Methodism grew out of the experience of John Wesley (1703-1791), who was born in Epworth, in Lincolnshire, England. Wesley was an ordained priest in the Church of England, but spent much of his early life searching for the personal conviction of faith, the conviction that his own sins had been forgiven by God's grace. He received such an experience on May 24, 1739 at a small study group meeting on Aldersgate Street in London (the "Aldersgate Experience"), during which he felt his heart "strangely warmed."

Wesley, along with his brother Charles (1707-1788), undertook a movement intended to revitalize the faith of the members of the Church of England. Their intention was not to begin a new religion or denomination within Christianity. The central features of their efforts at revitalization were the formation of small groups or societies that met for Bible study and encouragement in the life of faith, and the use of lay preachers (not ordained priests) to spread the Gospel, and to check in regularly with the societies. Methodist preachers rode a circuit that brought them into regular contact with the societies for which they were responsible. Wesley's own circuit took him regularly from London to Bristol, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Wesley is estimated to have travelled more than 250,000 miles by horseback, and to have averaged fifteen sermons per week during his career.

Wesley agreed with the great Protestant Reformers Martin Luther (1483-1546), Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), and John Calvin (1509-1564) that people were saved by the free grace of God's forgiveness of sin, and that there was nothing one could do to merit such forgiveness-it was simply a gift. This is the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Wesley's theology was distinctive in that he argued that this justifying grace was preceded by a grace that prepared individuals and allowed them to accept or reject justifying grace freely ("prevenient grace"), and that, in addition to justifying grace, they are given additional grace that leads them on toward a life of sinless perfection ("sustaining grace"). Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin had argued that individuals are not free to accept or reject God's grace-if offered, it is an offer that cannot be refused. Further, they argued that though one could not lose this grace, sinless perfection was not possible-though their sins are forgiven Christians always remain sinners.

Wesley saw his movement as an effort to revitalize the Church of England. He required his followers to attend church services at their local parishes, and he did not allow his lay preachers to administer sacraments. While his use of lay preachers, his willingness to preach not just from pulpits but on street corners and in fields, and his eventual willingness to allow women leadership roles in his movement caused tension with some in the Church of England, Methodism remained part of the Church of England in England for as long as Wesley was alive.

Wesley began sending preachers to the American colonies in 1771. As in England, he had a team of lay preachers who rode from society to society, monitoring the beliefs and efforts at holiness of each society member. The system of itinerant circuit riders was very successful in America, where many settlers were "un-churched" because of the distance they lived from towns and cities.

Because of the hostility of many Americans toward the Church of England following the Revolutionary War, and because of the great distance from England, Wesley allowed Methodists in America to form a separate denomination. At the "Christmas Conference" in Baltimore in 1784-85 Dr. Thomas Coke (who had been ordained as a superintendent or bishop by Wesley) and Francis Asbury formed the Methodist Episcopal Church and began to ordain ministers who could offer the sacraments as well as preach.

Study Questions:
     1.     Did Methodism originate with the intentions of becoming a new tradition? Explain.
     2.     How did his understanding of the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” differ from that of the other Protestant reformers?
     3.     What is “prevenient grace”? How do individuals interact with it?
     4.     How did the American Methodist movement originate?

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