The United Methodist tradition of worship began in eighteenth-century England, spread into newly colonized regions, and later advanced throughout the world. Worship that had begun with John Wesley in small, intimate gatherings rapidly expanded into the New World and burgeoned a movement of evangelical outreach that changed the course of...
The United Methodist tradition of worship began in eighteenth-century England, spread into newly colonized regions, and later advanced throughout the world. Worship that had begun with John Wesley in small, intimate gatherings rapidly expanded into the New World and burgeoned a movement of evangelical outreach that changed the course of global protestantism.
Methodism experienced its first major shift in 1816, upon the death of Francis Asbury. Beginning in the late 1700s, Asbury led the American Methodist movement, helping to develop a written constitution for the new denomination and leading the movement’s growth into the American frontier. Unlike England, the American frontier had no social or church hierarchy. Local churches and small group classes sprang up in newly settled areas, and ministry was led by the common folk and lay preachers.
Thanks to Asbury’s efforts among these pioneers, Methodism was uniquely positioned for the Second Great Awakening, during which the movement was further transformed. Demonstrative worship in large tent meetings replaced small group ministry for short seasons, reminding usually isolated laypeople that they were not alone in their faith. This time of spiritual revival (1820–1850) served to strengthen, rather than eliminate, the small group ministry of frontier Methodism. It even led to the Sunday School movement, in which circuit-riding preachers went throughout the frontier to encourage the faithful and maintain community worship. This era of growth, however, was followed by a deepening schism in the Methodist church. The increasing cultural division over slavery and theological issues divided the church, and in 1845, Southern states organized the Methodist Episcopal Church South. The division seemed to awaken the Methodist church to its true identity, however, leading into the era of missions.
This second, missional shift in Methodism came after the American Civil War. During this era, the Freedman’s Aid Society and the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church were formed to minister to newly freed slaves. Mission work began in the United States, where schools were established for former slaves and their children. Women’s aid societies sprang up, raising funds for missionary efforts. The leadership of both women and former slaves during this time led to greater diversity within church hierarchy. The success of missions on the homefront led to a significant increase in overseas missionary efforts. Methodist bishops like William Taylor, James Thoburn, and Joseph Hartzell founded missions around the world, in South America, Africa, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe, to name a few. The Methodist missions movement was both far-reaching and inclusive, and it led to the recent transition of unification in Methodism.
In the twentieth century, Methodism experienced a third transition of healing and reunification. Methodist churches made efforts to heal earlier divisions by confirming a common theology. The three major branches of Methodism, the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Protestant Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church South, created a plan of unification. They were officially united in April of 1939 and became the Methodist Church (USA). The division that had begun during the Civil War was officially ended. In addition, the Methodist church further unified through concerted missionary efforts. In response to the devastation of World War II, the General Conference of the Methodist Church approved the formation of the Methodist Committee on Relief. Then, in 1951, the church helped form the World Methodist Council. This organization cooperated with both the National and World Councils of Churches to increase missionary influence around the world.
The Methodist Church began as a small group movement, grew into a frontier ministry of lay preachers, expanded into a force for social change, and unified to transform missionary efforts across the globe.