Ascertaining accurate total numbers is difficult. The Methodist church is greatly divided. There are 23 separate Methodist bodies in the U.S. alone (Frank S. Mead and Samuel S. Hill, Handbook of Denominations, p. 159). “The World Methodist Council is made up of 80 Methodist, Wesleyan and related Uniting and United churches representing over 80 million members in 138 countries” (Our Worldwide Church Family, worldmethodistcouncil.org).
The United Methodist Church (UMC) numbers about 12.5 million worldwide. Membership in the U.S.A. is almost 7 million (The Denomination’s Membership tops 12.5 Million by Heather Hahn, Jan. 29, 2018, umnews.org). This is the largest branch of the Methodist Church in the U.S.A..
There are other churches which are of Methodist stock. We will mention only four. (1) The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) has about 2.5 million members worldwide (Introduction, ame5.org). (2) The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) has about 1.4 million [African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church, crcc.usc.edu]. (3) The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) has about 1.2 million members (About the CME church, thecmechurch.org). (4) The Wesleyan Church (TWC) has about 138,000 (2018 TWC Statistics, wesleyan.org). The first three are predominately black in membership. All four were formed due to issues involving race or slavery.
1. John Wesley (1703-1791) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788).
These brothers were born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, Great Britain. John was the fifteenth, and Charles was the eighteenth of nineteenth children born to Samuel and Suzanna Wesley (ten survived infancy). The family struggled with poverty. Samuel Wesley was Rector of Epworth, an Anglican minister.
John, likewise, would become an Anglican minister. He received a M.A. degree from Oxford in 1727. He was ordained a priest in 1728. He returned to Oxford for residency work in 1729.
Charles Wesley followed the same path. While a student at Oxford, he started a Bible study and prayer group with two other students. When John returned to Oxford, he became the leader. The group grew over time to fourteen. Among the group was George Whitefield. Some of the other students referred to the group as the “Holy Club.” They were also called “Methodists.” F.W. Mattox writes, “Due to the extreme worldliness of the university campus the little group suffered much ridicule and began to be called ‘Methodist.’ This name was given to them because of their insistence upon a ‘method’ of strict observance to all the prayer book demanded. They contended that a satisfactory life before God required that they follow the method prescribed in the prayer book. They fasted on all appointed days and took communion every Sunday. They denied themselves every luxury and amusement, and saved all of the money possible to pass on to more needy individuals” (F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom, p. 286). “They became known as ‘The Holy Club’ or ‘Methodist’ because of the methodical way in which they carried out their Christian faith. John Wesley later used the term Methodist himself to mean the methodical pursuit of biblical holiness” (The Methodist Church, bbc.co.uk). Charles received a M.A. degree from Oxford and was ordained a priest in 1735.
The colony of Georgia received its charter in 1732. It was the last of the thirteen colonies. It was the brainchild of James Oglethorpe. He wanted a place to resettle debtors from England. King George II wanted a buffer between South Carolina and Spanish Florida (Georgia Colony, britishempire.co.uk).
In 1735, John and Charles accompanied Oglethorpe to Georgia. John went as a missionary to the colonists and the natives. Charles went as secretary to Oglethorpe. They stayed two years. The mission work was not very fruitful (Mattox, p. 286; Charles Jacobs, The Story of The Church, p. 330). A controversy occurred in Georgia. John developed an interest in Sophia Hopkey, the niece of the Governor of Savannah. He decided not to marry her. She, then, married William Williamson. Her husband discouraged her attendance. He did not want her near John. After a lapse in attendance she attended, but John refused to serve her communion. This led to controversy and an exit from Georgia (John Wesley Trial: 1737, encyclopedia.com, The Life of John Wesley, Ryan Reeves Youtube; New Standard Encyclopedia Vol. 10 © 1938; Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 19, p. 760 © 1979).
There are certain things which changed the Wesley’s religious thinking: (1) On their way to Georgia (1735) a series of storms were experienced. In one storm John Wesley became frightened. He wrote, “How is it that thou hast no faith?” (John Wesley, Journal, January 23). Another storm came and many passengers became frightened. However, a group of Moravian emigrants seemed to be at peace. He wrote, “The Germans calmly sang on. I ask one of them afterward, ‘Were you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied, mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die’” (Journal, January 25). Why was he frightened and they calm?
(2) In Savannah, Georgia (1735-1738) the Wesleys continued to have contact with Moravians [The Moravian Church (Unitas Fratrum or Unity of Brethren) has its beginnings in 15th century Moravia and Bohemia (Czechia). The Church was influenced by Lutheran Pietism in the early 18th Century]. John Wesley asked about their calmness and his lack of calmness. A Moravian names August Spangenberg replied, “’My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?’ I was surprised, and know not how to answer. He observed it and 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 that he has saved you?’ I said, ‘I do.’ But I feared they were vain words” (Journal of John Wesley, February 07, ntslibrary.com).
(3) Back in England (1738) the Wesleys continued to have contact with Moravians. Charles began to teach Moravian Peter Bohler the English language. (Journal of Charles Wesley, February 20th, Wesley.nnu.edu). On one occasion, Peter asked Charles some questions about his hope of salvation. “He asked me, ‘Do you hope to be saved? ‘Yes.’ ‘For what reason do you hope it?’ ‘Because I have used my best endeavors to serve God.’ He shook his head, and said no more. I thought him very uncharitable, saying in my heart, ‘What, are not my endeavors a sufficient ground of hope…?’” (Journal of Charles Wesley, February 24). Peter also interacted with John. On one occasion, Peter told him, “My brother the philosophy of yours must be purged away” (Journal of John Wesley, February 18). He told him, “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it” (ibid, March 04).
John preached to a man on death row. He saw how this message of faith brought comfort to the man (ibid, March 27).
Charles came to believe in the doctrine of justification by faith alone after reading Luther’s commentary on Galatians. He wrote, “Salvation by faith alone, not an idle, dead faith, but faith which works by love, and is necessarily productive of all good works and all holiness” (Journal of Charles Wesley, May 17). He found peace. He wrote, “I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ” (ibid, May 21).
John did the same three days later after hearing Luther read. He wrote, “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins” (Journal of John Wesley, May 24).
Prior to this change in John and Charles Wesley, they seem to be trying to achieve salvation by good works. This brought no peace.
4. George Whitefield (1714-1770)
Here are a few details concerning him. He was born in Gloucester, Great Britain. His mother was a tavern operator (The Bell Inn). At Oxford he became a member of “the Holy Club.” He led the group after the Wesleys departed for Georgia. He received a B.A. from Oxford and was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church in 1736. He was ordained a priest in 1739. He became a very popular preacher in the colonies, and a key figure in the Great Awakening during the 1740’s. “In one year Whitefield covered 5,000 miles in America and preached more than 350 times” (Great Awakening, history.com).
Following Whitefield’s first trip to America (1738), he found few opportunities to preach in church pulpits. He began to preach open-air meetings in the countryside to the poor. Whitefield convinced the Wesleys to do the same. John Wesley wrote, “I reached Bristol and met Mr. Whitefield there. I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields… I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church (building – B.H.)” (Journal of John Wesley, March 31). The Wesleys came to use this setting for preaching.
Trouble occurred over Calvinism. George Whitefield became a proponent of Calvinism. This was in step with orthodox Anglican teaching. The Wesleys opposed Calvinism. John believed that it represented “God as worse than the devil; more false, more cruel, more unjust” (Free Grace. A Sermon preached at Bristol, quod.lib.umich.edu). The difference turned into a controversy between 1739-1741. Those with Whitefield were Calvinist Methodist. They eventually dropped the Methodist name. Some became the Presbyterian Church of Wales. Others became a part of Congregationalism (Calvinist Methodist, oxfordreference.com; Ryan Reeves YouTube, Wesley and Whitefield). Those with the Wesleys became the United Societies of Wesley (Ryan Reeves).
Whitefield and the Wesleys eventually made peace between themselves. They simply agreed to disagree on the subject. John Wesley seems to have coined the phrase “agree to disagree” (10 Fascinating Facts About John Wesley and United Methodism, resourceumc.org).
5. Separation from the Church of England
The Wesleys set up societies within the Church of England. They worked within the Church. They attracted many who were not an active part of the Church of England – those who could not afford the pew rents or dress in the right clothes (John Wesley, The Faith That Sparked the Methodist Movement, Vision Video). They did not desire to leave the Church of England. Charles Wesley said before his death, “I have lived and I die in communion of the Church of England” (F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom, p. 288). John Wesley said prior to his death, “I hold all the doctrines of the Church of England. I love her liturgy and approved her plan of discipline” (ibid). “After the death of John Wesley, the Methodist Conference which met in 1793 declared, “We are determined in a body to remain in connection with the Church of England” (ibid). Separation was never formally declared, but did come. (1) Methodist Societies had their own rules. In 1743, John Wesley prepared, “General Rules” for the societies. (2) They began to ordain their own preachers. “After Anglican clergy fled America during the Revolution, Wesley was faced with caring for some 15,000 followers there. The Bishop of London refused to ordain clergy for him, so Wesley ordained ministers on his own authority” (A Brief History of John Wesley and Methodism, trentonunitedmethodistchurch.org). Wesley ordained Thomas Coke in 1784 to be Superintendent in America. Coke, with authorization from Wesley, ordained Francis Asbury as joint Superintendent (Coke, Thomas, bu.edu). The Methodist in America were in reality separated from the Church of England. Charles Jacob writes, “The assumption by Wesley of the right to ordain ministers was a definite break with the Church of England, and once the break had been made, Wesley continued to ordain men, first for other British possessions, and finally for England itself. At the same time with the first ordinations, he completed the Methodist Church organization by vesting in the General Conference all the authority which he had personally exercised over the preachers and the societies” (Charles Jacobs, The Story of the Church, p. 333).
There is no denying that the Wesleys worked with zeal in what they did. John Wesley is said to have traveled 250,000 miles on horseback in preaching, and to have preached more than 40,000 sermons in his life (John Wesley, biography.yourdictionary.com). Charles Wesley is said to have written more than 6,500 hymns (Charles Wesley, songsandhymns.org). These include such well-known favorites as: And Can It Be That I Should Gain?; Christ, The Lord, is Risen Today; Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; Jesus, Lover of My Soul; Soldiers of Christ, Arise.
(Among the helpful works consulted: Encyclopedia Britannica; New Standard Encyclopedia; The Journal of John Wesley, ntslibrary.com; The Journal of Charles Wesley, nnu.edu; The Story of the Church by Charles Jacobs; The Eternal Kingdom by F.W. Mattox; The History of Methodism, methodistheritage.org.uk; A Brief History of John Wesley and Methodism, trentonunitedmethodistchurch.org; 10 Fascinating Facts About John Wesley and United Methodism by Jeremy Steel, resourceumc.org; Methodist Church History, learningreligions.com; Wesley v. Whitefield, christianhistoryinstitute.org; Handbook of Denominations by Frank Mead and Samuel Hill; Ryan Reeves, YouTube, The Life of John Wesley; Ryan Reeves YouTube; Wesley and Whitefield; John Wesley, The Faith that Sparked the Methodist Movement, Vision Video, YouTube; Georgia Colony, britishempire.co.uk; Great Awakening, history.com; Coke, Thomas, bu.edu; quod.lib.umich.edu; John Wesley, biography.yourdictionary.com; Charles Wesley, songsandhymns.org; oxfordreference.com; umnews.org; worldmethodistcouncil.org. These are some of the works I found helpful).