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.