Methodist Churches

The World Methodist Council, to which the majority of Methodist Churches is affiliated, represents a recorded membership of over 18 million, and a community of some 40 million. Approximately 750,000 are to be found in Great Britain and Ireland, while the United Methodist Church of America numbers more than 11 million, quite apart from other Methodist groups. In the countries of the British Commonwealth and in Europe there are autonomous Methodist conferences; in many places elsewhere missionary extension continues.

All these churches derive from the ministry of John Wesley* and the religious societies he founded in the wake of his evangelistic missions in the United Kingdom during the eighteenth century. In 1739 Wesley started a society in London in a former cannon foundry and from 1741 utilized lay preachers. In 1742 the first classes were formed, and in 1743 the rules of society drawn up. The first conference assembled in 1744 with six clergymen and four laymen present. From 1746 the societies were arranged in circuits under the superintendency of Wesley's helpers and, after his death, were grouped in districts.

It was not until 1784, however, that the Wesleyan Connexion was fully established in law. In that year Wesley lodged in the Court of Chancery a Deed of Declaration naming one hundred preachers as constituting the “Conference of the people called Methodists,” with provisions for its maintenance. On his death the membership of the conference was extended beyond the Legal Hundred to include all preachers in full connection. Laymen were not added until 1878 and women only in 1911. In 1787 Wesley's chapels were registered as dissenting meeting houses under the Toleration Act of 1559. Separation from the Church of England was made yet more explicit by the Plan of Pacification (1795) which allowed the administration of the sacraments as well as the holding of marriage and funeral services in those Methodist chapels where a majority of officials approved. At the same time it was recognized that reception into full connection with the conference sufficiently validated ministerial orders. Only in 1836 was ordination by the imposition of hands adopted as standard practice.

Within six years of Wesley's death the first secession took place when in 1797 the Methodist New Connexion* was formed. In 1805 a group in Manchester was expelled for holding irregular meetings and became the short-lived Band Room Methodists. In the following year the Independent Methodists appeared at Warrington under Peter Phillips, although they did not officially assume the name until 1898. They still exist. The Camp Meeting Methodists led by Hugh Bourne* joined with the Clowesites to form the Primitive Methodist* Connexion in 1811. William O'Bryan's Bible Christians* emerged in 1815. The Tent Methodists, with George Pocock and John Pyer as leaders, were organized in 1822, and next year the Church Methodists made a move in the direction of reunion with the Anglicans. The Protestant Methodists (1827) joined the Wesleyan Methodist Association (1836), who in turn united the main body of Wesleyan Reformers (1850) to constitute the United Methodist Free Churches (1857). The remainder of the Wesleyan Reformers established an autonomous church in 1859 and continue to the present day. The Arminian or Faith Methodists of Derby seceded in 1832, eventually joining the Wesleyan Methodist Association.

The cause of these divisions was governmental rather than doctrinal, and some of the resultant bodies were comparatively small. Despite the defections, the Wesleyan Church expanded. During the second half of the nineteenth century a period of consolidation set in, and before its end plans for reunification were set afoot. These were to come to fruition in the following century. In 1907 the Methodist New Connexion, Bible Christians, and United Methodist Free Churches combined in the United Methodist Church.* In 1932 the Wesleyan, Primitive, and United Methodists came together to constitute the Methodist Church of Great Britain and Ireland with a membership of 859,652.

The missionary enterprise of Methodism may be said to date from 1769, when Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmoor volunteered to serve in America (see Methodist Churches, American). In 1785 appointments were made also in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Antigua. The prime mover after Wesley's death was Thomas Coke,* acting under the direction of the conference which from 1786 assumed immediate responsibility for missions overseas. He it was who pioneered the work in the West Indies and whose vision embraced Africa and Asia as well as America. In 1813 the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society was formally organized.

Today there are autonomous Methodist Churches in Australasia, New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Ceylon, Upper Burma, and the Caribbean-all derived from the British Conference, with others stemming from American Methodism. Methodists have entered the United Church of Canada, the Churches of South and North India, and the United Church of Japan. There are minority Methodist Churches in Switzerland, Scandinavia, Portugal, Austria, Poland, and Germany-the latter being the strongest. In Belgium, France, and Spain the Methodists have united with other Protestant churches.

A. Stevens, The History of the Religious Movement of the Eighteenth Century called Methodism (3 vols., n.d.); G. Smith, History of Wesleyan Methodism (3 vols., 1857-61); C.H. Crookshank, History of the Methodist Church in Ireland (3 vols., 1885); W.J. Townsend, H.B. Workman, and G. Eayrs (eds.), A New History of Methodism (2 vols., 1909); G.G. Findlay and W.W. Holdsworth, The History of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (5 vols, 1921-24); A.H. Williams, Welsh Wesleyan Methodism (1935); H. Bett, The Spirit of Methodism (1937); W.F. Swift, Methodism in Scotland (1947); H. Carter, The Methodist Heritage (1951); C.J. Davey, The March of Methodism (1951); E.G. Rupp, Methodism in Relation to the Protestant Tradition (1952); I.L. Holt and E.T. Clark, The World Methodist Movement (1956); R.E. Davies, Methodism (1963); R.E. Davies and E.G. Rupp (eds.), A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, vol. I (1965); H.D. Rack, The Future of John Wesley's Methodism (1965).