It’s the birthday of religious leader John Wesley (books by this author), born in Lincolnshire, England (1703). He was saved from a fire when he was five years old, and later believed that God had saved him for a purpose. He became a priest and joined a religious study group that other people nicknamed the “Methodists,” because of their emphasis on methodical rules of living: they prayed and fasted according to strict schedules.
Wesley was the most methodical of them all. He wrote in his diary: “Have I prayed with fervor? Have I after every pleasure immediately given thanks? Have I been or seemed angry? Has good will been and appeared the spring of all my actions toward others?” At first he asked these questions of himself each day, and then he began to ask them each hour, keeping track of his answers.
In 1735, Wesley moved to the United States to serve as the priest for a settlement in Georgia. But the settlers didn’t much care for his methodical ways of living, and they ran him out of town.
He returned to England and began to travel around the wilderness on horseback, preaching to all the common people he came across: factory workers, miners and farmers. He preached in rented halls, on street corners, and in fields. He ultimately rode about 250,000 miles through the English, Scottish, and Irish countryside, preaching 42,000 sermons along the way. He said, “Once in seven years I burn all my sermons; for it is a shame if I cannot write better sermons now than I did seven years ago.”
Wesley was always a member of the Anglican Church, and his only idea was to create small groups within the Anglican Church to meet regularly for prayer and Bible study. But when Methodists missionaries traveled to the United States, their ideas took hold, and their followers considered themselves members of a new religion. They appointed their own bishops and ministers and created their own church laws and traditions, separate from the Church of England. The Methodist Church became the church of the colonists on the frontier, as well as African Americans, both slave and free.
By 1850, the United Methodist Church held more members than any other Christian denomination in the United States. It was thought of as the most mainstream of all denominations. A convert needed only to believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and everyone’s personal savior. Methodists believed that all other questions about Christianity were up for discussion. Wesley said, “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.”
Methodists have established more colleges, hospitals, child-care facilities, and retirement homes than any other Protestant denomination. A 19th-century Methodist preacher named William Booth noticed that his lower-class converts were often turned away from respectable churches, so he founded the Salvation Army to reach the poor and needy. Methodists also started Goodwill Industries in 1902, with stores across the country that employ people with disabilities to repair furniture and mend old clothes to be sold at a discount.
It was also Methodists who started the temperance movement, and a Methodist founded the YMCA. Methodists were a big part of the abolitionist movement, and the anti-segregation movement, and it was a Methodist who signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, integrating major league baseball for the first time.
Americans who were brought up in the Methodist Church include Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William McKinley, as well as Barry Goldwater, Walter Mondale, George McGovern, Bob Dole, and Hillary Clinton.