What is Methodism ?
Methodism began as a revival movement within the Anglican Church during the 18th century. Its origins go back to the Holy Club which was formed by two brothers, John and Charles Wesley, during their time in Oxford (1729-35). They were Church of England clergymen, the sons of the Reverend Samuel Wesley, rector of Epworth. Their primary aim in forming this fellowship was the spiritual development of the members and the revival of true religion. Writing to his father, John described the group as, "a society of very young and very earnest High Churchmen with evangelistic views and a true desire to lead the lives of exemplary Christians". George Whitfield was among their number. Their colleagues at Oxford gave them the nickname of 'Methodists' on a account of the methodical and disciplined way in which they met.
In another letter to his father, John declared that "my one aim in life is to secure persona! holiness, for without being holy myself I cannot promote holiness in others". Holiness meant loving God entirely and expressing that love in the doing of good works. There is, he declared, no holiness apart from the social expression of it. The members of the Holy Club regularly visited the prisoners, the destitute and the sick, giving financial help and forming classes for the children of the poor. This social concern has been one of the hallmarks of Methodism ever since.
The rapid growth of Methodism took place against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution. This was an era marked by the increasing poverty of the workers, who laboured in dreadful conditions, and the increasing prosperity of the mill and factory owners. Between 1700 and the end of the century the population rose by some 4 million. It is maintained among historians that were it not for the Methodist revival England might well have experienced a revolution among the working classes similar to that taking place across the channel. Fortunately by then, as Howard Snyder points out in his book 'The Radical Wesley', "the people called Methodists seemed to be everywhere, a renewing force within the Church of England, committed to proving in experience what the church professed in doctrine, not only offering God to all but also the power of God for transformed living in all who believed".
There is a familiar saying, "Methodism was born in Song". The hymns of Charles Wesley were instrumental in the spreading and sustaining of the Methodist movement. Their rousing tunes and practical theology (called 'the Bible in miniature') moved many to Christ and to Methodism. He was a highly gifted musician. He left behind some 6,500 hymns. The selection that was first published in 1739 became instantly popular. There was a saying in those days, when folk travelled long distances on horseback, that "you could tell a Methodist was coming by his singing!"
It never was John Wesley's, intention to separate from the Church of England, but such was the rapid growth of the movement that the decision was taken out of his hands. Two happenings contributed to this spread of the Methodist movement. The first of these was the entering of the brothers into a deepened experience of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit within three days of each other in 1738. This gave to their preaching, hymn-writing and pastoral oversight a new drive and a wider dimension. The second happening was the increasing opposition of the established church toward the revival movement. Parish pulpits were closed to John Wesley. In 1739 he commenced the radical practice of open-air preaching, beginning by standing on his father's tombstone. This field-preaching, as it became known, reached the masses on an unprecedented scale resulting in thousands coming to hear him as he preached up and down the land, and also in Ireland to which he made 21 visits.
In 1784, following increasing opposition from the Church of England bishops, John Wesley set up a structure designated 'The Yearly Conference of the People called Methodists' in order to ensure the continuation of the movement after his death. He now ordained preachers into the full time ministry. In 1795, four years after his death, Methodist clergy became legally entitled to conduct marriages and administer the sacraments. Methodism was now a Church with a sound base, thanks to Wesley's skill as an organizer. The weekly class meetings for the members, the schools, the City Missions etc. all flourished under a benign but strict discipline. E. Douglas Bebb in his work on Wesley points out that "the Methodist Church discipline of the 18th century has no parallel in modern ecclesiastical history"
The result of this spiritual revival and organization meant that in 1768 Methodism had 40 circuits and 27,341 members. Ten years later the figure was 60 circuits & 40,089 members, rising in the next decade to 99 circuits and 66,375 members . By 1798, seven years after Wesley's death, there were 149 circuits with 101,712 members so that one in every thirty adult Englishmen was a Methodist.
The Methodist Church is part of the worldwide church. While it did not formulate new doctrines, it focused men's mind on the need for bible-centred preaching and teaching - what Wesley called 'the revival of true religion'. Its great and lasting contribution was the special emphasis on the core values of Christian belief. These emphases are summed by 20th century Methodism under four headings, known as Wesley's 'Four Alls':
- All need to be saved - Universal Sin
- All can be saved - Universal Salvation
- All can know themselves saved - Inward Assurance of the Holy Spirit
- All can be saved to the uttermost - Christian Perfection (Perfect Love)
Christian perfection is not attained this side of heaven but it is the goal of all who love the Lord entirely, and honour their neighbour as themselves.
Wesley believed that their are no limits on what God can accomplish in the life of the believer.