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IntroductionJohn Wesley is considered to be the father of Methodism. With no intention of separating from the Anglican Church,* the brothers were founding members of a small Oxford University reform group that eventually spawned the second-largest Protestant denomination in America.Formative yearsJohn and Charles were born in 1703 and 1707, respectively, in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England. In addition to that, a brush with death in a house fire at age five caused him to believe he had been saved for a special mission, and that he ought to diligently work to fulfill his obligation to God.While attending Oxford University in 1728, John and Charles were ordained as priests of the Church of England, and they faithfully kept their holy orders throughout their lives. Although they were unable to preach from most Anglican pulpits because of their evangelical style, they held services in barns, private homes, and other locations.While at Oxford, the brothers and a friend, George Whitefield, formed a group called the “Holy Club,” in which they held regular Bible study, prayer and self-examination. The club became known by their classmates as “the Methodists,” owing to their conspicuously pious ways, methodical approach to Bible study, and daily prayer.Mission work in AmericaThe Wesleys' mission to America began in 1735, when John was approached by General James Oglethorpe to serve as a minister for a new parish in Savannah, Georgia. Charles went along to serve as secretary of Indian Affairs, with duties as secretary and chaplain at the nearby settlement of Frederica.During a life-threatening storm on the voyage, John was impressed by the calm Moravian passengers' strong inner faith, while he was convinced of his own inner weakness. Visiting and studying with the Moravians in the New World was of great comfort to John while in Georgia, and later served as a starting point for his later ministry following his return to England.John’s strict and unyielding methods of living proved to be of little value to the Native Americans and colonists. A man of great conviction, he was unable to adequately deal with his new parish's diverse geography, cultures, and languages. with English prayers, then Italian and French prayers, catechism for children and finishing up with more English prayers at 3 p.m.Unfortunately, the brothers Wesley became entangled in rumor-filled, intra-colony disputes that involved female colonists, and their days became numbered. Left behind was his legacy of the establishment of Christ Church, the first Anglican Church in Savannah.The seeds of Methodism were sown by the man's humble beginnings in Savannah, as evidenced by the many Methodist churches in that area today. John’s college friend, George Whitefield, continued to work as a deacon in Savannah and Frederica, and later founded Bethseda, an orphanage for boys that continues to this day.Early Methodism in the coloniesWhile the Wesleys continued to preach for reform of the Anglican Church in England, nonordained Methodists arrived in the Mid-Atlantic colonies in the 1730s and ‘40s, and formed “societies.” Seeking a new life, those Methodists included Philip Embury and Barbara Heck, who went to New York; Robert Strawbridge, who began a congregation in Maryland; and a society was formed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, under the leadership of Captain Thomas Webb. for a trained preacher who was “a man of wisdom, of sound faith, and a good disciplinarian.”The following year, Wesley sent two missionaries to the colonies. Trained by Wesley, those men organized societies with members from the Christian denominations present by seeking the commonality of those who, according to Pilmore, “earnestly desire to flee from the wrath to come” and who desired to “walk according to the oracles of God.”Methodism spread throughout the colonies, and so did the need for additional preachers. Wesley sent several preachers who shared the same principle as Pilmore, including Francis Asbury, so that by 1773, there were 1,160 Methodists who were served by 10 preachers in Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Attracting mostly poor farmers in areas neglected by the Anglican Church, Asbury promoted circuit riding as a way of reaching them, and by so doing, increased American Methodism to 214,000 at the time of his death in 1816.Wesley admonished adherents to continue to receive the sacraments from the Anglican Church, which was difficult, owing to the scarcity of priests in the colonies. The scarcity worsened during the American Revolution, when Anglican priests were seen as anti-patriotic and loyal to Britain.All but Asbury fled to either Canada or back to England, after the Church of England in America lost its legal status. To avoid being enlisted to fight in the War of Independence, Asbury went into hiding until the fighting was over.Opposed to the colonists’ bid for independence, John Wesley stated during the signing of the Declaration of Independence period, that it was a time of unjustified rebellion by a “bunch of hypocrites,” and that “wherever these brawlers for liberty govern, there is the vilest slavery.”Owing to a lack of strong leadership, and the scarcity of regular sacramental worship, Methodism in America splintered from the Anglican Church and began the Methodist Episcopal Church of America, at the Baltimore Christmas Conference in 1784. The English Methodists formally separated from the Church of England in 1791, after Wesley’s death, then formed the Wesleyan Methodist Church.Practices and beliefsSuch stringent requirements were expected of Wesley’s followers that it is no wonder they were called Methodists. He admonished them to avoid all evil, including profanity, profaning the day of the Lord, drunkenness, buying and selling slaves, fighting, and smuggling.They also were expected to feed and clothe the disadvantaged, visit the sick and prison inmates, and to preach to others the ways of goodness. And finally, they were expected to attend public worship, including the “Supper of the Lord” Eucharist service, participate in family and private prayers, and fast.Methodists interpret passages in the Bible to understand the will of God and their personal relationship with him, using a careful application of reason. As part of each adherent's "personal journey," they also believe that "the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in the Bible, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience."In keeping with the Anglican tradition, they practice two sacraments: Baptism and the Supper of the Lord. Their love of God is linked directly to their love of neighbor, and a passion for justice and renewal in the life of the world.Later yearsBack in England in 1738, John and Charles adhered to the pietist type of personal faith. Sarah traveled with Charles and John on their evangelical missions throughout Britain, until Charles ceased traveling in 1765.Charles more strongly opposed a split from the Church of England than his brother, and disagreed with other beliefs that John held. Many of them continue to be sung, including “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” and “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”An avid journal writer, John wrote of a personal transformative experience on May 24, 1738 when he felt his “heart strangely warmed,” during a small religious meeting of the Moravians on Aldergate Street in London. In his diary, he also wrote that “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.”Upon that spiritual awakening, John began to preach to others about his enlightenment experience, which led to forgiveness of their sins, personal discipline, and steadiness in the face of death. Some of the adherents traveled to the colonies to spread the news of scriptural holiness.John's direct experience with slavery in Georgia led to his passionate campaign against it in England. So adamantly opposed to slavery was Wesley, that he wrote a pamphlet in 1776, entitled Thoughts Upon Slavery, which was reprinted four times in two years. Wesley's pamphlet followed similar subjects as were printed in Some Historical Account of Guinea, by the Philadelphia Quaker, Anthony Benezet.Wesley explored The Slave Trade in detail and the brutality of plantation life, as well as the moral and legal arguments against it. Advancing the cause against slavery, Wesley wrote to the Abolition Committee, stating his support in August 1787. He mentioned reprinting Thoughts in a large format, but that never occurred.Wesley preached against slavery at a considerable personal risk. Such was Wesley's interest against slavery that in a letter written to the great abolitionist, William Wilberforce, he mentioned reading the Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African (1789), a strongly abolitionist autobiography of a Nigerian sold into slavery as a child.Although John Wesley earned some 20,000 pounds for his publications, he used little of it on himself and died a poor man in March 1791, following a short illness. His life’s work resulted in 135,000 members and 541 itinerant Methodist ministers.ConclusionMen of great faith and conviction, John and Charles Wesley led a revival within the Church of England that resulted in the spawning of the second-largest Christian denomination in America. Although stringent practices were demanded of John’s adherents, by his death there were 135,000 members and 541 itinerant Methodist ministers.Although they were denied access to the Church’s pulpits, those men preached their unconventional message of personal salvation by faith to religious societies all over England and Germany.
*The terms, Church of England and the Anglican Church, are synonymous.