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A religious movement which was originated in 1739 by John Wesley in the Anglican Church, and subsequently gave rise to numerous separate denominations.
The fact that John Wesley and Methodism considered religion primarily as practical, not dogmatic, probably accounts for the absence of any formal Methodist creed. The "General Rules", issued by John and Charles Wesley on 1 May, 1743, stated the conditions of admission into the societies organized by them and known as the "United Societies". They bear an almost exclusively practical character, and require no doctrinal test of the candidates. Methodism, however, developed its own theological system as expressed in two principal standards of orthodoxy.
The first is the "Twenty-five Articles" of religion. They are an abridgment and adaptation of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, and form the only doctrinal standard strictly binding on American Methodists. Twenty-four of these articles were prepared by John Wesley for the Church in America and adopted at the Conference of Baltimore in 1784. The article which recognizes the political independence of the United States (Article XXIII) was added in 1804. The second standard is the first fifty-three of Wesley's published sermons and his "Notes on the New Testament". These writings were imposed by him on the British Methodists in his "Deed of Declaration" and accepted by the "Legal Hundred". The American Church, while not strictly bound to them, highly esteemed and extensively uses them.
More fundamental for all Methodists than these standards are the inspired Scriptures, which are declared by them to be the sole and sufficient rule of belief and practice. The dogmas of the Trinity and the Divinity of Jesus Christ are upheld. The universality of original sin and the consequent partial deterioration of human nature find their efficacious remedy in the universal distribution of grace. Man's free co-operation with this Divine gift is necessary for eternal salvation, which is offered to all, but may be freely rejected. There is no room in Methodism for the rigorous doctrine of predestination as understood by Calvinism. While the doctrine of justification by faith alone is taught, the performance of good works enjoined by God is commended, but the doctrine of works of supererogation is condemned.
Only two sacraments are admitted: Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Baptism does not produce sanctifying grace in the soul, but strengthens its faith, and is the sign of a regeneration which has already taken place in the recipient. Its administration to infants is commanded because they are already members of the Kingdom of God. The Eucharist is a memorial of the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ, who is not really present under the species of bread and wine, but is received in a spiritual manner by believers. The sacrament is administered under both kinds to the laity. The "witness of the Spirit" to the soul of the individual believer and the consequent assurance of salvation are distinctive doctrines of Methodism. This assurance is a certainty of present pardon, not of final perseverance. It is experienced independently of the sacraments through the immediate testimony of the Holy Spirit, and does not preclude the possibility of future transgressions. Transgressions of an involuntary character are also compatible with another characteristic doctrine of Methodism, that of perfection or complete sanctification. The Christian, it is maintained, may in this life reach a state of holiness which excludes all voluntary offence against God, but still admits of growth in grace. It is therefore a state of perfectibility rather than of stationary perfection. The invocation of saints and the veneration of relics and images are rejected. While the existence of purgatory is denied in the Twenty-five Articles (Article XIV), an intermediate state of purification, for persons who never heard of Christ, is admitted today by some Methodists. In its work of conversion Methodism is aggressive and largely appeals to religious sentiment; camp-meetings and revivals are important forms of evangelization, at least in America. Among the practices which Wesley imposed upon his followers were the strict observance of the Lord's Day, the use of few words in buying and selling, and abstinence from all intoxicating drinks, from all purely worldly amusements and from costly apparel. The church service which he prepared for them was an abridgment and modification of the Book of Common Prayer, but it never came into universal use, sentiment among Methodists being rather unfavourable to any set form of liturgy. In America the ministry is divided into two orders; the deacons and the elders or presbyters; in Great Britain and her colonies only one order exists, the elders. The name of bishop used in the episcopal bodies is a title of office, not of order; it expresses superiority to elders not in ordination, but in the exercise of administrative functions. No Methodist denomination recognizes a difference of degree between episcopal and presbyterial ordination. A characteristic institution of Methodism are the love-feasts which recall the agape of Christian antiquity. In these gatherings of believers bread and water are handed round in token of brotherly union, and the time is devoted to singing and the relating of religious experiences.
Admission to full membership in the Methodist bodies was until recently usually granted only after the successful termination of a six months' probationary period. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, has completely done away with this system. Both probationers and full members are divided into small bands known as "classes". These hold weekly meetings under the direction of the "class-leader". They secure for each member individual spiritual care and facilitate the collection of church funds. The financial contributions taken up by the class-leader are remitted to the "stewards" of the society, which is the next administrative unit. The "society" corresponds to the parish or local church in other denominations. The appropriateness of the term will readily appear, if it be remembered that Methodism was originally a revival movement, and not a distinct denomination. Several societies (or at times only one) form a "circuit". Among the officially recognized officers of this twofold division are: (1) the "exhorters", who are commissioned to hold meetings for exhortation and prayer; (2) the "local preachers", laymen who, without renouncing their secular avocation, are licensed to preach; (3) the "itinerant preachers", who devote themselves exclusively to the ministry. At the head of the circuit is the superintendent. In some American Methodist branches the "circuit", in the sense described, does not exist. But they maintain the division into "districts", and the authority over each of these is vested in a "presiding elder", or "district superintendent". In the Methodist Episcopal Church his appointment is limited to a period not exceeding six years, and is in the hands of the bishop. The latter is the only church official who is named for life. The permanent character of his position is the more remarkable from the fact that "itinerancy" has from the very beginning been a distinctive feature of Methodism. This peculiarity denotes the missionary character of the Wesleyan movement, and calls for the frequent transfer of the ministers from one charge to another by the bishop or the stationing committee. In the English Wesleyan Church ministers cannot be continued for more than three years in the same charge. In the Methodist Episcopal Church the pastoral term, originally for one year in the same place, was successively extended to two years (1804), three years (1864), and five years (1888). In 1900 all limit was removed.
The administrative authority is mainly exercised by a system of assemblies, called meetings or conferences. Among English Methodists they are: (1) "the quarterly meeting of the circuit", composed of all the ministers, local preachers, class-leaders, steward, Sunday-school superintendents of the circuit; (2) "the district meeting", consisting of all the ministers of the subordinate circuits, some lay delegates, and, for financial matters, the stewards and such officials; (3) the "Annual Conference", which in 1874 legally succeeded John Wesley in the direction of the Methodist movement and was originally composed of one hundred itinerant preachers (the Legal Hundred") At present it includes lay delegates and meets in two sections: (a) the "pastoral session", which settles pastoral and disciplinary questions, and from which laymen are excluded; (b) the "representative session" in which clergy and laity discuss financial affairs and external administrative questions. In the American Methodist Episcopal bodies the administrative system is organized as follows: (1) the "Quarterly Conference" similar in composition to the circuit-meeting. It controls the affairs of every individual church, and holds its deliberations under the direction of the "district superintendent" or his representative; (2) the "Annual Conference", at which several "districts" are represented by their itinerant preachers under the presidency of the bishop. It elects preachers, pronounces upon candidates for ordination, and enjoys disciplinary power; (3) the "Quadrennial General Conference", endowed with the highest legislative and judicial authority and the right of episcopal elections. In recent years the holding of Ecumenical Methodist conferences has been inaugurated. They are representative assemblies of the various Methodist denominations, but have no legislative authority. The first conference of this type convened in London in 1881, the second met in Washington in 1891, and the third again in London in 1901. Toronto, Canada, was to be the meeting place of the fourth conference in 1911.
The names of three ordained clergymen of the Anglican Church stand out prominently in the early history of the Methodist movement: John Wesley, its author and organizer, Charles Wesley, his brother, the hymn-writer, and George Whitefield, the eloquent preacher and revivalist. John and Charles Wesley were born at Epworth, Lincolnshire, the former on 17 June, 1703, and the latter on 18 December, 1707 (O.S.). In 1714 John entered the Charterhouse School in London, and in 1720 went to Oxford to continue his studies. He was ordained to the diaconate in 1725, and chosen fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, in the following year. His ordination on 22 September, 1728, was both preceded and followed by a period of ministerial activity in his father's parish at Epworth. On his return to Oxford (22 November 1729) he joined the little band of students organized by his brother Charles for the purpose of studying the Scriptures, and practising their religious duties with greater fidelity. John became the leader of this group called in derision by fellow-students "the holy club", "the Methodists". It is to this that Methodism owes its name, but not its existence. When in 1735 the association disbanded, John and Charles Wesley proceeded to London where they received a call to repair as missionaries to the Colony of Georgia. They sailed from Gravesend on 21 October, 1735, and on 5 February, 1736, landed at Savannah. The deep religious impression made upon John by some Moravian fellow-voyagers and a meeting with their bishop (Spangenberg) in Georgia were not without influence on Methodism. Returning to England in 1738, whither his brother had preceded him, he openly declared that he who had tried to convert others was himself not yet converted. In London he met another Moravian, Peter Boehler, attended the meetings of the Moravian Fetter Lance Society, and was converted (i.e., obtained and experienced saving faith) on 24 May, 1738. He then proceeded to Herrnhut in Saxony to make a study of the chief settlement of the Moravians.
In 1739 Wesley organized the first Methodist Society, laid the foundation of the first separate place of worship at Bristol, and also opened a chapel (The Foundry) in London. As the pulpits of the Established Church were closed against the Wesleys and Whitefield, the latter took the decisive step of preaching in the open air in the colliery district of Kingswood near Bristol. His success was enormous, and the Wesleys almost immediately followed his example. At the very inception of the Methodist movement an important doctrinal difference arose between Whitefield and John Wesley regarding predestination. The former held Calvinistic views, believing in limited election and salvation, while the latter emphasized the doctrine of universal redemption. The difference in opinion placed a permanent characteristic doctrinal difference between Arminian Methodism and the Calvinistic Lady Huntingdon Connection. Whitefield gave his support to the latter movement which owed it name to the protection and liberal financial assistance of the Countess of Huntingdon (1707-91). Although Wesley always intended to remain within the Church of England, circumstances gradually led him to give his evangelistic movement a separate organization. The exclusion of his followers from the sacraments by the Anglican clergy in 1740 overcame his hesitation to administer them in his own meeting-rooms. The increase in the number of Societies led the following year to the institution of the lay preachers, who became an important factor in the success of the Methodist propaganda. The year 1742 saw the creation of the "class" system, and two years later the first annual conference was held. Desirous of ensuring the perpetuation of his work, he legally constituted it his successor in 1784. By a deed of declaration filed in the High Court of Chancery, he vested the right of appointing ministers and preachers in the conference composed of one hundred itinerant preachers. This "Legal Hundred" enjoyed, in respect to the conference, the power of filling vacancies and of expelling unworthy members. On the refusal of the Bishop of London to ordain two ministers and a superintendent for America, Wesley, convinced that bishop and presbyter enjoyed equal rights in the matter, performed the ordination himself (1784).
Important problems calling for solution arose immediately after Wesley's death. In the first place the want of his personal direction had to be supplied. This was effected in 1791 by the division of the country into districts and the institution of the district committees with full disciplinary and administrative power under the jurisdiction of the conference. As the administration of the sacraments by Methodist clergymen had not yet become the universal rule, the churches that did not enjoy this privilege insisted upon its concession. The question was permanently settled by the "Plan of Pacification" in 1795. It granted the right of administering the sacraments to all churches in which the majority of the trustees, stewards, and leaders pronounced in favour of such practice. The insistent demand of Alexander Kilham (1762-98) and his followers for more extensive rights for the laity received a temporary and partly favourable answer at the important conference of Leeds in 1797. Lay representation in the conference was, however, emphatically refused and Kilham seceded. Since 1878 they have been admitted as delegates.
The spread of liberal opinions was also at the bottom of several controversies, which were intensified by the dissatisfaction of some members with the preponderating influence of Dr. Jabez Bunting (1779-1858) in the denomination. The introduction of an organ in Brunswick Chapel at Leeds (1828) and the foundation of a theological school for the formation of young preachers (1834) were merely occasions which brought to a head the growing discontent with Bunting and the central authority. The controversies which resulted in these two cases were of but minor importance, when compared with the agitation of the years 1849-56. This period of strife witnessed the circulation of the so-called "Fly-Sheets", directed against Bunting's personal rule, the expulsion of the persons responsible for their publication, and the loss of at least 100,000 members to the Wesleyan Methodist Connection. Some of these affiliated with minor branches, but the majority was lost to Methodism. These controversies were followed by a period of more peaceful evolution extending to our own day. The increase in the number of theological seminaries among British Methodists has emphasized the distinction between clergy and laity and points to more complete internal organization. A fact which reveals a similar tendency is the institution of deaconesses. They were introduced in the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1890.
The history of Methodism in the United States does not date back to the visit of John and Charles Wesley to Georgia, but begins only in 1766. In that year Philip Embury, a local preacher, at the request of Mrs. Barbara Heck, delivered his first sermon in his own house at New York. They had both come to America in 1760 from Ireland, whither their Palatine ancestors had fled from the devastating wars of Louis XIV. Only four persons were present at the first sermon, but the number soon increased, especially after the arrival of Captain Thomas Webb, another local preacher. The latter displayed a stirring zeal, and in 1768 the first Methodist chapel in America was dedicated. Almost simultaneous with this introduction of Methodism into New York was its planting in Maryland. Webb introduced it in Philadelphia, and it spread to New Jersey and Virginia. In 1769 Wesley, in response to repeated appeals for helpers, sent over two preachers, Joseph Pilmoor and Richard Boardman; others followed, among them Francis Asbury (1771) and Thomas Rankin (1772). The first conference convened at Philadelphia in 1773, recognized the authority of John Wesley, and prohibited the administration of the sacraments by Methodist preachers. The total membership reported was 1160. An increase was recorded in the two succeeding conferences, also held at Philadelphia, in 1774 and 1775 respectively. But the Revolution impeded the progress of Methodism. Owing to the nationality of most of its preachers and to the publication of Wesley's pamphlet against the independence of the colonies, it was looked upon as an English product and treated accordingly. When peace was restored, the need of a separate church organization made itself felt. Wesley now heeded Asbury's appeal for an independent ecclesiastical government and the administration of the sacraments by Methodist ministers. In 1784 he ordained the preachers Whatcoat and Vasey as elders, and Dr. Thomas Coke as superintendent for America.
Coke arrived in New York on 3 November, 1784, and that same year what has become known as the Christmas conference was convened at Baltimore. From it dates the organization of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Wesley's plans and instructions were laid before this assembly, and his articles of faith and his liturgy adopted. As Asbury refused to be ordained without previous election he was unanimously chosen superintendent, a title for which, against Wesley's will, that of bishop was substituted in 1788. The rapid increase of the denomination about this time is indicated by the membership of 66,000 reported to the conference of 1792. The growth of the Church continued with the increase in population; but questions of expediency, race, and government caused secessions. The slavery agitation especially resulted in momentous consequences for the denomination. It began at a very early date, but reached a crisis only towards the middle of the nineteenth century. At the general conference held in New York in 1844, Bishop J. O. Andrew was suspended from the exercise of his office owing to his ownership of slaves. This decision met with the uncompromising opposition of the Southern delegates, but was just as staunchly upheld by its supporters. The withdrawal of the slave-holding states from the general body now appeared unavoidable, and a "Plan of Separation" was elaborated and accepted. The Southern delegates held a convention at Louisville, Kentucky, in 1845, at which the "Methodist Episcopal Church, South" was formed. The new organization, after a period of progress, suffered heavily during the Civil War. Since then the relations between the Northern and Southern branches of Episcopal Methodism have assumed a very friendly character. There is a large measure of co-operation particularly in the foreign mission field. A joint commission on federation is in existence and in May, 1910, it recommended the creation of a federal council (i.e., a joint court of last resort) to the general conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
The first apostle of Methodism in Newfoundland was Lawrence Coughlan, who began his work there in 1765. It was only in 1785, however, that the country received a regular preacher. The evangelization of Nova Scotia, where the first Methodists settled in 1771, was begun later (1781), but was carried on more systematically. In the year 1786 a provincial conference was held in Halifax. In spite of their early relations with American Methodism, Newfoundland and the eastern provinces of Canada were after 1799 supplied with preachers from England, and came under English jurisdiction. In 1855 they were constituted a separate conference, the Wesleyan Methodist Conference of Eastern British America. The Provinces of Ontario and Quebec received Methodism at an early date from the United States. Philip Embury and Barbara Heck moved to Montreal in 1774, and William Losee was in 1790 appointed preacher to these provinces by the New York Conference. The War of 1812-14 interrupted the work undertaken by the Methodist Episcopal Church in this section. The settlement of numerous English Methodists in these provinces after the restoration of peace brought about difficulties respecting allegiance and jurisdiction between the English and American branches. The result was that the Methodists Episcopal Church organized its congregations into a separate conference in 1824, and two years later granted them complete independence. Immigration also brought members of the minor Methodist bodies to Canada: The Wesleyan New Connection, the Bible Christians, and the Primitive Methodists. But in 1874 the Wesleyan Methodist Church and the Wesleyan New Connection combined. The other separate bodies joined the union a little later (1883-4), thus forming the "Methodist Church of Canada", which includes all the white congregations of the Dominion. The "British Methodist Episcopal Church", which still maintains a separate existence, has only coloured membership. It was formerly a part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and gained complete independence in 1864. Bermuda, where George Whitefield preached in 1748 and J. Stephenson appeared as first regular preacher in 1799, forms at present a district of the Methodist Church of Canada. South American was entered in 1835, when the Rev. F. E. Pitts visited Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Ayres, and other places, and organized several societies. The special South American Conference was established in 1893, and supplemented in 1897 by the Western South American Mission Conference. Missionary work was inaugurated in Mexico in 1873 by William Butler.
Methodism was introduced into France in 1790, but it has never succeeded in getting a strong foothold there. In 1852 France was constituted a separate conference affiliated to British Methodism. In 1907 the American Church organized a mission there. From France Methodism spread to Italy in 1852. Some years later (1861) two missionaries, Green and Piggot, were sent from England to Florence and founded several stations in Northern Italy. The Methodist Episcopal Church started a missionary enterprise in Italy in 1871, but has never attained great success. The first Methodist missionary to Germany was G. Mueller. He started his preaching in 1830 and gained some adherents mainly in Wurttemberg. Methodist missions are maintained also in Switzerland, Scandinavia, Russia, Bulgaria, Spain, and Portugal.
Methodism has had considerable success in Australasia. It appeared at an early date, not only on the Australian continent but also in some of the South Sea Islands. The first class was formed in Sydney in 1812, and the first missionary in the country was S. Leigh. Methodism spread to Tasmania in 1820, to Tonga in 1822, to New Zealand in 1823, and in 1835 Cargill and Cross began their evangelistic work in the Fiji Islands. In 1854 Australian Methodism was formed into an affiliated conference of England, and in 1876 became independent.
The foundation of the first Methodist missions in Asia (1814) was due to the initiative of Thomas Coke. Embarking on 30 December, 1813, at the head of a band of six missionaries, he died on the voyage, but the undertaking succeeded. The representatives of English Methodism were joined in 1856 by William Butler of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1847 this same Church sent J.D. Collins, M.C. White, and R.S. Maclay to China. Stations have also been founded in the Philippine Islands and in Japan, where the Methodist Church of Japan was organized in 1907.
George Warren left England for Sierra Leone in 1811. The American Church entered the field in 1833. South Africa, where Methodism is particularly well represented, was erected in 1882 into an affiliated conference of the English Wesleyan Church.
Secessions from the main bodies of Methodism followed almost immediately upon Wesley's death. The following originated in England:
In the United States, besides the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Primitive Methodists, which have been spoken of above, the following denominations exist:
The founders of Methodism had enjoyed the advantages of a university training, and must have realized the priceless value of education. The fact, however, that John Wesley laid almost exclusive stress on the practical element in religion tended to make a deep and extensive knowledge of doctrinal principles seem superfluous. The extraordinary success of his preaching which urgently demanded ministers for the ever-increasing number of his followers, led to the appointment, in the early history of Methodism, of preachers more commendable for their religious zeal than remarkable for their theological learning. Indeed, for a comparatively long period, the opposition of Methodists to schools of theology was pronounced. The establishment of the first institution of the kind in 1834 at Haxton, England, caused a split in the denomination. At the present day, however, the need of theological training is universally recognized and supplied by numerous schools. In England the chief institutions are located at Richmond, Didsbury, Hedingley, and Handsworth. American Methodists founded their first theological school in 1841 at Newbury, Vermont. It was removed to Concord, New Hampshire, in 1847, and has formed since 1867 part of Boston University. Numerous other foundations were subsequently added, among them Garrett Biblical Institute (1854) at Evanston, Illinois, and Drew Theological Seminary (1867) at Madison, New Jersey. While Methodism has no parochial school system, its first denominational institution of learning dates back to 1740, when John Wesley took over a school at Kingswood. It was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, that a vigorous educational movement set in to continue up to the present day. An idea of the efforts made in this direction by Methodists may be gained by a reference to the statistics published in the "Methodist Year-Book" (1910), pp. 108-13. According to the reports there given, the Methodist Episcopal Church alone (the other branches also support their schools) maintains 197 educational institutions, including 50 colleges and universities, 47 classical seminaries, 8 institutions exclusively for women, 23 theological institutions (some of them forming part of the universities already mentioned), 63 foreign mission schools, and 4 missionary institutes and Bible training schools. An educational project which appeals for support and sympathy to all branches of American Methodism, is the exclusively post-graduate "American University". A site of ninety-two acres was purchased in 1890 in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and the university was organized the following year. It was not to be opened in any of its departments until its endowment "be not less than $5,000,000 over and above its present real estate" (which happened in 1893, World Almanac, 1997). The dissemination of religious literature is obtained by the foundation of "Book Concerns" (located at New York and Cincinnati for the Methodist Episcopal Church; at Nashville, Tennessee, for the Methodist Episcopal Church South) and a periodical press, for the publications of which the titles of "Advocates" is particularly popular. The young people are banded together for the promotion of personal piety and charitable work in the prosperous Epworth League founded in 1889 at Cleveland, Ohio, for the Methodist Episcopal Church, and organized in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in 1891. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the denomination extended its social work considerably by the foundation of orphanages and homes for the aged. Hospitals were introduced in 1881 with the incorporation of the Methodist Episcopal Hospital at Brooklyn.
According to the "Methodist Year-book" (New York, 1910) the Wesleyan Methodists have 520,868 church members (including probationers) in Great Britain, 29,531 in Ireland, 143,467 in their foreign missions, and 117,146 in South Africa. The Australasian Methodist Church ha a membership of 150,751, and the Church of Canada one of 333,692. In the United States Methodism (all branches numbers, according to Dr. Carroll 6,477,224 communicants. Of these 3,159,913 belong to the Methodist Episcopal Church and 1,780,778 to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
APA citation. (1911). Methodism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10237b.htm
MLA citation. "Methodism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10237b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Donald J. Boon. Dedicated to the Rev. Julius Byrd Payton (1875-1960).
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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