movement, and grew up with all the variety that such movements tend to have. And as a revival movement, it grew up in a variety of forms, with a variety of leaders, and at a variety of times.
The roots of Methodism as we regard it are to be found in "The Holy Club" at Oxford University in the early 18th century. While John and Charles Wesley were the best known members, there were others of like importance, notably the Welshman, Howell Harris. Harris was the founder of Calvinistic Methodism, preaching the Gospel in Wales while the Wesleys were still on the road to their new birth experience in 1738.
It was at the Holy Club that the nickname "Methodist" came into use. Their critics accused them of being too methodical in their discipline of devotions, prayer, Bible study (often from the original Greek New Testament) and fasting. While for some, this was the outworking of their relationship with God, for the Wesleys it was still a part of their search for God, and seeking to earn His favour.
This is reflected in Charles' Wesley's hymn, "Wherewith O God shall I draw near?" which speaks of the futility of good works to make a person right with God.
John Wesley's own Journal records this search. His almost disastrous missionary venture to America produced the comment, "I went to convert the Indians, but Oh! Who shall convert me."
His sermon entitled "The Almost Christian" contains several passages which are more autobiographical than is usual, showing the futility of works to gain God's favour.
"I did go thus far for many years, as many of this place can testify; using diligence to eschew all evil, and to have a conscience void of offence; redeeming the time, buying up every opportunity of doing all good to all men; constantly and carefully using all the public and private means of grace; endeavouring after a steady seriousness of behaviour, at all times, and in all places; and God is my record, before whom I stand, doing all this in sincerity; having a real design to serve God; a hearty desire to do His will in all things; to please Him who has called me to "fight the good fight" and to "lay hold of eternal life". Yet my own conscience beareth me witness in the Holy Ghost, that all this time I was but almost a Christian. (Sermon 2 in the standard 44 Sermons)
Though it has been said that, "Wesley was by any standards a devoted Christian long before 1738"(1) Wesley's own words refute that. His Journal records the arguments with Pieter Bohler during the first part of that year, and his gradual yielding to the truth of Scripture on the central issue of salvation by faith.
Both John and Charles were converted within a few weeks in 1738, and immediately began to preach with power.
John Wesley's Church of England background made him regard the pulpit as the only proper place for preaching. He regarded it as almost a sin to preach anywhere else. But a situation arose where he was needed to replace George Whitfield preaching in the open air. He "consented to become yet more vile" and discovered that field preaching was blessed by God.
George Whitfield had been another Holy Club member. He was famed for his oratory which held vast crowds, but he also had special opportunities to witness to the aristocracy. Through his work, there arose a small Methodist group known as The Countess of Huntingdon's Connection.(2) Like Harris, his theology was Calvinistic, while Wesley was Arminian.
Though the two strands of theology have much in common, Arminianism teaches that man still has free will to accept or reject the offered grace of God, while Calvinism teaches a predestination which over-rides this free will. Further, Calvinism teaches a limited scope of the atoning work of Christ on the cross, while Arminianism teaches that the atonement is infinite, though not all people accept it and benefit from it.
Throughout the 18th century, Wesleyan Methodism became the dominant form, resulting in a revival in which many came into the Kingdom of God.
John Wesley's objective, however, was not to start a new denomination, but to see people soundly converted and revived, and remaining in their original Churches. Normally, this meant the local Church of England parish. But Methodism was universal (or catholic) in the best sense, and various nonconformists (for example, Baptists) were welcome at the Methodist fellowship meetings. (3) These were originally house meetings during the week, and those attending were expected to worship in their original churches on Sunday.
Thus the term Methodist was more of a doctrinal label at first. A number of Vicars were called Methodist. They worked hard in their own parishes, preaching the Gospel, ministering in their churches, visiting the sick, and seeing the life of the Church benefiting.
One such was William Grimshaw of Howarth. On one Sunday, his Bishop made a sudden visit of inspection following a complaint from a jealous neighbouring vicar. In the course of the visit, during the service, the bishop gave him the text for the sermon, with half an hour to prepare. Grimshaw chose not to keep the people waiting, and preached a very good sermon straight away. The bishop left well satisfied with his competence and the higher than average attendence of the parishoners.
However, long before the close of the century, Wesleyan Methodism had become a separate denomination. One of the pressures for this came from the people, who would rather have their own meetings with Methodist preachers than the often (at that time) inadequate ministry of the parish priests. Secondly, in many cases the Church of England was reluctant to retain Wesley and his converts, tending to put them out. Wesley himself was often refused permission to preach in the parish churches. At Epworth (where his father had been the Vicar), he stood on his father's grave to preach having been refused the pulpit.
Wesley's own appointment of preachers was viewed as an iregularity and a breach of Church discipline, which caused a further rift. And Wesley himself had been involved in building a number of preaching houses, further reinforcing the rift with the Church of England.
John Wesley imposed, during his lifetime, that Methodism remain a part of the Church of England. But the pressures from within and without were such that after his death in 1791, the separation too place.
If the Church had been more tolerant of Methodist activities, it is possible that Methodism as a formal movement might have remained a part of the Church of England. However, the dynamic of Methodism made this difficult. Indeed, Methodism was itself to see a series of new moves from its own ranks, of which some of these, like the Primitive Methodists and the Salvation Army of the 19th century, split off from the parent body.
The message of the early Methodists
1 . For example, Kenneth Cracknell in his book "Our Doctrines - Methodist Theology as Classical Christianity" page 36, plays down the significance of 24 May 1738 and, strangely, completely ignores the Moravian influence. We have to thank such writers as the late Dr. Philip Watson for a fuller account of the events leading up to May 1738, including the ministry of Pieter Bohler. (Return to text)
2 . The Countess of Huntingdon, Lady Selina Shirley, is included in the Shirley Association web site. I commend this for further information about her and George Whitfield. She was a daughter of Robert Shirley, first Earl Ferrers, by his second wife wife, Selina Finch. Her life, (1707 - 1791) almost exactly coincided with John Wesley, and in her own way she was as devoted to the cause of Christ amongst the nobility. (See also Shirleys of England.) (The Shirley Association home page is about 150k and takes 2 minutes to download.) (Return to text)
3 . Dr Philip S Watson in his "Anatomy of a Conversion" writes, (pages 25 - 26)
'The majority of the Methodists, it is true, were Anglicans; but it wa a peculiar glory of Methodism, in Wesley's view, that while it was a religious society within the Church of England, it was one to which members of any church might belong, the only condition of membership being "a real desire to save their soul." "By Methodists," he said, "I mean a people who profess to persue (in whatsoever measure they have attained) holiness of heart and life, inward and outward conformity in all things to the revealed will of God; who place religion in a uniform resemblance of the great object of it; in a steady imitation of Him they worship, in all His imitable perfections; more particularly, in justice, mercy, and truth, or universal love filling the heart and governing the life." In order to persue such an end, it was not necessary that men should renounce their existing ecclesiastical allegiance. And just as Wesley always exhorted the Methodist Anglicans to be loyal to their own Church, so he encouraged the Methodist Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists and Quakers to do the same. Indeed, he regarded it as highly undesirable that they should do anything else, for Methodism could fulfill its true function only as an interdenominational society, not as a separate denomination. "The Methodists," he insisted, "are to spread life among all denominations; which they will do till they form a separate sect." '
At 52 pages plus notes, Anatomy of a Conversion is perhaps the best concise introduction to (Wesleyan ) Methodism of recent publication. Unfortunately, it is out of print (September 2000). ISBN 0-310-74991-3 (1984 and 1990) Francis Asbury Press of Zondervan Publishing House, 1415 Lake Drive, SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 49506. I hope that a reprint will soon be available. (Return to text)
Copyright position Home list of documents List of Chapels Top
First draft September 2000