Methodism 106

John Wesley did not intend to start a new denomination. Rather his desire was to revitalize the Church of England. Wesley, in fact, never abandoned his Anglican connection. 

Wesley’s followers first met in private home “societies.” When these societies became too large for members to care for one another, Wesley organized “classes,” each with 11 members and a leader. Classes met weekly to pray, read the Bible, discuss their spiritual lives, and to collect money for charity.

Men and women met separately, but anyone could become a class leader.

The moral and spiritual fervor of the meetings is expressed in one of Wesley’s most famous aphorisms: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

The movement grew rapidly, as did its critics, who called Wesley and his followers “methodists,” a label they wore proudly. It got worse than name calling at times: methodists were frequently met with violence as paid ruffians broke up meetings and threatened Wesley’s life.

Though Wesley scheduled his itinerant preaching so it wouldn’t disrupt local Anglican services, the bishop of Bristol still objected. Wesley responded, “The world is my parish”—a phrase that later became a slogan of Methodist missionaries. Wesley, in fact, never slowed down, and during his ministry he traveled over 4,000 miles annually, preaching some 40,000 sermons in his lifetime.

Wesley then organized his followers into a “connection,” and a number of societies into a “circuit” under the leadership of a “superintendent.” Periodic meetings of methodist clergy and lay preachers eventually evolved into the “annual conference,” where those who were to serve each circuit were appointed, usually for three-year terms.

In 1787, Wesley was required to register his lay preachers as non-Anglicans. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the American Revolution isolated Yankee methodists from their Anglican connections. To support the American movement, Wesley independently ordained two lay preachers and appointed Thomas Coke as superintendent. With these and other actions, Methodism gradually moved out of the Church of England to become its own denomination.

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