By Kenneth B.E. Roxburgh
Special to The Alabama Baptist
Methodism is a worldwide denomination of Protestant Christianity. It was founded in the 18th century on both sides of the Atlantic through the life and teachings of John Wesley and Charles Wesley. They were part of the movement known as the “Great Awakening,” which also involved leaders such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. In 2013 it claimed 80 million adherents worldwide, with a membership within the United Methodist Church in the United States of some 7.2 million members.
The Wesley brothers were converted in 1738. John Wesley had attended a small house meeting for prayer and study in London where he heard someone reading from Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians. He wrote in his journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust Christ and Him 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.”
This evangelical encounter with Jesus Christ led John Wesley to travel thousands of miles through England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland to “offer Christ” to people, both within the life of the Church and also in the open air and to reach the people of the 18th century.
The brothers were raised within the Anglican Church in England where their father was an ordained minister. John Wesley only visited North America on one occasion, to Georgia in 1736, but he did not enjoy his experience and never returned. He came to America to preach to Native American Indians, but became the minister of a church in Savannah. The congregation opposed his ministry and after two years he left the country. He came without a conversion experience and left the country dejected and confused.
Way of salvation
In May 1742, John Wesley made the first of countless visits to the city of Newcastle in the North of England. His first impression was of “much drunkenness, cursing and swearing, even (he said) from the mouths of little children … surely this place is ripe for Him who ‘came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’” Here, as so often during his itinerant ministry, John Wesley noted in his diary, “I offered them Christ.”
He developed a particular emphasis on the way of salvation which is often known as Arminianism. He opposed the Calvinistic teaching that God had elected a certain portion of humanity to salvation and predestined the rest of humanity to damnation. In a sermon called “Free Grace,” John Wesley developed his conviction that the good news of God for the world included the idea that the grace of God was free for all. In other words he stressed that the love of God manifested in Jesus Christ at Calvary was universal and that it embraced all of humanity in a movement that seeks to save the lost. This message of love and mercy is to be offered to all human beings because Jesus Christ died for the whole world. Rejecting the Calvinist notion that Christ died only for the elect, his theology was kept from a simple universalism (in which all of humanity would be saved) by his careful recognition that such saving grace, though offered to all, must be received in faith and repentance.
He believed human beings are only saved on the basis of the free grace of God. We do not save ourselves, but the offer of God must be received in faith, as a gift of love. He believed the Holy Spirit works in all people and when they hear the good news of the gospel it convicts them of their sin and makes them aware of the opportunity to believe.
This emphasis of the universal work of Christ in atonement comes across in his counsel to Methodists to “admire, more and more, the free grace of God, in so loving the world as to give ‘His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him might not perish, but have everlasting life.’”
His understanding of election is found in his sermon on predestination from Romans 8:28 where he explains that “those whom He foreknew He also predestined.” This means: “God decrees from everlasting to everlasting that all who believe in the Son of His love shall be conformed to His image. … This in virtue of the unchangeable, irreversible, irresistible decree of God: he that believeth shall be saved,” he said. Those whom God “foreknew” John Wesley interprets as “He knew, He saw them as believers and as such predestined them to salvation, according to His eternal decree, ‘He that believeth shall be saved.’”
One of Charles Wesley’s hymns — named “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast,” published in 1747 — shows Charles Wesley appealing for a response of faith, almost in Billy Graham mode:
Come sinners to the gospel feast; Let every soul be Jesus’ guest; Ye need not one be left behind; For God hath bidden all mankind.
Charles Wesley used the term “all” provocatively in his hymns to stress the unconditional and universal love of God for sinners.
He was a prolific hymn writer. John Wesley’s typical comment about his brother’s hymns was, “Some were good, some were mediocre and some were exceptional.” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” is in the exceptional category.
For Charles Wesley this love of God is transforming. God doesn’t love us because we are worthy of His love. But neither will He give up on us when we disappoint Him. However, this unconditioned love of God calls for a response in our lives. For Charles Wesley it was imperative to believe that the love of God calls us to live differently. Our response to God’s love means that we turn away from the sin in our lives. So Charles Wesley speaks in this hymn of the prayer which we offer to God’s Holy Spirit to work in our lives and transform our attitudes and actions. He writes:
Breathe, oh, breathe thy loving Spirit into every troubled breast; … Take away our bent to sinning; Alpha and Omega be.
This hymn also speaks of the way in which both Wesley brothers adopted a particular understanding of holiness that would impact the holiness movements of the 19th century in North America and Great Britain, as well as early Pentecostalism in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century.
John Wesley’s theology of salvation related to his understanding of sin and sanctification with perfection as a “second blessing and/or baptism of the Holy Spirit.” He understood salvation as a journey and thus conviction of sin, repentance and sanctification were dimensions of salvation which spanned across the life of the Christian. He taught that Christians became more and more holy on a daily basis, but that it was possible to receive a fresh anointing of the Holy Spirit which would bring believers into a state of sinless perfection or complete sanctification.
He preached, “We experience the proper Christian salvation whereby, ‘through grace,’ we are saved by faith,” consisting of the branches of justification and sanctification. By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin and restored to the favor of God; by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin and restored to the image of God. For John Wesley salvation was both instantaneous and progressive. In “The Plain Account of the Christian Faith” he stated:
“I believe this instant [of perfection] generally is the instant of death, the moment before the soul leaves the body. But I believe it may be 10, 20 or 40 years before. I believe it is usually many years after justification; but that it may be within five years or five months after it. I know of no conclusive argument to the contrary.”
He never claimed that he himself experienced entire sanctification but he did preach that perfection was the goal of the Christian life. Albert Outler, a Wesleyan scholar, said, ‘“Perfection’ [was] the fulfillment of faith’s desire to love God above all else and all else in God, so far as conscious will and deliberate action [were] concerned. To deny this as at least a possibility seemed to Wesley to imply that deliberate sin [was] inevitable and unavoidable — which would say that man was made to sin and that his sinful disposition [was] invincible.”
Charles Spurgeon, the renowned Baptist preacher in London of the 19th century, had a great admiration for John Wesley. Spurgeon was a Calvinist, but commented that, “Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Arminians. I can only say concerning him that, while I detest many of the doctrines that he preached, yet for the man himself I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan; and if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the 12, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitfield and John Wesley.”
John Wesley never returned to the U.S. following his earlier visit. The 1776 War of Independence led Methodists in the U.S. to separate from the Anglican Church in England. He sent Thomas Coke to begin the process of ordaining ministers who would plant and nurture new congregations, baptize converts and celebrate communion. An independent Methodist movement began in 1784. The new denomination grew rapidly throughout the country, including in Alabama in the early 19th century as Methodists and Baptists vied with each other for converts. It employed the use of “circuit riders,” many of them laymen, who covered the country engaging in evangelism often in the open air. By 1844 there were 4,000 circuit riders which spurred on the growth of the denomination. Methodism soon became the largest Protestant denomination in the country.
Like many other denominations, Methodism experienced various splits and schisms. The most significant was over the issue of slavery in 1844, but in April 1968 the two major sections of the denomination came together to form the United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church is the largest Protestant church after the Southern Baptist Convention. In 2014 its worldwide membership was estimated at around 12 million members, with 7.2 million in the U.S.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Kenneth B.E. Roxburgh is professor of religion at Samford University in Birmingham and serves as pastor for preaching and teaching at Southside Baptist Church, Birmingham.