What is Methodism?

Methodism is a Protestant denomination that emerged within Anglicanism during the 1700s that sought to inspire a deep evangelical ethos within the Church of England. Because they originally were methodical and highly disciplined in their approach to the Christian life, they were labeled “Methodists” by their opponents, a name which stuck. John Wesley, who did more than anyone to establish Methodism, did not initially intend it to become a separate denomination. As the movement matured, however, it became clear that significant differences emerged between Anglicanism and Methodism, a point which led to an official separation after Wesley’s death in 1791.

Methodism originally was a zealous evangelistic movement that heralded a simple gospel for the common man, championed an evangelical Arminian theology of salvation, pioneered an approach to evangelical sanctification known as Christian “perfection,” and motivated thousands of ministers who selflessly embraced an itinerant, “circuit riding” ministry that often included celibacy and poverty for the cause of Christ. The movement cooled in the 19th century as Methodists established colleges, seminaries, and moved more into mainstream evangelicalism. Today the United Methodist Church ranks as the third largest single denomination in America (after Roman Catholicism and the Southern Baptist Convention).

A Brief History of Methodism

No history of Methodism can begin without reference to John Wesley (1703-1791). As a 35-year-old Anglican minister and former Greek tutor at Oxford University, Wesley underwent a profound conversion to Christ and thereafter committed himself to preaching the gospel wherever he could. A man of enormous energy and vision, Wesley inspired a movement which emphasized the following features:

  • The passionate preaching of justification by faith and the new birth. Wesley believed that preaching these doctrines would expose the formalistic Christianity he believed pervaded much of Anglicanism.
  • The organization of a vast network of small groups, known as “classes” and “bands.” These small groups held Methodist Christians accountable to the high ideals of biblical discipleship. They became the place where real person-to-person ministry took place in Methodism, and they were incubators of evangelical fervor, discipleship, and the development of new leaders.
  • The development of sacrificial and highly-mobile preachers who ministered to multiple classes in a given region. These “circuit riders,” as they later became known, were appointed by Wesley to take a preaching circuit over an extensive geographical area where, over a period of several weeks, they would minister at each station on the circuit, preaching outdoors, organizing new believers, and training new leaders. Unlike a settled minister who is tied to one church in one town, Wesley’s mobile ministers were able to fan out over large regions and adapt to population changes. The system contributed to the rapid growth of Methodism, but it also burned out many zealous preachers.
  • The promotion of a Wesleyan Arminian theology of salvation. Wesley’s theology was strongly anti-predestinarian and emphasized the point that real Christians can lose their salvation if they are not careful. One uniqueness of Wesley’s thought was his advocacy of the doctrine of Christian “perfection.” He believed that through vigorous spiritual discipline, Christians can be so filled with evangelical love for God and neighbor that it would essentially mute the active principle of sin their lives. Wherever this theology of perfection took root, one finds a culture that divides Christians into two-tiers: the “saved” who have been forgiven, and the “sanctified” who enjoy the full blessings of “perfection.”
  • The production of evangelical hymns for worship. John’s brother Charles (1707-1788) wrote thousands of hymns for Methodism, many of which have become classics of Protestant hymnody.

Classic Charles Wesley Hymns

Charles Wesley (1707-1788) wrote over six thousand hymns in his lifetime, many of which have become evangelical classics:

  1. “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?”
  2. “Arise, My Soul, Arise”
  3. “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”
  4. “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”
  5. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
  6. “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”
  7. “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”
  8. “Rejoice the Lord is King.”

American Methodism was established through the tireless efforts of Francis Asbury (1745-1816). Sent to America by Wesley in 1771, Asbury quickly became the most influential American Methodist and its first bishop in 1784. Asbury was famous for his work ethic. In his 45-year ministry, he traveled 300,000 miles on horseback, preached over 16,000 sermons, organized hundreds of conferences, and trained hundreds of ministers, all while living on about $46/year. During the Second Great Awakening, Methodists were well-known for embracing the extravagant emotionalism of frontier revivals. Their numbers grew remarkably during the early republic, from 5,000 in 1770 to a quarter million by 1820, and to just under 2 million by 1860. They were the largest Protestant denomination in the United States in the middle of the 19th century.

While the fervor of its original circuit-riding days was still part of Methodism in the 1800s, the denomination increasingly embraced features characteristic of established denominations: “settled” ministries, and the founding of colleges, seminaries, and publishing houses. This transition, coupled with other historical shifts of the period, led to several denominational splits. For instance, the issue of slavery introduced division leading to the formulation of black Methodist denominations, like the African Methodist Episcopal Church founded by Richard Allen (1816), and white Methodist groups, like the Wesleyan Methodists (1843) and the Free Methodists (1860), who were outraged that mainline Methodism was not doing enough to counter America’s peculiar institution. The mainline body itself split in 1844 into the northern Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, a breach that lasted for 95 years (until 1939).

Wesley’s doctrine of perfection mediated through the holiness teaching of the 19th century became a prominent factor in the formation of Pentecostalism at the turn of the 20th century.

Other Methodists sought to keep the original spirit of Wesleyan perfectionism alive through the promotion of “holiness” and “entire sanctification.” Writers like Phoebe Palmer and Hannah Whitall Smith encouraged countless American Methodists to embrace the life of holiness by seeking a second post-conversion blessing from the Holy Spirit. In time, these Holiness Methodists left mainline Methodism to form their own denominations, like the Pilgrim Holiness Church (1897). Other denominations formed in the late 1800s that had deep roots in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition are the Church of the Nazarene, The Salvation Army, and The Christian Missionary and Alliance. As we shall see in a later post, Wesley’s doctrine of perfection mediated through the holiness teaching of the 19th century became a prominent factor in the formation of Pentecostalism at the turn of the 20th century.

Methodism Today

Today, the largest Methodist denomination in North America is the United Methodist Church. There are currently 8 million United Methodists in America and 11 million worldwide. Like many mainline Protestant denominations, United Methodists have embraced theological liberalism in the last century, though pockets of evangelical conservatism can be found. Smaller groups, like the Wesleyan Church, retain a significant evangelical witness for Christ. With worldwide numbers hovering around 80 million, Methodism continues to be a significant voice among the world’s Christian denominations.

Segue: From “British Imports” to “Made in America”

So far in this series we have examined denominations that were imported from the British isles during the 17th and 18th centuries (Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists). For the next several months, we will shift gears and examine several denominations that were “made in America” in the last two centuries. We begin next month by examining the Restoration Movement, those churches that today are known as the Churches of Christ or the Disciples of Christ.


Quick Facts


Methodism traces its origins to John Wesley (1703-1791) who formed a vibrant evangelical movement within Anglicanism in the 1700s that featured the following emphases:

  1. The preaching of justification by faith and the new birth.
  2. The organizing of believers into small groups for vigorous Christian discipleship.
  3. Circuit-riding ministers who made the world their parish.
  4. The advocacy of an Arminian theology of salvation.
  5. The production of devotional hymns for Christian worship.

Methodist polity

Episcopal (that is, they employ bishops)

Current Methodist Denominations in North America and their numbers:

  1. The United Methodist Church – roughly 8 million (third largest Christian denomination)
  2. African American Methodist Denominations
    ♦  African Methodist Episcopal Church – 2.5 million
    ♦  African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church – 1.2 million
  3. Methodist Denominations with a Holiness Background
    ♦  The Wesleyan Church – 200,000 in North America, 400,000 worldwide
    ♦  Free Methodists – 70,000

Two Great Books on Methodist Founders:

  1. Henry D. Rack. Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism. London: Epworth Press, 1989.
  2. John Wigger. American Saint: Francis Asbury & the Methodists. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.