The Methodist Church is a Protestant Church which has its origins in the revivalist preaching of an Anglican clergyman, John Wesley (1703-91), whose followers separated from the Church of England to form their own Church in 1795. The word Methodist, either as an adjective or as a noun, may be used of a member of the Methodist Church, and the set of doctrines on which the Methodist Church is based is known as Methodism. The word Wesleyan may mean: related to John Wesley, or may be used as a synonym for Methodist, the Methodist Church sometimes being referred to as the Wesleyan Church.
John Wesley was an Anglican clergyman who on a visit to America in the 1730s came under the influence of the Moravians, an Evangelical sect who saw faith as a kind of conviction coming directly from God and assuring the individual of his or her salvation. Wesley himself on his return to England underwent a conversion experience, and became an Evangelical Christian, devoting the rest of his life to preaching throughout the length and breadth of the country. Wesley was particularly concerned to preach to the working class, the poor, and even to criminals, groups which the Church of England had tended to neglect. He preached not only in churches but in the open-air, inaugurating a practice which has been continued by some Evangelical denominations to the present time; and his style of preaching sometimes produced very strong emotional reactions in his listeners - a response deplored by his opponents, who described it as 'enthusiasm', i.e., excessive or unbalanced religious fervour. Wesley also founded 'Sunday schools', i.e., schools held on Sundays for the religious instruction of children - a very significant innovation in an age when education was unavailable to the poor.
Wesley remained an Anglican clergyman to his death, and neither he nor his first followers saw any incompatibility between membership of the Church of England and a commitment to Wesley's version of Evangelical Christianity: they would, e.g., attend an Anglican Church in the morning and a Wesleyan revivalist meeting in the afternoon or evening. Many of the more traditional members of the Church of England, however, were hostile to Wesley's activities - indeed the term Methodist was coined as a term of disparagement by Anglican clergymen opposed to Wesley - and in 1795, soon after Wesley's death, his followers established the Methodist Church as a Church distinct from the Church of England. The subsequent history of the Methodist Church, like that of many of the other Nonconformist denominations in England, has involved some internal disagreements and schisms, but these differences were overcome when in 1932 the various Methodist groups - the Wesleyan Methodists, the Primitive Methodists, and the United Methodists - amalgamated to form a single Methodist Church. The Methodists are currently the third largest Christian denomination in England.
The doctrines of the Methodist Church are, broadly, those of Evangelical Christianity. The primary source of truth in matters of faith is the Bible, though appeals to reason, to tradition, and to the experience of God in one's life are also considered legitimate. Methodists hold that salvation for the individual depends on faith in Jesus' death as an atonement for sin, not on 'good works' or acceptance of the sacraments; and nowadays - although this has not always been the case - they unequivocally endorse Arminius' position that salvation is open to all human beings, and reject the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.. However, while Methodists believe that salvation depends on faith, they also assume that this faith will issue in a concern for others, and 'social' or 'practical holiness', having a social conscience, has always been a prominent feature of the Methodist ethos, as indeed it was a prominent feature of the life of its founder.
The Methodist Church, unlike the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, does not have an episcopal hierarchy, i.e., it does not recognise the authority of bishops, but it does nevertheless have a distinctive hierarchical structure. Each local church is part of a 'circuit', i.e., the group of churches in the immediate area, and each 'circuit' is part of a 'district', i.e., the group of 'circuits' in a region. The Methodist Church is seen as a 'connexion' of local churches within this framework. Further, every local church is subject to the authority of Conference, which consists of representatives, both clerical and lay, from all the 'districts'. Conference meets annually for a week to agree policy for the Methodist Church as a whole, and all local churches are bound by its decisions.