Methodism was born as much in sermons as in song. John and Charles Wesley were both preachers, hesitantly at first in the open air, but soon with dramatic effect. And also in their own places of worship. John Wesley believed that should the 5 a.m. preaching cease it would be the end of Methodism. He recruited preachers from among his converts, only a few of whom were clergymen. The dependence of Methodist worship on lay people began almost at once, though with Wesley attempting to draw a line between 'preaching' and 'exhorting'. Especially in the case of women..

The call to the itinerant ministry was until recently primarily a call to preach, with experience as a local preacher a prior requirement. There was an inescapable sense that preaching must be 'for a verdict'. Wesley, however, deplored so-called 'gospel preachers' who provided 'cordials' rather than the pure milk of the Word. He insisted that preaching must be of both law and gospel.

Methodist piety was based on preaching, which for both preachers and congregations often meant an exercise in the classic technique of meditation. To go to worship often meant 'to hear so-and-so'. Until the mid-twentieth century there were popular preachers who could draw large congregations. Methodist preaching was less intellectual than that of the Reformed tradition, less restrained than the Anglican. Illustrations from many aspects of life were what held people and often contributed to their education, for sermons were a method of teaching which in the hands of a master could be very effective.

Modern educational methods have devalued preaching. The monologue has been thought to fall on deaf ears, the attention span said, wrongly, to be limited, and the visual has replaced the verbal through television. The decline of Sunday evening services has seriously diminished preaching opportunities at an hour when working people could attend and there was undistracted openness to the gospel. Methodist preaching has become shorter and increasingly related to the lectionary; less a virtuoso performance than part of the ministry of worship.

See also: Exhorters

  • Richard Sykes (ed.), Beyond the Boundaries: preaching in the Wesleyan tradition (Oxford, 1998)
  • John M. Haley and Leslie J. Francis, British Methodism: What Circuit Ministers Really Think (2006), pp.89-96