The term has a lengthy pedigree. John Wesley himself traced it back to a first century school of medicine, though the link is tenuous. More plausibly, he saw it as referring to the 'regular method of study and behaviour' adopted under his leadership by the Holy Club. He himself had begun to be methodical during his student days, monitored in the diary he began to keep. Samuel Johnson picked this up in his Dictionary (1755) when he defined a Methodist as 'one of a new kind of puritan lately arisen, so called from their profession to live by rules and in constant method'. The very first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1771) included an entry on 'Methodists'.

R.P. Heitzenrater has identified a significant theological root in the late seventeenth century use of the term 'new Methodists' by orthodox Calvinists to denote those who deviated from predestinarianism by finding a place for free will and human initiative in the process of salvation. They thereby foreshadowed John Wesley's Arminianism.

The earliest application of the word in print to John Wesley and his circle was in Fog's Weekly Journal on 9th December 1732, in a scathing attack on the 'Oxford Methodists'. Wesley treated it as a nickname applied by others 'by way of reproach'. He habitually spoke of 'the people commonly [or 'vulgarly'] called Methodists, though it gradually became a less opprobrious label.

The first Methodist societies were in direct line with the Anglican religious societies of the late seventeenth century and, like them and the Moravian societies, were intended to be ecclesiolae in ecclesia, a spiritual leaven within the Church and a means of spreading 'scriptural holiness throughout the land'. John Wesley often spoke of a threefold 'rise of Methodism', first at Oxford, then in Georgia and finally in the movement of which he became the leading figure. In his accounts of its development (e.g. in his Plain Account of the People Called Methodists,written for Vincent Perronet in 1748) he confined himself to that part of the evangelical movement of which he was leader and found no place for the role of George Whitefield or of Howell Harris and other [[Entry:2926 Calvinistic Methodists in Wales. Later WM historians developed a tunnel vision which similarly equated 'Methodist' with 'Wesleyan'. But throughout the eighteenth century 'Methodist' had a wider connotation, virtually synonymous with 'evangelical' and applicable to any manifestation of 'enthusiasm'. Calvinistic Methodism, in particular, was very much a part of the Methodist movement, especially but not exclusively in Wales. It was often more in the public eye than the Wesleyans, with Whitefield seen as the quintessential Methodist, if only because he was easier to lampoon or caricature. Apart from the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion, it was much more loosely organized than the WM connexion.

WM increasingly became the dominant strand in the Evangelical Movement through John Wesley's flair for organization, his instinct for leadership and the incessant travelling by means of which he nurtured and controlled the societies 'in connexion with' him. The more localized work of other evangelists such as William Grimshaw andWilliam Darney was assimilated into WM and swelled its numbers. Seeing Methodism as a movement primarily (though not exclusively) within the CofE, John Wesley consistently defined the word in terms of the BCPand defended its message by reference to the Homilies as well as to Scripture. He insisted that a Methodist was no more (and no less) than 'one who has "the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him"' and so disclaimed any desire to be the head of a sect or party. In line with this, the only 'thing needful' for admission to membership of a Methodist society (despite Wesley's proclivity for drawing up rules) was 'a desire to flee from the wrath to come'. The reality, inevitably, deviated further and further from the ideal until separation from the Church became little more than a matter of time and Wesley could be compared (by Joseph Beaumont) to a rower looking in the opposite direction from the one in which he was travelling.

The characteristic features of Methodist organization (e.g the class, society andcircuit, the quarterly meeting, field preaching, the itinerancy, local preaching and the annual Conference), the preaching service, Covenant Service and other forms of public worship, were adopted pragmatically from various sources in response to changing circumstances and developments. Wesley's zeal to recover the pattern of the 'Primitive Church' led him to encourage fasting, watchnights, vigils, love-feasts etc. Though he remained the focal point and chief unifying factor in the growing 'connexion', towards the end he began to exercise his authority through such individuals as Thomas Coke, and to share it with an inner 'Cabinet' of preachers. In 1784 he provided for its continuance by legally defining the Conference in the Deed of Declaration. Despite this, after 1791 the ambiguities and unresolved tensions inevitably surfaced and led to controversy and dissension, out of which Wesleyanism was born, together with its various 19th century offshoots.

The worldwide dissemination of Methodism, both through the growth of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America and the development of overseas missions, led eventually to the establishment of the World Methodist movement. New movements such as Pentecostalism developed from Methodist roots.


'METHODISTS, a name first given to a society of religious young men at Oxford, and now applied to all those who adhere to the doctrine of the church of England, as tahght by Whitefield, Wesley &c. They are said to be, in general plain well-meaning people, who do not differ in principal from the established church. But profess to live with great purity, according to her articles. At their first appearance their teachers were charged, in the heat of their zeal, with several irregularities, and many expressions in their preaching which were not altogether unexceptionable; but as the civil government, with a moderation and wisdom peculiar to the present time, thought fit to overlook their behaviour, they have since honestly acknowledged wherein they were mistaken; and in consequence of the perfect liberty of conscience they enjoy,have susided [sic] into a more regular and peaceable conduct, agreeable to the genuine spirit of Christianity.'

Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 1st edition, 1771

  • John Wesley, The Character of a Methodist (1742 and History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain 4 (1988) pp.50-56)
  • F.C. Wright, in WHS Proceedings, 3 pp.10-13
  • J. Scott Lidgett, 'The Evolution of Methodism in the Nineteenth Century', in WHS Proceedings, 27 pp.109-10
  • Henry Bett, The Spirit of Methodism (1937)
  • Richard P. Heitzenrater, Mirror and Memory: Reflections on Early Methodism (Nashville, 1989) pp.13-32
  • David Hempton, Methodism, Empire of the Spirit (New Haven, 2005)
  • John M. Haley and Leslie J. Francis, British Methodism: What Circuit Ministers Really Think (2006)
  • The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies (2009)
  • The T&T Clarke Companion to Methodism (2010)
  • The Ashgate Research Companion to World Methodism (2013)
  • Brian Beck, Methodst Heritage and Identity (2017)