A Brief Look at Methodism: Our History, Our Beliefs, Our Organization
John Wesley was born in 1703 at Epworth, England. His was one of nineteen children born to Samuel and Suzanna Wesley. His brother, Charles, was born four years later. Samuel was an Anglican Priest appointed to serve the Church of England in Epworth, and Suzanna was a strong, intelligent woman who raised her children in a tradition of Christian service and worship.
When John was five years old the parsonage (home of the pastor) caught fire and John narrowly escaped dying in the blaze. His mother truly felt that he had been set apart by God for a reason, and she referred to him as a “brand plucked from the burning.” Throughout the remainder of her life, she would encourage and even push John to seek and do God’s will.
In 1714, at age eleven, John was sent away to school in London and later, at seventeen, to Christ Church College at Oxford. At Oxford he proved himself to be an excellent student with a great gift of theology and languages. When John was twenty-three he was appointed to serve as a Fellow of Lincoln College at Oxford, and began to teach younger students – including his younger brother, Charles. In 1728, at twenty-five, John was ordained as a priest of the Church of England.
Shortly after he was ordained, John began to work with Charles and several other Oxford students in a religious society (the Holy Club) dedicated to personal devotion and service to the poor. They developed a method of prayer, discussion, and service. Other people at Oxford began to jokingly refer to them as “Methodists.” John and Charles were both overjoyed that they should be known by their methodical attention to their relationship with God.
Though John was very methodical in how he functioned – he still struggled in his relationship with Jesus. He and Charles came to the Colony of Georgia as missionaries, but this was not a successful venture for either of them. (There are many historic places associated with John and Charles Wesley on St. Simons Island, Ga, and in Savanna, Ga.) John returned to England feeling lost.
Then on May 24, 1738, John was invited to attend a Bible Study at a home on Aldersgate Street in London. That evening, John wrote in his journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust 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.” This was a the experience that Wesley wanted to share with everyone, and he spent the rest of his life preaching and teaching God’s love and grace and forgiveness.
Until his death in 1791, John was the primary preacher of the Methodist message. He preached our doctrines, and organized churches and discipleship groups. Charles Wesley took the doctrines of our church and set them to music. He wrote more than six thousand hymns and poems in his lifetime and many are still sung today. You may be familiar with his most popular works: “And Can It Be”, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”, and many, many more.
The legacy of John and Charles Wesley still impacts our world, and we are forever grateful for their willingness to seek and do God’s will.
The heart of understanding our beliefs and doctrines is found in remembering that we began as the Methodist Movement. The goal of “Methodist Movement”, founded by John Wesley, was to have people’s hearts and lives profoundly changed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Wesley wanted every Methodist to have their “heart right with God” through a relationship nurtured in prayer, Bible study and worship, and to have their lives changed as they reached out in service to the world around them.
United Methodists have four main guidelines for belief. These guidelines help us understand and shape our faith:
We believe in the Triune God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit).
We believe that Scripture is the authoritative Word of God in matters of faith.
We believe that New Birth (Salvation) comes through faith in and through Jesus Christ alone.
We believe that every person is created in God’s image, and in need of God’s grace.
United Methodist, from the time of John Wesley, have understood that Grace as key to our relationship with God. We understand that Grace is experienced in three different ways:
- Prevenient Grace – the Divine love of God that surrounds humanity. It is God’s grace that is reaching out to us and seeking to bring us to faith. It is the grace that is touching our lives before we know that grace exists.
- Justifying Grace – this is the grace that touches our lives at the moment that we realize our need for God and express that we want to have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Justifying Grace restores our relationship with God.
- Sanctifying Grace – the continual working of God’s grace in our life from moment we are justified through Jesus Christ. God’s grace is constantly leading, teaching, calling, challenging, engaging, and confronting us as little by little we are reshaped into the image of God.
As Methodists, we do not believe we are totally depraved, but recognize that we are born in bondage to original sin. We are wooed by the Holy Spirit to accept our deliverance from original sin, a deliverance purchased on the cross by our Savior Jesus Christ. (Prevenient Grace)
When we accept Christ and are freed from the power of sin and death, this is the point we refer to as New Birth or Salvation. (Justifying Grace)
From the moment we receive Justifying Grace, as Methodists we believe that our journey has just begun. In our personal relationship with God, through prayer, study of Scripture, worship and service, the Holy Spirit leads us on the journey of sanctification. (Sanctifying Grace)
The process of sanctification moves us from sinfulness to holiness. We strive to become the person God created and called us to be. As United Methodists, we earnestly strive inwardly and outwardly to experience the grace, compassion, and love of God through word and deed.