John Wesley, his brother Charles, and George Whitefield, belonged to a group at Oxford that in 1729 began meeting for religious exercises. From their resolution to conduct their lives and religious study by "rule and method," they were given the name Methodists. The beginning of Methodism as a popular movement dates from 1738, when both of the Wesley brothers, influenced by contact with the Moravians, undertook evangelistic preaching. From the Moravians, too, they took the emphasis on conversion and holiness that are still central to Methodism.
The leaders of the movement were ordained ministers of the Church of England; neither of the two Wesleys ever disclaimed the holy orders of that church, but they were barred from speaking in most of its pulpits, in disapproval of their evangelistic methods. They preached in barns, houses, open fields, wherever an audience could be induced to assemble. Societies were formed, "class meetings" of converts were held, and lay preachers were trained and given charge of several congregations. The moving of preachers from one appointment to another was the beginning of the system of itinerancy.
Theologically, John Wesley was essentially a follower of Jacobus Arminius. Whitefield, unable to accept the Arminian doctrines of Wesley, broke with him in 1741 and became the leader of the Calvinistic Methodists. In 1744 the first annual conference was held and the Articles of Religion were drawn up. They were based to a considerable extent upon the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, but great emphasis was laid upon repentance, faith, sanctification, and the privilege of full, free salvation for everyone. By 1784 the spread of the movement, especially in America, made an organization separate from the Church of England necessary. In 1784, Wesley issued a Deed of Declaration giving legal status to the yearly Methodist conference. That same year he ordained Thomas Coke superintendent of the societies in America.
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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.