Christianity: Methodism

Richard P Heitzenrater. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.

Overview

Methodism, a form of Protestant Christianity, was founded by John Wesley (1703-91) as a means of promoting disciplined Christian living within the Church of England. Ordained an Anglican priest in 1728, Wesley formed a small religious society in about 1729 while a fellow and tutor of Lincoln College, Oxford, England. As the movement grew and spread, it was characterized by open-air preaching focused on God’s forgiving love toward all people (justification), the possibility of holy living (sanctification), disciplined living “by method and rule,” Christian nurturing in close-knit societies, and an organizational structure closely monitored by Wesley himself. Opposing itself to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, the Wesleyan revival stressed God’s “free grace” to all and attracted many poor people who felt excluded by the elitist teachings and practices of the Church of England.

As the eighteenth century progressed, Methodism eventually spread to Ireland, Scotland, and colonies across the Atlantic. As a consequence of the American Revolution, the movement became a separate denomination in the United States in 1784. Only in 1795, after Wesley’s death, did Methodism in Great Britain become a separate body from the Church of England. In the nineteenth century Methodism grew rapidly in the United States and became a major participant in the worldwide missions movement. Denominations with roots in the Wesleyan movement have about 40 million members in the U.S. and worldwide.

History

John Wesley’s father, an Anglican priest who implemented a religious society in his parish at Epworth, and his wife, Susanna, instilled an interest in disciplined Christian living in their sons. As an Oxford fellow and tutor, John, along with his brother Charles (1707-88) and some other students, formed a study group in 1729. Within three years critics were characterizing their Arminian theology (opposing predestination and maintaining the possibility of salvation for all) and religious activities as “Methodist.” Within the university they were disparaged for their zealous study and devotion, conscientious attendance at worship, and beneficent assistance to the poor of the community. Nevertheless, they soon attracted a following of some four dozen people in the university and town, including such later church notables as James Hervey, Benjamin Ingham, and George Whitefield.

In 1738 the Wesley brothers met Peter Boehler, a Moravian pastor who stressed the Reformation doctrine of salvation by faith alone. His mentorship led them to a spiritual awakening. Although John never promoted his experience of “assurance of faith” as explicit paradigm for his followers, the idea of a sudden spiritual “conversion” became typical in the Wesleyan movement.

The revival began in earnest in 1739 when Wesley followed George Whitefield’s example in Bristol and began preaching in outdoor venues, such as market places and brickyards. Such “field preaching” was irregular but attracted large numbers of people, including many who did not normally attend church. As groups began to grow in London, Newcastle, and other parts of England, Wesley adopted the name United Societies of People Called Methodists. Wesley soon began setting apart lay preachers (his “sons in the gospel”) to lead the societies. He invited clergy and lay preachers to an annual conference to maintain uniformity of doctrine and practice. Wesley published the “Minutes,” spelling out the doctrinal and disciplinary guidelines for the movement; several volumes of his sermons, to furnish the lay preachers with theological guidelines; and pamphlets with hymns and sacred poems for use during services. Although Wesley did not officially select any women as preachers, they provided much of the leadership with-in the small group structure of the Methodist societies, and a few women were encouraged by Wesley to “expound” and “exhort” within their societies.

Wesley felt God had raised up the Methodist preachers “to reform the nation, especially the Church, and spread scriptural holiness across the land.” Although he explicitly denied any inclination to separate from the Anglican Church, his reforms gave the movement its own identity and eventuated in a separation after Wesley’s death.

Methodist immigrants to America formed into societies in the 1760s, and before the decade was over, Wesley sent preachers, including Francis Asbury in 1771 and Thomas Rankin in 1773. Harry Hosier, a black lay preacher, increased black membership in the societies. Partly because Wesley opposed the colonies’ rebellion against English rule, most British lay preachers (except Asbury) joined the flow of Anglican priests back to England beginning in 1775. In 1784, after the United States had established political and religious independence, Wesley sent Thomas Coke to the new country, made him and Asbury general superintendents (they soon adopted the term “bishops”), and provided a plan for the formation of a separate denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church.

During the nineteenth century Methodists provided leadership within the growing world missions movement, spreading their beliefs around the globe. Methodism expanded significantly in Great Britain during this time. Methodists also participated in revival services and camp meetings, which were especially strong in the United States, and Methodist Episcopal Church membership grew by 20 times, making Methodism the largest Protestant denomination in the country before mid-century (more than 5 percent of the total population).

The prevalence of Methodists in the general population, but specifically in positions of authority, has led many to view the nineteenth century as the “Methodist Age” in the United States. Nineteenth-century Methodists combined a tendency to view morality in negative terms (promoting various prohibitions) with a tendency to see moral value in positive programs (those that support family values); thus, Methodism joined many other denominations in backing such political movements as women’s rights, temperance, labor unions, racial tolerance, and peace. Many of the organizations that promoted these causes were led by Methodists, including Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Frances Willard, Frank Mason North, and Harry Ward. By 1900 social issues, political tensions, and doctrinal disputes fragmented Methodism into a number of separate denominations in both the United States and Britain, but the growth of the segments continued unhampered for 60 further years.

The twentieth century witnessed efforts at unification among Wesleyan groups. After the political failure of the Prohibition movement, the negative approach to morality was generally replaced with a more positive emphasis on ways Methodists could responsibly exhibit love in their personal, social, civic, and political relationships. Methodists are still active in political leadership. For instance, in the United States three of the four presidential and vice-presidential candidates of the Republican and Democratic parties in 2004 were United Methodists.

As with many mainline Protestant denominations, overall Methodist membership decreased in the last half of the twentieth century, though it continues to grow in areas of the southern United States and all across Oceania, Africa, and Asia. A single Methodist congregation in Korea has just under 100,000 members, and the Methodist Pentecostal Church in Chile has about 800,000 members. Among the denominations with the largest membership are the United Methodist Church (uniting three American bodies in 1968), with nearly 10 million members; the African Methodist Episcopal Church, with over 3 million members, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, with nearly 1.5 million members, both in the United States; the Church of the Nazarene (Wesleyan in theology), with 1.4 million members; and the Methodist Church of Great Britain (uniting the five main British groups in 1932), with over 300,000 members. The World Methodist Council, whose history goes back to 1881, includes members from Methodist and Wesleyan denominations in 132 countries, which together attract some 75 million members and adherents.

Central Doctrines

Methodism shares the main doctrines of classical Protestantism. The doctrinal standards of Methodism (official measures of “orthodoxy”) are, within each denomination, contained in a document often called the Articles of Religion of Confession of Faith, following the pattern John Wesley set in 1784 when he abridged the articles of the Church of England for the Methodist Episcopal Church in America. With-in such groups as the United Methodist Church, the disciplinary rules do not allow anyone, clergy or laity, to disseminate doctrines contrary to those standards. Further statements of doctrine include Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions; his biblical commentary, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament; and the liturgy found in each denominational hymnbook or book of worship. The practical implications of these doctrines for the disciplines of Christian living are spelled out in the “General Rules,” written by Wesley in 1743 and still contained in most Methodist by-laws.

The defining doctrinal emphases of the Methodist movement from the beginning have been what Wesley called the “three grand doctrines”: repentance, faith, and holiness (or, in more theological language, original sin, justification, and sanctification). The most distinctive doctrine of Methodism is Christian Perfection (entire sanctification), the idea that believers can, with God’s assistance (grace), love God and neighbor fully in this life—that is, they can live without any conscious, voluntary, willful sin, defined as a breaking of the known will of God. Another characteristic of Wesleyan doctrine is that of Assurance, which maintains that one can have a conscious knowledge that at any given time he or she is a child of God, forgiven of sins and empowered for holy living (loving God and neighbor). Assurance is never a guarantee of final blessedness, however. Backsliding (“falling from grace”) is a real possibility at any point in life.

Methodism emphasizes Scripture as the primary source and criterion of truth, “the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice.” Within this framework Wesley also bequeathed to Methodism a healthy regard for the traditions of the Church during the first four or five centuries of Christianity as primal interpretations of the Gospel, a trust in reason as a means of perceiving God’s truth, and the more radical view that one can experience God’s truth directly through the divine presence acting in the life of the believer.

These doctrines are the basis for both the devotional piety (personal and communal) and the social action typical of Methodism over the last 250 years. Wesley believed that both works of piety (loving God) and works of mercy (loving neighbor) were “means of grace,” or ways of appropriating the transforming power of God in human life. Although Wesley was careful to maintain a synergism of these energies, some segments of the contemporary movement have emphasized one side more than the other, so that revivalist and activist wings often disagree about the true nature of the church.

Moral Code of Conduct

Methodists have never been slow to translate doctrine into discipline—personal, organizational, and programmatic. Wesley’s work on translating biblical theology into personal morality resulted in the document “Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies.” Still contained in most Methodist handbooks, these rules are in them-selves simple and short: Members should “evidence their desire of salvation” (1) “by avoiding evil of every kind,” (2) “by doing good of every possible sort,” and (3) “by attending upon all the ordinances of God” (all the means through which God’s power can affect a person’s life). Each rule is accompanied by a list of examples that have remained unchanged since the eighteenth century. Many people now view the examples as antiquated, so the rules have been largely neglected for the last hundred years.

Sacred Books

According to the preface of the 1788 edition of the Articles of Religion, the Bible is the sole standard of Christian truth for Methodists. It is the only book considered truly sacred, though not the only source of knowledge or inspiration.

Sacred Symbols

Methodists use many Christian symbols to represent sacred realities. These range from traditional visual symbols grounded in the life of Christ (such as the cross and others related to the crucifixion and resurrection) to the many representations of ideas and events from the long history of God’s action in human history (such as the rainbow, the flame, and the alpha and omega).

Early and Modern Leaders

John Wesley was assisted by a number of notable eighteenth-century contemporaries, such as his brother (Charles Wesley), George Whitefield, Selina Countess of Huntingdon, Mary Bosanquet, Francis Asbury, and Thomas Coke. In America groups that would later join with the Methodists were led by Philip Otterbein (United Bretheren) and Jacob Albright (Evangelical Association). In the nineteenth century American Methodism fragmented into several separate denominations, such as African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Methodist Protestant, Wesleyan Methodist, Free Methodist, and Colored Methodist Episcopal, under leaders such as Richard Allen, James Varick, Nicholas Snethen, Orange Scott, Benjamin Roberts, and William H. Miles. Many bishops have provided strong leadership, including Joshua Soule and Matthew Simpson in nineteenth-century America. In the United Methodist Church the Council of Bishops has begun to provide theological and pastoral leadership through the development of such programs as the Bishops’ Initiative on Children in Poverty.

Major Theologians and Authors

John Wesley set the course for Methodist theology with an approach grounded in the thought of the Church of England but influenced by patristic (following the Church fathers), puritan (using biblical guidelines for morality and organization), and pietist (stressing bible study and personal religious experience) thought, producing a synthesis that was catholic, reformed, and evangelical.

Early theological leaders included Wesley’s friends John Fletcher and Adam Clarke, followed in the nineteenth century by Richard Watson in Great Britain and Asa Shinn, Wilbur Fisk, and Thomas Summers in the United States. Georgia Harkness, Borden Parker Bowne, and Edwin Lewis were among the important theologians of twentieth-century Methodism. Albert C. Outler was the major ecumenical leader among Methodists of that century, as well as being one of the leading Wesleyan theologians.

Organizational Structure

Most Methodist bodies maintain an episcopal polity—a structure led by bishops. The legislative authority for most Methodist denominations rests in a representative quadrennial general conference that, since the late nineteenth century, has included laity as well as clergy. From the beginning Methodism has stressed local organization and small group meetings. Local congregations are connected in a structure that includes district, regional (“annual”), and jurisdictional conferences in increasingly larger geographical areas. Clergy are ordained and appointed to their ministerial positions by the bishops and their assistants—the district superintendents—and they maintain membership in an “annual conference.”

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

Early Methodists held nonsacramental meetings in “preaching houses” (later often called “chapels”) as a supplement to Anglican parish church services. Contemporary Methodists generally hold Sunday morning and evening worship services in churches and chapels. Revival services often take place in tents, “brush arbors,” amphitheaters, or other outdoor venues that echo the early Methodist “field preaching.” Prayer meetings, church school classes, and other meetings of subgroups of a given congregation often meet in educational buildings, the homes of members, or at campgrounds.

Some Methodist denominations designate historic shrines and landmarks, but when Methodists talk of a “pilgrimage” to Wesley’s birthplace at Epworth, England, or to Francis Asbury’s home near Gloucester, Massachusetts, or to John Fletcher’s home in Madeley, Shropshire, they are not speaking of a spiritual exercise similar to a Roman Catholic’s at Compostella or a Muslim’s at Mecca.

What is Sacred?

Methodists believe in a doctrine of God’s creation, but nothing in that creation has the same sacred status as the divine being of the Trinity. Churches are often called “sacred space,” and persons are seen as having “sacred worth,” but these are metaphorical uses of the term.

Holidays and Festivals

Most Methodist bodies follow the liturgy and holidays of the Christian Year, in which holy days represent events in the life of Jesus. The Church of England celebrates a festival of John and Charles Wesley on 3 March (the day after John’s date of death in 1791), but the Methodists more often celebrate 24 May, the day John Wesley experienced “assurance of faith” at a society meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, in 1738. Many Methodist congregations emphasize other historical events, educational themes, and social concerns on specially designated Sundays.

Mode of Dress

Some Methodist clergy wear clerical garb, including a clerical collar and such liturgical vestments as a stole, robe, alb, cross, or other paraphernalia, especially during worship services, other services (such as funerals and weddings), and pastoral occasions (such as hospital visits). Many British Methodist clergy follow Wesley’s habit of wearing Geneva tabs (a form of clerical collar) as a sign of their ministerial status. Other clergy typically dress like the members of their congregations. Laity in most Methodist denominations are usually undifferentiated from the general population, although some with closer ties to the nineteenth-century Holiness movement (which stressed personal piety) still encourage simplicity of dress and denigrate the wearing of jewelry or fine clothing.

Dietary Practices

Many Methodist groups officially observe temperance in eating and drinking, with a historical focus on abstinence from alcoholic beverages; this has extended to a stance against drug abuse.

Rituals

Since the nineteenth century Methodist churches have usually followed the Protestant move toward a “free church,” impromptu approach to ritual, straying from Wesley’s interest in the more formal ritual of the Church of England. Most Methodist books of worship, however, still include versions of the historical rituals for worship and the Eucharist (Communion), as well as for baptisms, marriages, funerals, and other significant religious rites of passage. Distinctive Methodist rituals include a Covenant Service (based on Wesley’s idea of renewing one’s covenant with God) at the beginning of each new year and the Love Feast, closely patterned after the Moravian service (also from Wesley’s day).

Rites of Passage

Methodists celebrate two Christian sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Entrance into the body of Christ is celebrated in baptism, usually in infancy, and membership in the community of faith is marked by confirmation, as a child approaches teen years. Marriage is usually solemnized in church but is not considered a sacrament.

Membership

Historically people become members of Methodist churches by professing faith in Christ or transferring from other recognized Christian denominations. Continued membership requires active participation in and support of the ministries of the church. The early tradition of closed membership ceased in the last half of the nineteenth century. Methodists have traditionally evangelized through preaching services, mission outreach, and small group encounters.

Religious Tolerance

Like many groups that started out as minorities, Methodists have historically promoted religious tolerance, and for over a century they have joined in ecumenical dialogue on both the national and international level.

Social Justice

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Methodism provided leadership in various movements for social justice. The American Methodist “Social Creed” (1908) was one of the first major statements that summarized the church’s concern for societal problems. Methodists have historically included persons of all economic and social groups and are still markedly diverse in membership. The early interest in reaching out to those who suffer in poverty and incorporating them into the fellowship of believers, however, has often shifted, especially in North America, to an emphasis on mission programs that simply send help to the poor. Methodist promotion of education and health issues has resulted in the prevalence of Methodist-related hospitals, retirement homes, educational institutions, and summer institutes and camps. The present social action programs are promoted by several boards and agencies of the churches, such as the Methodist Federation for Social Action.

Social Aspects

Methodists have a long history of supporting the traditional importance of healthy marriages and strong families; because of a desire to uphold the family, the nineteenth-century Methodist Frances Willard (among others) fought for women’s rights and temperance. The more recent concern for children in poverty is another reflection of this emphasis.

Controversial Issues

The Methodist family of denominations exhibits a great variety of positions on many controversial social issues. Most follow the consensus represented by other mainline Protestant groups, such as the allowance of divorce, the limited approval of abortion, the promotion of birth control, the support of unionization, the prohibition of ordaining homosexuals, the declaration that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and the equal role of women at all levels of the church. Methodist debate is not closed on issues that cause a division of opinion in society. The stance of most Methodist denominations can be defined or changed only by their governing body, such as the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Cultural Impact

One of the primary influences of Methodism on religious culture has been the wide use of Charles Wesley’s hymns in most Christian denominations. Methodist churches are some of the best architectural examples from particular periods and regions, forming an ecclesiastical architectural history of the last three centuries. In the last two generations Methodist churches have introduced special services that reflect the music, art, poetry, and various other multimedia expressions of contemporary cultures. The Chautauqua Institution, founded in 1874 by Methodist Episcopal bishop J.H. Vincent to reflect the denomination’s interest in combining religion, education, and the arts, has been widely imitated.