The story of the Methodist church really begins with the Wesley family.
Image courtesy of General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church
John Wesley (1703-1791) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788) were born in the village of Epworth in Lincolnshire. Their parents were Samuel and Susannah Wesley. Samuel was a Anglican rector and Susannah was a remarkable woman, known to spend much time in prayer for her family. In 1709, there was a serious fire at the rectory and John Wesley nearly perished. His Mother believed he had been rescued for a special purpose – a “brand plucked from the burning”.
In the 1720’s, the Wesley brothers founded a fellowship at Oxford University. Here people could commit themselves to prayer and bible study. The group soon attracted the attention of other students, not all of whom were in favour of this new way of worshiping God. Various labels for the fellowship were given, including “Holy Club”, but it was the term “Methodist” that stuck.
Both John and Charles became ordained ministers within the Church of England, and what might be called the “Evangelical revival” began on 24 May 1738. John was present at a meeting in Aldersgate Street, London when as he put it:
“…My heart was strangely warmed.
I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation;
and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins,
even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.“
Charles Wesley had also undergone a similar experience at around the same time. The stage was now set for both brothers to bring the good news to the masses.
On 11 June 1738 in Oxford, John proclaimed “The whole world is my parish”, and Charles and himself set about preaching and teaching. What was distinctive was their method: open-air meetings designed to attract many people, irrespective of class. John Wesley may have travelled over 250,000 miles and preached over 40,000 sermons during his lifetime – a remarkable achievement.
As Methodism grew as a movement within the Church of England, it became necessary to look at ways in which it might be governed. John Wesley favoured the “Connexional”, which meant that local churches were organised into circuits, so that preachers could travel from one church to another. Circuit plans were drawn up for each minister and this system continues to the present day. Each circuit makes up a district and representatives from each district attend an annual conference.
In 1784, John Wesley encouraged the development of Methodism in the USA and beyond. Today Methodist churches are found around the globe. Church membership in the UK was 188,000 in 2017 and about 80 million people worldwide have some form of link with the Methodist church (source: Methodist web site).
Charles Wesley, as well as being a preacher, gave Methodism a wonderful legacy in his hymn writing. He wrote about 5,000 hymns during his lifetime including “Hark, the herald angels sing” and “Love divine, all loves excelling”.
In 1795 the Methodist movement seceded from the Church of England and became a separate Protestant denomination. However, the two groups have always had strong links, and in 2003 a joint covenant was signed to explore ways of working together.
For further reading, the Epworth press has published John Wesley: The Evangelical Revival and the Rise of Methodism in England, available from Amazon’s internet bookshop.
You may also download a full version of John Wesley’s Journal (PDF)
Methodist teaching is sometimes summed up in four particular ideas known as the Four Alls.
- All need to be saved – the doctrine of original sin.
- All can be saved – Universal Salvation.
- All can know they are saved – Assurance.
- All can be saved completely – Christian perfection.
A Wesleyan Hymn
Love Divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heav’n, to earth come down;
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling,
All Thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, Thou art all compassion;
Pure, unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.
Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast;
Let us all in Thee inherit,
Let us find the promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.
Come, Almighty, to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
May Thy presence e’er be with us,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thou wouldst approve,
Pray, and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.
Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory
Till with Thee we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise.