Jeffrey Barbeau’s The Spirit of Methodism is a helpful primer for non-Methodists seeking to understand a global religious movement now numbering about 70 million or more. The story is especially important for U.S. Christianity as America’s third-largest denomination—the largest Methodist body in the world—prepares for likely schism next year over sexuality.
The story [of Methodism] is especially important for U.S. Christianity as America’s third-largest denomination—the largest Methodist body in the world—prepares for likely schism next year over sexuality.
In this book are many of the iconic moments from seminal Methodist history. Little boy Wesley’s providential rescue from the burning rectory of his clergy father (“a brand plucked out of the burning”). Wesley’s religious instruction by his devout mother. The derisively named “Methodist” Holy Club at Oxford he formed with brother Charles. His failed ministry in colonial Georgia. The deep influence of Moravian serenity on Wesley during his storm-tossed ship ride home. His conversion to certainty about salvation through a heart “strangely warmed” at Aldersgate Chapel. Preaching outdoors on his father’s grave after being banned from the pulpit. Decades of outdoor preaching to thousands. The creation of Methodist societies, classes, and bands demanding spiritual discipline in small groups. His refusal to countenance quitting the Church of England until American Methodists after the Revolution insisted on their own denomination. His pious death after popularity and success had made respectable his originally disdained ministry.
The Spirit of Methodism: From the Wesleys to a Global Communion
Jeffrey W. Barbeau
“I felt my heart strangely warmed.” That was how John Wesley described his transformational experience of God’s grace at Aldersgate Street on May 24, 1738, an event that some mark as the beginning of the Methodist Church. Yet the story of Methodism, while clearly shaped by John Wesley’s sermons and Charles Wesley’s hymns, is much richer and more expansive. In this book, Methodist theologian Jeffrey W. Barbeau provides a brief and helpful introduction to the history of Methodism―from the time of the Wesleys, through developments in North America, to its diverse and global communion today―as well as its primary beliefs and practices. With Barbeau’s guidance, both those who are already familiar with the Wesleyan tradition and those seeking to know more about this significant movement within the church’s history will find their hearts warmed to Methodism.
Expansion of American Methodism
Methodism expanded exponentially in early America, even beyond its success in Britain, becoming the new nation’s largest religious church for much of the 19th century. The tireless circuit-rider Bishop Francis Asbury, dispatched by Wesley to America, was the main instrument for this early success. Even more abstemious than Wesley, he lived and died in the saddle after evangelizing the frontier. He was often accompanied by Harry Hossier, a compelling black preacher often more popular with crowds than Asbury was, which discomfited some and foreshadowed Methodism’s racial divisions.
When black Methodists at St. George’s Church in Philadelphia were segregated into the balcony in 1792, Bishop Richard Allen, a former slave mentored by Asbury, helped form the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Asbury himself soft-pedaled Methodism’s opposition to slavery to gain access to both blacks and whites in the South, virtually guaranteeing Methodism’s eventual sectional divide over slavery alongside Baptists, presaging the Civil War.
Amid evangelistic and social success, Methodism faced more divisions beyond race and slavery. Free Methodists and the Wesleyan Church emerged, rejecting the Methodist Episcopal Church’s growing social stature, which downplayed old Methodist perfectionist distinctives. Holiness denominations like the Nazarenes similarly formed, often championed by women revivalists like Phoebe Palmer.
Methodist divisions in America and Britain, where Methodism also left the Church of England and fractured further, didn’t preclude Methodist global outreach. Thomas Coke, America’s first Methodist bishop, died leading missionaries to India. Escaped slaves who sided with the British during the Revolution took Methodism to Sierra Leone. Indigenous Africans in South Africa, discriminated against by British Methodism, aligned with the U.S.-based AME. Methodists in Kenya protested against British colonial policies, which sometimes ignored the Islamic slave trade. Methodists throughout Africa fought female genital mutilation and polygamy. Methodist missionaries to Latin America created new churches that often defined themselves against Roman Catholicism.
In the 19th century, British Methodists (later joined by Americans) evangelized China, and Americans evangelized Korea. John Sung, son of a Chinese Methodist minister, rejected liberalism at Union Seminary in the 1920s, telling Harry Emerson Fosdick “You are of the devil,” and becoming the “John Wesley of China.” Shi Meiyu—also known as Dr. Mary Stone—was an American-educated physician who founded a Chinese hospital, church, and seminary, rejecting the liberalism of Methodist missions.
Much of that liberalism originated with German-educated and Hegelian-inclined Borden Parker Bowne of Methodism’s Boston University. His 1908 book Personalism outlined the modernism for which a Methodist heresy trial, unique in denominational history, had failed to find him guilty. This failure fueled the growing 20th-century theological divisions within what became United Methodism, although this book shares little about those disputes. It merely notes that Bowne’s acquittal, if “put negatively,” underscored the “inability . . . to form doctrinal boundaries” and undermined “historic orthodoxy.”
Barbeau, professor of theology at Wheaton College, advocates a “Broad Church Methodism” and warns against schism, though his history recalls lots of schisms that often facilitated innovation and growth. United Methodism is now dividing thanks to the rise of African Methodism, which won’t tolerate American liberalism. The Africans and other Global South Methodists, who form the overwhelming majority of global Methodism, will in the future define what is “broad.”
United Methodism is now dividing thanks to the rise of African Methodism, which won’t tolerate American liberalism.
Faithfulness of Early Methodism
Although an Anglican, Winfield Bevins, in his Marks of a Movement: What the Church Today Can Learn From the Wesleyan Revival, showcases the Wesleyan movement as instructive for all Christians focused on church multiplication. Bevins teaches church planting at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, the largest Methodist seminary in the world. He notes that Asbury’s president, Tim Tennent, calls America the “fastest-growing mission field in the world.” Bevins identifies six important marks of the Wesleyan movement: changed lives, contagious faith, emphasis on the Holy Spirit, organized systems for discipleship and spiritual growth, apostolic leadership that mobilizes laity, and organic multiplication that constantly looks outward.
Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed” at Aldersgate during a reading of Martin Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, Bevins notes. This direct experience of the assurance of God’s grace is central to the church’s evangelistic outreach. The early Methodists were derided as “reasonable enthusiasts” because they sought to balance experiential spirituality with sensible practice and doctrine. They believed God inspired the Bible and continues to supernaturally illumine its readers. Wesley broke with the Moravians—with whom he was originally smitten—because he thought them too passively stressing the Holy Spirit’s inward witness. He thought Christian fidelity and growth required disciplines of prayer, fasting, sacrament, Bible study, and works of charity. As a master organizer, Wesley insisted that his followers within societies and smaller groups of classes and bands heeds these disciplines or otherwise leave Methodism.
[Wesley] thought Christian fidelity and growth required disciplines of prayer, fasting, sacrament, Bible study, and works of charity.
Such exacting demands today seem onerous to many. Yet church multiplication with effective evangelism and discipleship worked for ascendant Methodism. It works today, where tried, although much of American culture cries against it. Early Methodism was controversial and zealously countercultural. So too is the church everywhere as it seeks to be faithful.