A Potted History of The Methodist Church
Methodism has its roots in one person - John Wesley - whose vision, determination and faith inspired folk to re-assess their lives and renew their commitment to God.
Early days – John Wesley and his childhood
John Wesley was born in 1703 to Samuel and Susanna Wesley at Epworth, on Humberside. His father, Samuel, was the Anglican Rector at Epworth and so it was that John was brought up to be part of the Church of England. On one famous occasion during the childhood of John Wesley, a fire broke out in his home and it was feared that ‘Jacky’ would perish in the flames. Instead, he was rescued and his mother, Susanna, famously commented that John was ‘a brand plucked from the burning’ (an Old Testament reference, which was taken to indicate that God had special plans for young John).
University days – the naming of ‘Methodism’
John was educated at Charterhouse Public School (a private, fee-paying school) and showed great academic promise. Both he and his brother Charles attended Oxford University, and it was during their time there that Methodism had its origins. John and his brother Charles met regularly with a number of other students (including George Whitefield) to study the Bible and to pray. Other students ridiculed their devotion and a number of nicknames were attached to them. They were called, ‘Bible Moths’, the 'Holy Club' and ‘Methodists’ – because of their methodical approach to study and prayer! After completing their studies, John, Charles and George were all ordained as Anglican clergy.
Unsettled days – the work in America
In 1735, John and Charles Wesley travelled to America as missionaries. This was a crucial time in their life. There was a storm on the crossing and John found himself terribly afraid of death. He was impressed by a group of Moravian Christians who seemed so at ease even in the midst of the storm. In those moments, John Wesley committed himself to search for the faith that he had seen in them, and to go on searching until he found it.
‘Red Letter’ days – the spiritual awakening of John and Charles Wesley
But God was about to work one of those miracles that transforms a person’s life – and in this case transformed a nation as well. Within three days of one another, in May 1738, both Charles and John underwent profound spiritual experiences which changed their lives and gave them the assurance of faith for which they had searched. John described his experience in his journal for May 24th 1738.
“In the evening I went unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther and the preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart 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.”
Exciting days – the evangelical revival
In the months and years that followed, God released in John and Charles wonderful gifts that were to change the face of the Christian church in this country and probably prevented Britain from facing revolution, similar to that sweeping other parts of Europe.
Charles found within a glorious gift for hymn writing, providing inspiration from the words of Scripture and often setting the words to tunes that were popular amongst ordinary people. Charles wrote more than 6,000 hymns and many of them are still loved by the Methodists today.
John developed a gift as a preacher of the gospel. His conviction was that the good news of Jesus was for everyone, regardless of social status. At first, he challenged the ‘elitism’ of the Anglican church in his day and called the people to a religion of the ‘heart’, in which every aspect of their daily living was touched and changed by their faith. Before long, John Wesley found that Church pulpits were being closed to him and in 1739, urged on by George Whitefield, he took the important step of preaching in the open air – unheard of in his day.
In the years that followed, John Wesley travelled 250,000 miles on horseback – often preaching five or six times a day. He faced opposition from the authorities and was regularly attacked by organised mobs.
The first Methodist chapel was opened in Bristol. It was called the New Room and can still be visited today. Everywhere he went he organised small groups of believers who could meet together to pray and study. He called these ‘classes’, and small-group fellowship remains an important part of Methodist organisation today.
Wesley worked for justice for all people. He visited prisons and worked alongside widows and orphans to bring relief to those who needed it. He gave away most of what he had or earned, to help others. And the last letter he wrote before his death in 1791 was to William Wilberforce encouraging him to keep fighting for the abolition of the slave trade.
Amongst many sayings that shaped Wesley’s life and ministry was this one:
Uncertain days – following the death of John Wesley
After the death of John Wesley, the authority of the leadership of Methodism switched from one man to the ‘Methodist Conference’. The Conference had been established during Wesley’s life, but its activities and influence were carefully monitored by Wesley himself.
Uncertain days followed his death, and, though the movementk continued to grow at a phenomenal rate, factions began to emerge within the organisation and over a period of time a number of different ‘Methodist groups’ grew up. The strongest of these were the ‘Wesleyan Methodists’ and the ‘Primitive Methodist Church’.
The Primitive Revival
Primitive Methodism was a grass roots, mainly working-class movement, which began in north Staffordshire at the beginning of the 19th century, and quickly spread across the country and overseas to America, Australia and Africa. It fired the hearts and minds of agricultural labourers, miners, potters, mill workers, fishermen, dressmakers and domestic servants, inspiring a passion for justice, which led many to become leaders of the early trade unions. Many women became gifted preachers, and were paid to go out as travelling or itinerant ministers from 1813, which was very radical at the time.
'Primitive': What's in a Name?
The first open air or 'camp' meeting was held in 1807 at Mow Cop in north Staffordshire, whose church nowadays is in Dane and Trent Circuit, and the name 'Society of Primitive Methodists' was adopted in 1812. This reflects a wish to return to the earlier, purer form of Methodism started by John Wesley in the 18th century. After his death the 'Wesleyan Methodists' lost touch with their roots, banning open air meetings and women preachers because they valued their new respectability and feared government repression. Those who held open air meetings also became known as 'Ranters' because of their enthusiastic style.
The Primitives: When did it End?
In 1932, the Primitive Methodists joined the Wesleyan and United Methodists in an Act of Union to become The Methodist Church of today.
Present days – our place in the world Church
The Methodist Church today has nearly ¼ million members in Britain and more than 7 million across the world. There is a World Methodist Council that brings Methodist representatives together from all kinds of different nations. Many of those that come have their own Conferences and are independent of the Methodist Church of Britain, but there remains an affinity with ‘the mother Church’, and the heritage of John Wesley is still valued.