Friends in Christ,
As I write this article, I am preparing to celebrate two great events that are paradoxically connected to one another. The first event is the celebration of John Wesley’s birthday. The founder of the Methodist movement was born to Samuel and Susanna Wesley at the rectory in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England on June 28, 1703. Happy 319th birthday, John! Wesley founded a movement that encouraged his followers to live lives of scriptural holiness while at the same time practicing deeds of mercy and compassion to alleviate the suffering of the poor and needy. The Methodist movement enjoyed explosive growth during the middle part of the eighteenth century throughout England, Wales and even Ireland, and Methodism was soon carried by Methodist lay members to the British colonies in North America.
Although ordained an Anglican priest, Wesley was never appointed to a church. This empowered him to practice ministry in innovative ways, such as preaching outdoors wherever he could gather a crowd, whether on village greens, at coal mines, or even outside the Epworth church where he preached from atop his father’s grave! The ministries of the Methodist societies encouraged the poor to make radical changes in their lifestyle that frequently enabled them to rise out of poverty. Some historians even credit Methodism’s success in improving the condition of the poor for the fact that England did not have a revolution in the 18th century as France did.
Wesley never intended to create a new church or denomination. Instead, he regarded Methodism as a reform movement, rooted in the Church of England, but transcending its structures to reach out to those who were not practicing Anglicans. Early Methodists were organized into “societies,” not congregations; early Methodist met in private homes, and later in meeting houses, not in churches. So strong was Wesley’s determination to remain a part of the Church of England that the British Methodist Church did not split from the Anglican Church until several decades after Wesley’s death.
So why and where did Methodists form their own church denomination? That brings us to the second event that we are all preparing to celebrate, namely Independence Day. Methodism was well established in America when the War for Independence broke out. But the Methodist societies in America drew serious criticism from their patriot neighbors for two reasons. First, John Wesley, their ostensible leader back in England, strongly supported King George III and opposed the efforts of the American colonies to secure their independence. Second, the early Methodists were pacifists who refused to take up arms either for or against the American colonies.
When the war ended with American independence, Wesley realized that the Methodist movement in American needed its independence as well. He sent Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury to America to superintend the creation of a new Methodist Episcopal Church, which was birthed at the Christmas Conference in Baltimore in December, 1784. Of course, that was not the end of the story! The Methodist Episcopal Church founded in 1784 spawned many other denominations and church movements, from our historically black denominations (AME, AME Zion and CME) to the Holiness movement to the Salvation Army to the Nazarenes…and more. We have a history of division, and sometimes reunion, that continues to this day.
Independence Day is all about celebrating our history and our heritage. May your celebration be blessed, and may we all celebrate the way our church history has been shaped by our nation’s independence.
Grace and peace,