John Wesley and the Origins of Methodism

Lesson 18:  John Wesley and the Origins of Methodism

Scope:  One of the problems that the churches of the Reformation faced was that those that had political support became comfortable and, hence, in certain ways, like the Catholic Church in the 16th century from which they had withdrawn.  In the 17th century came a movement named Pietism within the Lutheran Church that called for more emphasis on living the Christian life and less on doctrine and outward forms of piety.  The Anglican John Wesley (and his prolific hymn-writing brother, Charles) were influenced by this movement on the continent and soon established Methodist Societies throughout England to bring the Church of England back to basics,  Although John Wesley never left the Church of England, his followers created one of the most widespread forms of Christianity in the English-speaking world.

  1. Even before the end of the 16th century, established churches of the Reformation were showing tendencies to establish creedal statements and stress obedience and adherence to such standards.
    1. Of course, the churches that were not established had very different histories.
    2. In this lesson, we will focus on the Lutherans and the Church of England, but we can include various Calvinist churches among those that were transformed in some ways by their success.
      1. In the 17th century, a movement called Pietism emerged within Lutheranism.
      2. The Pietists emphasized that Christianity was ultimately about love, not doctrine.
      3. Johann Arndt, one of the great Pietists, said that God will not ask us at Judgment what we know but, rather, how we have loved.
    3. The Church of England, although less dogmatic than continental Protestants, nevertheless in some ways fell victim to a formal kind of Christianity.
      1. One famous movement away from Anglicanism in the 17th century was Quakerism.
      2. Especially after the Church of England was reestablished in the wake of the Civil War and even more so after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, religious practice was both lax and formalistic.
  2. Beginning in 1729 with the founding of the Methodist Society at Oxford, a strong movement developed in England that sought to be methodical in the study and practice of Christianity.
    1. The founders of Methodism are John and Charles Wesley, two brothers, sons of an Anglican vicar, and themselves ordained Anglican priests.
    2. Although John was older than Charles, it was the latter who set up the first Methodist Society (also known as the Holy Club but derisively called Methodist because of their methodical ways) at Oxford, where both brothers studied.
    3. Ten years later, this movement began to spread beyond Oxford to Bristol, London, and other parts of England.
  3. Much had happened in the lives of John and Charles Wesley in that decade.
    1. Both brothers traveled to the New World, spending time in the colony of Georgia.
    2. Both underwent personal conversions. 
    3. John Wesley came into contact with a group called the Moravian Brethren, some of whom lived in London. 

                        a).  The Moravians had been much inspired by the Pietist movement in Germany.

b).  John Wesley’s self-described conversion experience occurred when he heard                one of the Brethren read from Martin Luther’s commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans.

c). Wesley was quick to grasp the implications of Luther’s key concept of justification by faith.

d).   He traveled to Germany to delve more deeply into the teachings of the Brethren.

e).   Ultimately, Wesley had a falling out with the Brethren.

  1. At about the same time, Charles Wesley had a parallel experience with a member of the Moravian Brethren during an illness.

a).   He had held a somewhat legalistic idea of how to obtain salvation.

b).   He, too, became convinced that justification came through faith alone.

4.  For the next 40 years or so, the Wesley brothers set up hundreds of Methodist Societies all over         England and extending to the United States.

  1. Both brothers were indefatigable preachers.
  2. It is often said that John Wesley traveled 250,000 miles and preached perhaps 40,000 sermons.  He was also a prolific writer.
  3. Charles, also a preacher, is better known for composing thousands of hymns, the most famous being “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”
  4. Some followers proclaimed what John Wesley regarded as improper enthusiasms, and he found himself having to deal with criticism that he did not go far enough.
    1. If not actually persecuted,  the Wesley brothers and their followers were certainly harassed  in their activities,
      1. They were often denied the opportunity to preach in churches, hence, they often preached, albeit, reluctantly at first, outdoors.
      2. John came to doubt apostolic succession of bishops, and he laid hands on men and authorized them to preach and to administer the sacraments.
        1. John Wesley never officially left the Church of England, but the Methodists split from the Anglicans at the end of the 18th century, just a few years after the deaths  of both brothers.
        2. Charles was vehemently opposed to any actions that could lead to a division between the Church of England and the Methodists and was upset by some of his brother’s acts.
        3. John Wesley’s thought is expressed in many works, but he wrote A Plain Account of Christian Perfection as a kind of summary of his views.  We will use this work as the basis for a discussion of his thought.
          1. The idea of “Christian Perfection” is John Wesley’s signature contribution to Christian thought.
          2. He was influenced not only by the Moravian Brethren and indirectly by the Pietists but also by Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ and Jeremy Taylor’s Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying.
          3. Wesley believed that by faith Christians can attain perfection while still alive.
            1. This perfection does not suggest that Christians are infallible or omniscient.
              1. We may think wrong and act wrongly based on a wrong thought.
              2. Nevertheless, a mistake is different from a sin, even if it involves not treating a person as he or she ought to be treated.
              3. People who have attained Christian perfection are liable to involuntary transgressions.
              4. Wesley does believe it is possible to be freed from evil thoughts and temptations.
              5. Normally, perfection is obtained gradually, although Wesley does not deny the possibility of instantaneous perfection.
              6. Wesley claims that scripture supports the idea of Christian perfection, for example, Psalm 130, I John, and Romans, as well as Jesus’ command to ”be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt 5:48).

Suggested Reading: 

  1. John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.

Next Week’s Lesson:  The Monks of Mount Athos