Thursday, April 3, 2014

Wesley ‘failure’ morphs into lively renewal movement

By Joey Butler
Reprinted from Interpreter Magazine, January/February 2014.

The roots of Methodism were actually grounded in a perceived "failure." Brothers John and Charles Wesley were Church of England missionaries to the colony of Georgia, arriving in March 1736. Their mission was unsuccessful, and both returned to England disillusioned and discouraged — Charles in December 1736, and John in February 1738.

Transformative spiritual experiences reenergized the brothers, and they went on to found the lively renewal movement within the Church of England.

John Wesley
John Wesley believed and preached that God’s grace was available to all. His often-controversial sermons led many churches to shun him, so he took to the streets to preach directly to the public. His mission was to spark a revival within the church, and to do so, he gathered new converts in small groups, societies, and appointed laypeople as leaders. Once a year, he gathered them together for a conference.

He also embraced lay preaching, a somewhat scandalous idea at the time. However, he needed people to carry on his movement, and it would have been impossible to get enough ordained ministers for the task.

Wesley was fervent about evangelism – hence his famous saying that “the world is my parish.” Today, The United Methodist Church is in mission in more than 135 countries.

Methodism is deeply rooted in social justice and “practical” Christianity.

Wesley believed that followers of Christ are called to care for those in need. Deeply concerned with human suffering and following Jesus’ teachings to help the poor, he organized a group of volunteers in London who routinely visited with the sick, providing spiritual and, if possible, medical care.

He also fought against what he considered the greatest evils of his day: poverty, war, ignorance and disease. Those beliefs aligned with his insistence that all are merely stewards of wealth, not owners of it, and that we are called to “do all the good you can” – the seeds of modern philanthropy.

Wesley’s conviction that education should be available to all led him and the church he founded to be forerunners in the field of higher education, a mission that continues to this day. Currently, 121 colleges and universities are affiliated with The United Methodist Church, and more than 700 schools worldwide share a commitment to the Wesleyan tradition.

Though overshadowed by his older brother, Charles Wesley is responsible for Methodism’s musical tradition. Charles is reported to have written more than 6,000 hymns, including many of the church’s best-loved hymns still featured in today’s United Methodist Hymnal: “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “A Charge to Keep I Have.”

John Wesley started a movement that would become one of the largest Protestant denominations in the world, but he died in 1791 thinking of himself as an Anglican priest. It was only after his death that his followers left the Church of England to found The Methodist Church.

The Wesleys never returned to the colonies after their missionary experience, but others in their movement took the message across the Atlantic. Organized Methodism in America began as a lay movement. Among its earliest leaders were Robert Strawbridge, an immigrant farmer who organized work about 1760 in Maryland and Virginia, Philip Embury and his cousin, Barbara Heck, who began work in New York in 1766, and Captain Thomas Webb, whose labors were instrumental in Methodist beginnings in Philadelphia in 1767. African Americans participated actively in these groundbreaking and formational initiatives, though much of that contribution was acknowledged without much biographical detail.

The ordination of Bishop Francis Asbury by Bishop Thomas Coke at the Christmas Conference establishing the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States at Baltimore, Maryland, in the winter of 1784.
To strengthen the Methodist work in the colonies, John Wesley sent two of his lay preachers, Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore, to America in 1769. Two years later, Wesley dispatched Rev. Richard Wright and the Rev. Francis Asbury to undergird the growing American Methodist societies. Francis Asbury to undergird the growing American Methodist societies. Asbury — also the first Methodist bishop — became the most important figure in early American Methodism. His energetic devotion to the principles of Wesleyan theology, ministry, and organization shaped Methodism in America in a way unmatched by any other individual. In addition to the preachers sent by Wesley, some Methodists in the colonies also answered the call to become lay preachers in the movement.

As Methodism flourished in the 19th century, the denomination split into several denominations over slavery, the treatment of African Americans by the church and other issues. Some of those churches eventually reunited; others remain separate today.

At the same time, two other church movements were growing rapidly.

The Rev. Philip William Otterbein, a German Reformed pastor, and Rev. Martin Boehm, a Mennonite, preached an evangelical message and experience similar to the Methodists. In 1800 their followers formally organized the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. Jacob Albright, a Lutheran farmer and tilemaker in eastern Pennsylvania, who was converted and nurtured under Methodist teaching, began a second church, The Evangelical Association. It was officially organized in 1803.
These two churches were to unite with each other in 1946 to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church. That denomination united with The Methodist Church in 1968 to form The United Methodist Church.


Adapted by Joey Butler from The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church - 2004. (Copyright 2004 by The United Methodist Publishing House) and Meet the Methodists by Charles L. Allen. Butler is editor of young adult content for United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn. Used by permission.

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