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Religion Library: Methodist

Influences

Written by: Ted Vial

By the end of the 17th century, the main branches of Protestantism-the Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed (Calvinist) churches-in Europe and England were perceived by many as rigid and lifeless.After the initial enthusiasm of the Reformation and a liberating sense of freedom stemming from the belief that God forgives sins regardless of any effort or merit on the part of the sinner, these churches began to engage in theological disputes about details of doctrine that seemed irrelevant to many churchgoers.For example, all agreed that the sacrament of communion was important, but could not agree on whether Jesus was present in the bread and the wine or whether the sacrament was symbolic; those who agreed that Jesus was present could not agree on the way he was present, and if that affected his post-resurrection location at the right hand of God.

Pietism was a movement within many Christian denominations that focused on the quality and emotional intensity of people's faith.It was not a movement to change the doctrines of any church, but to enliven the lives of faith of everyday people, to get them to feel a real relationship with a personal God.Methodism was a British strand of pietism.John Wesley was deeply moved and influenced by his contact with German pietists known as Moravians, and modeled his movement to a large extent on them.

In Germany, Philipp Jacob Spener (1635-1705) and August Hermann Franke (1663-1727) tried to re-energize the lives of faith of Lutherans by forming what they called collegia pietatis, or associations of piety.These were small groups that met regularly for Bible study and prayer.In 1727 the Moravian Church was born when a persecuted group of Christians (followers of John Hus) from what is today the Czech Republic found refuge on the German estate of the pietist Count Zinzendorf (the estate was named Herrnhut).The Moravians adopted Zinzendorf's pietism.They strived to foster deep faith through love feasts (meals with communion and hymn singing) and small group meetings for mutual encouragement.

When John Wesley sailed to the Georgia colony in October 1735 he was deeply impressed by a group of Moravians on board who calmly sang hymns and prayed during a terrific storm.In Georgia, Wesley spoke with their leader, Augustus Gottlieb Spangenberg.Wesley recorded an account of their conversation in his journal: "He [Spangenberg] asked, . . . ‘Do you know Jesus Christ?'I paused, and said, ‘I know he is the Savior of the world.'‘True,' replied he, ‘but do you know he has saved you?'I answered, ‘I hope he has died to save me.'He only added, ‘Do you know yourself?'I said, ‘I do.'"Wesley then added in his journal, "But I fear they were vain words."

Having returned to London, Wesley went, somewhat unwillingly, with another Moravian, Peter Boehler, to a society meeting in Aldersgate Street.It was here in 1738 that Wesley's heart was "strangely warmed" and he received his personal assurance of salvation.

Many of the characteristics of Methodism were adopted by Wesley directly from the Moravians, such as the emphasis on personal experience fostered by small group study and encouragement, as well as the Methodist emphasis on hymn singing.

Other important factors in the rise of Methodism include the early stages of industrialization and the migrations from country to city.The Church of England was bound to a parish system that made it hard to respond to such rapid shifts in population.Wesley's willingness to preach outdoors, his willingness to use lay preachers, and to reach out to dislocated urban immigrants in ways that the Church of England could not were important factors in the quick popularity of his movement.


Study Questions:
     1.    How was Methodism formed out of pietism?
     2.    How did the Moravian Church help to shape the future of Methodism?
     3.    What factors enabled Methodism able to catch on so quickly?

 

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