Methodism as a Revivalistic Movement

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Methodism, from its inception, was a revival movement. That term revival can mean many things. When people talk about “revival,” some mean an annual event sponsored by a congregation where a guest evangelist speaks for several nights, culminating in calls for commitment to Christ, either new or renewed. Others, by “revival,” mean a general social transformation that takes place over years, when a nation or community is awakened to the presence and power of God and changed by it. In such times, groups encounter the living God in the risen Christ and Holy Spirit, and experience new life, individually and corporately. This transforms social environments to more closely align with Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of God.

Methodism was certainly involved in both senses of revival, hosting the first and being a major catalyst for the second. Historians sometimes refer to Methodism’s liveliest period as the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century evangelical revivals, or the first and second great awakenings. Societies where Methodism was active were changed. Years of communal encounters with God, in England and America, saw legal and social repentance with the criminalization of slavery, expansion of education, reform of prisons, and new roles for women. But these events had not occurred when Methodism began. Yet Methodist was always, from its inception, a revival movement. So what was Methodism reviving?

By definition, revival brings something dead (or at least asleep), back to vibrant consciousness. For Methodism and its founders John and Charles Wesley, the dead or sleeping entity was the bride of Christ, who had fallen asleep amid the luxury of the world. In the Wesleys’ day, and frankly in our own, the church had ceased to be “yeast that a woman took and mixed into . . . flour until it worked all through the dough” (Matt. 13:33), and became instead “the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:11), a lifeless religiosity. Culture suffered. If “salt loses its saltiness” (Matt. 5:13), surrenders its role as a preservative for the surrounding culture, culture rots. Thus, the mission statement of Methodism was “to reform the nation, particularly the church, and spread scriptural holiness.”

Fortunately for the people of God, even when our salt seems fit to “be thrown out” where people trample on it (Matt. 5:13), God, through his preventing grace, time and again, sees fit to restore at least a degree of saltiness, if and when we return to our “first love” (Rev. 2:4). For Methodism, this return meant returning to some semblance of the state of the church we see in Scripture and the writings of the first Christians. Methodists looked to the church at its liveliest, particularly the primitive church: the doctrine, piety, and discipline of persecuted Christianity as it spread throughout the ancient world. That church, led by apostles and their successors, before Christianity was recognized by the state under Constantine, was our model. For its revival we prayed and worked.

Wesleyan Revival of the Primitive Christianity

Fascination with the primitive church gripped John Wesley as soon as he became serious about Christianity. As early as 1732, he was influenced by a primitivist group known as the Manchester High Churchmen. During his last years at Oxford, he intensively studied the church fathers. He read William Cave’s Primitive Christianity (1714) and was convinced by Cave’s injunction to seek renewal, and “admire and imitate” the early church “their piety and integrity, their infinite hatred of sin, their care and zeal to keep up that strictness and purity of manners that had rendered their Religion so renowned and triumphant in the world.”1

Some leaders at Oxford University shared that vision. The year Charles Wesley matriculated, they were concerned that the students, though technically all Anglicans, were drifting into unorthodoxy through the secularizing influences of the Enlightenment. They sent out a letter to the colleges, admonishing students to follow the prescribed “method of study.” This method, which harkened back to the university’s monastic heritage, stipulated the study of Scripture and the church fathers on certain days as well as frequent Communion. Charles gathered a few undergraduates to attend Communion with him and formed a small group.

The increased visible piety, following the “method of study,” earned the group the name “Methodist.” When John, who had been helping his father with ministry at his parish in Epworth, returned to Oxford as an instructor, he joined the group and began to help organize it. The groups expanded, noted for their commitment to the practices of the early church, including fasting. When John, along with Charles and other Methodists, volunteered for missionary service in the colony of Georgia, he understood it as an opportunity to restore the discipline of the early church in a pristine land. John’s insistence on the normativity of early church discipline drew the ire of colonists, and also drew him into the orbit of the Moravian brethren.

The Moravians, whom John met on the ship to America, could trace the linage of their episcopacy back to the apostles, which appealed to John. But the attraction was more than institutional. Moravians were religious refugees, invited by Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf to establish a village, Herrnhut, on his estate in 1722. The community grew, welcoming refugees from around Europe, but religious disagreements emerged. The community was divided. Zinzendorf sought to bring about unity with the adoption of a “Brotherly Agreement” on May 12, 1727. This agreement prompted the revival of the “Renewed Church of the United Brethren” and led to the institution of band meetings and intimate fellowship groups. Then, in August of 1727, the community experienced what they understood as a visitation of the Holy Spirit as at Pentecost. They learned to “love one another” (John 15:12 ESV) in primitive fashion. Herrnhut became a center for revival and mission, setting up a prayer watch, which ran twenty-four hours a day for a hundred years. They became the first large-scale Protestant missionary movement, and the first to send nonordained laypeople as missionaries.

Fellow Oxford Methodist and Georgia missionary, Benjamin Ingham, wrote of his encounter with the Moravians:

They are more like the Primitive Christians than any other church now in the world; for they retain both the faith, practice, and discipline delivered by the Apostles. They have regularly ordained bishops, priests, and deacons. Baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist are duly administered. Discipline is strictly exercised without respect of persons. They all submit themselves to their pastors, being guided by them in everything. They live together in perfect love and peace, having, for the present, all things in common.2

It was not simply outward forms of religion that impressed, but a way of being. Ingham continued: “They are more ready to serve their neighbours than themselves. In their business, they are diligent and industrious, in all their dealings, strictly just and conscientious. In everything, they behave themselves with great meekness, sweetness, and humility.”3 Wesley wrote of this community, that they resembled the Christians of old, “who have left all for their Master, and who have indeed learned of him, being meek and lowly, dead to the world, full of faith and of the Holy Ghost.”4

The Wesleys’ time in Georgia did not match expectations. Charles left after one year. John stuck it out for two. He had thought in a primitive land, he could reestablish primitive Christianity in himself and in the Anglican Church. He couldn’t. John was finally driven from the colony under scandal. Primitive discipline and doctrine had not sufficed.

Back in England with a sense of failure as a missionary, a clergyman, and a Christian, John knew he needed primitive faith, needed God’s Spirit testifying “with [his] spirit” (Rom. 8:16), assuring him of God’s love. He had heard of this faith among the Moravians. His study revealed this faith described in the teachings of the church fathers and his own Anglican Church. He began meeting with the Moravian Peter Bohler, and attended various religious societies frequented by Moravians and Oxford Methodists around the city of London. His brother Charles, moving in the same circles, experienced this faith on Pentecost 1738, while recovering from an illness. A few days later, on May 24, 1738, John went:

very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, when one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that 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.5

John knew primitive faith. He toured revival centers on Europe’s continent, including the Moravian settlement at Herrnhut.

But returning to England, he remained committed to Anglicanism’s vision of primitivism, now with primitive faith as a supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit through the new birth. He preached this faith in churches in London, but found he could do so only once. Pulpits were closed. All this time, he continued to participate in and preach at religious societies, including a joint Anglican/Moravian society meeting in Fetter Lane.

At that society, he experienced primitive Christianity, like at Pentecost, just as the Moravians had in 1727. During a “Watchings Service” at Fetter Lane Society, on January 1, 1739:

Mr. Hall, Kinchin, Ingham, Whitefield, Hutchings, and my brother Charles were present at our love-feast in Fetter Lane, with about sixty of our brethren. About three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried out from exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of His majesty we broke out with one voice, “we praise thee O God; we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.”6

This was present evidence of the truth of what was recounted in Acts. It humbled this Oxford scholar, leading him to preach outdoors to the masses. Wesley’s former student and Oxford Methodist, George Whitefield, had experienced new birth and was present at that Fetter Lane love-feast. He had begun preaching to common people and miners in Bristol. In 1739, Whitefield decided to preach in America and needed someone to continue and organize the work he had begun. He called on John. Wesley recorded in his journal on April 2, 1739:

I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence . . . to about three thousand people. The scripture from which I spoke was this . . . “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted; to preach deliverance to the captive, and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”7

Thus began a movement in the eighteenth century, like that recorded in the book of Acts.

The Fruit of Revival

Over time, Methodism emerged as a connection of societies, supplied and overseen by itinerant apostolic preachers. The societies were made up of classes of twelve people (house churches, if you will) watching “over one another in love,” and confessional bands of four or five who confessed their “sins to each other” and prayed “for each other so that [they] may be healed” (James 5:16).

The ideal character of these revived Wesleyan communities can be seen from Wesley’s account of the Yorkshire societies “under the care of John Nelson, one of the old way.” He wrote:

I found them all alive, strong, vigorous of soul, blessing, loving and praising God their Saviour. . . . From the beginning they had been taught both the law and the gospel. “God loves you; therefore love and obey him. Christ died for you; therefore die to sin. Christ is risen; therefore rise in the image of God. Christ liveth evermore; therefore live to God till you live with him in glory” so we preached; and so you believed. This is the scriptural way, the Methodist way, the true way. God grant we may never turn from it, to the right hand or to the left.8

This primitive Christianity was often accompanied by signs of the supernatural work of God. In his Short History of the People Called Methodist, Wesley included this incident, among many:

The text was, “Having the form of godliness, but denying the power of it.” When the power of religion came to be spoken of, the presence of God filled the place. And while poor sinners felt the sentence of death in their souls, what sounds of distress did I hear! The greatest number of them that cried out were men; but some women, and several children, felt the power of the same Almighty Spirit, and seemed just sinking into hell. This occasioned a mixture of various sounds, some shrieking, some roaring aloud. The most general was a loud breathing, like that of persons half strangled and gasping for life. And indeed most of the cries were like those of dying creatures. Great numbers wept without any noise. Others fell down as dead, some sinking in silence, some with extreme pain and violent agitation. I stood on the pew seat, as did a young man in the opposite pew, an able-bodied, healthy countryman. But in a moment, while he seemed to think of nothing less, down he dropped with a violence inconceivable. And the beating of his feet were ready to break the boards as he lay in strong convulsions at the bottom of the pew.9

This was primitive Christianity, the gospel going forth not only by what is “said and done,” but “by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God” (Rom. 15:18–19).

The same was true for American Methodism. Of our discipline, Francis Asbury, Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, wrote:

I am bold to say that the apostolic order of things was lost in the first century, when Church governments were adulterated and had much corruption attached to them. At the Reformation, the reformers only beat off part of the rubbish . . . Recollect that state of the different churches as it respects government and discipline . . . when the Lord raised up that great and good man John Wesley, who formed an evangelical society in England. In 1784 an apostolical form of Church government was formed in the United States of America at the first General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. . . . We must restore and retain primitive order; we must, we will, we have the same doctrine, the same spirituality, the same power in ordinances, in ordination, and in spirit.10

And God’s Spirit was manifest—in camp meetings, and even at General Conference. The May 1800 General Conference in Baltimore was remarkable, with some two hundred “falling” . . . “slain in the Spirit.”

Conclusion

In his publication, “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” Wesley wrote those fateful words:

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist in either Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.11

For revival of primitive Christianity, all three—doctrine, spirit, and ­discipline—are required. It is not enough to maintain apostolic doctrine. That will only give us “the faith of a devil.”12 It is not enough to maintain the appearance of apostolic spirit, chasing religious experience. It is not enough to maintain apostolic discipline, preserving a form of godliness. Doctrine, spirit, and discipline must go together, or there is no true revival, no true manifestation of God’s sovereign supernatural rule on earth, and his intention for redemption. Methodism had that, was that, and Methodism can be that again.

For the next Methodism to be a revival with both form and power, changes need to happen in us. We Methodists need to recognize our desperate need for divine intervention, that we have fallen asleep and cannot wake ourselves. We need to pray. Only when we respond to God’s preventing and convincing grace by begging to be revived, will God act. We need to repent. Primitive revival will only happen when those prayers result in widespread desire for holiness. We need to submit. That desire for holiness, if it is real, will manifest itself in the discipline of classes and bands, “watching over one another in love” and confessing our sins one to another, that we may be healed (James 5:16). Finally, we need the supernatural power of God. Real primitive revival will happen only when there is an openness in us to the work of God’s Holy Spirit among us. God must breath into us again “the breath of life” so that we may become “a living being.”

Then the next Methodism will be Methodism once again, and a true revival movement.

This is an excerpt from The Next Methodism: Theological, Social, and Missional Foundations for Global Methodism (Seedbed 2022). This book invites readers on a journey to discover the vitality, richness, and sheer goodness of the broader Wesleyan tradition. Get your copy from our store here.

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Notes:
1. William Cave, Primitive Christianity: or, The Religion of the Ancient Christians, in the First Ages of the Gospel (London: Printed for D. Midwinter and B. Cowse in English, 1714), 467.
2. Benjamin Ingham, Journal, October 17, 1735.
3. Ibid.
4. Wesley Manuscript Journal, in Journal, October 17, 1735.
5. John Wesley, Journal, May 24, 1738.
6. Ibid., January 1, 1739.
7. Ibid., April 2, 1739.
8. John Wesley, “Letter on Preaching Christ,” London, December 20, 1751.
9. John Wesley, Short History of the People Called Methodist, 367.
10. Francis Asbury, “Valedictory Address to William McKendree,” August 5, 1813.
11. “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” in The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, M.A., ed. Thomas Jackson (London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1829–1831), 13:258.
12. John Wesley, “Salvation by Faith,” Sermon 1, June 18, 1738.

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Dr. Scott Kisker is Professor of the History of Christianity at United Theological Seminary. He specializes in Wesley studies and pietist studies. Scott is married to Roberta Willison Kisker and they have five children: Maria, Susanna, Isaac, Tabitha, and Naomi.

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