Methodist History


John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England June 17, 1703. He was the 15th of 19 children born to Susanna and Samuel Wesley, loyal Rector in the Church of England.

When John, known as Jacky to the family, was five, a fire which started in the thatched roof and destroyed the rectory, trapped him in an upstairs room. He dragged a chest to the window and stood on it so he could be seen. He was “plucked from the fire” by a human ladder made by neighbors standing on each others shoulders. This caused his mother to believe that God had special work for John.

At age ten John became a boarding student at Charterhouse School in London. The Duke of Buckingham nominated him to be a ‘Gownboy” and receive a free education there. His studies included Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He taught himself modern languages when he was older. His father advised him to run around the school garden three times before breakfast. John did, and said it helped him be healthy and able to endure hardship later.

He moved on to Oxford University at age 17 with a scholarship for 40 pounds a year. He was a student in Christ Church College for the next six years.

John Wesley decided to become an Anglican Priest like his father Samuel and was ordained a deacon in 1725 and a priest in 1728. In 1726 he was made a fellow of Lincoln College which gave him an assured income as a tutor. He also began writing a diary and journal which help historians and biographers know more about him and his society within the Church of England which became the worldwide Methodist Church founded on his ideas and work.


(In this vignette we see how the Wesley brothers begin their ministry.*)


Charles Wesley (“The Sweet Singer of Methodism”) followed his older brother John from the rectory in Lincolnshire to school in London and at Oxford. The brothers were more or less together for the rest of their lives. Frederick Norwood, the Methodist Historian, writes that for convenience the name “Wesley” has come to mean John but that Charles was there, too, discussing, organizing, supervising, staying loyal to the Church of England and publishing their remarkable series of hymn books. The “Index of Composers, Authors and Sources” in church hymnals have many listings for Charles. The United Methodist Hymnal has 65. His two sons and a grandson also made lasting contributions to church music.

On St. Simons Island, Georgia there is a huge live oak tree covered with resurrection ferns and Spanish moss which is named THE WESLEY OAK. An historical marker is beside it. General Oglethorpe brought the brothers to Savannah in 1735 – Charles as his secretary and John as Parish Priest. It was a short humbling and negative experience for them. They came from the sheltered accepting life of the University to the raw frontier. The colonists had little time for a prim Oxford don with strict rules of piety. It was on board ship the brothers met and were impressed by members of the Moravian Church. They stayed calm during a terrible storm as they sang psalms and showed a simple faith in God that made them unafraid of death. John visited the Moravian Center of Herrnhut, Saxony, met with their leaders and adapted what he learned to his own organization.

A few years later after more study and much spiritual growth for both, John agreed to finish a revival started in Bristol by John Whitefield. They were friends at Oxford and Whitefield was a successful preacher in both America and England. When churches closed their doors to his style of service Whitefield began having open air services. John was a reluctant substitute because he felt sermons should be given in a church building. He found the people flocking to hear his message that God loved the rough and uneducated as much as the wealthy and respectable. That started his career as a “field preacher” and for the next 50 years he traveled endlessly preaching on village greens, market places or wherever people could gather. Many of these places in England are marked by plaques and pointed to with pride. Wesley would stand on a wall, a cart, or steps so people could see and hear him better. Steps to a malt house in Wednesbury were called “Wesley’s Horseblock” and were lovingly preserved when the building was razed.


(In this vignette, we see a word picture of Susanna Wesley.*)

When I think back to the Mothers Days of my childhood in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Amity, Arkansas, the name Susanna Wesley is front and center. She was always mentioned during the service and I thought she probably was a lot like my Methodist grandmother.

Susanna Wesley was the daughter of Samuel Annesley, a non-conformist minister, but of more importance to Methodists she was the mother of John and Charles Wesley. Some might call her the “Mother of Methodism”, because of her long and lasting influence on her sons. She is described as a firm but devoted mother, who subdued the children’s wills, but did not forfeit their affections. She undertook the education of her 3 sons and 7 daughters, arranging for each to have 6 hours of lessons a day, beginning at age five. The boys home schooling ended when they went to private school at age 10. Girls were not usually educated in 18th century England, and I found no report of when Susanna stopped her daughters lessons.

Each week Susanna took time to talk with each child in turn. She insisted on obedience and good manners, especially to the servants. Susanna thought it unkind to spoil a child and one of the first things she taught her children was to cry quietly. (She left no report of how she did this!) She knew that encouragement is worth far more than punishment and did not punish the wrong-doer if he/she admitted the act and showed real sorrow.

She kept up correspondence with her university-educated sons that is referred to in their biographies.

For many years a converted foundry where royal cannon had been made was headquarters and home for John Wesley, the Methodist Societies and their activities. In Spring, 1740 John left Thomas Maxfield in charge at the “Foundry” while he went to Bristol. Maxfield was not an ordained minister but delivered a sermon when no clergyman was available. This upset John and he hurried back to London. Susanna was first to meet and told him to be careful, because Thomas Maxfield “is as much called to preach the gospel as ever you were”. She persuaded him to hear Maxfield preach. Afterward he admitted it was “God’s doing” and Thomas Maxfield became the first Methodist Lay minister.

Not all preachers traveled circuits as John Wesley did, but worked locally (located) as Charles did. Among those who were “located” were women. That gave John a special problem. He had had reservations about men as lay preachers and certainly had concerns about women. Again, Susanna showed him the way. She began holding Bible study groups.

In answer to “Should she preach?”, her son said she could “testify” which meant to preach without a formal text. Other women could do the same.

Susanna Wesley lived her final years in an apartment in the “Foundry” and was buried nearby in Bunhill Fields. Famous non-conformists John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake are also buried there.


(In this segment we see the early history of American Methodism and the role of Barbara Heck.*)


Our encyclopedia states that although organizations similar to Methodist Societies were started in America as early as 1740, Methodism effectively became a part of American life in 1766. It was then that Robert Strawbridge in Matyland and Philip Embury in New York, both Methodists from Ireland, began organizing and preaching. When John Wesley learned of their activity he sent English Methodist preachers to help organize societies. Most of these were located in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.Barbara Ruckle Heck

Methodist Historians liven all that up a bit with the statement: “Barbara Ruckle Heck, born in Ireland in 1734, is often referred to as the ‘Mother of American Methodism .” One says she “needled” and another says that “after a day of prayer, she encouraged” Philip Embury into forming a Methodist Class in 1766 and into building the first Methodist meeting house in America.

Captain Thomas Webb, a soldier and a preacher sent by Wesley, helped organize more societies in New York City. The congregations soon outgrew a rented room and then a hail over a sail-maker’s shop. Embury proposed they build a wooden building on a leased lot, but Barbara Heck had a vision of “better things” that led to the building of a stone chapel on John Street in New York City on a purchased lot. It was the first permanent Methodist structure in America and also the first to be named WESLEY CHAPEL. The subscription paper that was circulated shows Captain Webb headed the list with a pledge of 30 pounds. That was the largest pledge. There were 250 subscribers and include names of black servants as well as prominent New Yorkers Livingston, Delaney and Stuyvesant.

By that time the Anglican Church was well established in N.Y. City and dissenters were not allowed to build “regular churches”. Therefore the first Methodist Wesley Chapel had a fireplace and a chimney to avoid “Legal complications”. Embury was a skilled carpenter and built the pulpit. He also preached the sermon of dedication on October 30, 1768.

What of Barbara Heck later? During the American Revolution her loyalist family fled to Canada. She organized the first Methodist class in Upper Canada.


(In this section we see some of the divisions and unifications that brought us to the present status of the United Methodist Church.*)

Thomas CokeFrancis Asbury

John Wesley never intended to establish a denomination separate from the Church of England. However, he was a practical man, and when the Methodist movement in America was set adrift by the Revolutionary War, he ordained Thomas Coke and sent him to America to ordain Francis Asbury and others. Coke and Asbury (source of the much used name COKESBURY) were appointed “Superintendents”” by Wesley.

In December 1784 the consecrated ministers held a conference in Baltimore. Asbury was ordained “Elder” and Coke was ordained “Superintendent”. By 1788 both were called “Bishop”. That was the beginning of a major religious.-social force in America first known as the Methodist Episcopal Church now known as The United Methodist Church”.

Through the 200 plus years there were divisions and unifications that caused changes in name, hymnals, congregations etc. In 1830 some leaders were dissatisfied with the exercise of the episcopal form of government and the authority of the Bishops and withdrew from the Methodist Episcopal Church to form the Methodist Protestant Church. In 1844 the Methodist Episcopal Church North and the Methodist Episcopal Church South went their separate ways. Slavery was opposed by John Wesley and the early church disciplines. But as the church became less Wesleyan and more American the rules were relaxed. There were Methodists on both sides of the issue, amongst them abolitionists who spoke out eloquently. After years of debate things came to a head when a Bishop from Georgia inherited slaves through his wife. The anti-slavery faction demanded he free them or resign. It was illegal in his state to free slaves, a compromise could not be reached so the division occurred.

After years of negotiation, in 1939 the Methodist Episcopal Churches North and South and the Methodist Protestant Church united to form The Methodist Church.

In 1790 Jacob Albrecht, whose parents were of the Lutheran faith from Germany, converted to Methodism and began preaching the faith to Pennsylvania Germans. In 1800 he started a church with organization patterned after the Methodist Church named the Evangelical Association. In 1946 this church and the Church of the Brethren in Christ merged to form the Evangelical United Brethren church. In 1968 this group and the Methodist Church joined congregations to become the United Methodist Church — a major religious-social force in the world.


(In this section we see the tremendous contribution made by the Methodist denomination to creation of good schools and colleges.*)

Schools, Schools and More Schools!

As the pioneers and the Methodist denominations followed the American frontier west, they demonstrated a deep commitment to learning. There were Sunday Schools and classes, and as needs and issues arose over the first 200 years of the church’s history. Twelve hundred schools, colleges and universities were established. One hundred and twenty-four (124) of those Methodist Related “seats of learning” continue today.

Various fates befell the over 1,000 institutions that are no longer a part of the United Methodist Church structure. Many were closed. Perhaps for lack of financing; or the need for which they were created was accomplished, or they were not re-built after a destructive disaster. For example, as public education caught up with the frontier, church-related schools were no longer needed. Cokesbury College, the first school founded by the church, was begun in 1784 and then disappeared after its building burned a second time. Some of the schools merged. The example I know best is Hendrix College that became co-educational when the Gallaway Methodist Female Academy merged with Hendrix Methodist College in Conway, Arkansas. Some of these schools became public institutions. Henderson State University (my alma mater) was the much revered Henderson Brown Methodist College until it was purchased by the State of Arkansas. Others, like Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, became prominent private universities.

The Morrill Land Grant Act created large, well supported and co-educational colleges (Michigan State University in 1855) and slowed the pace of the church establishing schools. The rise of land grant colleges also caused Methodists to consolidate their educational holdings. During that time Methodist schools including most of the 200 “Female Colleges (or “Institutes” or “Seminaries” or “Academies”) that were opened in the early 19th century closed or merged. The Albion Female Collegiate Institute was one of the institutions strengthened by merger. The mergers created exceptionally strong four year Methodist co-educational colleges.

Two of these colleges are Adrian -College and Albion College. Both are liberal arts schools that receive national recognition for excellence. [Alums from those schools, please add to the small amount of the schools history that I found.] Albion College was founded by Michigan Methodist Episcopal Church members in 1835 when Michigan was still a territory, and is older than M.S.U. The citizens of Adrian wanted a college and in 1859 asked Dr. Asa Mahan, former president of Oberlin College and the pastor of Adrian’s Plymouth Congregational Church, to help them establish a college. At the same time, Michigan Union College, a Methodist Protestant school, wanted to relocate. Mahan invited the officials at Michigan Union to visit Adrian and meet with the citizens. They liked each other, made an agreement and in March 1859 Adrian College was chartered by the Michigan legislature to be a degree-granting institution.

Institutions of learning related to the United Methodist Church include schools, colleges, universities and theological schools scattered across the country. They all have interesting histories.


The Methodist Publishing House, was established in 1789 in Philadelphia as the Methodist Book Concern. It is the denomination’s largest agency and a portion of its net income is dedicated to ministers pensions.

Florida Southern College (1885) in Lakeland, FL, has the most buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright on one site anywhere in the world.

In 1864 the United States government created the “Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Displaced Persons”. Among other things, the bureau gave money to states to start schools for former slaves and to recognize States Rights and asked local partners to actually organize the schools. Volunteers within the Methodist Episcopal Church formed The Freedmen’s Aid Society to use the funds for establishing schools. Eleven of them have a relationship with the UMC 135 years later. They are Dillard University and Bennett, Bethune-Cookman, Claflin, Clark, Huston- Tillotson, Meharry Medical, Paine, Philander Smith, Rust and Wiley Colleges.

Hiawssee College in Madisonville, TN has the Cherokee word for “beautiful or rolling meadows” for its name.

Chautauqua (Iroquois for bag-tied-in-the-middle) became a generic name for touring lectures and concerts that provided entertainment and information to remote American towns the two decades before radio. The original Chautauqua was a Methodist campground in New York. In 1874 Preacher John Heyl Vincent and Layman Lewis Miller organized the camp to be a school for Sunday School teachers. For two weeks in a rustic setting those attending combined recreation and learning. Rev. Vincent, in 1878, expanded to offer correspondence courses and summer institutes for preachers (Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle). Thus started an American phenomenon known as the correspondence school.

Kansas Wesleyan University in Sauna was founded in 1886 but looks like a much younger campus, because after a tornado hit, new buildings were needed. Paintings of the old buildings hang in the alumni office

English Methodism influenced Americans with books and tracts. American Methodist revivalists convinced British evangelicals to be a social force. William and Catherine Booth listened and formed The Salvation Army. Soup was given along with an offer of salvation to needy people in the cities.

Goodwill Industries evolved from remedial work a Methodist preacher and his wife offered in the slums of Boston.

The Akron Plan refers to architecture fashioned by Sunday School Supt. Lewis Miller in 1870. Rooms for Sunday School classes are in a semi-circle around the auditorium. The folding doors open after class and the students are a part of the congregation.

Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, is the oldest college for women in the world and was chartered in 1886 to give women the educational rights and opportunities open to men.