The Methodist Church was founded by John Wesley in about 1738. John and his brother Charles attended college at Oxford in England. There they began, in addition to their regular studies, a methodical study of scripture and how to live a holy life. They attracted like-minded students who all met together on a regular basis. The other students liked to tease them about it, calling them “the holy club” and “the Methodists” because they were so detailed and methodical in their Bible Study and their disciplined lifestyle.
After college John Wesley became an ordained clergyman in the Church of England but soon found himself at odds with the church. He found himself called to preach to miners, farmworkers and others who felt they were not welcomed inside church buildings. He trained lay leaders to help him in his work and initiated the first annual conference in 1744 to bring everyone together to discuss issues and support their collective work.
The Wesleyan Movement spread to America and in 1771 Frances Asbury began a forty five year career in ministry, much of it to the people on the frontier. The first annual conference of the Methodist Church in America was held in Philadelphia in 1773. The American Revolution ended up dividing the Methodist faction from the Anglican church and the Methodist movement became its own denomination. Frances Asbury became the first Bishop and leader of the Methodist Church in America and held that position until he died in 1816.
The spreading influence of the Methodist Church was carried by ordained circuit riders, ministers who travelled throughout the expanding western frontier of the United States. These itinerant preachers made many converts at revivals and camp meetings held in many communities, large and small. The circuit riders travelled by horseback to preach, give the sacraments and to establish churches. By 1844, there were 4,000 circuit riders, making the Methodist Church the largest Protestant denomination in the country and ensuring that most towns of any size contained a Methodist Church. The American Civil War caused a schism in the Methodist Church with churches became divided on the issue of slavery.
Full clergy rights in the Methodist church were extended to women in 1956, one of the first Protestant denominations in America to do so. Growing numbers of women began the training and ordination process until, currently, approximately half of the graduates of seminaries recognized by the Methodist Church are women.
In 1968 there was a unification of the Methodist Churches and the Evangelical United Bretheren Churches which joined together to be called the United Methodist Church. The symbol of United Methodist Churches is the Cross and the Flame with the two parts of the flame connected at the base to signify the unification.
Because of its long history of evangelism, both in the United States and worldwide, today’s members of the United Methodist Church represent the diversity found throughout the globe but are united by their shared beliefs which they hold as sacred. They are:
1. God is God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit
2. The Bible is the inspired Word of God.
3. Sin estranges people from God.
4. Salvation is through Jesus Christ.
5. Sanctification is the grace which draws us to be filled with love of God and our neighbor.
6. Baptism and Communion are the two main Sacraments. Other rites are performed such as Confirmation, Ordination, Holy Matrimony, Funerals and the Anointing of the Sick.
7. Belief in Free Will.
8. Belief in Social Justice which involves opposing evils such as racism, inequality, economic injustice, homelessness, child labor and human trafficking.
Today members of the United Methodist Church are working hard throughout the country and the world to spread the good news of God’s love and care for us and to put our beliefs into action each day. We remember and honor the words that the Reverend John Wesley wrote so many years ago:
“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.”
*For much more detailed information about the history, work and beliefs of the United Methodist Church, please visit www.umc.org.