‘Methodist’ was originally a term of abuse coined by Oxford undergraduates making fun of their fellow students who gathered around John Wesley and his younger brother Charles and attempted to follow their rule (or ‘method’) to deepen their religious life. John Wesley (1703–91) was the son of an Anglican clergyman. He himself took holy orders and never wished to break away from the Church of England, but he reacted against what he sensed as its spiritual aridity, and strove for evangelical revival. Returning from a missionary journey to the United States under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, he found that his opinions were not welcomed by the Anglican church. He then took to preaching in the open air, soon attracting huge crowds who welcomed his Bible-based sermons with their stress on salvation for all through grace (Arminianism), personal commitment, and practical good works to alleviate suffering. His brother Charles added an invaluable dimension to the revivalist fervour with his hymns; these expounded simple doctrine in clear, vigorous language and were sung to catchy modern tunes. John Wesley was a tireless traveller, and his doctrines soon spread throughout Britain and North America, making a special appeal to the lowlier classes in society that Anglicanism tended to neglect. Disputes over the ordination of priests inevitably led to a breach with the Church of England, and squabbles about church organization and liturgy resulted in the division of Methodism into a number of more or less independent sub-groups, each claiming it alone represented the genuine tradition. Reunion was achieved by the formation of the Methodist Church of Great Britain in 1932.
   As currently constituted, the Methodist Church is characterized by a high degree of involvement of the laity in its work and organization, but the administration of communion is normally reserved to ministers. Though numbers are not buoyant, Methodism in Britain has some 400,000 full members, and more than a million people are more loosely connected; membership worldwide is around 26,000,000. Methodism has always had a strong social conscience, and in Wales in particular it has been a focus for political activism, especially trade unionism. There is truth in the saying that ‘the Labour movement owes more to Methodism than to Marxism’. Methodism has also traditionally emphasized missionary work and children’s education.
   See also: Anglican Church; Elim
   Further reading
    The Methodist Church: Minutes of Conference and Directory, London: Methodist Church Conference Office, published annually.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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