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Summary Article: Methodists: Tradition and Heritage
From Encyclopedia of Religion in America

Methodism, arguably the most American of all the Protestant denominations, began life in England as part of the eighteenth-century Evangelical Revival, a movement originally meant to reinvigorate, not replace, the state church. Though important (and still extant) in the country of its birth, where it emerged from the work of two otherwise conservative Anglican priests, the brothers John (1703–1791) and Charles (1707–1788) Wesley, it achieved its most spectacular successes after migrating to British North America. Arriving in the decade prior to the Revolution and establishing itself as a fully fledged church in 1784, the year following the ratification of a peace treaty, Methodism found a niche among disparate populations (including artisans, farmers, women, and African Americans) both on the eastern seaboard and on the opening frontier to the west. It drew energy from the seeming opposition of two defining characteristics—an exuberant popular supernaturalism and a disciplined organization—and proceeded to become the largest and best-distributed European Protestant tradition in the United States by the middle of the nineteenth century.

Theological, liturgical, organizational, racial, and regional conflicts appeared along with this ascendancy, and some of the schisms were never healed. Nevertheless, by the end of the twentieth century the mainstream United Methodist Church, thoroughly middle class with most of the rough edges rubbed away and waning in membership, was still the third largest religious organization in the country, behind the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention.

Its influence continues in the twenty-first century, especially if one considers the wider denominational family, including groups that broke off from the original Methodist Episcopal Church over some of the tensions mentioned above but maintained a recognizable Wesleyan DNA. Examples included several African American denominations, notably the African Methodist Episcopal (AME), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ), and Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Churches, and Holiness offshoots such as the Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church, and the Church of the Nazarene. That genetic influence is noteworthy and perhaps even more important beyond schismatic organizational developments as an influence in wider cultural and religious tendencies. Wesley's Arminianism (his belief that Christ died potentially for all people and not just a predestined few) and his related emphasis on "Christian perfection" (or less controversially, "scriptural holiness"), for instance, helped promote the "declension" of New England Calvinism; and similar tendencies leant themselves both to a broad nineteenth-century push for personal holiness and to the "Social Gospel" movements of the early twentieth century. Pentecostalism, too, is arguably descended from aspects of Methodism, in a generation of holiness advocates who also drew on the emotional expressiveness that had typified conversions in John Wesley's and George Whitefield's (1714–1770) field preaching as well as the proverbial "shouting Methodists" of the Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century. An ecumenical inclination and a typically positive engagement with science and education is also traceable back to the Wesleys. Furthermore, the fruit of Methodist overseas missions, growing at a swift rate in postcolonial Africa in the early twenty-first century, is further evidence of a lively and influential heritage, even as it occasionally rebukes the tree from which it grew.

Methodism emerged in England from the work of two otherwise conservative Anglican priests, brothers John and Charles Wesley. The movement succeeded after migrating to British North America.

Though no longer fully comfortable with its revivalist origins, Methodism was itself part of a wider early modern "awakening" or "revival" sweeping through many Reformation (and other) traditions in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Europe and North America. Like many other "new religious movements," it received its name not from its founders but rather—years before it took hold on either side of the Atlantic—from "cultured despisers," in this case bemused Oxford undergraduates making fun of the precise piety of the Wesleys and their friends at the university.

Wesleyan Origins

John Wesley, the organizer of early Methodism, and Charles Wesley, path-breaking hymn writer and jealous guard of Methodism's Anglican connection, were born in 1703 and 1707, respectively, in the obscure north Lincolnshire town of Epworth. Their father Samuel served as rector of the parish for upwards of thirty-five years, and their mother Susanna presided over the rectory and the initial education of the ten children (seven girls and three boys) who survived infancy. Both parents had begun life as dissenters (members of Protestant denominations objecting to Prayer Book worship and episcopal government in the state church). They both converted from their moderate Puritanism to a conservative Anglicanism in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Restoration London, where the Stuart monarchy, Church of England bishops, coffeehouses, and the theater and other literary production coexisted. Oxford education, followed by ordination, was then available to Samuel; and continued deep reading, writing, and teaching of "practical divinity" engaged Susanna as they married, began a family, and found preferment, full-time appointment as a parish priest, in the church. Unfortunately for his clerical ambitions, Samuel was never able to move beyond the Epworth assignment, and though he made good effort as a priest, he never felt completely comfortable with his parishioners, far from the ecclesiastical and literary center of London.

Nevertheless, the family setting proved formative for the two youngest Wesley brothers. In the first place, they could draw on an ecclesiastical heritage from both parents that comprehended both Puritan and High Church elements of English Protestantism, as interpreted through the latest thought and practice from London. For instance, Samuel Wesley tried to start an Anglican "religious society" (a pre-Methodist model of small-group moral and religious work within the Church of England). He was also an early supporter of recently founded missionary organizations such as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. A generously stocked rectory library meant that he could pursue his scholarly and literary aspirations (he was something of a pedant and a poet). Meanwhile, Susanna could savor contemporary practical theology (including the latest scientific theory) as well as John Locke's empiricism, wrestling with it in her spiritual journal and employing it all in her own unpublished catechetical writing and her children's home-schooling.

Secondly, the brothers were shaped by the experience of growing up in the Epworth rectory. From their mother, who ran a tight ship, a methodical household, they imbibed not only the rudiments of Christianity but also a loving and rational discipline (a necessity, one might argue, in a household of roughly a dozen people). From their father and their older brother they absorbed the habits of academic, literary, and clerical life as they often combined in the universities and the church of the day. From their sisters, the brothers gained an appreciation for female intelligence in a culture that did not often encourage it, particularly in the rural north.

Finally, particular family experiences have grown into Methodist myths of origin. One was the family's miraculous escape from a devastating rectory fire in 1709 (possibly set by disgruntled parishioners). In that scenario, six-year-old John's rescue through a window from a flame-swept upper-story room marked him as a "brand plucked from the burning" for future service. The second account involves John's presence a few years later at an "irregular" evening prayer service, conducted for all and sundry by Susanna Wesley in the rectory kitchen during her husband's absence in London and against his will. Historians have speculated that some of his own later departures from strict Anglican practice (a greater openness both to services held outside of church and to women's leadership) may have been nurtured here.

At any rate, John and Charles soon thereafter left for formal "public" schooling in London. John attended the Charterhouse beginning in 1714, Charles, Westminster in 1716; and both successfully prepared for study at Christ Church, Oxford, starting in 1721 and 1726, respectively. John received his bachelor's degree in 1724 and, with encouragement from both parents, began preparing for ordination, following the "holy living" tradition traceable to the practical theological work recommended by his mother: authors such as Thomas à Kempis, Jeremy Taylor, and William Law. He took deacon's orders in 1725, became a fellow of Lincoln College the following year, received his master's degree the year after that, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1729. During the last couple of years he absented himself from Oxford to assist his father and gain pastoral experience back in Epworth, but he soon returned to take up his teaching duties at Lincoln. At that point Charles, still an undergraduate, was meeting with a loosely knit group of pious students; and John, with his more advanced academic and ecclesiastical status, soon began to take a leadership role. They read scripture and studied primitive Christianity; prayed, fasted, and attended the sacrament together; and visited the poor and imprisoned. Still informal, the group was visible enough to attract notoriety among less devout undergraduates, who variously branded them Bible Moths, Sacramentarians, the Holy Club—and Methodists. Looking back later from the perspective of a more fully established movement, John labeled this extended Oxford experience as "the first rise of Methodism."

The movement's pursuit of holy living, including diary keeping, self-examination, and promotion of what they took to be a primitive Christian lifestyle caught on with some, but it also ran into a number of roadblocks. A rumor spread charging Methodist asceticism with the death of William Morgan, a sometime member of their group; and an unflattering anti-Methodist pamphlet was published, "framing" the issue more persuasively for some than Wesley's sermon before the University ("Circumcision of the Heart") that outlined his positive rationale for a life of holiness. Meanwhile, a number of the Oxford Methodists were leaving to take up positions and pursuits beyond the university, and John Wesley himself was at a bit of a vocational crossroads, pressed by his ailing father to assume the living at Epworth (a sacrifice Wesley was not ready to make). Following his father's death in 1735, though, a new option cropped up: missionary service in James Oglethorpe's North American colony of Georgia, a scheme that Samuel Wesley had early supported.

An Initial American Experience

The Wesleys’ brief and not particularly successful sojourn in Georgia occasioned what John later called the "second rise of Methodism." Even though the experiment did not closely resemble the movement that appeared in England soon after his return to London two years later, much less the Methodism that remade its way to America in the 1760s, it is nevertheless hard to imagine the Wesleyan revival, and Methodism as a movement and a church, without this one experience.

John was recruited as a voluntary missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and the recently ordained Charles became secretary to Governor Oglethorpe. They sailed in October 1735 with two other acquaintances and a large group of emigrants, both English and German. The most exotic possibility would have been a mission to the Indians, but John Wesley's own motivation seemed to be saving his "own soul" and "doing more good in America"—in other words, a continuation of his Oxford spiritual program, only now in the wilds of North America. Landing in February 1736, John was assigned as priest in Savannah and Charles in Federica, where they either inherited or founded religious societies along the Anglican and Oxford Methodist model.

That much was not unexpected; nor was the cultural pluralism of colonial life in Georgia. An initial encounter with a local chief of the Creek nation revealed an understandable level of caution with the English missionaries, based on the harsh treatment his people had already received at the hands of the Spanish. Neither did Wesley find the Chocktaws receptive; and since Oglethorpe was loath to leave the Savannah church without a priest, there was little motivation on any side to turn Wesley loose with the Indian peoples. He did, however, take a more active role with regard to African Americans. In addition to recording his catechetical conversation with a young black girl, he also worked out a scheme for the evangelization of slaves on plantations and began noticing instances of inhumane treatment that doubtless fueled his later stands against the slave trade. Other residents of his two-hundred-mile-long parish included Sephardic Jews (inducing Wesley to learn Spanish); Vaudois, the pre-Reformation group also known as Waldensians, for whom Wesley led prayer in Italian; as well as French and German Protestants.

He had first encountered a community of the last group, the so-called Moravians, on board the Simmonds en route from England. Also known as the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren), they traced their origins to pre-Reformation Hussites, but they had left Bohemia under persecution and were granted refuge on his Saxony estate Herrnhut by the Pietist Lutheran Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf. Their warm-hearted Christocentrism led them not so much into evangelism as into piety and outreach rooted in communal living. Wesley attended their shipboard evening worship services and contrasted his own and others’ terror during a raging Atlantic storm with their calm and simple faith (women and children included). Impressed by the assurance he lacked, he sought out Augustus Gottlieb Spangenberg, a Moravian leader, on reaching Savannah. He learned German, began translating their hymns, which he published in A Collection of Psalms and Hymns in 1737 (the first hymnbook in North America), and started an important theological conversation that was to continue with other Moravians in London. Unfortunately, he did not fully acquire their warmhearted Lutheran piety soon enough. It might have attenuated the disciplinary extremes of his High Church Anglicanism—which contributed to his hasty exit from the colony less than two years after his arrival.

The presenting cause was a botched relationship with a young woman, Sophy Hopkey, whom he was tutoring in French and divinity. Never very surefooted in affairs of the heart, Wesley had trouble admitting an interest in Hopkey either to her or to himself and certainly was not ready to make a commitment. She, reading the situation more accurately, lost interest in Wesley and eventually married another man. Wesley's response (again, not very self-aware) included refusing the newly married couple Communion on their return to Savannah, based on a technical reading of the Prayer Book rubrics. Good discipline it may have been, part and parcel of the quest for holy living, and yet it rankled the small community. More to the point, Hopkey's uncle and guardian was the colony's chief magistrate, and there was no shortage of others willing to help a grand jury fill in an indictment. Most of the particulars involved Wesley's zealousness in church discipline: taking a firm stand on who might or might not be baptized, admitted to Communion (including Sophy Hopkey Williamson), and buried. No heinous crimes had been committed, but significant opposition had developed; and Wesley, knowing vindication would be difficult, left under cover of darkness and boarded ship for England in December 1737 before a trial could take place.

What had his two-year American experience provided Wesley? (1) A taste, at least, of "propagating the gospel in foreign parts"—to native people of North America and to Africans and African-descended people, both slave and free, as well as to a host of immigrants from various European settings. (2) A feel for the theological and political difficulties of being a conscientious frontier parson. (3) A stock of metaphors, not all of them complimentary, to describe the weather or the behavior he would later observe in his itinerations around the British Isles; as well as images that would help him, when ensconced back in England, interpret the later "work" in North America. (4) The beginnings of hymn singing in Methodism (at the time not Church of England practice). The Collection of Psalms and Hymns was soon followed by dozens of additional volumes published during the rest of the century and featuring the poetic talents of Charles Wesley. Charles had himself run into political and ecclesiastical difficulties in Georgia, as well as ill health, and left the colony after only five months on the job; his return trip included a month's stay in Boston before a final voyage back to England, arriving in early December 1736. (5) The most important result of all was Wesley's discovery of the "heart religion" that he had experienced among the Moravians.

"Our Little Society" and the Revival's Beginning

The "last rise" of Methodism in Wesley's calculation took place under this increased influence of Moravians and particularly one of its leaders, Peter Böhler (1712–1776), who was then passing through London. Forty or fifty people met on Wednesday evenings for conversation, singing, and prayer in a room in Fetter Lane. But the format (something of a cross between a Moravian meeting and an Anglican religious society) was not as important as the new lived sense of an old Reformation doctrine that Böhler promoted—justification by faith, which brought with it a full experience of assurance. Böhler convinced Wesley that he did not have such faith but suggested he might "Preach faith till you have it, and then, because you have it, you will preach faith." This Wesley began to do—in interesting contrast, as Henry Rack comments, to later Moravian doctrine and the parallel evangelical and Pietist contention that an "unconverted ministry" might be not only ineffective but dangerous. Wesley was effective on two accounts: many hearers were convinced, and many clergy began to close their pulpits to him and this "novel" doctrinal emphasis. Wesley, though, soldiered on, discovering in the process that the Moravian definition of faith was not so different from that laid out in his own church's Book of Homilies: "A sure trust and confidence which a man hath in God, that through the merits of Christ his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God." Theoretically, at least, Moravian faith not only balanced Anglican holiness but helped shed light on a forgotten element in that same Reformation tradition.

Wesley's own appropriation of the newly discovered (or rediscovered) doctrine became paradigmatic for his movement, but it drew on a much wider set of revivals then moving through North American and European Protestantism. The Moravians were only one small, somewhat idiosyncratic branch of the late seventeenth-century Pietist movement emanating from A. H. Francke's work at Halle, a movement that was building a more practical, less theologically arid version of Lutheranism and the Reformed tradition. Other parallel and related awakenings and revivals included the continuing seventeenth-century Scottish tradition of outdoor sacramental occasions (predecessors of the American camp meetings a century later); a Welsh awakening under Griffith Jones, Daniel Rowland, and Howell Harris; and the Great Awakening in Jonathan Edwards's Northampton, Massachusetts, and beyond. Closer to home a new evangelical star was streaking across the sky, a man who would in some ways connect these movements (though also divide them) and become their most famous exemplar: George Whitefield.

Whitefield, a younger undergraduate colleague of the Wesleys at Oxford, literally read himself into a conversion the same year John and Charles volunteered for Georgia (the persuasive book was Henry Scougal's The Life of God in the Soul of Man [1677]). Ordained in 1736, he achieved immediate success as a preacher in London, Bristol, and elsewhere. Just as John was returning from Savannah, Whitefield was leaving to replace him there in what was to be the first of seven visits to North America. Dramatic preaching, conversion, and "heart religion" were all very much in the air. To top it all off, Charles Wesley had experienced his own conversion on Pentecost Sunday 1738, composing a hymn in celebration, "Where Shall My Wandering Soul Begin." John, very much in a searching mode following his perceived "failure" as a colonial missionary and as a result of his intense connection with the Moravians, was ripe for a similar experience.

That iconic moment, much promoted and contested in later Methodism, came on May 24, 1738. Earlier in the day he had meditated on scripture, attended evensong at St. Paul's Cathedral, and then, "very unwillingly," a society meeting in nearby Aldersgate Street. Like the Fetter Lane Society, this gathering consisted of Moravian and Anglican participants—both Böhler and Whitefield had exercised leadership there at one point or another in the previous year. This night what caught Wesley's attention was a reading from Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. His famous journal entry continues the story:

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 I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Scholars argue that this event was not the only important turning point in Wesley's life. He did not gain total freedom from doubt and despair, and he rarely if ever alluded to his experience later. Nevertheless, it was his personal appropriation of "salvation by faith," his own experience of assurance, his own evangelical rite of passage. Böhler's advice had worked: he had "preached faith" prior to "Aldersgate," and now he could proclaim it because he had it. This he did in his University Sermon at Oxford less than three weeks later. "Salvation by Faith" may not have elicited the total approval of his academic congregation, but it did become his evangelical manifesto both within and beyond the university and was accorded pride of place as the first in his published collection Sermons on Several Occasions. Meanwhile, Aldersgate, with its precise noting of the "strangely warmed" heart, has become for some the Methodist myth of origins and the paradigm for all good followers of the Wesleys.

Wesley was not only experiencing assurance but a vocational conversion as well. Though he kept his college fellowship (in absentia) until his marriage some thirteen years later, it was clear his life's work would not be as a university teacher but as a preacher and organizer in the church (to the extent it would let him) and in the wider society. The exact shape of his calling, however, was still to be determined. His discernment process in part involved activities both intentional and serendipitous. He arranged to visit Herrnhut, the German headquarters of the Moravians, where he experienced their community. There he observed several practices he later adapted for Methodists: the division of societies into smaller, more spiritually focused "bands" and "classes" along gender or geographical lines; the reinstituted New Testament ritual meals known as "love feasts"; and religious conferences. He also read and was influenced by Jonathan Edwards's Faithful Narrative of the Spirit's power in the Northampton Awakening. He continued to read in the Church of England homilies as he began to question Moravian theology. He started to back away from the insistence that faith and assurance were one and that it was an all-or-nothing situation. And he maintained contact with a number of religious societies in London and Oxford while preaching in the few churches that still welcomed him.

Of particular note was his continuing association, not always smooth, with George Whitefield. Briefly back from Georgia to raise money for his projected Savannah orphanage, Whitefield met with Bristol's religious societies and preached to huge crowds—in churches until he was disinvited and then out of doors. As the revival grew he wrote Wesley, urging him to leave London and join him. Before setting out for Bristol, Wesley responded to a criticism that he had no business preaching in other clergy's parishes (whether in Oxford, London, or Bristol). Partly a rationalization based on his status as a priest appointed as a fellow of a college and partly a provocative statement based on his new spiritual awareness, it has become another oft-repeated Methodist phrase: "I look upon all the world as my parish." It became the mythic basis of Methodism's itinerant ministry.

In justifying the extension of his ministry into Bristol, though, Wesley had no idea what he was getting himself into: full-scale revival with attendant "enthusiasm" and much ecclesiastical irregularity. The newly assured, forgiven, saved, and emboldened Oxford don arrived in the western port city and overlapped with Whitefield only briefly. The younger but more experienced evangelist was soon off to nearby Wales, though not before Wesley observed him in the act of "field preaching" to vast multitudes. Outdoor sermonizing was a format that challenged Wesley's Anglican sense of "decency and order," but it required no or minimal permission, could accommodate huge crowds that might be uncomfortable in church, and was made to order for a dramatic and powerfully voiced preacher. Possibly to convince himself, Wesley even tried on for size (indoors to a small society meeting!) a text from Matthew recounting the Sermon on the Mount, "one pretty remarkable precedent of field preaching," as he remarked later in his published journal. The precedents worked, both Whitefield's and Jesus’. The next day, Wesley "submitted to be more vile" (the biblical reference is to David's "disgracing" himself by dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant) and preached to 3,000 people in a brickyard just outside the city. He continued the practice in the following days and began to notice "results" in listeners who seemed to be having experiences much like his at Aldersgate, though often with more dramatic bodily expressiveness—agitation, shouting, convulsions, and finally a sort of peace. Such conversions might be momentary expressions of "enthusiasm," emotional excesses disdained by arbiters of the Enlightenment. However, they might also prepare good members for the societies and bands, where community discipline and education could move forgiven men and women toward the "godly, righteous and sober" lives described in the Book of Common Prayer.

Methodist Distinctiveness Emerges

Emotional expression and organizational discipline each played an essential role in the Revival, and they were often functioning simultaneously. Thus, the consolidating process seemed to be at work in the Bristol area, even as the emotional height of new conversions continued. Although both revival leaders had a hand in both elements, Wesley excelled at the regularizing process, even as Whitefield's particular gift seemed to be more venturesome preaching. The former continued to meet with the several societies, still recognizably Anglican, and to organize bands, small spiritual growth groups segregated by gender, age, and marital status, following the Moravian model. An organizational transition was at hand, however. As numbers grew, the use of private homes or rented rooms became cumbersome, and institutions more recognizably Methodist began to evolve. Two of the larger societies acquired land, and Wesley himself contributed funds toward building a "New Room" that became the first of three regional headquarters and is still a place of Methodist pilgrimage. Wesley made sure he maintained legal ownership and control, a centralizing feature that has followed Methodism's buildings ever since.

In addition to field preaching and the construction of Methodist-owned property for the use of societies and bands, the Bristol area provided one other important first: the Kingswood School. Begun in June 1739 for the children of impoverished miners to whom Whitefield and Wesley often preached, it symbolized the Wesleyan attachment to education, as well as salvation, for all. Eventually it became a school for the sons of Methodist preachers, Wesley's Methodist curricular equivalent of an Oxford or Cambridge college. Finally, it moved to nearby Bath in the mid-nineteenth century, evolving into a respected boarding school that still maintains its Methodist connection. Kingswood signaled further educational ventures, including Wesley's robust publishing program: his own sermons and journals; periodical literature such as The Arminian Magazine; and The Christian Library, a series of (heavily edited and condensed, but cheap) theological classics for distribution to the people called Methodists. Kingswood was the first of a number of educational foundations. Methodism did not originate the Sunday school but was heavily involved in its development and growth on both sides of the Atlantic. The Wesleyan movement, as we have seen, began in a university, and it has distinguished itself particularly in North America with the foundation and sponsorship of more than a hundred colleges and universities.

Wesley began to hammer out a distinctive Methodist set of doctrinal emphases in controversy with two important previously positive influences: the Moravians and George Whitefield. The former group, so helpful in recalling the searching Wesley to his Protestant roots, finally lost him by insisting on a doctrine of "stillness"—the abandoning of all "outward works" including the Lord's Supper and other "means of grace" until God supplied adequate faith. Steeped in Anglican practice and theology, Wesley countered that the means of grace were just that: the Eucharist could be a "converting ordinance" and a strengthener of faith and ought not to be given up. Meetings of the Fetter Lane Society became contentious, as the Moravian "quietist" position drew opposition from Wesley and other likeminded members. Finally the latter group withdrew and founded its own society in the first half of 1740. The secession corresponded to Wesley's acquisition and renovation of a ruined cannon foundry in the City of London, not far from the present site of Wesley's Chapel. Much like the "New Room" in Bristol, "the Foundery" provided a multipurpose facility under Wesley's own control. With preaching, meeting, and living space, it quickly became the hub of Wesley's operations.

George Whitefield's Calvinism, with its focus on divine power, predestination, and "perseverance of the saints," was a second intrarevival irritant. As good Anglican members of the anti-Calvinist "Arminian" camp, the Wesleys understood that Christ's sacrificial death was "for all," not just for "the elect," and that human freedom and agency played a role in the drama of salvation. One could choose to accept or reject God's offer of salvation; one could also "backslide" after having been justified; and alternatively—and controversially—one could continue to "go on to perfection" in this life. Thus, Whitefield and Wesley not only possessed differing talents when it came to the business of revival but represented the major rift in Protestant theological thinking. Scholars note the divide existing already during the Bristol revival, not just at the leadership level but among members of the societies and bands. Despite surface courtesies and a measure of cooperation with one another, it is hard to deny their competition for the revival's leadership, which lasted until Whitefield's death in 1770.

A third area of Methodist identity development was with the beliefs and practices of the Church of England, Wesley's ecclesiastical home. Claiming to be a true son of the church, he wished both to defend it and to freelance various alternatives for his movement when circumstances and the gospel compelled him. The revival's irregularities, real and imagined—behavioral, theological, and organizational—provided church authorities plenty to grouse about. Charges of "enthusiasm" had already been noticed and were hard to refute, given the pervasiveness of emotional phenomena in outdoor preaching as well as indoor society meetings, and given the publicity accorded such behavior in both Whitefield's and Wesley's accounts of the revival. Thus, when the anti-Methodist tracts began to pour forth from bishops and other guardians of ecclesiastical order, Wesley, a trained logician as well as theologian and revival leader, argued that his doctrine of assurance was not the mindless ranting of the mad. In one sermon he granted his critics’ point that there might be a problem (in fact he was ready to dismiss preachers he felt guilty of such "false, imaginary inspiration") but simultaneously defended the experiential basis of the revival:

May we not steer a middle course? Keep a sufficient distance from that spirit of error and enthusiasm without denying the gift of God and giving up the great privilege of his children? Surely we may. ("The Witness of the Spirit—Discourse I," 1746)

Contention over alleged supernatural experience and its physical expression was to be expected in the Age of Reason, but Wesley's Anglican critics also attacked him on "justification by faith," as if that entailed the denial of "good works," and misidentified Whitefield's trademark predestination as his.

Less Anglican offense was taken at Methodist doctrine than at the movement's violation of parochial and diocesan discipline. Wesley admitted the difficulty just before following in Whitefield's steps and taking up field preaching, which also brought visions of unruly early Quakers and other Civil War sectarians. Clergy refused to host him in their churches, and many who might have been disposed to were forbidden by their bishops to do so. Some bishops, like Butler of Bristol, refused to license Wesley in their dioceses. Wesley's typical reaction to such criticism was (1) to argue legalistically (I am in fact not in violation of canon law) and (2) to fall back on his theological bottom line (serving God and saving souls trumps even canon law).

These retorts were used to defend another irregularity: lay preaching, which Wesley began to permit in his movement as early as 1740. Though Wesley would not admit it, he was cobbling together a set of alternative ecclesiastical institutions, a "connection," with its center and supervisory authority in him. In this parallel to the Church of England, which Wesley never left, there were functional equivalents. "Helpers" (lay preachers) were a kind of clergy equivalent. Buildings such as the New Room and the Foundery, and soon other "preaching houses," gave the movement a community presence in much the same way parish churches or nonconformist chapels did. The "love feast" served as a sort of evangelical folk Eucharist. Perhaps most important in the long run, Methodist preaching and small-group work began to feature Charles Wesley's amazing hymn output. Among his more than 6,000 sacred songs, many celebrated evangelical experience ("And Can It Be that I Should Gain") and Methodist doctrinal emphases ("Love Divine, All Loves Excelling"), as well as the Church's Holy Communion ("Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast") and its major festivals ("Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today"). In place of canon law and the various Anglican parishes, Wesley developed multiple sets of rules (most particularly, the 1743 "General Rules of the United Societies") to set the ethical and spiritual tone of Methodist organization. Then beginning in 1744, he called together sympathetic clergy as well as lay preachers to attend a "Conference" to work out details of faith, practice, and polity. This annual gathering soon typified Methodist "connectionalism" (the interdependent Methodist polity and ethos, with John Wesley at the center). There was plenty for the church to oppose in this growing alternative spiritual culture, and that opposition took the form not just of anti-Methodist publications but, occasionally, in the early days, anti-Methodist riots. Even within the movement there were those, most notably led by Charles Wesley, who resisted the spin-off toward irregularity, denominationalism, and what looked like (despite the founder's protestations) dissent.

Further Growth and Consolidation

However, the two decades before Methodism remigrated across the Atlantic, the 1740s and 1750s, saw further growth and consolidation of the new movement. "Classes" were instituted as the basic unit within the local societies, when a member in Bristol suggested a fund-raising strategy for retiring the New Room debt. If the entire society were divided into groups of twelve, a leader could supervise the donation of a penny a week from each member, and if any were too poor could make up the difference. The scheme did produce money, but classes proved more important for small-group fellowship, soon eclipsing the bands; and the class leader evolved into a pastoral associate rather than a collector of donations. In following years spiritually mature society members, people Wesley could trust, were challenged to become class leaders. The financial responsibilities soon devolved upon society "stewards," who collected and dispersed moneys, whether for building upkeep, programmatic and living expenses, or poor relief.

Methodism's spread was dependent on the traveling ministry of John (and initially, at least, Charles), as well as the evangelistic work of some of their clergy friends in other parts of the nation. They expanded their preaching and connecting itinerancy beyond the original London and Bristol headquarters north to the Countess of Huntingdon's estate near Derby to Yorkshire and finally in 1742 to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where John built yet another facility: an orphan house that functioned also as a preaching house and became Wesley's northern headquarters and, along with the New Room and the Foundery, the third point of an annual tour of the country.

By 1746 Wesley had established seven smaller regional "circuits" or "rounds," staffed by two or three of his lay assistants, who would move around the societies in the area for about a month before reassignment. In addition to London, Bristol, and Newcastle, circuits existed in Cornwall, Evesham, Yorkshire, and Wales. Traveling preachers in these circuits provided an efficient and flexible way to reach people for revival and for their placement and nurture in societies and classes. If the call came from a "new" location, the Wesleys and/or some of their assistants could travel there, preach, and organize local people. Such was the case in 1747 when Methodism spread to Dublin and Cork in Ireland, and by 1751 Wesley added Scotland to his travels, though with minimal success in that bastion of Calvinism.

By this point a process had been developed by which preachers were called, examined, and put into full-time probationary work. Though there was no expectation of university or seminary training, they were urged to study the Bible and the various works that Wesley was publishing as guidelines to his doctrinal emphases. His three volumes of Sermons on Several Occasions (1746–1750) and the Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament (1755) became the doctrinal test for the preachers, indeed for the movement as a whole, though these were hardly a set of confessional propositions. In 1749 Wesley published a summary of his various doctrinal and disciplinary decisions from the earlier Conferences; these were expanded and updated, and after 1753 became known as the "Large" Minutes, copies of which were given to the new preachers admitted on trial.

Beyond the doctrinal and disciplinary guidelines, other study aids for Methodist preachers, class leaders, and ordinary society members poured forth from the presses. Wesley's quick tour of religious classics, his multivolume Christian Library (beginning in 1749–1755), was one key example, but his entire publishing program served the Methodist educational venture. Apologetic, controversial, and historical pieces such as An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion (1743), A Letter to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of London (1747), and A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists (1749) helped situate Methodism positively and defend it within the intellectual and ecclesiastical context of the time. Collections of hymns provided poetic renderings of the movement's core spirituality, useful in various worship and fellowship settings. Tracts (for example, "A Word to a Drunkard" and "A Word to a Smuggler") underscored the Wesleyan ethical worldview—and so did most of his published sermons, providing reflection "On the Use of Money," "On Dress," and on "The Reformation of Manners," among other issues. The famous Primitive Physick (1747, with many editions thereafter), Wesley's collection of "tested" home remedies, demonstrated the movement's concern with bodily as well as spiritual health. Additional publications included dictionaries and other secular educational books and periodicals (The Arminian Magazine, started in the furor of a reignited predestination controversy in 1777, soon became a vehicle for recounting the experiences of various Methodists, printing excerpts from journals, letters, sermons, and poetry). Many of these publications, along with some that Wesley never intended to be published (for example, his shorthand diaries, as opposed to his highly edited-for-publication journals), are included in The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, its thirty-four volumes nearly completed.

As the movement continued to expand and consolidate, its maturing structure, including its Wesley-centered, albeit benevolent, hierarchy, implicitly challenged the Church of England, if not the nation as a whole. This in part was Wesley's precise intention, though he clearly wanted it both ways. In typical Methodist question-and-answer mode, the "Large" Minutes established Methodism's raison d’être, all the while protesting (too much?) that this really was not an alternative religious movement, a new dissenting denomination, a repudiation of the state church.

Q. What may we reasonably believe to be God's design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists?

A. Not to form any new sect; but to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.

Answering the question in that form indicated the problem. The Wesleys could urge church attendance, especially for the sacrament, as much as they liked, but Methodist members voted with their feet, especially in parishes where the clergyman was not sympathetic toward the movement; and preachers soon pushed for some sort of ordination—and thereby authority to administer the Lord's Supper. Although Wesley's reading of early church polity convinced him that a priest might, in extraordinary times, function as a bishop and ordain, he refused to take the step, at least until extraordinary events in America overtook him in 1784. In the 1750s his clergy friends, especially his brother, were able to stop any movement in that direction with the slogan, "ordination is separation." By 1760 the Conference had discussed the issue, and the Wesleys had together published a list of twelve Reasons against a Separation from the Church of England.

By the 1760s Wesley and his preachers were working out the movement's doctrinal emphases. Given his Anglican orientation, Wesley's Methodism could not deviate too far from his church's via media between perceived extremes of Rome and Geneva. As a churchman, he could assume basic tenets of Christianity, as represented in the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds and the solid Reformation overlay of the "Articles of Religion" (looking the other way at its Predestinarian Article XVII). But the revival, along with the mixture of influences that helped form Methodism and the multiple controversies that Wesley had to face early in its life, resulted in the foregrounding of four characteristic doctrines: original sin (the Augustinian legacy he shared jointly with both Catholics and Calvinists); justification by grace through faith (part of his Reformation heritage and the antidote to sin); assurance (the revival's signature doctrine: the believer can know and feel his or her sins forgiven); and, most controversially, perfection (the "holy living" side of Wesley's background, a "Catholic" doctrine newly fashioned in the context of evangelical Protestantism).

In the early twentieth century, a British Methodist summarized these distinctive Arminian emphases as the "Four Alls": "All need to be saved; all can be saved; all can know themselves to be saved; and all can be saved to the uttermost." It constitutes a "way of salvation" for the individual, but it implies (indeed demands) the holiness of heart and life laid out in Jesus’ summary of the law: loving God with all one's heart, mind, soul, and strength; and loving one's neighbor as oneself.

Methodism's Reintroduction to North America

If Methodism's first visit to North America was mainly a clerical affair, the intentional but brief Georgia mission of the Wesley brothers, followed by that of Whitefield, all in the 1730s, its reintroduction as a mature movement came almost as an afterthought through the work of "unsent" laypeople in the decade of the 1760s. Of course, the "Great Awakening," partly the result of Whitefield's constant and effective itinerations up and down the East Coast, linked the two moments, keeping popular preaching alive, converting thousands, and in the process giving the British colonies a common experience that helped weld together a common stand against the crown in 1776. However, there was little to show in terms of Methodist connectional activity until two Irish Methodist families immigrated independently, one to a farm in central Maryland, the other to New York City. Seeking their fortunes in North America, they recognized a need in their respective communities and reverted to their Methodist practice in Ireland.

Robert and Elizabeth Strawbridge were active in rural Frederick County, Maryland, by 1760, several years later establishing a class meeting (that included at least one African American), converting local agricultural workers, and building a log chapel (now commemorated in a facsimile near New Windsor, Maryland). Philip Embury and his cousin Barbara Ruckle Heck, sensing a moral decline since landing in New York (card playing seems to have been the straw that broke the Methodist matriarch's back), started holding a Methodist-style class and rented a sailing loft in lower Manhattan as a meeting space. Then, with the help of Captain Thomas Webb, a one-eyed retired British soldier and self-proclaimed "spiritual son of John Wesley," the small community founded a congregation on John Street (a building and congregation still extant). These unofficial initiators of Methodist activity established the class and society structure in the Chesapeake region (soon with an influential center in Baltimore) and New York. Abetted by Captain Webb's energy, Methodism quickly took hold in another important city in between, Philadelphia, where St. George's Church remains as a testimony. People throughout the middle colonies were being converted, class leaders and preachers were being raised up, and the need for organization of the movement was recognized.

Word of developments in North America began to reach England, and by the time Wesley agreed to allow an entrepreneurial itinerant preacher, Robert Williams, to emigrate on his own expense, other, more formal appeals for help had reached him. Wesley's response was the appointment of four pairs of official missionaries from the British Conference in 1769, 1771, 1773, and 1774. Though several of these eight young preachers possessed evangelical and pastoral gifts, only one, Francis Asbury (1745–1816), combined these traits with organizational abilities and a commitment to stay the course, despite the difficulties that the American Revolution would throw in the way. Only twenty-six at the time he began his service in 1771, he became the architect and "master builder" of American Methodism, its most important leader until his death.

During his initial tenure as an "assistant" and the higher-ranking "general assistant," Asbury worked to establish Wesleyan doctrine and practice in the colonies and, after the Revolution, to "superintend" the transition of a movement as it became a new church in a new nation. Two years before his arrival there were an estimated 600 members; two years after, at the first American Conference in 1773, membership totaled 1,160. By 1784, there were nearly 15,000 American Methodists, the majority in Maryland and Virginia. Together with these gains came administrative translations from the old country as the Americans adapted an itinerancy of preachers and a multiple set of regional annual conferences along with a system of quarterly conferences that oversaw local work.

The American Revolution brought into focus a political tension endemic to the Methodist experiment in America. Wesley's leadership of religious institutions that seemed to compete with those of the establishment and his own experience in Georgia might have made him an American patriot, but he was by ancestry and temperament a Tory. Thus, his republication of the Samuel Johnson tract "Taxation No Tyranny" as "A Calm Address to Our American Colonies" (under his own name) raised suspicion that Methodists also stood with Great Britain in the ensuing struggle. Among the original Wesleyan missionaries to North America, all but Asbury returned to Britain or headed to Canada. Asbury himself boarded with a Methodist magistrate, Judge Thomas White of Delaware, for two years during the fighting, hiding briefly in a nearby swamp when White himself was arrested in the spring of 1778. Neither a partisan nor an opponent of the cause of independence, he "lay low," supporting the work of the numerous American-born preachers during the war. Those very preachers, though, were also suspect because of their Methodist identity. Freeborn Garretson, Jesse Lee, and William Watters all claimed some form of conscientious objection from military service. However, their pacifism was interpreted as support for the British cause, and they risked arrest, beating, and being tarred and feathered.

Monarchy and democracy played out in ecclesiastical polity as well as in anticolonial revolution in the same period. Strawbridge, the immigrant farmer and local preacher who began Methodism in Maryland, possessed a streak of Irish independence that even Asbury's disciplinary abilities could not quell. Recognizing the inability of his frontier neighbors to access the "means of grace," he took it upon himself, unordained and forbidden by Wesley (and later by Asbury), to provide the Lord's Supper and Baptism for those under his care. In 1773 at the first American Conference, the issue was raised and resolved in the following manner, according to Asbury's July 14 journal entry: "That no preacher in our Connection shall be permitted to administer the ordinances, except Mr. Strawbridge, and he under the particular direction of the Assistant." In other words, neither the Conference nor Wesley, nor Wesley's American assistant at the time, Thomas Rankin, was able to keep Strawbridge from behaving like an ordained clergyman. The issue flared a half dozen years later in 1779 to include other preachers. It became more acute as many Anglican priests, the English Methodist "solution" to the sacramental problem, drifted away with their church and king under attack by the American patriots. The war also kept Asbury and a number of northern preachers from traveling south to Fluvanna County, Virginia, where the regular conference was scheduled in the picturesquely named "Broken Back Church." So they organized a premeeting session in Delaware at which they affirmed Wesleyan discipline and Asburyan leadership and postponed any decision on the sacraments for another year. However, three weeks later the regular conference convened as scheduled in Virginia, and the southern preachers determined to form a presbytery of four who would ordain themselves and then as many others who wanted to provide a sacramental ministry among the Methodists. This schismatic decision was minimized through negotiations, by the distance and time it took to get a judgment from Wesley, by Asbury's fence-mending foray into the south, and by the sense that a colonial victory in the war might lead to an ecclesiastical as well as a political change. The split was more or less healed by 1781, but scholars have noted similar struggles over authority in the establishment of Methodism as a full-fledged church in 1784; the O'Kelly schism of 1792; the various withdrawals of African American congregations in the same decade and beyond; and the political breakaways of the Methodist Protestants, the Wesleyan Methodists, and the Free Methodists in the nineteenth century.

A New Church in a New Nation

The Treaty of Paris concluded the Revolutionary War in September 1783, thus presenting Wesley and his American followers with a new set of circumstances. A year later his letter to them credited a "very uncommon train of providences" with the freeing of the American colonies, cutting them loose from any political and spiritual connection with the mother country. It also provided him the cover to choose consciously what his "logic of practice" was already indicating: the "people called Methodists" (already a "connection" with many ecclesiastical trappings) were about to become a full-fledged independent church, at least in the new United States of America. He was convinced he had all the authority needed to ordain ministers, and although he did not wish to rend the fabric of the Church of England at home, that church no longer existed in North America. Consequently he felt bound in September 1784 to send "Labourers into the Harvest." Accordingly he "set apart" the Reverend Thomas Coke (1747–1814) as a superintendent for North America, and sent him, along with two of his preachers whom he had ordained as elders, to organize an episcopally governed Methodist Church in the new country. John's younger brother, ever the zealous churchman, was incensed and wrote memorable doggerel (see Frank Baker's Representative Verse of Charles Wesley, 367) to mark the occasion: "So easily are bishops made/ By man's, or woman's whim./ W[esley] his hands on C[oke] hath laid,/ But who laid hands on him?"

Evangelical necessity had won out. Wesley's three emissaries arrived in New York in early November, and within a fortnight Coke had consulted with Francis Asbury and other American leaders about Wesley's plan. Coke also brought resources: a doctrinal statement (Wesley's abridged version of the Anglican Articles of Religion) and a liturgy (his own edited version of the Book of Common Prayer, along with ordination certificates for Coke and his junior partners, Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey). The larger statement of church polity was already available, the English Methodist "Large Minutes," which would evolve into the quintessential American Methodist document, The Discipline. A call went out for a conference of the preachers to be held beginning December 24, 1784, in Baltimore.

The so-called Christmas Conference met in the small chapel in Lovely Lane and lasted more than a week. The preachers took all the steps necessary to form what was to be called the Methodist Episcopal Church ("episcopal" here denoting a polity dominated by "superintendents" or bishops, rather than a direct connection with the Church of England, soon to be known in the new country as the Protestant Episcopal Church). They accepted Wesley's documents and his ordinations and affirmed, at Asbury's request, another part of the plan: that he also be ordained and made a superintendent of the new church to serve alongside Coke. Accordingly, in the space of three days, Asbury was ordained deacon and elder and consecrated superintendent. Asbury's was the most prominent of the ordinations that took place there, but a dozen or so additional American preachers were also ordained to take up a sacramental ministry. The affirmation of Asbury and the additional initiative the preachers took to shape the polity of the church served to establish the authority of the Conference in Methodist polity, even as Wesley's autocratic power lingered over it.

Several other details of the Christmas Conference are worth mentioning as they presage future developments. First, as Thomas Coke Ruckle's nineteenth-century portrait of the occasion indicates, there was at least one African American preacher in attendance. Harry Hosier (d. 1806), traveling companion to Asbury and popular preacher in his own right, was indeed present at the beginning, and so perhaps also was Richard Allen (1760–1831), who eventually would found and lead the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Their presence at the conference, together with the strong stand taken there against slavery (however attenuated the witness might become in the first four decades of the nineteenth century), underlines the important relationship that African Americans, both slave and free, had with Methodism. Second, and figuring more prominently in Ruckle's picture, was Asbury's friend Philip William Otterbein (1726–1813), a German Reformed missionary and minister whom he had invited to participate in his consecration as a superintendent. Otterbein's presence is a reminder that "heart" religion and awakenings had German-speaking components left over from the previous century and that Otterbein's own evangelical movement, the United Brethren, would eventually merge with Methodism late in the twentieth century. Third, the assembled preachers decided to found a school, to be built outside Baltimore on the order of Wesley's Kingswood School (and given the combined name of the two new superintendents): Cokesbury College. Although the college burned down within a couple of years and Methodist preachers were not formally educated in seminaries until well into the nineteenth century, this venture stands as the first of hundreds of Methodist-founded educational institutions, many still extant, across the country.

The church was now founded, but it had miles to go before achieving the numerical, spiritual, and cultural clout for which it would become famous in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America and beyond. Its evangelical heritage, optimistic theology, and warmhearted practicality ensured a growing popularity. Despite the initial issues that needed addressing, the Methodist Episcopal Church grew rapidly from the time of its birth: 18,000 members were reported in 1785, and by 1790 there were upwards of 57,000, of whom 20 percent were African Americans.

Growing pains led to the continual shaping of new features. Asbury and Coke took a symbolic editorial step in 1787, changing their designation in that year's edition of the Discipline from "superintendent" (Wesley's original term) to "bishop" (its simple biblical equivalent). Wesley was annoyed at their putting on airs, but his objections were increasingly irrelevant. More to the point was the increasing suspicion of a bishop's power, by whatever name, especially in a geographically expansive movement. Regional conferences would continue, but they could not speak for the entire denomination. Tried and discarded, because it gave too much power to a hierarchy, was a "Council" made up of bishops and "presiding elders" (regional assistants to the bishops, another American emendation). Instead a compromise was reached: a policy-making "General" Conference that has met every four years since the first one in 1792. In that same year, a year after Wesley's death in London, the young church faced its first major schism. James O'Kelly (1735–1826), like Strawbridge an "Irish Maverick," proposed that the Conference might override the bishop's power to appoint a preacher to a particular circuit. He did not prevail, and he left with a number of his supporters, largely from Virginia, to form the "Republican Methodist Church," which faded into the Christian and Disciples of Christ movements in the South. The membership loss was quickly recouped, but the struggle (and the splinter group's name) pointed to the friction between the monarchical power of a bishop and the aspirations of preachers and laity in a country with an increasingly democratic ethos.

The popular appeal of a flexible, theologically optimistic, episcopal-style church for ordinary poor and middle-class individuals—anyone wishing to "flee the wrath to come"—guaranteed not just membership growth on the frontier but continuing struggle for democratic reform within the institution. The same theme of popular movement versus church hierarchy played out liturgically; Wesley's version of the Prayer Book was no match for the extempore praying and preaching Methodists were accustomed to. For all the contention over the Lord's Supper, it was not frequently celebrated. However, as in England, Charles Wesley's hymns and less formal services such as love feasts and watch nights continued to engage Methodists. This "low church" version of episcopalianism, however, was very much in keeping with a movement that grew out of the Atlantic Revival and Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s and that would help usher in the Second Great Awakening, with its exuberant camp meetings, in the early 1800s and beyond.

The story of Methodist regionalism also begins in this early era. Not only did the "Chesapeake refraction of Wesleyanism" work to color national Methodism, but a southern populism became visible in the crisis over the ordinances in 1779 in Virginia, in the O'Kelly schism in 1792, and in the impending friction over slavery from 1784 on through to 1844. New England was always somewhat foreign territory for the Methodists, certainly in the time of a Calvinist Congregational establishment and its Unitarian liberal opposition, as well as later during the influx of Catholic immigrants, but some inroads were achieved. The West, influenced by all three areas, was beginning to lend its own distinctive coloration to Methodism on the frontier. These stories, along with the important features of race and gender, indicate that the Methodist tradition had become a central component of American religious life.

See also African American Religion entries; American Revolution; Anglican Tradition and Heritage; Camp Meetings; Education: Sunday Schools; Great Awakening(s); Holiness Movement; Mainline Protestants; Methodists entries; Ministry, Professional; Missions entries; Moravians; Music: Hymnody; Preaching Revivalism entries.

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  • Rack, Henry D. Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism London: Epworth, 2002.
  • Richey, Russell E. Early American Methodism. Religion in North America Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
  • Richey, Russell E, Kenneth, E. Rowe, and Schmidt, Jean Miller, eds. The Methodist Experience in America Nashville, Tenn: Abingdon, 2000.
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Charles Wallace Jr.
© 2010 CQ Press, A Division of SAGE

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