A BRIEF HISTORY OF METHODISM
With more than 12 million members worldwide, THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH is the largest of several Christian denominations of Wesleyan heritage, which trace their roots to the ministry of brothers John (1703-1791) and Charles (1707-1788) Wesley. While studying at Oxford University to be Anglican priests in the Church of England, they formed a “Holy Club” among other students which stressed methodical Bible study and Christian living, for which they became known as “Methodists.”
In 1735, the Wesley brothers came to the American colonies as missionaries to Native Americans in Georgia but returned to England disillusioned and discouraged. They would never visit the American continent again.
After a transforming religious experience in 1738, the Wesley brothers turned their efforts toward bringing spiritual renewal to the Church of England. John Wesley sought to minister to the spiritual and physical needs of disadvantaged people and others who had been ignored or abandoned by the church and other institutions of that time. Proclaiming “the world is my parish,” he preached on street corners, factory floors, and in the fields, and formed Methodist classes for those wishing to live a Christian lifestyle.
Charles Wesley was instrumental in spreading Methodist theology through thousands of hymns he wrote in a new style which expressed a personal faith. Through its General Board of Global Ministries (www.gbgm-umc.org), social outreach continues to be an integral part of the Methodism throughout the world.
(Today, every United Methodist congregation participates in local outreach ministries. You will find our members living out their faith by volunteering their time through local service groups, social service agencies and the hospital. Through the Open Door Food Kitchen and InterServ, our congregation carries out a commitment to help feed the hungry in St. Joseph.)
Some Methodists made their way to the American colonies where it became a lay movement, with Methodist classes but no ordained clergy. Members were instructed to take Sacraments in the Church of England. The withdrawal of Anglican priests following the Revolutionary War demanded the formation of a denominational structure and the ordination of Methodist ministers which took place in 1784.
Early Methodist preachers were itinerants who were assigned to organize new classes and churches within a territory. They regularly traveled between these rural “charges” on horseback and became known as “circuit riders.”
A spiritual awakening occurred within American Protestantism in the first half of the nineteenth century, which brought increased emphasis on personal holiness and missionary zeal aimed at evangelizing the American frontier. Relying on its network of circuit riders, the young Methodist church was to spread its appealing message of free will and grace more effectively than some of the more established denominations, and its numbers grew as Methodist classes, which became societies or churches, were established in almost every town. By 1850, one in six Americans claimed Methodist affiliation.