The roots of Methodism comprised a group of 18th-century Oxford University students called the “Holy Club," amongst whom were its founders, John and Charles Wesley. The term Methodism is a pejorative college nickname for that group, which described the methodical approach they used to study the Bible. Gathering regularly for Bible study, prayer and self-examination, the group began a tradition that would lead to the second-largest Protestant denomination in America and a worldwide membership of approximately 11 million people, of which 8.6 million live in the United States.
When Methodists arrived in the mid-Atlantic colonies in the 1730s and ‘40s, they were not fleeing religious persecution from the Church of England. Their intention was to remain part of Anglicanism, but owing to events that occurred during the American Revolution, Methodism split off from the Anglican Church, which led directly to the Methodist Episcopal Church of America.
Arrival in America
Gathering in New York City in 1766, Methodist adherents formed a small group that, by 1768, felt so confident of their growth potential that they wrote to John Wesley and requested he send a preacher who was “a man of wisdom, of sound faith, and a good disciplinarian." Wesley sent Francis Asbury and four other missionaries who arrived in 1771. So effective was Asbury and the others that, by 1773, there were 1,160 Methodists served by 10 preachers in Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Largely attracting poor farmers in areas neglected by the Anglican Church, Asbury promoted circuit riding as a way of reaching them. By so doing, American Methodism increased to 214,000 at the time of his death in 1816. Another famous circuit rider was Robert Strawbridge.
Breaking communion with the Church of England
Expansion continued until the War of Independence, when the Anglican Church was denigrated as anti-patriotic; therefore, the Church of England in America lost its legal status. Wesley admonished adherents to continue to receive the sacraments from Anglican ministers, but numerous ministers and British loyalists returned to England or moved to Canada. To avoid conscription, Asbury went into hiding until the war was over. Following the war, Asbury once again began to minister to Methodists throughout the colonies, covering more than 100,000 miles and enduring much hardship.
A solution to a leadership shortage was reached at the Baltimore Christmas Conference in 1784, when the attendees decided to separate from the Methodist movement in England. Asbury and Thomas Coke were elected as its first two bishops. Together with Reformed Church pastor Philip William Otterbein, Methodist preacher Jacob Albright, and former Mennonite Martin Boehm, they agreed to form groups and later established the Methodist Episcopal Church. Each churchman had experienced a personal encounter with God’s love. Each was attracted to the fervency of Methodist worship, a disciplined approach to organization, and the desire to fully participate in their faith expression. As men experienced in the evangelistic movement of the Great Awakening, the three would help found what is now called United Methodism.
Spread of Methodism among African Americans during the Great Awakening
During the Great Awakening of the 1740s, white Protestant evangelists began to proselytize to black Americans — Methodists were most successful. Owing to their belief of a near, rather than distant god; self help, liberation from sin through conversion, a lively worship style — and John Wesley’s denunciations of slavery — Methodists easily attracted blacks throughout the middle and northern colonies.
Evangelical revivals empowered the lower classes, including slaves, to publicly pray and preach. By the 1770s, black preachers were ordained and many had their own Baptist or Methodist congregations. During the Revolution, large numbers of blacks joined congregations in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and Charleston. Tensions rose between whites and blacks over slavery.
In November 1787, white elders attempted to relegate black parishioners to a newly built gallery at St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia. That resulted in the founding of the black-governed Bethel Church, and in 1816, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first independent, African-American Protestant denomination, with Richard Allen as its first bishop. Membership in the new churches grew in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions. Following the Civil War, their numbers increased widely throughout the South.
Although black church membership was predominately female, only men could be members of the clergy since women were barred from ordination until the 20th century. Even so, women led home prayer meetings and served on auxiliary, missionary, and Sunday school boards. They also were permitted by the AME Church to become traveling evangelists.
Expansion and splintering in the 1800s
The political issues of slavery greatly contributed to the splintering of the Methodist Church in the 19th century. Fearing a split from the Southern church, leaders from the northern church refused to take a stand on slavery. Unable to prevent the break-up, the Wesleyan Methodists and the Free Methodist Churches were established by staunch abolitionists. The Free Methodists were especially active in freeing slaves through the Underground Railroad.
Such differences in ideology caused a further rift between the Northern and Southern churches in 1845, when the slave-state churches left the Methodist Episcopal Church and formed the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in Louisville, Kentucky. They were not reunited until 1939. As a result of that 1939 merger, some conservative, segregationist, Southern members formed the Southern Methodist Church.
During the Holiness Revival of the mid 1800s, Methodists held Holiness camp meetings in the frontier states. The Wesleyan evangelical zeal of the Holiness Revival also produced writings on the doctrine of Christian perfection by its founder, Phoebe Palmer; the establishment of Asbury College in 1890; and the founding of similar institutions of higher learning throughout the country, of which 20 still exist.
Methodism in the 20th century
Beginning in 1915, Methodist minister William Simmons, a resident of Stone Mountain, Georgia, organized the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. Simmons was inspired by the klan's favorable portrayal in D.W. Griffith’s epic film, The Birth of a Nation. Emphasizing costumes, rallies and secret rituals, the klan grew rapidly in the South. The initial targets were blacks, whom many whites believed had been spoiled by wartime experiences. Black workers on the home front had earned respectable wages and expected the same following the war. Black veterans who had experienced a racially tolerant society in France, longed for a more accepting America. Perturbed whites believed the blacks had to be put back in their place. A total of four million klan members was reached at its peak in the mid 1920s.
Owing to numerous mergers during the 20th century, United Methodism is the second-largest Protestant denomination, behind the Southern Baptist Convention. A merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church in 1939, resulted in the formation of the Methodist Church. Coupled with the Evangelical United Brethren, the United Methodist Church (UMC) was formed in 1968.
Known for its toleration of diversity in theological opinion, UMC is made up of such politically opposite members as PresidentGeorge W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, versus Senator Hillary Clinton and former senator John Edwards. This toleration is rooted in Wesley’s plea, “Though we may not think alike, may we not all love alike?" The aphorism, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity," also has become a principle adhered to by Methodists. However, efforts to change UMC’s official position on homosexuality have failed as annual conferences from the West and East coasts have been overruled by those in the South and Midwest regions.
Thanks to its involvement in ecumenism, the UMC approved "A Proposal for Interim Eucharistic Sharing" in April 2005, which is the first step toward full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. UMC bishops hope that communion will occur by 2008. They also hope that they will achieve full communion with the Episcopal Church by 2112, and are preparing the document, "Confessing Our Faith Together," with that denomination.
Beliefs and practices
Such stringent requirements were expected of Wesley’s followers that it is no wonder they were called Methodists. While attending worship services and receiving the sacraments of the Church of England, Wesley also expected followers to participate in Methodist services and Bible study in small groups. He admonished them to avoid all evil, including profanity, profaning the day of the Lord, drunkenness, buying and selling slaves, fighting, and smuggling. They also were expected to feed and clothe the disadvantaged, visit the sick and prison inmates, and to preach to others the ways of goodness. And finally, they were expected to attend public worship, the “Supper of the Lord" Eucharist service, participate in family and private prayers, and fast.
Methodists interpret passages in the Bible to understand the will of God and their personal relationship with him, using a careful application of reason. As part of each adherent's "personal journey," they also believe that "the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in the Bible, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience." They practice two sacraments: Baptism and the Supper of the Lord. Not only do they expect personal piety of their adherents, they also require Christian mission work for their salvation. Their love of God is linked directly to their love of neighbor, and a passion for justice and renewal in the life of the world.
Liturgically, the Methodist service is fashioned after the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Unique to the American Methodist Church is the inclusion of an additional observance 13 weeks prior to Advent, called the Kingdomtide Season. During that period, the liturgy expresses the need to eliminate the suffering of the poor, and other forms of mission work, to their adherents.
According to the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the UMC is but one branch of the universal church. Therefore, it is actively involved in ecumenical relations with other Christian churches through the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, and the Churches Uniting in Christ.
While membership in the American Methodist Church is shrinking, Methodist churches in other countries are experiencing rapid growth. Its ecumenical efforts continue to reach out to other Christian denominations. As the concepts of self-examination and self-discipline have become less popular in the U.S., the 8.6 million Methodist members continue to seek personal perfection through church fellowship.