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Worship the King. Grow the Kingdom

The History of The Methodist Church

Its history and founders – The Methodist Church had its birth in the great work which God performed through the Revival of Religion in the 18th Century by means of the preaching and apostolic labours of John and Charles Wesley and their fellow helpers

England in the 18th Century had not yet gone through the industrial revolution. It was an age of loose living, drunkenness and brutality. Most people were poor and had limited job opportunities.

Home background – John Benjamin Wesley was born at Epworth on 17th June 1703, the fifteenth of nineteen children. His brother Charles was born in 1707. His father, Samuel, was an Anglican priest who had a hard and difficult ministry. Susannah, his mother, was a woman of remarkable gifts who educated and disciplined all her children herself in their early years, setting aside personal time for each one. From her they learned a strong moral sense, a living piety, the value of reading and the place of reason.

The fire at the Rectory – In 1709, at night, a fire broke out and all escaped except John who had been asleep upstairs. He suddenly appeared at a window and his father tried to rush through the flames but could not get to him. Some of the local men managed to rescue him with seconds to spare before the roof fell in. The house was totally destroyed. Later John’s mother referred to him as a “brand plucked from the burning” which is a reference to Zechariah 3:2. This became a famous way of acknowledging that not only had God saved John from the fire, He had also saved him for a purpose. John certainly was someone who was “on fire” for God.

School and University – In 1714 he went to Charter House School and then on to Oxford University where he obtained a BA in 1724.

Ordination – At Oxford he felt drawn to the ordained ministry and was ordained in 1725 and in 1727 became a minister of a small church in Wroot but it was not a happy time.

The Holy club – He returned to Oxford in 1730 where his brother and a few students had formed a small group called “the Holy Club”. John took over the leadership and the activities expanded to include Bible study, weekly Communion, obedience to Church order, prayer and visiting the sick, the dying, the poor, the illiterate and the prisons. The other students made fun of them and gave them nick-names, one of which was “Methodists”.

Mysticism – Wesley was deeply attracted to mysticism, with its focus on the interior life. He was looking for a sense of inner peace. In 1735, his father died and his last words to John were; “The inward witness is the strongest proof of Christianity”.

Georgia – In 1735 a friend asked him to go as a minister to one of the newly established American colonies. Bad storms battered the little ship during the voyage and Wesley was often afraid for his life. He was strongly impressed by a group of Moravian Christians on board who seemed to have the peace and assurance he was seeking. He spent long hours in discussion with their leader, Spangenberg, who asked him, “Do you know yourself? Does the Spirit bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” His ministry in Georgia was a failure and work with the new colonists proved very unrewarding as his parishioners were constantly back-sliding. He returned to England broken and disillusioned.

His Conversion – Wesley’s “evangelical” conversion was really the end of a long process of searching. On 24 May 1738 John found the faith he had been looking for. He described it in this way: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans… While he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my 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.” In a moment, everything had changed. God came into the centre of Wesley’s life and transformed his will, his mind, and his heart, and changed a rather rigid self-disciplined, yet always sincere person, into a leader on fire for God. John and Charles now had a Gospel to offer – salvation by faith.

The Evangelical Revival begins – Wesley visited the Moravian community in Germany and was impressed by their sense of Christian community, their careful attention to teaching, and their small group meetings in which people sought to know more of the grace of God. When he returned to England and began preaching, he soon found many Anglican churches closed to him as it did not like the “new” teaching and were alarmed by this “wild enthusiast”. However, he and Charles continued to preach wherever they could and were joined for a while by George Whitefield (a powerful Calvinist preacher) who began “field preaching” in the open air. John Wesley also began to preach in the out-doors, though at first a little reluctantly, because it reached the common people in a way that the established Church could never do.

Conversions – With Wesley’s new found effectiveness in preaching, thousands of people were converted. People were changed and they even began to change the face of England.

The hymns of the Revival – Methodism was born in song. Many hymns were written, often by putting Christian words to popular tunes of the day. Many people were illiterate and so the hymns became a vehicle for teaching. Charles Wesley was a gifted writer and wrote over 3000 hymns.

Methodist Societies – John Wesley had a genius for organization. When people responded, he never just left them there, they were brought into fellowship with other Christians, taught about their faith, what was required of them and about holiness. “Societies” of new Christians were formed in each new place, each with their own leadership. They were not intended to be “alternative churches” because Wesley always regarded the Revival as a movement within the Anglican Church. However there was antagonism between the Societies and the local churches and they gradually got pushed out and developed a life of their own. Somehow the nickname “Methodists”, first used at Oxford, became attached to these new Societies, because of the methodical way Wesley taught them to live.

Class meetings – In 1740 at Bristol, Methodists were first put into small groups called classes, with the purpose of collecting a penny a week from them to pay for a new chapel. The leaders of these classes soon began to care for their members pastorally and Wesley was quick to see the possibilities of this system. Methodists grew in faith because they were taught and they were given clear rules to live by.

Local preachers –The powerful work of the local preachers who held and maintained the work in the local Societies began in 1742.

Growth – John Wesley travelled on average 1000 km a month, mostly on horseback and preached over 1000 sermons a year for the 40 years of his ministry.

Social battles – The Revival did much to rid England of its social evils. Wesley did not hesitate to get involved in the problems of his day. He also kept a close watch on public life and sought to cleanse it and purify it. Many notorious laws were changed because of the influence of Methodists in high places including the abolition of the death penalty for petty offences.

Wesley died in 1791 at the age of 87. He never wanted Methodism to split away from the Anglican Church and become a separate Church, however forces had been generated which made this inevitable and within four years of his death, the Conference was forced to take the steps which broke Methodism away from the Anglicans and allowed for its own ordinations and the administration of the sacraments.

Summary from Faith & Life 1990 ‘The life and work of John Wesley’

The History of Methodism in South Africa

In 1806 Sergeant John Kendrick arrived in Table Bay with the British troops. Kendrick envisioned a “new order”, finer than the imperialism of Britain and France; The “Methodist Rule of Life” he had learned as a leader and local preacher. For 4 ship-bound months, Kendrick had gathered with other Methodist soldiers to observe the “divine ordinances” that gave inner discipline to their lives and brought greater meaning to life than military routine.

With George Middlemiss and other Methodists they built a meeting place of stones outside of Simonstown. However, their military masters believed that if soldiers became Christians they would fail as fighters and opposed them at every turn, including ordering the burning of a chapel they built in Wynberg. But Kendrick held out and gave sustainable life to the embattled community of Christian soldiers.

Kendrick died in November 1813 before his urgent letters bore fruit, requesting the Wesleyan Missionary Office in London to send a minister to secure the work. Rev John McKenny arrived in August 1814 but was promptly banned from preaching by the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, and so he went to Ceylon. 16 months later his replacement, Rev Barnabas Shaw and his wife arrived in Cape Town where they bought oxen, a wagon and supplies with funds from the sale of their small property in England.

They had been in Cape Town for 5 months and the ministry among the soldiers was secure under lay leadership. Meanwhile Lord Charles Somerset had refused to allow Shaw to work among the slave and indigenous population for fear of offending the slave owners and local Dutch citizenry. These were the ones Shaw believed “wanted him most” and so he decided to go beyond the reach of the Colonial administration to Namaqualand.


Chief Jaantjie Wildschutt with 4 others left Nciemies, their Khoi/Namaqua gathering place and set off for Cape Town to find a teacher. They wanted to better prepare themselves for the changes that were taking place as the land became more developed. A chance meeting of Chief Wildschutt and Barnabas Shaw ‘in the middle of nowhere’ set a pattern of partnership between Wesleyan missionaries and leaders of African communities that would be repeated often in coming years. Both believed God had brought them together.

Wildschutt brought the Shaws back to the gathering place at Nciemies, later re-named “Leliefontein”, where they took up their abode in a hut. Just as well they had no furniture, as the hut “was of small dimension”. The Khoi/Namaqua nomadic way of life was not sustainable so within days Shaw began teaching agriculture and soon fast growing crops of lettuce, peas, onions and radishes augmented the traditional diet. Shaw, a capable amateur blacksmith, forged ploughs, expanding the lands under cultivation. The Khoi/Namaqua community quickly applied the lessons. Wheat became a major crop for local use and sale. With wheat came fodder and the stock previously fed by wandering, was now fattened in the home fields. Soon they were making butter, soap and candles. Carpentry, brick making, stonemasonry and construction followed, including the building of a church. By the 1830’s Leliefontein was an economic hub in the region.

Rev Edward Edwards joined them in 1817 ensuring that spiritual formation went on. Conversion to faith in Jesus was followed by literacy and the training of school teachers, local preachers and class leaders. These made Leliefontein’s transforming Christian influence possible in communities throughout Namaqualand and the Namaqualand Mission. In 2006 the Mission numbered 26 Societies, two Ministers and a host of deeply committed local preachers and leaders.

The Leliefontein history of holistic mission that, “does every possible kind of good to people’s souls as well as to their bodies”, where people discover dignity and reconciled community through faith in Jesus and express that dignity and reconciliation through economic empowerment and development, sets the standard and pattern for all Southern African Methodist Mission.

In June 1825, two Namaqua preachers, Johannes Jager and Jacob Links, accompanied by a visiting English missionary, William Threlfall, set off to re-establish a mission community in Warmbad (in what is now Namibia). On reaching Warmbad, the San guides that they had employed on the way, attacked and killed them while they slept, taking their meagre possessions. They are revered as South African Methodism’s first martyrs. But the mission to Great Namaqualand did not fail. 5 Mission communities were established north of the Orange river, with Leliefontein as their base.

Cape Town 1820

When Rev Edward Edwards’ arrived back in Cape Town, his first concerns were the soldiers, the slaves and the Khoisan and to take up the ministry that had been impossible to date. The majority of Cape Town’s population in 1820 was made up of slaves. Although the resident Khoisan people were not slaves, they were treated as if they were. For 150 years Cape Dutch policy had been to prevent, as far as they could, the preaching of the Gospel to slaves and the Khoisan.

Edward’s went to the marginalized people and began creating cohesive communities of faith. Dignity for the oppressed was to be found, neither in changing the minds of the oppressors nor challenging oppressive customs and policies, but first in the discovery of grace, an encounter with the Lord who loved them and gave himself for them, in the inner transformation of the new birth and the outer expressions of holiness, of love for one another, of disciplined lives and the arts of co-operation and mutual support.

Edwards began his services in a hayloft in Plein Street. Services for soldiers were in English; for slaves and Khoisan in Dutch (which Edwards made a point of learning). Societies were formed in private homes, on Robben Island, on the farms at Rondebosch, Diep River, Somerset West, Stellenbosch and as far afield as Caledon. The Wesleyan Methodist Church was ready when life at the Cape was changed forever: 1 August 1834, the freeing of the slaves.

In 1834 Shaw bought land in Somerset West on which he settled a number of emancipated slaves, many of whose descendants still occupy their cottages.

Methodism in the Eastern Cape

A second line of advance for the Methodist church was opened when the British Government sent out settlers, who arrived in Algoa Bay, the Eastern Cape in April 1820. The religious wants of the emigrants were not overlooked, and, where a hundred families combined to form one party, they were at liberty to choose a minister of any denomination, and the Government would make an annual grant towards his support. A number of Wesleyan families, chiefly resident in London, decided to take with them a Wesleyan minister, and the Rev. William Shaw, who was in no way related to the Rev. Barnabas Shaw, was selected as chaplain to the London or Sephton party.

The Sephton party named their new home “town” – Salem. The furnishing of its town hall which was used on a Sunday for the services was extremely scanty. For a pulpit a writing-desk was placed on the top of a flour barrel, the preacher stood on an empty ammunition case, and the people brought their own stools or chairs. But if the service was plain, the sermons were rich in spiritual instruction, for Revd Shaw was a close student of the fifty volumes of Wesley’s Christian Library, and his preaching was enriched by his acquaintance with the best Puritan writers. The provisions stored in the building attracted rats, and the rats were hunted by snakes. On one occasion Revd Shaw was addressing the congregation when someone exclaimed: “Oh, sir, there is a puff adder between your feet!” Looking down, Revd Shaw saw one of the most venomous of African reptiles lying on the ground. He quietly stepped aside, and the deadly intruder was quickly dispatched.

The cornerstone of the first church at Salem was laid on 1 January 1822 and Salem became the mother of churches in this area.

The Methodist church of Southern Africa

Over time it became increasingly inconvenient and difficult for the Missions to be controlled and directed from England. The British Methodist Conference in 1882 constituted a South African Conference with jurisdiction over all Methodist Missions, churches and ministers in South Africa, exclusive of the Transvaal Province.

In 1930 these two groups united and legislation necessary to effect this was obtained from the Union Parliament in the passing of ‘The Methodist Church of South Africa (Private) Act 1932’ and the church became officially known as ‘The Methodist Church of South Africa.’

(The above is substantially a summary of Revd Tim Attwell’s article in the New Dimension, August 2006)

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