What is a Methodist ?
The Methodist Church is the fourth largest Christian Church in Britain,
after the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches and the Church of Scotland.
It has more than six thousand churches and a total membership of
approximately 330 000 people. There are Methodist Churches in nearly every
country in the world and global membership numbers some 70 million people.
The Methodist Church is traditionally known as non-conformist because it does not conform to the rules and authority of the established Church of England.
Methodism has its roots in eighteenth century Anglicanism. Its founder
was a Church of England minister, John Wesley (1703-1791) who sought to
challenge the religious assumptions of the day. During a period of time in
Oxford, he and others met regularly for Bible study and prayer, to receive
communion and do acts of charity. They became known as "The Holy Club" or
"Methodists" 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.
In 1738 John Wesley had a profound spiritual experience. "I felt," he wrote, "my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins." The experience transformed Wesley, and inspired him to become one of the greatest preachers of all time.
In Bristol in 1739 he began preaching to crowds of working class men and women in the outdoors. This "field preaching" became a key feature of the Revival, when thousands came to hear Wesley preach up and down the country. He formed local societies of those converted and encouraged them to meet in smaller groups on a weekly basis. He insisted though, that they attend their local parish church as well as the Methodist meetings. Every year, by horse or carriage, Wesley travelled the country visiting the societies and preaching.
Preaching radical ideas took great courage in those days. Wesley and his followers were denounced in print and from pulpits, his meetings were disrupted and he was even physically attacked and threatened with death.
John Wesley always declared that his movement should remain within the Anglican Church but the Church of England was keen to distance itself from him and his followers. He declared "I live and die a member of the Church of England". However, in 1784 he set up a structure, the "Yearly Conference of the People called Methodists" to ensure the continuation of the Methodist movement after his death. In the end, the strength and impact of Methodism made a separate Methodist Church inevitable. In 1795, four years after Wesley's death, Methodists in Britain became legally able to conduct marriages and perform the sacraments.
The new church wasn't without its internal schisms. In 1808 the Methodist lay-preacher, Hugh Bourne, was expelled from the movement. He and his 200 followers became known as Primitive Methodists. They differed from Wesleyan Methodists in several regards, including the encouragement of woman evangelists. Both Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist communities grew rapidly during the 19th century. It was from among the Primitives that many Trade Union leaders emerged towards the end of the century.
Another major Methodist branch was the United Methodist Church, which itself was formed from earlier mergers of smaller Methodist groupings. It joined with the Primitive Methodists and Wesleyan Methodists in 1932 to form the present Methodist Church in Britain.
In 2003, the Methodist Church celebrated the tercentennial of the birth of John Wesley.