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The Wesleyan revival
The Methodist revival originated in England. It was started by John Wesley, his younger brother Charles and George Whitefield as a movement within the Church of England in the 18th century, focused on Bible study, and a methodical approach to scriptures. The term "Methodist" was a college nickname, intended to be insulting, bestowed upon a small society of students at Oxford, who met together between 1729 and 1735 for the purpose of mutual improvement. They were accustomed to communicate every week, to fast regularly and to abstain from most forms of amusement and luxury. They also frequently visited poor and sick persons and prisoners in the gaol.
The early Methodists reacted against the apathy of the Church of England, became open-air preachers and established Methodist societies wherever they went. They were notorious for their enthusiastic sermons and often accused of fanaticism. In those days, members of the established church feared that the powerful new doctrines promulgated by the Methodists, such as the necessity to salvation of a New Birth, of Justification by Faith, and of the constant and sustained action of the Holy Spirit upon the believer's soul, would produce ill effects upon weak minds. Theophilus Evans, an early critic of the movement, even wrote that it was "the natural Tendency of their Behaviour, in Voice and Gesture and horrid Expressions, to make People mad." In one of his prints, William Hogarth likewise attacked Methodists as "enthusiasts" full of "Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism." But the Methodists resisted the many attacks against their movement. (See John Wesley and George Whitefield for a much more complete discussion of early Methodism.)
John Wesley came under the influence of the Moravians and Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, while Whitefield adopted Calvinistic views. Consequently, their followers separated, those of Whitefield becoming Calvinistic Methodists. Generally Methodists have followed Wesley in Arminian theology.
Separation from the Church of England
Wesley originally had no intention of separating from the Church of England. However, following the American Revolution, the Church of England cut off those of its members who were Americans, refusing to ordain ministers for them. Wesley decided to ordain ministers, and since he was not a bishop this put him in schism with the Anglican church. He and the other early leaders formed the Methodist Church as a separate body partly in response to those events. (See also the Episcopal Church.) Wesley charted the first Methodist Church on February 28, 1784.
Theology and liturgy
Traditionally, Methodism has believed in the Arminian view of free will as opposed to predestination. This distinguishes it, historically, from Calvinist traditions such as Presbyterianism. However, in strongly Calvinist countries such as Wales, Calvinistic Methodists remain. Also, more recent theological debates have often cut across denominational lines, so that theologically liberal Methodist and Reformed churches have more in common with each other than with more conservative members of their own denominations.
John Wesley was not a systematic theologian, though Methodist ministerial students and trainee local preachers do study his sermons for his theology. The popular expression of Methodist theology is in the hymns of Charles Wesley. Since enthusiastic congregational singing was a part of the Evangelical movement, Wesleyan theology took root and spread through this channel.
Methodism follows the traditional and near-universal Christian belief in the triune God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In devotional terms, this confession is said to embrace the biblical witness to God's activity in creation, encompass God's gracious self-involvement in the dramas of history, and anticipate the consummation of God's reign. For them, there are two Sacraments ordained of Christ: Baptism and Communion (Supper of the Lord).
It is a traditional position of the church that any disciplined theological work calls for the careful use of reason. By reason, it is said, they read and interpret Scripture. By reason they determine whether their Christian witness is clear. By reason their ask questions of faith and seek to understand God's action and will.
This church insists that personal salvation always involves Christian mission and service to the world. Scriptural holiness entails more than personal piety; love of God is always linked with love of neighbor, a passion for justice and renewal in the life of the world.
In liturgical matters, a unique feature of the Methodist Church is its observance of the season of Kingdomtide, which encompasses the last 13 weeks before Advent, thus dividing the long season after Pentecost into two discrete segments. During Kingdomtide, Methodist liturgy emphasizes charitable work and alleviating the suffering of the poor.
A second distinctive liturgical feature of Methodism is the use of Covenant services. Although practice varies between different national churches, most Methodist churches annual follow the call of John Wesley for a renewal of their covenant with God. In UK Methodism, each church normally holds an annual Covenant Service on the first convenient Sunday of the year, and Wesley's Covenant Prayer is still used, with minor modification, in the order of service. It is a striking and sobering piece of liturgical writing, as the following excerpts illustrates:
- ...Christ has many services to be done. Some are easy, others are difficult. Some bring honour, others bring reproach. Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests, others are contrary to both... Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.
- ...I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal...
The Methodist Church in Britain
British Methodism has always been characterised by a strong central organization, the Connexion, which holds an annual Conference. The connection is divided into Districts in the charge of a Chairman (who may be female). The districts are divided into circuits governed by a "superintendent minister", and ministers are appointed to these rather than to individual churches (though some large inner-city churches, known as Central Halls, are designated as circuits in themselves). Most circuits have many fewer ministers than churches, and the majority of services are led by lay local preacherss, or by retired ("supernumerary" ministers).
Wesley Memorial Church, a Methodist church in Oxford, where the Wesley brothers studied.
Schisms within the original Methodist church, and independent revivals, led to the formation of a number of separate denominations calling themselves Methodist. The largest of these were the Primitive Methodist church, deriving from a revival at Mow Cop in Staffordshire, and the United Methodist Church (not connected with the American denomination of the same name, but a union of two smaller denominations). The original church became known as the Wesleyan Methodist Church to distinguish it from these bodies. The three major streams of British Methodism united in 1933 to form the current Methodist Church of Britain.
Methodism in the United States
The first American Methodist Bishop was Francis Asbury, whose boyhood home, Bishop Asbury Cottage, in Sandwell, England, is now a museum. After Asbury was consecrated by Wesley, he and other leaders formed the Methodist Episcopal Church in America at the Baltimore Christmas Conference in 1784. Circuit riders, many of which were laymen, traveled by horseback to preach the gospel and establish churches until there is scarcely any crossroad community in America without a Methodist expression of Christianity.
Disputes over slavery placed the church in difficulty in the first half of the 1800s, with the northern church leaders fearful of a split with the South, and reluctant to take a stand. The Wesleyan Methodists and the Free Methodist Churches were formed by stauch abolitionists, and the Free Methodists were especially active in the Underground Railroad, which helped to free the slaves. Finally, in a much larger split, in 1845 at Louisville, the churches of the slaveholding states formed The Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The northern and southern branches were reunited in 1939, when slavery was no longer an issue. In this merger also joined the Methodist Protestant church. Some southerners, conservative in theology, and strongly segregationist, opposed the merger, and formed the Southern Methodist Church in 1940.
The United Methodist Church was formed in 1968 as a result of a merger between the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church. The former church had resulted from mergers of several groups of German Methodist heritage There was no longer any need or desire to worship in the German language. The merged church had approximately 9 million members as of the late 1990s. While the United Methodist Church in America has been shrinking, associated groups in developing countries are growing rapidly.
American Methodist churches are generally organized on a connectional model, related but not identical to that used in Britain. Ministers are assigned to churches by bishops, distinguishing it from presbyterian government. Methodist denominations typically give lay members representation at regional and national meetings (conferences) at which the business of the church is conducted, making it different from episcopalian government. This connectional organizational model differs further from the congregational model, for example of Baptist, and Congregationalist Churches, among others.
In addition to the United Methodist Church, there are over 40 other denominations that descend from John Wesley's Methodist movement. Some, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Free Methodists and the Wesleyan Church (formerly Wesleyan Methodist), are explicitly Methodist. Others do not call themselves Methodist, but are related to varying degrees. The Salvation Army was founded by William Booth, a former Methodist. It derives some of its theology from Methodism. Another related denomination is the Church of the Nazarene. Some of the charismatic or pentecostal churches such as the Pentecostal Holiness Church and the Assemblies of God also have roots in or draw from Wesleyan thought.
The Holiness Revival was primarily among people of Methodist pursuasion, who felt that the church had once again become apathetic, losing the Wesleyan zeal. Some important events of this revival were the writings of Phoebe Palmer during the mid-1800s, the establishment of the first of many holiness camp meetings at Vineland, New Jersey in 1867, and the founding of Asbury College, (1890), and other similar institutions in the US around the turn of the 20th century.