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For those unfamiliar with Methodist churches, two things offer a glimpse of their story. The first is the fact that a Methodist church has been planted in every county of the United States—the only denomination to have accomplished this. The second is that most of the men who planted these churches did so on horseback. Indeed, for most of their early history, Methodist evangelists were unwashed, rock-ribbed, and unrelenting.
The Methodist movement began not on the frontier but in the ivory towers of Oxford. John and Charles Wesley were students there in the 1720s, and both were devoted to the idea that Christian living should be more than the Anglican church offered. Like many in their generation, they wanted assurance of their faith and a pious life. Their solution was to gather with friends, often in the dawn hours, for prayer and Bible study. Not that Anglicans did not pray or gather, but the Holy Club wanted to do this beyond the rudiments of Christian living. For example, they took extraordinary vows of holiness—some even taking a vow of chastity.
The rigor of the Holy Club was a clear rejection of the status quo. Even if we take some of their vows as the presumption of youth, this style of rigid devotional practice appeared to other Oxford students as needlessly methodical. It smacked of Roman Catholicism to them, and so students mocked the Holy Club for their overindulgence in holiness. One popular joke was to call them the “Methodists.” As so often happens in history, the name was soon embraced, and the Methodist movement was born.
For all his efforts, John Wesley was never fully content with the holy life he achieved at Oxford. In a rush, he enlisted to travel to Georgia to serve as pastor for the new community forming there. He was an utter failure. In what can be described as one of the worst missionary efforts in history, Wesley first came to doubt his conversion while still sailing for America. On the ship were Moravian Pietist emigrants to the New World, and they each carried themselves with far greater assurance, and they even questioned Wesley if he was sure of his faith. Once he arrived in Georgia, things quickly unraveled. He fell in love with a young woman named Sophia Hopkey, then got cold feet about their impending marriage, and finally expressed his jilted anger when she came to communion with her new husband (with whom she had eloped). He was ordered to leave Georgia at once and fled home in 1737.
Whatever the state of Wesley’s love life, his spiritual life was in tatters. He had failed not only at being a pastor but at expressing assurance for his salvation to other Christians. He plunged himself again into reflection and Bible study, and the answer to his dilemma came at a small group meeting at Aldersgate Street in London—led by a community of the same Moravians who had impressed him during his Atlantic voyage. On May 24, 1738, during a reading of Luther’s commentary on Romans, Wesley described feeling “my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ . . . Christ alone for salvation.” His quest for assurance had reached an end.
Another of the famous members of the Holy Club was George Whitefield (1714–70), who like the Wesleys was led to the club by his quest for assurance. He later set out for the New World—Wesley having inspired him—first as a parish pastor and soon as a traveling evangelist. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean was no small feat, but Whitefield made the journey thirteen times. It was also an age before microphones or amplification, but he would preach regularly to thousands, and drew even skeptical audience members such as Ben Franklin.
Whitefield is often credited with being the first to preach extemporaneously in these sermons, but he also was a master of the craft. One of his habits was to reenact biblical narratives, his voice rising for female characters and falling for male characters. He was also quick to shed tears such that no one could doubt his passion for the gospel.
A reinvigorated John Wesley was not far behind, and soon he and Whitefield had sparked what we today call the First Great Awakening (1730s–40s). Puritan Colonial churches soon began to wrestle with the new light of preaching to elicit conversion. Preachers such as Jonathan Edwards (1703–58) supported the revivals, and Edwards even participated in similar preaching and wrote an account of revival in his church.
The most important issues for early Methodists were their theological differences, and these would prove insurmountable. From the beginning, the Holy Club was divided over the issue of predestination. Whitefield was a Calvinist, Wesley an Arminian. The differences between them had hindered neither in sharing the gospel—they both preached the need for conversion and new birth—but the question of how to form church discipline after conversion forced Calvinist Methodists and Arminian Methodists to choose different paths.
Perhaps the greatest issue that separated Methodists was the issue of sanctification. As we noted with the Holy Club, all Methodists strove to embrace holiness. Wesley’s theology, however, had changed since Oxford to include what he called Christian perfection. Few of Wesley’s teachings have inspired more interest or debate than his use of the word perfection. He did not mean that Christians are fully perfect either for the duration of their life or by their own strength. But Wesley was at odds with Martin Luther and other Protestants who have had an allergy to speaking about our works in any positive sense, especially as a basis for assurance.
Wesley seems to have held perfection as a synonym to victory over sin in the Christian life. Those who embraced a lukewarm faith, comfortable and unwilling to seek holiness, were mostly his targets for condemnation. Wesley believed that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit ought to change a sinner over the course of his life, even to the point where he walks fully in step with God’s will.
Still, critics of Wesley have always commented that the marks of Christian perfection are subjective. The use of the word perfection was certainly a problem. Calvinist Methodists such as Whitefield—and other Protestant traditions that shared Luther’s views—also could not embrace the language of infused grace (the notion that grace is not only counted as ours but comes into the soul to achieve perfection). This had been a teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, and though Wesley couched infusion in Protestant categories, it was a bridge too far for some of Wesley’s contemporaries.
The split within the Methodists was quickly resolved in favor of Wesley. In fact, today nearly all Methodist churches identify strongly with the Wesleyan tradition. John Wesley was a far more skilled organizer than Whitefield, and Wesley’s leadership cemented the formal break with the Anglican church (which had ordained all Methodist preachers) in the 1780s.
After Wesley, the man who would define the Methodist spirit was Francis Asbury (1745–1816). Seemingly always on his horse, Asbury toured through America like an evangelical snowbird. He would begin in Georgia in the winter and head north, only turning back again from New York in the late fall. He traveled some 300,000 miles for the sake of evangelism.
Asbury and his fellow circuit-riding preachers were remarkably good at reaching the new American frontier. The critical region for growth was found in Kentucky and Tennessee, and it included the wild and untamed land over the Appalachians. These were not people who knew stable churchgoing life. They had moonshine on their breath and tobacco in their cheeks, and their hands were hardened by long hours of toiling in the fields. Compared to churches along the East Coast, these towns needed evangelists on horseback preaching a simple faith rather than men in gowns delivering learned sermons.
The Wesleyan message that anyone can have an experience of God was the key to Methodist expansion between the American Revolution and the Civil War. It was also key to the ministry focus of Methodist churches (then and now), as preachers and evangelists always reached for those on the fringes of society, people forgotten because they were not established and educated. Beginning with the working-class souls in the South, the Methodist movement also created ministries for the widowed, the hungry, and especially those in slavery.
The story of Methodist evangelism and slavery is one of the more important stories in Methodist history. Methodists did not always share the same view of slavery—Wesley steadfastly opposed it while Whitefield supported it, he claimed, for economic reasons. Many of these tensions remained in Methodism after their deaths. Asbury, for example, saw no reason why a black preacher should be barred from evangelizing white audiences. He even recruited and empowered Harry Hosier, a former slave and convert under Asbury. If the light of the gospel can be experienced by all, Asbury argued, then the color of our skin is irrelevant.
These positive stories, however, did not mask the ongoing racial tension within Methodist churches. In 1816, as black Christians were praying at a Methodist congregation, they were dragged from their knees and told to leave the front of the sanctuary, even though they were members. Fearing that these problems would only increase, Richard Allen led several black congregations away from the Wesleyan denomination to form the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) denomination, which even today is one of the largest and most influential church bodies in America. The first church they formed—Mother Bethel A.M.E.—still holds worship today.
The Methodist call to experience God was a matter not only of inward feeling or emotions. It also formed perhaps the most recognizable influence of Methodist churches on Protestantism: the singing of hymns. It is impossible to think of Protestant singing—no matter the style of music—without at least some of the Methodist hymns. Perhaps the two best known by Charles Wesley are “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Charles alone wrote close to six thousand hymns, and the tradition of hymnody has been at the heart of Methodist life ever since.
By the twenty-first century, Methodist churches had been planted around the world, making their presence no longer simply part of the foundation of American evangelicalism. New churches in new countries, however, does not mean that Methodist culture has waned. Indeed, the ethos of Methodism remains much the same: experiential faith, a heart for the downtrodden and poor, and the goal of social and personal change through God’s perfecting love. These remain the heart of Methodism.