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13 June 2007

A history of my faith

Minister Sylvester Deigh tells the story of Methodism's founding father

By Sylvester Deigh

Methodism as a denomination of the Christian Church developed early in the 18th century through the teachings of John Wesley.

While at college, he had been part of a group devoted to prayer, study and charity which gained the nickname “Methodists” because of the way they used method and rule to practice their Christian faith.

John went on to become an Anglican clergyman, and spent some time as a Missionary in the Americas. This period left him disillusioned about his own faith and he returned home asking, “Who will convert me?”

During this time he was also influenced by a group of Moravian Christians; particularly by the strength of their faith. So on returning to London, John sought them out.

On 24 May 1738 John Wesley had a profound Christian experience of which he wrote, “I felt my heart 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 found the assurance that he had been seeking and this experience marked a turning point in his life and ministry.

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Because of John Wesley’s spiritual awakening his preaching took on a fresh impetus and urgency, which was not readily welcomed in many of the pulpits of the Anglican Church. As a result, he was prohibited from preaching in many parishes – on one occasion, when he returned home to Epworth, he was forced to preach standing on his father’s tomb in the church yard.

This and his new-found enthusiasm for the gospel meant he began to preach outdoors, reaching many working class and ordinary men and women who felt excluded from the established church of England. They accepted his preaching and became Christians.

These new converts to Christian faith met together in societies for fellowship, prayer, Christian instruction and encouragement. They were also encouraged to meet together in small groups which were known as classes. Interestingly Wesley’s intention was not to create a new church – he encouraged his followers to continue to receive the sacraments from their parish church.

Over his life Wesley was tireless as a preacher of the gospel, covering many thousands of miles on horseback in his lifetime. He believed that the Methodist movement had been raised by God to spread “Scriptural Holiness” throughout England and beyond, declaring the world to be his parish. But Wesley was also a practical Christian who believed in putting his faith into action and meeting the needs of the poorest of society.

Although his message was received by many it was also opposed by those who felt that his preaching was too radical. Indeed, due to the radical nature of his preaching Wesley was threatened with death and denounced in print and from pulpits.

Nevertheless as an Anglican Priest Wesley always said that his followers should remain within the Church of England, even though the Church of England on its part was exceptionally keen to distance itself from what they perceived as a group that was too radical for it.

Wesley lived and died an Anglican, establishing a yearly conference of Methodist preachers which would oversee and continue the work which he had begun. This train of events would ensure that the Methodist movement would continue after his death.

The impact of this new movement was so strong and the momentum so great that it became inevitable that a separate Church would come in to existence and so in 1795 Methodism in Britain became a legal entity, able to conduct services and to perform the sacraments.

John Wesley died in 1891 declaring “The best of all is God is with us”. The Methodist Church today continues the work that John Wesley began.