Members of Methodist societies from England and Ireland traveled to America and formed new Methodist groups in Maryland, New York and Philadelphia. While John Wesley never meant to start a new church, events during the American Revolution forced a split between Methodists in America and the Church of England. Reluctantly, Wesley began to ordain preachers to support the growing movement and administer sacraments in America. At the famous Christmas Conference in Baltimore in 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church was born with the election of its first two superintendents, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury.
The new church exploded across America in much the same way it had spread through England, with preachers leading worship out in the open-air. Itinerant preachers were responsible for caring for several local churches in a circuit, sometimes covering a large regional area. Francis Asbury set the pace, traveling 270,000 miles, preaching 16,000 sermons. Life as a circuit-rider was tough. They often traveled hundreds of miles over rough land, through all kinds of weather, facing physical hardship, hunger, and persecution in order to spread the gospel. American settlers along the frontier would gather from miles around to attend Revivals and Camp Meetings to pray, sing hymns, and listen to these preachers.
The Methodist church grew quickly, attracting a diverse membership. Seventy years after its humble beginnings of about 64 small societies in 1776, the Methodist Episcopal Church had become the largest denomination in the U.S. with 1.6 million registered members in over 13,000 congregations.
From the beginning, the Methodist church included African-Americans, both slave and free. After 1786 when membership reports distinguished between white and black members, the numbers were often almost equal. Due to increasing prejudice as white membership grew, some African- American members left to form their own Methodist church. While leaders such as Coke and Asbury shared Wesley’s opposition to slavery, they chose to muffle their message in favor of unity and to promote growth in the church. Some Methodists fought for the abolition of slavery, while others thought the only way to maintain peace in the church was through compromise. The slavery issue split the church in 1845. It would be almost 100 years before the North and South would reunite.
In keeping with its tradition of social justice, the early church worked to improve society for all people. Early Methodists built schools, hospitals, and orphanages, organized relief efforts for the poor, advocated for women’s rights and protection for industry workers, and sought to end society of such ills as alcohol and gambling. Women’s clubs formed to promote educational efforts and environmental conservation. As in England, Sunday schools were established to provide religious instruction and taught reading, writing and arithmetic. As early as the late 1700s, Methodists established institutions for higher learning, and in the 1800s began building hospitals and shelters for children and the elderly. In 1902, a Methodist minister founded Goodwill Industries in order to train and hire people who were poor to repair and sell used household goods. In order to express outrage over the miserable working conditions of miners, millers and factory workers, the Methodist church adopted its first Social Creed in 1908, which advocated for a living wage, reduced labor hours, the abolition of child labor and protections for workers in all industries.
Today Social Principles of the United Methodist Church continue to challenge us to show God’s active love in the world by taking a stand for justice and liberty and caring for others.