History of Methodism

Methodism began as a revival movement within the Anglican Church during the 18th century. Its origins go back to the Holy Club which was formed by two brothers, John and Charles Wesley, during their time in Oxford (1729-35). They were Church of England clergymen, the sons of the Reverend Samuel Wesley, rector of Epworth. Their primary aim in forming this fellowship was the spiritual development of the members and the revival of true religion. Writing to his father, John described the group as, "a society of very young and very earnest High Churchmen with evangelistic views and a true desire to lead the lives of exemplary Christians". George Whitfield was among their number. Their colleagues at Oxford gave them the nickname of 'Methodists' on a account of the methodical and disciplined way in which they met.

In another letter to his father, John declared that "my one aim in life is to secure personal holiness, for without being holy myself I cannot promote holiness in others". Holiness meant loving God entirely and expressing that love in the doing of good works. There is, he declared, no holiness apart from the social expression of it. The members of the Holy Club regularly visited the prisoners, the destitute and the sick, giving financial help and forming classes for the children of the poor. This social concern has been one of the hallmarks of Methodism ever since.

The rapid growth of Methodism took place against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution. This was an era marked by the increasing poverty of the workers, who laboured in dreadful conditions, and the increasing prosperity of the mill and factory owners. Between 1700 and the end of the century the population rose by some 4 million. It is maintained among historians that were it not for the Methodist revival England might well have experienced a revolution among the working classes similar to that taking place across the channel. Fortunately by then, as Howard Snyder points out in his book 'The Radical Wesley', "the people called Methodists seemed to be everywhere, a renewing force within the Church of England, committed to proving in experience what the church professed in doctrine, not only offering God to all but also the power of God for transformed living in all who believed".

There is a familiar saying, "Methodism was born in Song". The hymns of Charles Wesley were instrumental in the spreading and sustaining of the Methodist movement. Their rousing tunes and practical theology (called 'the Bible in miniature') moved many to Christ and to Methodism. He was a highly gifted musician. He left behind some 6,500 hymns. The selection that was first published in 1739 became instantly popular. There was a saying in those days, when folk travelled long distances on horseback, that "you could tell a Methodist was coming by his singing!"

It never was John Wesley's, intention to separate from the Church of England, but such was the rapid growth of the movement that the decision was taken out of his hands. Two happenings contributed to this spread of the Methodist movement. The first of these was the entering of the brothers into a deepened experience of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit within three days of each other in 1738. This gave to their preaching, hymn-writing and pastoral oversight a new drive and a wider dimension. The second happening was the increasing opposition of the established church toward the revival movement. Parish pulpits were closed to John Wesley. In 1739 he commenced the radical practice of open-air preaching, beginning by standing on his father's tombstone. This field-preaching, as it became known, reached the masses on an unprecedented scale resulting in thousands coming to hear him as he preached up and down the land, and also in Ireland to which he made 21 visits.

In 1784, following increasing opposition from the Church of England bishops, John Wesley set up a structure designated 'The Yearly Conference of the People called Methodists' in order to ensure the continuation of the movement after his death. He now ordained preachers into the full time ministry. In 1795, four years after his death, Methodist clergy became legally entitled to conduct marriages and administer the sacraments. Methodism was now a Church with a sound base, thanks to Wesley's skill as an organizer. The weekly class meetings for the members, the schools, the City Missions etc. all flourished under a benign but strict discipline. E. Douglas Bebb in his work on Wesley points out that "the Methodist Church discipline of the 18th century has no parallel in modern ecclesiastical history"

The result of this spiritual revival and organization meant that in 1768 Methodism had 40 circuits and 27,341 members. Ten years later the figure was 60 circuits & 40,089 members, rising in the next decade to 99 circuits and 66,375 members . By 1798, seven years after Wesley's death, there were 149 circuits with 101,712 members so that one in every thirty adult Englishmen was a Methodist.

What Methodists belief

The Methodist Church is part of the worldwide church. While it did not formulate new doctrines, it focused men's mind on the need for bible-centred preaching and teaching - what Wesley called 'the revival of true religion'. Its great and lasting contribution was the special emphasis on the core values of Christian belief. These emphases are summed by 20th century Methodism under four headings, known as Wesley's "Four Alls".


ALL NEED TO BE SAVED - UNIVERSAL SIN

For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. This state of separation from God into which all are born is the legacy of Adam's Fall. All stand under the divine condemnation.

ALL MAY BE SAVED - UNIVERSAL SALVATION

This salvation is freely offered through faith in Christ's atoning work. in Wesley's doctrine of the Atonement the central emphasis is on Christ the Representative of all mankind, dying on the Cross to open a new covenant of grace, so that mankind can be taken out of the legal order of merit and justified and sanctified by faith alone through this new relationship to God mediated by Christ. It is all of grace.

ALL MAY KNOW THEMSELVES SAVED - CHRISTIAN ASSURANCE

Wesley's emphasis on the assurance of salvation was looked upon, especially by the bishops of the Church of England, as arrogant and presumptuous as it had no place in the mind of right thinking people. However, Wesley proclaimed that the Gospel offers men the assurance of divine forgiveness. This assurance is the work of the Holy Spirit witnessing to our spirit that we are now the children of God saved by grace.

ALL MAY BE SAVED TO THE UTTERMOST - CHRISTIAN PERFECTION

Wesley included under this heading the concepts of Holiness, Entire Sanctification, Perfect Love and Full Salvation.

This doctrine of Christian Perfection was the central feature in Wesley's ministry. He termed it "the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists, and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appears to have raised us up".

To be perfected in love is the goal of Christian discipleship. Wesley describes such a disciple in these words :
" He loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and serves him with all his strength. He loves his neighbour, every man, as himself; yes, as Christ loves us. Indeed, his soul is all love, filled with bowels of mercies, kindness, meekness, gentleness, longsuffering. And his life agrees thereto, full of the work of faith, the patience of hope, the labour of love....This is to be the perfect man, to be sanctified throughout; even to have a heart so all-aflaming with the love of God as continually to offer up every thought, word and work, as a spiritual sacrifice, acceptable to God through Christ"

Colin Williams, in his book," John Wesley's Theology Today ", points out that reception of this fullness of faith, and having one's heart aflame with the love of God, doesn't mean that there is no deviation from the will of God, and he goes on to add " in fact, 'the perfect man', because of his unbroken relationship to Christ, becomes more and more aware of his moral, psychological, and intellectual imperfections. For this reason Wesley emphasises that the perfect grow in grace as the unbroken relationship to Christ brings increasing sensitivity to God's will" (pp 182-183)

Wesley, like St Paul, does not contend that in this life perfect is attained in one's morals or motives. But both are agreed that perfection in love is the goal of all who love the Lord.

Structure of the Methodist Church

The Methodist Church has a Connexional structure rather than a congregational one, ie. the individual churches are 'connected' through Circuits and Districts and form the ‘Connexion’ (Wesley's spelling).
In the history of Christianity in England, a Connexion was a circuit of prayer groups who would employ travelling ministers alongside the regular ministers attached to each congregation. The otherwise obsolete spelling (connexion rather than connection) is retained by Methodism.

The Connexional structure:


Conference

The governing body of the Methodist Church

The Annual Conference

Usually held early June, brings people from all over the island together to worship, administrate and be inspired. Conference is the final authority in the Church in all matters of doctrine, worship, discipline and order.

Districts

A number of Circuits make up a District. The Connexion is made up of a number of geographical districts. The Methodist Church in Ireland is made up of eight districts. Portaferry is part of the Down District.

Circuits

Usually formed from local churches in a defined area. Portaferry is part of the Glastry and Portaferry Methodist Circuit.

Local Church

Methodist Church in Ferry Street, Portaferry.

Small groups (Classes)

The small group (or 'class') has always been at the heart of the Methodist system. Their aim - to encourage one another in the Faith.



The network of small groups, congregations, circuits and districts is called the 'Connexion' (the 'x' is there on purpose!). Through this:

 

  • The whole church acts and decides together.
  • The local church is never independent of the rest of the Connexion.