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The Origin of the name "Methodists"

An historical fact: Many, if not most, names for groups are not created by the people within the groups, but by people outside the groups who are trying to label the group. This is true of Christianity as well. For instance, the earliest name for Christians which they gave to themselves may have been followers of the Way (Acts 9:2). But people outside the group learned that these people claimed that Jesus was the Christ, and so called them “Christians” (Acts 11:26). This is what happened to the group known as “Methodists.”

Some background first: The founders of Methodism were two brothers, John (1703-1791) and Charles (1707-1788) Wesley. They grew up and were raised in England, and were not only members of the Church of England but were ordained clergy members. Both attended Oxford University; John attended first then left, Charles came in his absence, and then John returned to Oxford. But the name of “Methodist” was first used for Charles.

We know this because of a letter which Charles wrote toward the end of his life. A friend of his, Dr. Thomas Bradley Chandler, was preparing to leave for American colonies. Charles wrote a letter in which he includes details of his life. The first part of the letter is reprinted here:

“London, April 28th, 1785. Rev. and dear Sir,--As you are setting out for America, and I for a more distant country [perhaps a reference to heaven], I think it needful to leave you some account of myself, and of my companions through life. At eight years old, in 1716, I was sent by my Father, Rector of Epworth, to Westminster School, and placed under the care of my eldest brother Samuel, a strict Churchman [Church of England], who brought me up in his own principles. My Brother John, five years older than me, was then at the Charter-house [School]. From Westminster College, in 1727, I was elected Student of Christ-Church [Oxford University]. My brother John was then a Fellow of Lincoln.

My first year at College I lost in diversions. The next I set myself to study. Diligence led me into serious thinking. I went to the weekly sacrament, and persuaded two or three young scholars to accompany me, and to observe the method of study prescribed by the statutes of the University. This gained me the harmless nickname of Methodist. In half a year after this my brother left his curacy at Epworth and came to our assistance. We then proceeded regularly in our studies and in doing what good we could to the bodies and souls of men.”

So, at a time when John was elsewhere, Charles convinced “two or three young scholars” to join him in his religious pursuits. Charles wrote this letter around fifty years after the fact, and was uncertain as to the others who joined him. But scholars have determined the names of these “young scholars”: William Morgan and Robert Kirkham. And so we have the first record of the term “Methodist” being used to the group which one day become the Methodists. And why Methodists? Because other people saw that this small group had a "method" to their spiritual growth whereby they had regular times to meet and pray and hold Bible studies.

Once John arrived “In half a year,” he took over the leadership of the small group. He and Charles wanted a deeper spiritual walk than was being presented to them, and so they raised the bar in this pursuit. They called the small group the “Holy Club,” but we now know that that name did not stick.

Note that this was not the beginning of Methodism as a separate Christian group. This was just John, Charles, William, and Robert getting together for the purpose of advanced spiritual growth while they were members of the Church of England. John would not found the first “Methodist Society” until 1739, and Charles remained in the Church of England and even requested and received burial in a Church of England cemetery.

©2008, 2011 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved