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History of United Methodist Church

Like all Christian churches, the United Methodist Church traces its heritage back to God's call of the Hebrew people, as recorded in the Old Testament, and to God's revelation in Jesus Christ, as recorded in the New Testament. As a distinct denomination, United Methodists mark their beginning with the lives of John and Charles Wesley.

The Wesley's lived in England in the 18th century and were sons of an Anglican (Church of England) priest father and a very progressive and pious mother. Both John and Charles Wesley were educated at Oxford University and ordained as Anglican priests. John Wesley read theology and church history voraciously. In keeping with his Anglican background, John was convinced that Christian salvation involved growth toward "holiness." While at Oxford, the Wesley's took their religious life very seriously. They were leaders of a group, which called itself the "holy club." Because this group was so methodical in their approach to religious disciplines, other students jokingly called them "Methodists."

John Wesley served as a priest and missionary to the Georgia colony prior to the revolutionary war. He was a failure at these ministries and was actually forced by residents to leave the colony. John went back to England defeated, depressed and doubting his own Christian faith. As he struggled to find some assurance, “Moravian” Christians encouraged John. The Moravians were protestant Christians who emphasized "salvation by grace through faith" and the "assurance of grace" through the Holy Spirit. On May 24, 1734, John Wesley experienced the assurance of grace while attending a religious meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. He reported that his "heart was strangely warmed" and he felt he "did trust Christ and Christ alone for salvation." A few days earlier, Charles Wesley had experienced a similar sense of assurance about God's grace.

The Wesleys combined the protestant emphasis on "salvation by grace through faith" with the Anglican emphasis on salvation as "growth toward holiness." Charles wrote many hymns that were used in the "Methodist movement," a number of which are now traditional hymns of the Church. John worked out Methodist beliefs in his published sermons. He came to see grace as the foundation of the Christian faith and love as the defining characteristic of holiness. He understood salvation as an experience that happens immediately when a person receives grace to trust Christ and continually as a person grows in grace toward mature love.

The Methodist movement was, at first, a renewal movement within the Anglican Church. John Wesley rode on horseback all over England, leading services in churches and often in open fields, homes, inns, and on street corners. Methodism was particularly attractive to the working classes. As people responded to the message of salvation by grace, John organized them into small groups and appointed lay "preachers," who visited from town to town encouraging the groups. The Wesleys urged Methodists to trust God and pursue the goal of mature love for God and other people. While the primary emphasis was on "personal salvation," Methodists were also champions of social reform. John Wesley worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor, prisoners, and the mentally ill. He was an outspoken opponent of slavery and war.

The Methodist movement came to America with English and Irish immigrants. After the revolutionary war and American independence, American Methodists realized they could not continue as a part of the Church of England. John Wesley was a loyal English subject had opposed the revolutionary war. Nevertheless, he urged American Methodists to "stand firm in the freedom with which God hath so strangely set them free." The Methodist Episcopal Church (M.E.) was born in Baltimore on December 24, 1784. Among those present at this historic "Christmas Conference, was a self-taught preacher named Francis Asbury. At this conference, Asbury was ordained as an elder and then a bishop by Thomas Coke, an Anglican elder who had recently been "ordained" a bishop by John Wesley. As a leader and organizer, Francis Asbury became to American Methodists what John Wesley had been to English Methodists. Another preacher attending the Christmas Conference was Richard Allen, a black Methodist who later led in the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.). Also present was Philip Otterbein, a German Reformed pastor whose followers later helped form the "Evangelical United Brethren," a movement of German-speaking Christians who adhered to "Wesleyan" principles.

Since the establishment of the M.E. Church, Methodism in America has undergone a number of divisions, unions, and re-unions. As noted above, Richard Allen began the A.M.E. Church. Allen did not feel that their white Methodist brothers and sisters treated him and his black companions equally. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (A.M.E. Zion), another black Methodist denomination, was started by mutual agreement of black and white Methodists in the New York area. The Protestant Methodist Church and the Wesleyan Church separated from the M.E. Church over theological and political differences. In 1845, southerners withdrew from the M.E. Church because of a disagreement over slavery and formed the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. After the civil war, black members of the M.E Church, South separated to form their own denomination, the Colored Methodist Church (C.M.E.), now known as the Christian Methodist Church.

In 1939, Methodists achieved a partial reunion. The M.E. Church, the M.E. Church, South and the Protestant Methodist Church joined together to form The Methodist Church. Though this new denomination was predominately white, it did include some black congregations. These black congregations were lumped together into a "Central Conference" which covered the entire country.

In 1968, The Methodist Church joined with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form the United Methodist Church. The "Central Conference" was dissolved in the 1968 union and black congregations joined white congregations as members of geographically designated "Annual Conferences."

 

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