Methodist Church History and Background is Very Revealing

 (The first of 19 articles on the United Methodist Church)

Methodist Church History 1

Methodist Church

A Scriptural Evaluation of the United Methodist Church, with Historical Background and Doctrinal Discussion

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. What do you know about the United Methodist Church?
  2. Who was John Wesley and what did he believe?
  3. What do we know about the early days of the Methodist Church in America?
  4. What were some of the early factions from the parent body and why did they leave?
  5. What positive points do we know about the early Methodists?
  6. How is the United Methodist denomination unfaithful to the Scriptures in many fundamental truths?
  7. What elements of United Methodism depart from the sound teaching of the Bible?
  8. Should you join the United Methodist Church or should you leave this denomination?
  9. What does God want you to do?

What about the Methodist Church?

If anyone has lived in the United States for a length of time, he has heard of the United Methodist Church. In many parts of the country, Methodism is a prominent part of Christendom and a local Methodist congregation is probably within driving distance of where most people live. From the east coast through the midwest and south, United Methodism is prominent.

We hope that you will find the following pages to be enlightening, interesting, and even revealing. But the full benefit of our study will only come to you in a certain context and if you have a special frame of mind. We will assume that you want to know the will of God, for it is only “the one who does the will of God” who “lives forever” (1 John 2:17; cf. Matthew 7:21-23; Hebrews 10:36).

Further, we assume that you do believe that the Bible is the inspired and authoritative Word of God, our only source of knowledge of God’s ultimate will (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Beyond this, we assume that you are desirous and willing to place God’s will before any human tradition that is found on earth, even those traditions found in ancient and respected churches that profess to be Christian (cf. Mark 7:5-13; Colossians 2:8). Only having this kind of approach to our study will reap the benefits that can be gleaned from its pages.

We hope that you will find our arrangement helpful as well as interesting.  We’ll be examining the life and labors of John Wesley, the acknowledged founder of the Methodist Church. We’ll notice the early years of the Methodist movement, the origin of some of the branches of the Methodist family, and the actual formation of the United Methodist Church in 1968. After this, we’ll proceed to notice some of the positives of early Methodism and then proceed to examine certain negative positions and doctrines found in the UMC (United Methodist Church). What we cover in this booklet will be applicable, in part, to other mainline Protestant denominations in the United States, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Episcopal Church, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, and other liberal churches.

Revealing Background

The Methodist Church had its origins in the life and preaching of a zealous and capable Englishman by the name of John Wesley (1703-1791).  Wesley grew up in an Anglican pastor’s family and was one of fifteen children.  Zealous from the very beginning, John and his brother Charles along with John Whitfield formed the “Holy Club” in Oxford University. This fellowship emphasized good deeds and outward acts of charity, fasting and prayer, and Bible reading. “Because they were so methodical—meeting precisely on time and systematically engaging in a strict regimen of prayer, fasting, Bible reading, and ministry—they soon acquired the name ‘Methodists.’ In jest, some referred to them as ‘Bible bigots,’ ‘Bible moths,’ and the ‘Holy Club.’”[1] The name “Methodists” continued to be used and, of course, it is used to this day.

Methodist Church History -John Wesley

From the beginning, John Wesley intended to devote his life to the Anglican priesthood.  He was ordained to this priesthood at Oxford in 1735.[ii] As part of the Anglican Church (the Church of England), John and his brother Charles sailed to Georgia to nurture the Anglican members in that southernmost colony and to preach to the Indians. Sadly, before very long, Wesley returned to England with a feeling of depression and a sense of defeat. Soon he was invited to the Moravian Church on Aldersgate Street where he heard the preface to Luther’s commentary on Romans being read.  At 8:45 of May 24 in 1738 Wesley was deeply touched by the message of the reading. He later recounted his momentous experience:

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.[iii]

This was an important event in Wesley’s life. Although he continued to maintain that infants are regenerated and saved at the point of baptism, this event in his early manhood gave Wesley assurance of his own salvation.  The experience instilled a burning desire to communicate the gospel to others. After a visit to the Moravians in Germany, Wesley was more settled with his new-found faith (although he parted from the Moravians because of their tendencies toward Quietism).[iv]

Immediately, Wesley began to preach in the open fields and on the streets since the pulpits of the Anglican churches were closed to his unorthodox ways and unconventional message. He had special interest and success with the poor and rejected of society. John formed his converts into small house groups that he called “societies” or “classes” and these were fellowships of people who became accountable to each other in living a disciplined life.[v]

In a sense, we might admire Wesley for his earnest zeal throughout his life until his death in 1791 at the age of 88. During this time, this firebrand preacher rode about 250,000 miles on horseback and wrote 440 books, tracts, and pamphlets.[vi]   He sold these very cheaply so that the poor could buy them. He could preach 800 sermons a year![vii]  John preached at least 500 sermons each year and this totaled some 42,000 in his lifetime.[viii] One source says: “For the next 50 years, Wesley continued the practice of itinerant evangelism, normally preaching three times a day beginning at 5 A.M., and traveled an estimated 250,000 miles mostly by horseback (in old age by carriage) throughout England.”[ix]

John was of small stature, a mere five feet, six inches in height, weighing 122 pounds. He had hazel eyes, “bright and penetrating,” and his hair was silvery white as he aged.  “In his habits of order, account-keeping, and punctuality he was literally a ‘methodist,’”[x] One account has Wesley saying, “Be punctual. Whenever I am to go to a place the first thing I do is to get ready; then what time remains is all my own.” Once he was waiting for a ride, then remarked, “I have lost ten minutes, and they are lost forever.”[xi]  “Every minute had its value to him for work or rest.”[xii] This is in keeping with Christ’s own perspective, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4).

Wesley had many admirable qualities: “Wesley was a delightful companion, and his comrades on the road and friends in the home witness to his cheerfulness, courtesy, kindness, and wit. ‘Sour godliness is the devil’s religion,’ was one of his sayings.”[xiii]

Probably the most regrettable relationship of his life occurred when John married. He had been attracted to all that is graceful, vigorous, and moral in women through his life. “His somewhat ascetic and intensely busy public life and his ecclesiastical statesmanship did not crush his tender human feeling.”[xiv] Wesley lost what might have been “the love of his life” in England. “The loss of Grace Murray was the greatest personal sorrow of John Wesley in life. Very pathetic are the letters and verses in which he refers to the event.”[xv]

In 1751, John did marry a Mrs. Vazeille, a widow of a London businessman. For four years, his wife accompanied John on his many travels and endured “the discomforts of this unsettled life” but came to have great jealousy of John. She seemed to have an “angry and bitter spirit.” One description says this: “She [John’s wife] seized her husband’s papers, interpolated his letters, and then gave them into the hands of his enemies or published them in the newspapers. She shut up Charles Wesley with her husband in a room, and told them of their faults with much detail and violence.”[xvi] Note further this pathetic description:

John Hampson, one of Wesley’s preachers, witnessed her in one of her fits of fury, and said, ‘More than once she laid violent hands upon him, and tore those venerable locks which had suffered sufficiently from the ravages of time.’ She often left him, but returned again in answer to his entreaties. In 1771 he writes: ‘For what cause I know not, my wife set out for Newcastle, purposing “never to return.” Non cam reliqui; non dimisi; non revocabo.” (I did not forsake her; I did not dismiss her; I shall not recall her.)[xvii]

Wesley believed that as sorrowful and disastrous his marriage was, there was a purpose in it.  He believed that “God overruled this prolonged sorrow for his good,” and that if his wife had been a better one, “he might have been unfaithful to his great work, and might have sought too much to please her according to her own desires.”[xviii] [xix] However we evaluate John Wesley, we can learn to not be overcome with personal marriage or family disaster but seek to maintain a good attitude and trust in God through it all.

We can’t help admiring certain traits that Wesley demonstrated: “The salient traits of Wesley’s character included strong-mindedness, something of a family trait; the absence of caution and faintheartedness; and a constitutional incapacity to do anything halfheartedly.”[xx] Wesley’s character may further be described in the words of Albert C. Outler: “hard-driving, yet also sensitive; intense, yet also patient; detached, yet also charming; self-disciplined, yet also intensely emotional; opinionated, yet also curious; open to counsel, yet impervious to pressure; brusque with bad faith, yet also tolerant of contrary opinions.”[xxi] Wesley had a practice of “recording his activities in minute detail” and wrote a careful journal which makes a historical grasp of his travels available today.[xxii]

Wesley was known for his indefatigable zeal and utter devotion to the Methodist cause. He also believed that both clergymen and laymen should live in frugality with the kingdom of God in view.  One writer had this to say about him:

Wesley was so dedicated to his stewardship convictions that he could write: “If I leave behind me ten pounds . . . you and all mankind bear witness against me that I lived and died a thief and a robber.” He practiced his philosophy and died practically in poverty. He believed that the poor had certain rights and that, when half the people were burdened by wealth and half by poverty, human rights had been robbed.[xxiii]

Wesley was very opposed to war and based this on what the Bible says along with simple common sense.  Some Methodists through the years have also opposed war.  Charles L. Allen wrote:

Wesley was passionate in the denunciation of war. His conviction was that if people cannot settle their differences by reason and calm judgment, then certainly nothing would be settled by war. . . . In Wesley’s mind, war was totally against all reason and common sense. One can only wonder what he would say in reference to the destructive power of war today.[xxiv]

In 1784, Wesley appointed two associates to be superintendents in the United States, Thomas Coke (1747-1814) and Francis Asbury (1745-1816). At this time, Asbury and Coke were given the title of “bishop” which broke with Wesley’s favor of the term “superintendent.”[xxv] The Methodist Episcopal Church was organized at this time—on December 24, 1784—during the “Christmas Conference” in Baltimore. This established the denomination as a distinct church from the Methodists in England, officially labeled “The Methodist Episcopal Church.”[xxvi]  After the American Revolution, Methodism continued its independent status and rapidly a distinguishing character of its own. Traveling preachers were ordained and sent through this new land. These were the classic itinerant preachers who traveled from community to community on the frontier.[xxvii]

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Methodist Church as a whole was the largest religious body in America with 1.3 million members.[xxviii] They were willing to evangelize the slaves to the point that they numbered about 20% of the membership. “By 1840 the Methodists had become the largest denomination in America, outstripping the reigning colonial denominations—the Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Anglicans.”[xxix]

A number of defections and divisions occurred during this time.  Some were caused by the slavery issue while others had to do with the issue of leadership: Republican Methodist Church (1794), African Union Church (1813), African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816), African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1820), Methodist Protestant Church (1830), Wesleyan Methodist Church (1843), Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1845), Free Methodist Church (1860), Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (1870) (now: Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, 1954).[xxx]

Growth at the first was phenomenal. In 1820 there were 2,700 churches and by 1860 there were 19,000 to 20,000 churches! By 1900 this number had increased to 53,908 churches!  Growth then slowed so that by 1950 there were 54,000 churches.  As for membership, Methodists numbered 65,000 in 1800.  The Methodist Church had 5,700,000 members in 1906 and Methodism as a whole reached some 8 million members by 1920. The largest denomination at the time, the Methodist Church, counted 8 million members by 1939.[xxxi] There continued to be more than 8 million adherents in about 40,000 churches in 1946.[xxxii]

The United Methodist Church (the largest of the Methodist denominations) was formed in 1968 as a merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Membership in this large denomination (which combined these two previous denominations) numbered nearly 11 million. A slow decline began at this time. A few years later, in about 1978, there were 10 million members.[xxxiii]  By 1991 the denomination had nine million members. The 2005 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches reported that the United Methodist Church had 8.2 million members.  Today, there are only about 7.6 million members.[xxxiv]  Another way of looking at this pertains to the number of members per 1,000 people in the United States population. In 1960 there were 58.9 Methodists but in 2000 this had decreased to 29.8 Methodists, a -49% change in only 40 years![xxxv]


[i] Ron Rhodes, The Complete Guide to Christian Denominations, p. 263.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.  p. 264. See also Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Profiles in Belief, Volume 2, pp. 539-540.

[iv] J. Gordon Melton, Nelson’s Guide to Denominations, p. 323.

[v] Later, in America, a class was “usually a small group of no more than twelve people gathered in fellowship to pray, study the Bible, witness to one another, and pursue discipline. . . . The class meeting was a thriving institution in the first half of the nineteenth century, marking Methodism distinctively, but the meeting began to decline around midcentury” (Arthur C. Piepkorn, Profiles in Belief, Volume 2, p. 574).

[vi] Charles L. Allen, Meet the Methodists (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), p. 87.

[vii] Arthur C. Piepkorn, Profiles in Belief, Volume 2, p. 541.

[viii] We might also point out that Charles Wesley (John’s brother) wrote more than 6,000 hymns! Most hymnals today have a selection of them.


[x] the-true-john-wesley/

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] This is related in an interesting book by John W. Drakeford, entitled Take Her, Mr. Wesley (Waco: Word Books, 1973).

[xx] Arthur C. Piepkorn, Profiles in Belief, Volume 2, p. 536.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Charles L. Allen, p. 64. We wonder what Wesley would think of today’s United Methodist Church (as well as other Methodist denominations). The per capita contributions to the denomination was $809.65 for 2012. This would be a very small percentage of the average United Methodist income. (See Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches; 2012, p. 386.

[xxiv] Ibid. pp.  73-74.

[xxv] J. Gordon Melton, Nelson’s Guide to Denominations, p. 325.

[xxvi] The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 1988, pp. 9-10. The term “Episcopal” comes from the Greek episcopos, meaning “overseer” (or “bishop” in the KJV). This indicates that Methodism has always emphasized the position of Bishop in their organization.

[xxvii] Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Profiles in Belief, Volume 2, pp. 572-573.

[xxviii] Ron Rhodes, Ibid., p. 266.

[xxix] Concise Dictionary of Christianity in America, p. 216.

[xxx] The Encyclopedia of American Religious History, Volume 2, pp. 402-403.

[xxxi] Piepkorn, p. 581.

[xxxii] Concise Dictionary of Christianity in America, p. 216.

[xxxiii] Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Profiles in Belief, Volume 2, p. 567.

[xxxiv] See also Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches: 2012 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012).

[xxxv] Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008), p. 22.

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