The Rise of Methodism What is Methodism?

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The Rise of Methodism
1. What is Methodism?
- A movement forged by John and Charles Wesley, originally as a serious-minded religious society within the Church of England in the 1730s. Manifold influences including Moravianism, Puritanism, and Anglicanism. It emerged as a separate denomination in the USA after 1784 (Christmas Conference in Baltimore), and in Britain after 1795 (Plan of Pacification), but still retained some of its Anglican liturgical roots.

- Originally a term of abuse that came to be adopted by the Methodists themselves.

2. Why is it important?
- The largest new religious movement to emerge from the evangelical revivals of the 18th century

- The fastest growing religious movement in the Trans-Atlantic world, 1770-1850.

- Largest religious denomination in the United States around 1850.

- At the end of the 19th century there were 35 million worshippers in six continents.

- The direct ancestor of Holiness and Pentecostal traditions, the fastest growing movements of world Christianity.

- A voluntary society in the age of associations (evangelicalism’s most common organizational form).

- The British and American Methodist missionary movements were the largest of the 19th century

- Methodism and women preaching; Methodism and slavery; Methodism and the Law.

3. The Wesley Brothers
- John Wesley (1703-91): Oxford Holy Club; Savannah, Georgia (1735); encounter with the Moravians; Aldersgate experience 1738; early disputes with Moravians and Calvinists; and builder of the Methodist organization. Wesley and: the enlightenment; the poor; Catholics and anti-Catholicism; slavery; political culture; and the Church of England..

- Charles Wesley (1707-88): Similar trajectory (Holy Club, Savannah, conversion experience 1738); lyrical genius (composed around 8,000 hymns); stalwart Anglican.

4. Methodist Characteristics

- Theology:

  • The alleged quadrilateral (scripture, experience, reason, and tradition); a dynamic vortex; prevenient grace; experience and assurance; the importance of Christian perfection; “the spread of scriptural holiness throughout the land.” The scriptural way of salvation: prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace.

  • The medium and the message: New Birth, entire sanctification and holy dying. Hymns, sermons, and obituaries/biographies

  • Evangelical Arminianism and controversies with Anglicans, Calvinists, and Moravians.


  • A principle of association (bands, classes and societies) served by itinerant preachers. A connectional system administered by conferences. Neither fully Episcopalian nor congregational. Rules and voluntary associations. Money and voluntary contributions.

  • A principle of celebration (love feasts, hymn singing, camp meetings). Hymns as carriers of the message.

  • A principle of lay mobilization, men and women (priesthood of all believers). Women formed a clear majority of Methodists in the north Atlantic region.

  • Dialectical tensions between enlightenment and enthusiasm, discipline and celebration, faith and works, autocracy and spiritual egalitarianism, and charity and acquisitiveness.

5. Why did Methodism grow so fast in the North Atlantic Region 1740-1880?

  • Endogenous factors: an organization built for growth, an expansive theology Evangelical Arminianism), the importance of the laity (priesthood of all believers); the hymns (little collections of practical divinity); community and association; the role of itinerant preaching; junction boxes like Fetter Lane; a noisy oral tradition giving voice to quite humble people; discipline and assurance in fast-moving times.

  • Exogenous factors: The rise of the British Empire; migrations of peoples; the expansion westward of the United States (open social space); the rise of market economies; the great age of voluntary associations; the democratization of Protestantism, and the crisis of Calvinism.

  • These two sorts of explanation need to be brought together. Biological metaphor of competition and symbiosis.

  • A parallel surge with the popular evangelical Baptists. Respectively the first and second largest religious denominations in America by 1850.

6. Important Questions:

  • Why was Methodism so attractive to women, African Americans, and the lower orders?

  • Why was Methodism such a fissiparous tradition? (class, race and style)

  • How should Methodism be integrated into national historical traditions? The Halevy thesis in England. The market revolution and the coming of the Civil War in the US.

  • Why did Methodist growth rates begin to moderate and then decline in England, Ireland and North America? Compare with modern Africa and Southeast Asia.

  • How far is Pentecostalism a direct outgrowth of Pietism and Methodism? Is there a great family tree of the holiness traditions?

  • What are the great legacies of Methodism? What contribution has it made to the history of Christianity? (voluntarism, disciplined holiness, missions, education, social justice movements, hymns and music). A flexible, oral, experiential, and populist form of Christianity.

Methodism: Empire of the Spirit – what kind of empire is it? Largely Protestant, English speaking, economically prospering, expression of modernity.

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