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Methodist movement grew from simple origins


NOTE: This may be used as a sidebar to UMNS story #005. News stories and photographs produced during the World Methodist Conference will be available on the following Web site: News reporters seeking credentials to cover the meeting should contact Tom McAnally in Nashville, Tenn., at (615) 742-5470 or by e-mail: .

World Methodist Council News By Tom McAnally*

Methodism began in 1729, when John and Charles Wesley and a few other young men from Oxford banded together for the purpose of intellectual and spiritual improvement and to help one another become better Christians. So systematic were their habits of religious practice and conduct that others in derision called them "Methodists."

In those early years, no one expected the Methodist movement to become a church. John Wesley remained a priest in the Church of England until he died in 1791 at the age of 87.

He was born in 1703 to Samuel Wesley, a clergyman in the Church of England, and Susanna Wesley. Pious, cultured, and strict, Susanna Wesley raised her large family of children according to exact religious rules of everyday living.

The first Methodist "society" was organized in London in 1739. It became the nucleus for a revival of religion that began to spread over the land and in time extended throughout the world.

The Methodist revival began early to express itself in patterns of activity with class meetings, love feasts, conferences, stewards, class leaders and an itinerant (moving or traveling) ministry. A well-integrated organization, later to become a separate church, began taking shape.

Societies formed in separate places but were tied to one another in what Methodists then and now speak of as the "connection."

Despite his great energy, organizing ability, and religious genius, John Wesley was not happy. He felt there should be a joy and peace in religion that he did not have. In 1738, while attending a prayer meeting at a house on Aldersgate Street in London, he felt his heart "strangely warmed." Wesley later wrote of this experience: "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."

The late United Methodist Bishop Nolan B. Harmon once wrote that before this Aldersgate experience, Wesley "knew what religion was theoretically; afterward he knew practically or experientially. No longer was it what the books had said or what the church lecturers had maintained, but what he himself knew. And what Wesley found that God could do for him, he knew God could do for others - and he began to preach it with might and main."

Wesley did two things that greatly magnified the power and force of the Methodist movement: He created a corps of lay preachers and adopted outdoor, or field preaching. In this way, Wesley and his preachers took the gospel to those who otherwise would not have heard it.

Singing was, and is, a major characteristic of the Methodist movement. John Wesley's brother Charles began writing hymns, as did others. Charles Wesley became a prolific writer whose work is still used in Methodist worship services today.

Many leaders in the Church of England frowned upon the Methodists' "irregular" activities. One bishop said John Wesley was not commissioned to preach in the bishop's diocese and had no business there. To a similar criticism from another Church of England cleric, Wesley gave a response that is widely quoted in Methodism even today: "I look upon all the world as my parish."

In addition to mission throughout the world, denominations rooted in the Methodist traditions have established schools and colleges, orphanages, homes for the needy, retirement communities.

Wesley lived to see Methodism established widely over the English-speaking world. Each of these Methodist denominations sent missionaries to other lands, where new Methodist churches were started and eventually new autonomous Methodist denominations created. The largest is the United Methodist Church, which has 8.4 million members in the United States and more than a million in Africa, Asia and Europe. The largest Wesleyan bodies include the Church of the Nazarene, the Korean Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Methodist Church of Nigeria and the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

Today, 74 denominations with churches in 130 countries are members of the World Methodist Council, which serves as the umbrella for the Wesleyan family.
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*McAnally is director of United Methodist News Service, the denomination's official news agency. It is headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., and has offices in New York and Washington.

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