Early American Faith: Puritans vs. Methodists

MethodistPreachI believe it could be said that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was deep down a Puritan at heart, for after all, the Puritan mindset was to reform the Anglican church.  John Wesley just had a different view and “method” than traditional Puritanism which arose in England and later  exported to New England.

JohnWesleyJohn Wesley was born on June 17, 1703 to parents Samuel and Susannah Wesley.  His brother, Charles, another leader in the Methodist movement was born in 1707.  Samuel was an Anglican minister “of severe demeanor who once paraded an adulteress through the streets to shame her and who forced an unwanted (and disastrous) marriage upon one of his daughters when she tried to elope with a man not of his own choosing.” (English Spirituality in the Age of Wesley, p. 200) His wife Susannah was the daughter and twenty-fifth child, of a prominent Puritan family, so you can imagine that together they raised their children under the very strictest of rules and order.

CharlesWesleySusannah “governed the lives of her children through every conceivable hour and aspect of day and night and for her conviction that the path to right child-rearing was to ‘break their wills’ by physical punishments (which would be doubled if they cried audibly).”  She was also not above  disagreement with her husband.  Susannah remained loyal to King James and his family and when Samuel wanted her to pray for Protestant King William she refused.  Their spat led to a temporary separation.  It could be said that her influence in raising her children, especially John and Charles, was evident in the tenets of the Methodist faith that they later taught.

SamuelWesleySusannahWesley

John proved himself an excellent and diligent student when he was admitted to Oxford at the age of sixteen.  When he graduated his parents pressed him to become a clergyman so he began to study theology and divinity, with some exposure to Catholicism and its tenets.  In 1725 he was ordained and preached his first message, but a short time later he was offered the position of Fellow of Lincoln College (Oxford).  The post was considered an honor, of course, and his father approved initially.  However, his father would later require his services as an assistant minister, but Oxford reminded him of his obligations to them.

When John returned to Oxford in 1729, he discovered the “Holy Club” which Charles regularly attended.  The term “Holy Club” and “methodist” were not terms of endearment, but rather derogatory.  This group met regularly to pray and study the scriptures and participated in charitable acts such as helping the poor, visiting prisoners and administering communion to the inmates monthly.   Perhaps Samuel did not approve of John and Charles’ ministry – he tried repeatedly to convince John to return home.  John returned home just before his father passed away and soon thereafter he decided to make his way across the ocean to Georgia.  Accompanying him were Charles, Governor James Oglethorpe and a group of Moravians.

John Wesley’s ministry was not well-received, however.  The colonists were not interested in the intrusion into their private lives (remember how his mother micro-managed everything) nor John’s insistence on rituals and observances tied to Catholicism.  One particularly onerous rule of his was early Sunday morning worship at 5:00 a.m.!

When John returned to England, he began meeting with a group of Moravians.  He was discouraged and even thought of leaving the ministry.  Peter Böhler, a Moravian friend, encouraged him to “preach faith until you have it… and then because you have it, you will preach faith.”  John later led a prisoner to Christ by preaching forgiveness of sins and faith in Christ alone.  Astonishingly (to John), the prisoner was immediately converted.  Right before his eyes, John who had struggled for years with his own faith, saw a man instantly converted.

It seemed that all along John had been seeking a “religion of the heart”, something more personal.  He eventually came to understand what “saving faith” meant. The turning point came on May 24, 1738 when he attended an evening prayer service where he was deeply moved by the hymn “Out of the deep have I called unto Thee, O Lord”.  After the prayer service, he attended another meeting on Aldersgate Street where some of Luther’s commentary was being read.

His heart was “strangely warmed .. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death”, he later said.  From that point in his ministry, John Wesley would preach salvation by faith alone.   When churches turned him away, he preached in open fields, sometimes as many as thirty thousand attending his meeting.

His ministry was well-received by the masses, but the hierarchy of the Church of England turned him down repeatedly when he sought ordination for the lay preachers who assisted him.  John, however, remained under the covering of the Anglican Church despite their rejections of his “methodism”.

His “Methodist societies” eventually spread to the colonies and by the end of the Revolutionary War, there were about fifteen thousand Methodists who were without ordained ministers to nurture them.  One more time, John Wesley asked the Church of England to ordain priests for missionary work among the American Methodists.  He was refused yet again and subsequently he ordained two men to “preside over the flock in America”.

Since the ordinations were never to be recognized by the Church of England, thereafter they were considered a separate denomination.  A conference was held in 1784 in Baltimore where The Methodist Episcopal Church was formally established.  An apparent distinction between the established churches of Congregationalists and Episcopalians, who tended to remain along the Eastern seaboard, and the Methodists was the circuit-riding preacher.  This was clearly stepping out beyond the boundaries of the established churches – Methodists were essentially  “going out into the highways and byways” to take the gospel as far as America continued to expand and grow.

The Puritans had begun to lose influence in the early eighteenth century and while Methodists may have experienced some persecution or disdain, Methodism overall was probably a more appealing faith to Americans, especially those who began to break away from the original settlements and expand west.  Eventually, the Methodist movement would spawn the Holiness and Pentecostal movements, with their emphasis on sanctification and baptism of the Spirit.

John Wesley continued to preach in England – one source estimates that he himself traveled 250,000 miles and preached 40,000 sermons in his lifetime.  He didn’t marry until age 48 to widow Mary Vazeille.  They had no children and after fifteen years of marriage she left.  Wesley remarked, “I did not forsake her, I did not dismiss her, I will not recall her.”  On his death bed at the age of 87, friends gathered to say goodbye and he repeatedly uttered, “the best of all is, God is with us.”

He was not a wealthy man at the time of his death for he had been extremely charitable throughout his life.  His legacy (and that of his brother Charles) was a growing Methodist faith of 135,000 members and 541 itinerant lay preachers.  John and Charles Wesley wrote hundreds of hymns, some of which remain in use today primarily in mainline Protestant congregations.  Look for a new Sunday theme soon: “Hymn-spiration” – the history behind the hymn, including anecdotal stories of its impact on the lives of those who heard and embraced it.

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.

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