John and Charles were brothers in the large family of the Anglican vicar
of Epworth in Lincolnshire. They both decided to follow their father into
holy orders, so went to Oxford University to study.
While they were there, they met with like-minded friends to be serious
about their Christian discipleship. The group was known as “The Holy
Club” and met regularly to support the members in prayer and good
works. It was because of their Methodical approach to religion that they
were nicknamed ‘methodists’.
In 1735, the brothers sailed to Georgia, where John intended to become
the minister of the newly-formed parish of Savannah. On the voyage, the
ship lost a mast in a terrible Atlantic storm. All aboard were in extreme
danger, but while everyone else was panicking, a group of Moravian
Christians calmly gathered to pray. John was most impressed by their
strength of faith, and concluded they had an inner strength he didn’t have.
The mission to Georgia was a failure. They returned to England deeply
depressed, and sought out the Moravians for help and advice. They
asked whether the brothers had ‘saving faith’, and when they confessed
they had no idea what that was, advised them to ‘preach faith until you have it, and then you will preach faith.’
It was in such a questing mood that John attended a meeting in which his breakthrough moment came. This is his entry in his for May 24th, 1738:
“In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate St, where
one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a
quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works
in the heart by faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I
did trust in 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.”
That was the breakthrough which changed John’s attitude to faith.
From a serious attempt to earn his own salvation by religion and good works, he found that it was about a relationship of trust in the risen Jesus, who had died for him. His life and ministry were transformed, and what had been a small group led by some serious-minded young men became the seed of a vigorous plant which would grow across the country and the world.
The movement spread under the leadership of the original Holy Club
members and their friends. All over the country, groups were formed into
‘societies’ as a revival movement within the Church. Each society comprised several ‘classes’ which met together weekly to share testimonies, confession and their faith.
As the years passed, more and more groups were excluded from the parish churches.
As a result the movement gradually became a separate denomination.
John Wesley never accepted this, and remained an Anglican priest all his
life – despite the fact that his actions virtually ensured separation from the Church.
After John’s death in 1791, tensions between those who wished to stay
with the Anglicans and those who felt it right to be independent led to
several breakaway groups. They eventually became separate Methodist
denominations the largest being the Wesleyan Methodists.
Around 1807-1811 some felt that the Wesleyan Methodists were becoming
too ‘respectable’ and losing their initial fire and enthusiasm. Led by Hugh Bourne and William Clowes they broke away to form the Primitive Methodists (primitive meaning returning to their roots), trying to recapture the original fire of the revival days. This group had a massive impact in Norfolk during the 1800s as a cursory glance at old chapel buildings in virtually every village will attest.
By the mid-19th C, many different Methodist groups, often
competing with each other were building chapels all over the country. The
movement was influential in the nation’s life in many ways. Ordinary
people learned how to lead meetings and speak in public through the
Methodist meetings, and then learned how to use these skills in other
ways such as in the infant trade union movement. The Tolpuddle Martyrs
were a group of Methodists who were transported to Australia for the
crime of forming a trade union and standing up to the bosses. Locally in Norfolk George Edwards, who championed the cause of farm labourers in Norfolk, is typical of the early trade union leaders who developed their passion and leadership skills through the Primitive Methodist Chapels. Started his working life at the age of six, he was illiterate until he found faith and embarked on a journey of self-education leading to being a local MP.
The Methodist movement not only spread in this country, but grew into a
world-wide family of churches. In America, it spread across the new
nation through circuit riders and travelling preachers. Methodist
missionaries travelled throughout Africa, India and China.
Gradually the smaller churches in Britain joined together until by the end
of the 19th C there were three major Methodist denominations: the Wesleyan Methodist Church, Primitive Methodist Church and United Methodist Church.
Negotiations to join together lasted for years, partly due to the interruption of WW1, and partly due to the difficulty of finding a balanced compromise between the Wesleyan emphasis on clergy leadership and the Primitive and United Methodist stress on lay leadership.
Eventually, agreement was reached, and Methodist Union took place in 1932 to form the Methodist Church as we know it today.